There is a tendency, particularly with those who are new to Zen practice, to over intellectualize. This tendency can show up in a number of ways. On the one hand, they can immerse themselves in dusty old texts and surround themselves with photos of robed monks long dead. This leads to a kind of hero worship which is completely antithetical to Zen thinking. The culture of celebrity inherently involves grasping and grasping generates suffering. In this case, it is because the object of veneration is virtual and unreachable.
A second form of over intellectualization is to engage in a rational dissection of what is taken to be the philosophy of Zen. This road leads to questions like, “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin”. The real purpose of this tendency is not to answer such questions but to avoid the practice of Zen. If you are talking about it, you don’t have to be doing it.
A third tendency is to engage in a kind of comparative cultural analysis. Buddhism, which is clearly not a religion, is compared and contrasted with actual religions. Debates are endless about whether one can be a Buddhist and a Christian or Muslim. Discussions tend to center around questions like whether you can be a Buddhist and still believe in God. But these are, again, distractions and strategies for avoiding the actual experience.
There is one other tendency that I would mention. The strategy here is to declare war on the self that has participated in what is seen to be a great deception. All the time I hear comments like, “I don’t trust my feelings” or “I don’t trust my thought processes”. The core of this strategy is to insert a judgmental base that is charged with self-denigration that leads most frequently to nihilism.
But, no matter what strategy is adopted, the tactical purpose is to avoid the direct experience. That purpose arises in the face of a frightening realization. The wisdom that The Buddha laid before humanity is simple in its form but complicated in its implementation. There are no commandments, prescriptions or proscriptions. There is only the simple idea that, if you want to avoid self-generated suffering, there is a way. But that way does not include any of the tendencies I have described above.
The realization of the meaning of the Four Noble Truths is not an intellectual exercise. The reason that Zen practitioners sit is that it has been found over the centuries to be the best way to realize the true meaning by directly experiencing. And there’s no way to do that except through practice.
The realization of the meaning of the Eight-Fold Path is similarly not an intellectual exercise. Understanding the words is far less important than operating according to them. “Right Understanding” is not a matter of understanding the words right understanding. It is a matter of achieving such an understanding.
The one thing that is undeniably true is that you are experiencing the current moment. It is also true that you are having thoughts as you read these words. Your body is telling you whether it is comfortable or uncomfortable. Maybe the cat is seeking affection. All of that is real. You don’t have to question whether it is happening. The moment you come to inhabit the present – the moment being-time becomes “right now, right here” is the one that signals your liberation from the tendencies to avoid. In Zen, as in Buddhism in general, it’s the living experience of the wisdom that matters.
© Earl R. Smith II, PhD