It’s impossible to start delving into Zen Buddhism without some preconceived notions about “what it is” before having learned or experienced anything for ourselves. This is generally how the world works, you hear about a good restaurant and that gives you the motivation to go try it out. Unlike a restaurant , however, most of the ideas that I had about Zen buddhism were way off base and after doing it for some years now i can feel confident in saying that everything I thought about it was wrong.
Which is ok, because the nice thing about Zen Buddhism is that eventually you find that you weren’t listing to the wrong answers, it’s that you were asking the wrong questions altogether!
Years ago a well-meaning customer gave me book to read that was by a 13th century samurai, the customer knew of my interest in Japanese history and zen and thought it might enjoy this book. The author mainly went on and on about how great it was to cut the heads off of other samurai and about how a good samurai doesn’t think, he just takes orders. Not exactly my cup of tea, but there was one passage I liked a lot, in a section about what samurai ought to think about religion the author wrote, “The Samurai should not study Buddhism, for the Buddha way teaches him to see things two ways when a samurai should only see things one way.” I always loved that bit, and im sure that it is true. If you want to be good at taking orders, slicing off heads for imagined slights, and extorting rice from the peasants then I suppose Buddhism probably would have made that harder.
At the end of the day there is nothing you can have heard about Zen, nothing you could read or talk about Zen that will give you any idea of it until you actually do Zen (which means sitting Zazen). You can read all about Oranges but until you taste one you really have no idea about what an Orange really feels like on your tongue. We don’t like the idea of this very much. We are smart, we know about going to the moon and curing diseases, we know about making energy from atoms and making 10,000 parts into a working automobile so why can’t we just know about Zen from books and others reporting?
It helps to stop thinking of Zen as something your brain does. It’s not a skill learned by reading the right books or reciting the right words any more than you can win a bike race by watching the tour de france on tv and reading cycling magazines. It also helps to understand that most, if not all of the really fundamental turning points in my Zen practice happened when something clicked in my Intuition, not my intellect. All of the sudden a lot of those wacky Koan stories and seemingly contradictory sayings in the Zen literature began to make some kind of sense on a gut level if not on a mental one (though im still pretty baffled by a lot of it) some things just seemed to begin sounding true. Not even true really, more like recognized.
Do you know that feeling when you are waiting for a friend in a busy place? An airport, a lunchtime cafe, somewhere with a crowd of people coming on going and you feel that tiny bit of apprehension as you scan each person looking for your friend, when suddenly there they are! At that moment you know that it is your friend, you don’t need to look at another person, you don’t doubt your eyes or ask for their ID to confirm that it is your friend, you simply recognize this person you have known for years among all the unfamiliar faces going in and out. That is what it begins to feel like after a few years of Zazen.
You can’t take my word for it though, if you really want to know what Zen Buddhism is all about, try it and see what it tastes like.