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The Way of Zazen
by Rindo Fujimoto Roshi              Main Page


Meditation (dhyana) is as old as Buddhism itself. The Indian founder, Gautama Shakyamuni, faced the question of suffering and death in this way, after failing to find satisfaction in philosophic inquiry, asceticism, or ritual.

Meditation, the precepts, charity, and reverence for all interrelated and interdependent forms of life constitute the foundation of Buddhism, though human frailty and institutional rigidity have often combined to reduce these ideals and practices to empty formalism. All Buddhist art and philosophy of any stature have sprung from the realization and harmony of these vital aspects. Whenever Buddhism has fallen too deeply into pedantry or aestheticism, a return to the fundamentals has rerooted the tradition in the realm of "ultimate concern" where it belongs.

Indian dhyana masters gathered disciples around them in China long before the formal establishment of the Chan (Jap. Zen) sect. In the Japanese Tendai sect of Buddhism, meditation was expected of monks, and as in China, Zen developed into a separate entity only after the Tendai had become very worldly. In the Tang period Taoism and Buddhism were fused after many centuries of competition amid the alternating favor of successive emperors. The resulting burst of vitality expressed itself in a very Chinese way, respect for and joy in work and simple living.

In America and Europe, a Taoistically inclined Zen has aroused considerable interest, and has been interpreted in a rather humanistic light. Popular Western Zen has something for everyone, makes no demands of its enthusiasts and offers a religion without religion, as well as an admirable effort to appreciate life "just as it Is." This non Buddhist Zen fits easily and gently into a busy and prosperous culture, which attributes little value to anything that does not produce visible and immediate utility, with the least possible effort. It cannot be denied that it offers something to Puritans who are weary of misdirected crusades and utopian moralizing, and who cannot find any meaning or pleasure in the traditional liturgy or dogma of Judaic or Christian orthodoxy.

Another type of non Buddhist Zen which has aroused popular Interest in the West is a yoga type of concentration practiced by Japanese artists, swordsmen, and others who wish mastery of their skills. This training requires many years of experience under a good teacher in Japan.

Meditation, the discipline practiced by most of the patriarchs both before and after enlightenment, has never been popular in any Buddhist country. Nevertheless, in parts of Southeast Asia today, as in traditional Japan and China, it is carried on by a rather large percentage of intellectuals as well as by many others from every walk of life. Buddhist meditation and awakening have influenced greatly disparate cultures out of all proportion to the number of participants. Buddhist symbols as well as the spirit of the Buddhist ethic are expressions of the founder's enlightenment experience, without which the essential character of his teaching would have been lost long ago in a sea of abstruse pedantry and cultural transformations of complex and ambiguous nature. The Buddhist tradition embodies the wealth of diversely expressed moral and metaphysical insights that have arisen from the interaction of meditation with widely varying historical and geographical conditions. Where uncorrupted by institutional and other abuses, Buddhism has retained its integrity and vitality as a result of its own particular interpretation and exercise of samadhi (complete absorption in meditation) making the founder's essential teaching available to those in very primitive as well as in very sophisticated cultures; in societies active and outgoing, as well as static and contemplative. In Mahayana, or Northern, Buddhism, the enlightenment experienced after samadhi has been transcended permits great flexibility of expression; underlying this flexibility is a unity which has affirmed the best in the different cultures where it has taken root. Meditation is to Buddhism what prayer is to Christianity. Without meditation or prayer, a religion is simply one among many systems of concepts and convictions to be manipulated in accord with current taste and practical concerns.

Westerners, particularly Americans, sometimes feel that meditation and other aspects of "Indian mysticism" are responsible for the poverty and problems of Asian countries. This seems to be a reductio ad absurdum of the complex and sometimes paradoxical workings of the law of cause and effect. Buddhist institutions and disciplines are subject to misuse and corruption, as are all finite human endeavors. Nevertheless, through the centuries, Buddhist monks and laymen have been social reformers, diplomats, and educators; they have established hospitals, orphanages, and refuges for the aged. Five hundred years before the birth of Christ the Indian founder of Buddhism rejected the rigid caste system of his country; the Buddhist king, Asoka (250 BC), undertook what was, even by modern standards, an ambitious program of social reform based on Buddhist principles; in the seventeenth century, the Japanese Zen monk, Tetsugen, perished with several of his disciples as the result of an infection contracted while feeding and caring for the poor during a famine.

Whatever the advantages, material or psychological, of such altruistic activities, Buddhism is first and foremost a spiritual orientation and discipline. The dedicated contemplative whose life is devoted to meditation and to instruction of its discipline, is the heart and life blood of his religion. An awakening to what has been called cosmic consciousness, an understanding and acceptance (acquiescence is not implied) of Karma, the good or evil consequences of one's own as well as others' attitudes and actions, is the foundation on which Buddhist compassion and altruism rest. As an end in itself, altruism towards family, race or even species is not in the Buddhist spirit, and material and physical well being are not the Buddhist summum bonum of life. However, practice and insight can only find expression in the physical and historical; Buddhist samadhi is not a retreat or escape from the world. The Indian prince who founded Buddhism renounced the temptation to use samadhi for his own pleasure and comfort and spent forty-five years sharing his experience with others. The Christ died for mankind; the Buddha lived for his fellow beings. After experiencing "the dark night of the soul," the Buddha died and was reborn under the Bodhi tree, and his life after this resurrection is as important to Buddhists as Christ's death and resurrection are to Christians.

