Thursday, July 20, 2017

Zen and Capturing the Everyday Moment

Not long ago, I was standing on a fairly rocky beach, the stinging cold of the lake water lapping at my legs, clouds building in the sky above, and my mind turning to Zen. Why? Well, there's a reason, but first, though, when the term "Zen" is uttered, what comes to mind? A meditating monk? A rock garden? A quiet forest? Crazy riddles? Maybe it's something drawn from the vast (and fascinating) world of Zen art, like the below, which depicts a Zen teacher and his student:



The truth is that "Zen" has become a commonplace word and placeholder in our culture for anything deemed "mystical" or even trendy. Along the way, its original meaning -- not to mention its power -- has been somewhat diluted.

Zen is an originally East Asian form of Buddhism that ultimately derives from the Indian Sanskrit word "dhyana," literally meaning "concentration." Forming in China, where dhyana was translated into "ch'an," it emerged as a school that, at least generally (many scholars would quibble even with this) focused its practice on meditation. It was in Japan that ch'an was translated into "Zen," giving us the term we all know today.

Unlike most other forms of Buddhism, Zen is premised on the notion that all beings are already Buddhas and merely need to tap into that awakened consciousness. The various techniques of Zen are thus aimed on breaking down the preconceptions and mental blockades that prevent individuals from realizing their awakened nature.

As the literal meaning of its name ("concentration") suggests, the central technique of Zen is meditation. Through focusing on the most mundane of processes, such as breathing or walking, meditation forces one to be entirely in the moment, divorced from all exterior distractions. While it sounds easy, it's actually incredibly difficult, though over the years medical researchers and neuro-scientists have become interested in the biological processes and benefits of meditation. Can it diminish stress and anxiety? Lower pain response? Increase immune system function? It will be interesting to see where the literature eventually ends up on those and other questions. From the standpoint of Zen practice, the intense focus of meditation is meant to cut through all of the obstacles to discovering one's Buddhahood resting beneath the layers of overthinking and preconception.

A second technique, used to varying degrees throughout the subsets of Zen schools, is the riddle or "koan." Certainly you have heard of the most popularized ones, such as, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Of course, many years ago Bart Simpson claimed to solve that one:



Instead, think about this one:

"When you can do nothing, what can you do?"

Or, "When you have a staff, I will give it to you. When you have no staff, I will take it from you."

If your first reaction is to furrow your brow and curse, you're on the right track. All due respect to Bart, the koan does not ask for a clever or intellectual response. It's meant to break down the part of your rational mind that overthinks, and thus keeps you from realizing your inherently awakened state. Zen masters give these to students to drive them to the edge of insanity because it's at that edge -- between reason and madness -- that awakening is found. Huston Smith, one of the elder statesmen of the discipline of Religious Studies, recounts that very experience in a Zen monastery. This hasn't stopped people from having fun with the concept of koans, as in this video, which I first learned about from a former student:


If you want to read more koans, check out these. In my "Eastern Thought" course I used to give students a koan to think about over the weekend before they provided an answer. Good times.

Recently, though, I've been thinking also about a third technique for Zen realization: the Haiku. Typically the Haiku is a poem of a set number of syllables dispersed across three lines. Often it is seventeen syllables in a 5-7-5 format. This calls for a very intentional, careful choice of wording to communicate, as evocatively as possible, a thought or experience. All the time one sees silly Haikus, as I have been guilty of creating many times. Behold:

In the hot kitchen
I flip the fluffy pancake.
Ah! My stomach growls.

Back in my days as a teaching assistant while a PhD student, I would compose such Haikus during a boring lecture. I remember sharing the one above with one of my friends in the same PhD program. Her reaction: "Michael, you are insane."

In their highest form, the Haiku attempts to put into words what cannot be expressed verbally, so it acknowledges its own inadequacy even as it tries to thoroughly place the audience into the experience so that nothing but the sensory nature of the moment is left. This focus, like meditation, has the goal of bringing the person back to that singular moment and its essence, which is Buddhahood.

Basho, a 17th century Zen master and poet, was famous for Haikus. He would write as he traveled, using the poetry to attempt to crystallize what he felt in certain locations or capture arresting sights and moments. Here are some examples (which you can compare to my pancake masterpiece):

"In the utter silence of a temple
A cicada's voice alone
Penetrates the rocks."

And again:

"In the sun of a cold winter day
My shadow had frozen stiff
On horseback."

So, slightly more compelling than my ode to a starch-based breakfast. (Obviously, the syllable rules do not work out in the Basho Haikus since they are translations from the original Japanese). With Basho in mind, I tried to do the same with Haikus while visiting Michigan's Upper Peninsula earlier this month. Here is a Haiku inspired by a tour of an abandoned copper mine:

In the world's dark mouth
Ragged black teeth scrape to bite
and air mists with cold.

Here's one that came to mind watching Whooping Cranes stalk for food:

Spearpoints gliding on
Whisper legs, clothed in silence
we watch the birds hunt.

To an extent, Haikus are a little like jokes: if you have to explain them, they lose all their effectiveness. That I felt the need to give context shows how far I need to go if ever I want to actually produce a good one.

Though I would not identify as a Zen Buddhist, each of the techniques described above has been meaningful for me, and increasingly so as I get older. Even if I am not consistent in my meditation, the principle of focusing deeply in order to understand the chain reaction of thoughts and emotions has been helpful in dealing with anxiety and stress issues. I've also been trying my hand at Haikus in order to capture feelings and sensations of the moment, to have something read or re-read in later years to bring back memories of special times.

Then there are the koans, which brings me back to the shores of the lake, where we started this post. Just a few weeks ago, a particular koan sprung to mind as I stood knee-deep in the cold waters of Lake Superior with my sons beckoning me to join them in the water. The koan asks:

"From the top of the hundred foot pole, how will you take one more step?"

In that second, on a level deeper than intellect, I understood the koan, its challenge, and my situation in that cold water as a bigger metaphor for reaching just beyond what one thinks he or she is capable of, and becoming more. Or, in the view of Zen, becoming what you already are. I took a leap to the one hundred and first foot, and dove into the water. And it was cold! Not exactly an experience of awakening, but of fulfillment nonetheless.

There are several potential topics I am sorting through for the next post, so it's tough to commit to one just now. It may have to be a surprise. Until then, take care.

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