Mon, 17 Apr 2000

Exploring the 'Zazen', the gate of living Zen

By Rahayu Ratnaningsih

JAKARTA (JP): Of all Buddhist traditions, I find Zen and Tantric (Tibetan) most appealing. The two are so full of contrast; Zen with its "complex simplicity" and minimalist approach; Tantric with its rich, colorful, quixotic, imaginative and ritualistic tradition.

The two are a living manifestation of life, of yin and yang, of the harmonious paradoxes that abound in life and the nondualistic nature of reality. They are an excellent demonstration of the ancient wisdom that people can take different paths to the same destination.

Zen is perhaps the most elusive and "irritating" subject a person may want to try to talk about. It is so esoteric that it defies the word "religion" in a traditional sense to describe it.

Zen aims to totally demolish the bind of dogma, doctrines and the adulation of rational thoughts; to free the human mind from the extreme limitation of words and explanations. It calls itself "a way of living".

Like Buddhism in general, it is a religion without faith, since belief is irrelevant to the achievement of thorough understanding of the ultimate nature of reality. One cannot talk or reason about it, since words cannot adequately explain an experience that lies beyond the realms of the senses and of the intellect from which our words and concepts are derived. A well known Zen phrase says, "The instant you speak about a thing you miss the mark."

Thus, Zen lies beyond reasoning. The same way a physicist cannot talk accurately and unambiguously about subatomic (nonsensory) phenomena without bumping into a paradox every now and then. One can only experience Zen. It is a completely experiential and empirical philosophy.

The Eastern sages, in general, are therefore not interested in explaining things, but rather in obtaining a direct nonintellectual experience of the unity of all things. A Zen master warns, "Don't be confused by abstractions or by the word of definition of an object or person.

This is like confusing one's finger with the moon." Each language has a word for moon, but the word is not the real moon. The word is like a finger; it only points in the direction of the real moon. You should not mistake the one for the other. Thus, Zen is the return to the basic simplicity of an undyed fabric; no eye-catching adornment, no polish. It implies freedom from thought pollution.

Hence, it is not so uncommon to hear a Zen master's (or a Zen student's for that matter) nonsensical answer to a question.

When a monk asks Tozan, a Zen master, who was weighing some flax, "What is Buddha?" Tozan said, "This flax weighs three pounds." Or, when someone asked to be taught Zen, a Zen master would perhaps answer, "I have nothing to teach, I have no doctrine." Zen is like swimming; you don't learn swimming by reading about it in a book or sitting in the class listening to a lecture on the subject. You learn to swim by doing it, in the water.

I myself find all this "nonsensical madness" brilliantly riveting. In the Western world and our secular world in general, a good teacher is regarded as someone who makes the subject matter digestible for the student, a person who explains things succinctly and cleverly. In the Oriental world, a good teacher is a person who makes you find out something for yourself.

William Blake once said, "A fool who persists in his folly will become wise." Alan Watts accurately contended that this method of teaching used by these great Eastern teachers is to make fools persist in their folly, but very rigorously, very consistently, and very hard.

Hence, instead of perceiving it as an excuse for false, irrational or illogical thoughts cloaked in philosophical gobbledygook, I find Zen intellectually satisfying and challenging, which is of course a contradiction in terms since Zen itself seeks intuitive wisdom rather than conventional intellectualism. In all its frustrating minimalism, it is much smarter than any philosophy that pretends to have all the fixed, definite answers to all life's mysteries.

The more one's intellect is developed, the more one will find these instant and simplistic answers implausible. Buddhism is extremely rational and well known for its highly intellectual and sophisticated philosophy, however the intellect is seen merely as a means to clear the way for the direct mystical experience. Hence, I do not suggest an edition of "Zen Made Easy" because that would not be the real Zen.

How do we, then, experience or learn Zen? We learn Zen in zazen, Zen meditation. It is the essential, fundamental practice for ripening the brain's intuitive faculties. However, it is wrong to think that Zen is religion for Sundays only or the Zen experience is obtained only when you are sitting (doing zazen).

Zen values the simple, concrete, living facts of everyday personal experience. It places special emphasis on one's practicing of moment-to-moment awareness in daily life throughout every day of the week. The serious Zen aspirant embarks on a continuous, lifelong journey in the direction of becoming a fully developed humane being.

For a beginner, the Soto school of Zen that emphasizes "effortless effort" in meditation (as opposed to the one meditating on a koan or a riddle), could serve the purpose. The great Soto master Dogen said this about zazen centuries ago, "A quiet room is recommended for the practice of zazen, and food and drink are taken only in moderation. Free yourself from all attachments ... think neither of good nor evil, judge not right or wrong. Stop the operation of mind, of will, and of consciousness; bring to an end all desires, all concepts and judgments."

To sit in zazen, take a thick pillow and on top of it place a second one. One may choose either a full- or half-cross-legged position. In the full (lotus) position, one places the right foot on the left thigh and the left foot on the right thigh. In the half (lotus) position, only the left foot is placed upon the right thigh. A robe and belt should be worn loosely, but in order. Next, the right hand rests on the left foot, while the back of the left hand rests in the palm of the right.

The two thumbs are placed end to end. The body must be maintained upright without inclining to either side or forward and backward. The ears and shoulders, nose and navel must be aligned. The tongue is kept against the palate, lips and teeth are firmly closed while the eyes are always opened. After the position of the body is in order, regulate your breathing. If a thought arises, take note of it and then dismiss it. When you forget all attachments consistently, you will naturally become zazen itself. That is the art of zazen.

Large Japanese corporations have been known to send their top executives to rigorous zazen training in which they have to sit for hours staring blankly at the wall before them.

Zen meditation is believed to increase the alertness and mental agility of these top decision-makers who usually live and work under constant pressure.

For Westerners who are just beginning to take on zazen, sitting cross-legged for more than five minutes is usually an agonizing experience since culturally western legs are not trained to sit on the floor or squat. Unlike Easterners who traditionally squat on the toilet (or even, in Indonesia's case, by the side of the road, socializing with their peers) and sit on the floor in their temples or mosques, Westerners prefer seated comfort both on the loo and in church.

To this "physical torture", a Japanese physician, Dr. Yoshi Osumi, smiles and comments, "Zazen is good for the central nervous system, but bad for the peripheral nervous system."

The writer is the director of the Satori Foundation, a center for the study and development of human excellence through mind programming and meditation techniques.