Thursday, November 4, 2010

Zen: Bridging Ordinary and Religious Life

The original ideas of Buddhism were presented in a book called the Dhammapada. An Indian sage, Bodhidharma, brought Buddhism from India to China in 527 AD. From the intermingling of Chinese Taoism and Indian Buddhism, Zen was born. During the 12th century A.D., it was introduced into Japan where it was incorporated into the Japanese culture and became a way of life. At present, it has developed into a prominent world-wide tradition.

The word “Zen” is derived from the Sanskrit word “Dhyana,” which means meditation. The Indian Buddhists brought this meditative art to China where it was called cha’ana. This magnificent Indian-Chinese meditative blend when reached Japan, it became Zen.

Zen is a unique spiritual tradition. It defies our usual definitions. It is not a philosophy because it does not seek to understand reality through the strict use of logic and reasoning. Rather, it is the most direct action that centers on experiencing reality here and now.

Moreover, Zen is not a religion because it does not believe in the concept of a god, Holy Scriptures, rituals and afterlife. Instead, it emphasizes the most immediate action to experience one’s spiritual self residing at the core of one’s being. Zen is a pure action that sees, hears, smells, touches, tastes and feels ordinary reality in an extraordinary way thus making the ordinary life as the spiritual life.

Zen is not the usual kind of meditation of deliberately concentrating the mind on an object. In contrast, Zen has no systematic orientation of the mind towards anything in particular. It uses no mantras, or chants or images of any kind. To get away from any intentional directedness of the mind, a Zen master might shock the student by a loud sound of clapping hands or hitting on the chest or responding with an irrelevant answer or a haiku or a puzzle (Koan).

Zen is unique because it makes no distinction between the ordinary and religious life. It tries to bridge the gap by living the ordinary life as meditation in action. The core of Zen is to live the ordinary moment with such intense attentiveness that it becomes an extraordinary moment.

For Zen, this intensity of living must permeate every day activities of cooking, cleaning, washing, eating, drinking, gardening, teaching, serving tea, watching the sunrise, or even indulging in sword fighting. When ordinary life becomes meditation in action, our spirituality is displayed in every action.

For Zen, through conditioning, our society habituates us to “pass the buck” of enlightenment from one’s own efforts to that of our parents, teachers, gurus or prophets. However, Zen is simple and direct in its insistence that “only you are capable of awakening because only you are capable of falling asleep.”

In Zen, there is nothing comparable to the Jewish idea of deliverance through the Messiah or the Christian redemption through Jesus or the Hindu salvation through Krishna’s Avatar. Like the founders of religions, who achieved enlightenment through their own efforts, Zen insists that one must embrace reality directly without the intervention of others even when they are the likes of the Buddha or Jesus. Enlightenment is possible only through one’s own labors. One must leave behind all teachings and teachers. Thus the metaphoric declaration: “if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

Similar to the founders of religions, who saw, heard, smelled, tasted and touched the truth through their own unique existential beings, Zen asks students to discard the societal conditioning and be reborn. In the words of a Zen master, no “resurrection is possible without crucifixion.” In order to experience the rebirth of truth, one must be ready to crucify one’s societal self that keeps one tied to the teachings and teachers.

For Zen, our ordinary mind is the culprit that is stopping us from enlightenment. It is cluttered with cultural conditioning originating from our respective social, political, educational, economic and religious institutions. Since our minds are choked with the values of our culture, we are estranged from experiencing the original source of our being, which is “joy unalloyed.”

To break the mind’s prison and unleash this natural delight of being alive, we need to set ourselves free! To experience this sudden awakening (Satori), Zen masters shock the students by giving them an unsolvable puzzle (Koan). When an intellectual search to a clue to solving the puzzle seems futile, the intellect realizes its limitations. By exhausting the intellect, the Koan frees one from the prison of one’s mind thus making possible awakening. During the moment of illumination, the world is not changed but the way one sees it is altered. Awakening lies in “the ordinary self doing ordinary things in an extraordinary way.” Thus one’s spirit experiences delight in everything that one does because the gap between the ordinary and the religious life is abridged.

By Ashok Malhotra

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