One of the prevailing misconceptions about Zen (among young Japanese as well as Westerners) is that Zen people discipline themselves to become a kind of supermen who are free to disregard the Buddhist precepts, as well as all convention and consideration for others. Rinzai Zen was the favored religion of the Samurai, for whom flexibility to act according to circumstances was more important than consistency of abstract principles; nevertheless, this did not involve the kind of freedom that many moderns have in mind. It is important for Western Buddhists to avoid self-righteous asceticism for its own sake as well as blind, unbending moralism; on the other hand, an equal hindrance to Buddhist practice is the temptation to justify the convenient and congenial as enlightened freedom.

The writings of certain Buddhist monks, which are an expression of their samadhi or satori, tend to convey an impression of a kind of cosmic paranoia. It should be remembered that the triumph described by the arhat (enlightened man) is control of his own mind and conquest of his ignorance by the Dharma (cosmic Truth) or his satori experience. The great freedom of the Buddhist mystic is not freedom to be boorish and immoral for his own convenience and comfort. Many descriptions of samadhi and enlightenment are very misleading for beginners.

In Japanese Zen today, there are three schools: Rinzai, Soto, and Obaku. Zen priests occasionally go for training to temples belonging to one of the other schools, and after their own realization, modify their teaching methods accordingly. The detailed differences between the schools are not important to the Westerner who wishes to practice meditation. It is best to begin by finding a good teacher when possible; when this is impossible, the written instructions of a master can be followed anywhere under almost any conditions. Rinzai koan training requires at least occasional contact with a master. The koan (a kind of existential question) and explanations of the same, from a number of quarters reliable and otherwise, have done a great deal to popularize Zen; they have also led to misconceptions.

It cannot be too strongly emphasized that Buddhist zazen is not a technique to achieve something or get somewhere, to be followed like a recipe in a cookbook. It is also not a do-it-yourself psychotherapy, a tranquilizer, or a way to stimulate the "creative unconscious. Many benefits, physical and psychological, are not unjustly attributed to regular practice, but, if zazen is only a means to such ends, it is not Buddhist Zen and has many limitations. Soto zazen is a way of life in the same sense that some kinds of prayer are a way. Comparison of and attempts to evaluate different methods and teachers are of little value even to those with a certain amount of experience in meditation. A beginner should find a recognized teacher whom he can respect and who will accept him as a pupil; this teacher's method should be followed to the best of the pupil's ability. It is inevitable that in the beginning one will question the method more often than one questions oneself; however, shifting from one teacher or method to another, unless circumstances make this unavoidable, sometimes leads to disillusion and wasted energy. Zazen entered into as a kind of experiment is quite all right, but, until this attitude is transcended, Buddhist zazen is impossible.

We have been asked by Christians and other non Buddhists if zazen meditation can be practiced by adherents of religions other than Buddhism. It is not necessary to be Buddhist to practice just quiet sitting which is not done in a Buddhist frame of mind. However, for those Christians who are accustomed to pray to a personal divinity, we must strongly caution them against mixing zazen and prayer. The two can be complementary, if the prayers involved are not for any personal benefits. However, during zazen all thought of an Absolute Other must be set aside.

Some Westerners object to the ritual attending the zazen of Buddhist groups. Zazen may, of course, be practiced without ritual and without prayer; in other words, by only regular sitting. One's zazen experience, Buddhist or otherwise, eventually expresses itself in the individual's everyday life. Meditation for many is greatly aided by what one master calls "chanting samadhi," particularly in the absence of a teacher's encouragement and correction. Chanting is a source of strength and it can also be a gentle reminder of the troublesome ego of the beginner who is likely to vacillate between protest and hopelessness. Intensive zazen, as a result of a natural koan that has arisen in one's life - what is the reason for injustice or suffering, for example - may be the source of much mental and even physical discomfort. Prayer is helpful for some, but, for this, faith would seem to be necessary. Chanting a short sutra (Buddhist scripture) or mantra (phrase), on the other hand, may be done with any degree of skepticism, perseverance being the only requirement.

In many cultures where Buddhism has been introduced, the philosophical and ethical aspects have been the first to find favor, and these have been the concern of a well-educated minority. In Japan, this phase was followed by the elaborate ritual of the Heian period. The Buddha himself tried all these things before his enlightenment, and he did not sit in real meditation until all other possibilities had been exhausted. Kamakura Japan saw many changes, cultural and social, and with these changes came a distaste for the often mechanical and idolized ritual which had so inspired the aristocrats of earlier periods. Ascetic moralism had become an empty and self-righteous formalism, and men who wished a new and larger understanding of life were drawn to the simplicity and integrity of the way of the Chinese Chan masters. Once Japanese priests had known the Zen experience and Zen was firmly established, many of the elements of the older sects were reabsorbed, reaffirmed, and revitalized.

In the lives of individuals who persevere in zazen, those things which are right and best for them will acquire new meaning; the unessential and trivial will drop by the wayside. With or without a teacher the process is always a very difficult one. It is natural for people to look for roots in tradition and convention; in skills; in family, professional, and communal relationships and functions. Zen realization does not negate these things, but they may be deeply questioned before and until their place in the cosmic scheme is realized. Love, self-sacrifice, and charity are natural expressions of Buddhist satori. Freed from egocentric and utopian ambitions, which often create as many problems as they solve, those expressions are of depth and a special kind of integrity. Zazen and everyday life become truly one only after real insight has been awakened and a new relationship is established with the "Ground of Being" and with all beings.

E. P. Mitchell


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