For Westerners, one of the most maddening things about Zen (and Buddhism in general) is that it is neither a theology nor a proscriptive philosophy. As a result, many of my students experience vertigo when first encountering the Zen way. This vertigo tends to generate coping behaviors. These behaviors are best seen as symptoms of an extra-cultural encounter. Here is an example:
“Just tell me the rules and I will follow them.” Western philosophy has tended to be very proscriptive. Many of the schools look more like religions. With the exception of outliers like Nietzsche and Emerson, most Western philosophies sit within a cathedral custom-designed to contain their basic tenets within its foundation.
When students first encounter meditation, they want to know its purpose. They want to know how it should be done. They want to know what results they should see. As spiritual seekers, they tend to see meditation as something to add to their to-do list. So, when they asked me what is the point of sitting and I respond, “the point of sitting is sitting” a confused look greets me.
“But I want to achieve enlightenment. Isn’t meditation the way to do that?”
“You are grasping,” I replied. “Go back and read the Four Noble Truths and tell me what that means.”
And so, they go and read. But upon their return, the confused look accompanies them.
“If the purpose of meditation is meditation, then how do I achieve enlightenment?”
“You are already enlightened. The problem is not attaining enlightenment. The problem is your acceptance of and participation in that enlightenment. The journey you are on is not from here to there but from here to here. Being awake means awakening to the perfection of what is and to cease contradicting it with the insistent proposition of what is not.”
In Western thought things must have a purpose beyond themselves. We insist that a tree must be more than a tree. For some, it may be a symbol. For others, a daydream. The same is true when we think about who we are. It is the extension of our virtual selves that draws our concern. Lives are spent chasing the very thing that is there all along in the name of something that will never be there. In Zen thinking, the thing is sufficient within itself.
© Earl R. Smith II, PhD