There are several different Zen/Chan traditions, and many different Buddhisms, and I'm certainly not speaking for all of them (I don't even consider Zen to be Buddhism, so there's that...) - I'm simply speaking from my own experience practicing in the Zen Koan tradition. Nevertheless, you may find that the topics and themes I address apply across these varying traditions, as would be expected. But instead of coming to this is how it is, I'd encourage you to remain curious and ask questions of anyone you meet who is practicing one of the Zens or Buddhisms and find out how it is for them, note the similarities and/or differences, yet still not land on this is how it is, regardless of what you find. (And while we're in the realm of curiosity and questions, if there is something you've been wondering about or something that comes up for you as this series rolls along, please send a note my way and I'll address it as I am able, either directly with you or in a future post.)
To move more specifically into the topic of this particular post, I'd like to highlight two of the main factors I see as contributing to misunderstandings about Zen and Buddhism. The first has to do with translation, in that the languages of the cultures in which these traditions originated and developed typically had one word or symbol that contained multiple meanings, all of which were implied to an extent when using that word/symbol. In English, though, we tend to like getting down to that one word that can capture and encapsulate the essence of the whole, and in trying to do so a great disservice is done to the ancient traditions of our world and we miss out on a richness that is being offered. These days we are presented with single words and brief phrases concerning the practices and ideas related to Buddhism and Zen (and other traditions, of course), and people either think these words capture the essence and then establish an understanding based on this thinking, or they are put off by them and turn away (i.e. hearing that life is suffering is a central teaching of Buddhism could be discouraging and one says "no thanks," never looking further to find there's much more to this term suffering, as well as noble and truth and even life). So whether a person establishes an understanding or turns away, he is stopping short, missing out on a vast and intricate territory that lies beneath, not realizing that the simple words and brief phrases are not meant to be summaries but rather invitations, serving as gateways for entering that territory and discovering so much more.
The other main factor that contributes to the misunderstanding of Zen and Buddhism has to do with the template we develop based on our experience and understanding of other major religions (I'm thinking mostly of the Abrahamic traditions, though the sphere could certainly be expanded to include more). When we slide that template from one of these religions to another, it can help us get a general grasp of those other traditions due to the similarities of their basic structure, primarily because they are theistic. There are also many parallels that can be found among their belief systems, since they developed out of this basic structure, as well as parallels in regard to how these beliefs are upheld and put into practice. However, when we slide this template over to Buddhism things begin falling apart right away, mainly because Buddhism is non-theistic and therefore the template just doesn't apply. However, we may understand that Buddhism is non-theistic and still attempt to draw parallels between its teachings and practices and those of other religions since they seem similar in some respects, but those similarities are merely on a surface level. What we find when we go beneath the surface and look at things more thoroughly is that, in addition to being non-theistic, Buddhism in general and Zen in particular are largely agnostic in spirit. Therefore, though the teachings and practices may seem similar to those of other faiths, the relationship to them is quite different. All in all what we are presented with here is another invitation: release the template, don't attempt to make the unfamiliar fit into what we already know but instead set what we know aside, look more directly and freshly at what we are encountering and allow it to speak for itself in its own way.
Now that the stage is somewhat set and the field has been cleared a bit, I'll focus on the main topic of this post by proposing a question that may naturally arise: If Zen and Buddhism are non-theistic, what is Buddha?
The word buddha is a title and it means "one who is awake." It has come to refer to the Historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, whose story of awakening is widely known of and out of whose experience the many traditions of Buddhism arose. But he wasn't the first buddha, nor was he the last and, by extension, the awakening he experienced wasn't exclusively his - it is an inherent aspect of existence itself and accessible to us all. As such, not only is there the potential for each us to realize our essential nature and become a buddha, we are essentially buddhas from the beginning, through and through. So it is not a matter of taking up the practice of Zen or Buddhism to become something else but instead doing so as a means of returning to and remembering what we fundamentally are, which gets covered up and clouded over as we develop habits of thought and action, being conditioned by experiences and circumstances as we are living a life and trying to make sense of it all. Yet, even though this essential nature gets covered up and can feel so very far away or nowhere at all, it never really goes anywhere, just as behind the clouds and rain and snow storms the sun and moon and stars continue to shine.
Okay. So there's that, and it makes sense enough (hopefully). But what about the statue of Buddha and other figures on an altar, before which people sit in meditation, and to which they bow and offer incense. What's going on there?
Those statues are simply symbols, reminders, if you will, of our inherent nature. Old Sid has come to symbolize awakening because, you know, that was his big thing. What I appreciate about him as a central figure on the altar is, as we know by his story, he was a human through and through just as we are, and we can (and do) awaken just as he did. So the reminder and encouragement is: awakening is possible, and it's possible for you to realize. Other figures that adorn altars symbolize wisdom, compassion, action, intention and more. When I have difficulty connecting with these things within myself, sometimes it's good to have a symbol as a reminder that these qualities are still present, regardless. (Personally, I most often relate to these statues and figurines as pieces of art, and have long felt an affinity toward and appreciation of their aesthetic.) Bowing, offering incense and meditation are ways to connect with and honor these inherent qualities of being as well as an expression of gratitude for there being a path to walk and a practice to embody, and gratitude for those who came before us, showing that awakening is possible. And while I hope it is clear already, I want to emphasize that there is no worship happening here, no asking of or relying upon something or someone outside of us to change us or help us or save us. Which understandably leads to another point of confusion.
