Access my posts on Zen here.
Faced with the prospect of summarizing Zen, I’m reminded of the opening of the Tao Te Ching: “The way that can be described is not the eternal Way.” So I’m not going to try. For now, I’ll content myself with describing how I found this practice and what I like about it.
I suppose it was a former roommate who first introduced me to eastern philosophies. It was certainly while he and I roomed together that I started reading books on Taoism and Buddhism (at least, books with those words in their titles), but at this stage my understanding was both minimal and intellectual. Zen was an interesting concept I scarcely grasped, hardly a path or a practice.
As cliché as it may sound, it was only after moving to the New Age nexus of Boulder some years later that I came to experience Zen as more than just an interesting philosophy. In one of the happier bits of synchronicity ever to come my way (and I’ve had a few), someone I met through work happened to be both an alum of Sudbury Valley School and a student at the Great Mountain Zen Center in Lafayette, east of Boulder.
Now I could finally see what Zen looked like outside the pages of a book. While there was much that felt foreign at first (especially the chanting and bowing), there was also something about just sitting and staring at a blank wall for long periods, counting my breaths, that I found remarkably compelling. Unfortunately, I moved from Boulder down to Denver after I’d visited GMZC just a handful of times, and commuting a sixth day every week simply wasn’t something I could sustain.
Yet I continued sitting on my own, every now and then. More recently, for reasons I don’t quite understand, I decided to become more serious about my meditation. Then, several months into this new routine of sitting half an hour nearly every day, I decided I was moving. Suddenly, finding an apartment near the Austin Zen Center became a priority. To my great delight, I found myself living just a few minutes’ walk from a place where I could sit among fellow practitioners multiple times per week.
So what is it I like about Zen? Here is where words, while voluminous, fall short. Like Sudbury, Zen reminds me that doing “nothing” can be very challenging. I like that Zen not only recognizes but embraces paradox, and that it directly confronts the fundamental impermanence and interconnectedness of things. I like its rich heritage of stories and koans. Zen, as I see it, is both playful and deadly serious, and it knows better than to take itself too seriously. It’s about cutting through the clutter and being in the moment, but in a practical, concrete way, without any hippy-dippy New Agey aura. (After all, Buddhism is 2500 years old, and I appreciate the centuries of tradition behind it.)
Mostly, I suppose, I like that I feel more grounded when I’m practicing regularly. Zen both settles and stirs things up: it heightens my awareness and gives me both things to think about and an opportunity to rest from thinking. So far, Zen seems very compatible with my solidly empirical, evidence-based outlook, for all its talk of bodhisattvas throughout space and time (again, it’s that balancing of the mystical and the mundane, that poetic embrace of paradox). Given that much of my practice is solitary, I was also quite pleasantly struck, during my year in Austin, at how very much practicing alongside fellow seekers adds to the experience.
In other words, I like Zen because it works as a practice and a community; because it soothes and challenges me to grow; because it engages me on physical, emotional, and intellectual levels. Not bad for a tradition based on sitting in front of a wall, eh?
photo credit: Lorienne Schwenk