by Derek Ayre
If you have never come across Zen before, it might seem quite perplexing with it’s apparent contradictions and paradoxes. But if you are ready and willing to commit yourself to the “Way” then it is one of the most powerful ways to transform the quality of your life that I have ever come across. If you are not ready, the practice of Zen will not make the slightest bit of sense and chances are you will soon quit.
I could be said that Zen is not a philosophy or belief system but more like climbing a huge mountain. But it is the climb that is more important than the destination. This is where a great paradox comes occurs… What is the point of making such a climb if to achieve your goal and reach the top is of the least importance? Exactly! That is the question! The answer is in the question itself and comes to the practitioner experientially – so experientially that words are inadequate to explain the profundity of it. Climbers who have endured the struggle and hardships of climbing great Mountains like Everest come closer to spirit of Zen when they answer the question, ‘why do you do it?’ by simply stating, ‘because it’s there!’
So why do I practice Zen? This is a question that I can only answer from my own experience of it. Another Zen practitioner my answer it differently…
- From sitting and stilling the mind for periods in zazen (Zen meditation) for the last 25 years, I have developed a higher state of awareness in all things whether they feel good or bad.
- I live my life more focused in the moment of now than I did before and I suffer very little from stress. I am not saying that I do not have stress, because that is part of life. What I am saying is that I am very aware when I experience stress and recognise it for what it is – it does not hurt me. For instance, my blood pressure is very low – averaging something like 110/70 and rarely deviates from that. Most people I know of my age, ‘non-Zen’ people, are constantly monitoring high blood pressure. I am not saying that zazen is an antidote to high blood pressure, all I am doing here is sharing the fact that hypertension, although it runs in my family, has never been a problem for me.
In his excellent book The Three Pillars of Zen (which in my opinion invaluable for someone starting out in Zen), the late Roshi Philip Kapleau explains the value of zazen over other forms of meditation thus… “[In zazen] the mind is freed from bondage to all thought forms, visions, objects and imaginings and brought to a state of absolute emptiness, from which alone it may one day perceive its own true nature, or the nature of the universe.” He goes on to say… “zazen is like a silent missile to penetrate the barriers of the five senses and the discursive intellect”.
Penetrate the barriers of the five senses and discursive intellect? It that something that is wanted or even wise to pursue?
From my point of view, I would say, ‘yes, it is both wanted and wise’, but many years ago the activity of penetrating barriers of my intellect worried me. Was I going to end up stupid and ‘senseless’ by controlling my mind and thoughts in such a way?
No, that was not going to happen. What did happen is that I transcended the intellectual mind and realised that at a higher state of awareness, that there was a different type of intelligence – an intelligence beyond mere knowledge. In fact there came a realisation of ‘knowing nothing’ which was extremely liberating. And the fear that my mind would be numbed and unable to function in the common everyday world couldn’t have been further from the truth. In fact because of zazen, my focus was improving and my ability to carry out intellectual tasks was greatly enhanced.
Many people think Zen is a religion. Well, if awareness of life and all that goes with it is considered to be a religion, then yes, it is a religion but not in the conventional sense. To me, Zen is a ‘way’ and it can be applied to any religion – not just Zen Buddhism, but Zen Catholicism, Zen Judaism, to name just a few.
It can also be applied to everyday matters like, Zen in Business, and to name the famous book, motorcycle maintenance (Zen and the Art of), not to mention the martial arts like karate, aikido and tai chi. All these activities are greatly enhanced with the spirit and discipline of Zen.