If Zen and Buddhism are non-theistic and worship isn't an aspect of practice, what is the focus of one's practice? This quote from writer Heather King wonderfully expresses the assumption that comes out of this confusion: "Without belief in a power beyond ourselves, we have no reference point but ourselves." I'm really grateful to have come across her words because this statement includes the two central elements that are the source of the confusion, and because encountering her words helped me clarify my own experience. I cannot disagree with the logic and rationality of her statement, but it absolutely misses the mark when put to use as a critique of Buddhism. Of course, there are other people I've come across who have made similar statements, but this one really sums up the gist of them all. Okay, so now to unpack it a bit.
One of the central teachings of Buddhism is that there is no self - a good example of one of those simple statements beneath which there is a vast territory. This does not mean I do not exist. It means I do not exist as a separate entity; I am not disconnected from reality and life around me; it is part of me, I am part of it, inexorably. Thinking I am a solid, separate entity is a delusion (a common one for us humans), and when living and acting from the place of this delusion, Ms. King's statement is entirely valid and accurate. But as I nourish this delusion and walk it around, I notice that my actions, thoughts, and beings affect others, and vice-versa. Making my way along, noticing and experiencing and exploring this dynamic further, that solid, separate sense of self crumbles and dissolves more and more, and I can come to realize that the essence of all that is is me, and I am the essence of all that is. The Zen teacher Bernie Glassman suggests (and I've been borrowing this notion of his for a while now, so I concur) the goal that Zen practice has for us, what it is offering and encouraging, is for us to have a direct experience of this essence and know it for ourselves (or our non-selves). Once this happens it can't unhappen, and it fundamentally changes the way we live and experience life.
From this place of being and knowing (not with the intellect, but deeply), I'd like to return to Ms. King's statement and the part about not believing in a power greater than myself (which is what her words helped clarify). There is in fact something greater than myself with which I connect and which serves as my reference point: reality, life itself. And it's not a matter of belief - I see it, feel it, know it everyday, through the people and places in my immediate environment; in the expansive and expanding world around me and within me; and off into the cosmos, among the distance stars and planets, through the galaxies upon galaxies unfurling endlessly, beyond me and within me. All of it is that which is greater than me, yet at the same time it is not outside of myself; it is powerful, and I can rely upon it and receive help from it; it is this reality I wish to serve and to which I wish to remain faithful; it is my reference point, nourishing and guiding me along while I offer nourishment and guidance to it in return. So my focus is not on this limited and localized self through which I experience the world but rather the larger body of reality of which I am a part, which I can essentially and equally call myself. And from this understanding of Buddhist practice, King's statement is completely valid: because there is no self apart from existence and reality, it's impossible to have a reference point outside of ourselves.
To wrap things up, I'll bring in a few stories from the Zen tradition that speak to the territory I've been wandering through here. What I truly appreciate about these (and many others) is that they're really good at countering the human tendencies we have to define things, to exalt certain things and lower others, to separate things out and to separate ourselves from them, to discount ourselves and our experience, making something small and confining out of an existence that is vast and boundless. These stories tend to be short and sweet, yet they are very rich and offer much, inviting us into that expansive territory that lies beneath our thinkings and doings and beings.
First, a common question people have asked throughout the centuries in the Zen/Chan tradition is, "What is Buddha?", meaning what is the essence, what is awakening? Here are a few responses that have been offered:
-This very mind is Buddha.
-Not mind, not Buddha.
-Three pounds of flax.
And a personal favorite - A dry piece of shit.
Another someone asked, "What is the Dao?" (same general meaning as What is Buddha?) and someone replied, "Ordinary mind is the Dao."
A student asked a teacher: "What are the words that save the buddhas and go beyond the ancestors?"
The teacher replied, "Cake."
A person who was grief-stricken sought out a teacher for help and asked: "What is Zen?"
"The heart of the one who asks is Zen; you can't get it from someone else's words."
Some words from Linji:
"Buddha is not the object of our search; do not make Buddha your ideal aim. Do not make Buddha a reality outside yourself. The image we have inside our head of the Buddha is not the Buddha. Such a Buddha is a shadow, a ghost, called Ghost Buddha, who can suck up your soul. That's why when we meet Ghost Buddha, we should cut off Ghost Buddha's head."
(The final two selections are excerpts from Acequias & Gates by Joan Sutherland; the other selections can be found in various koan collections.)
And to close, a selection from the Daoist classic Zhuangzi:
Dongguo asked Zhuangzi: "This thing called the Dao - where does it exist?"
Zhuangzi replied, "There is no place it does not exist."
"C'mon," said Dongguo, "You can be more specific!"
"It is in the ant."
"Whoa...that is a low and humble thing."
"It is in the weeds."
"That is even lower!"
"It is in the tiles and broken shards."
"How can it be so small and insignificant?"
"It's in the piss and shit."