Part of my "self-driven education" has been to study Zen. I'm so far glad to be doing so; I've learned a lot already in the first week of study.

My motivation for doing so was to have some semblance of authority when speaking on the subject. While my life has presented some modicum of exposure to Zen, I have not practiced it in earnest, nor have I had a legitimate teacher. I've read several books on the subject, but for the most part, they have covered practice, not the history and culture of Zen... and this struck me as relevant. I knew there were different "schools" of Zen, but not what characterized them or how they evolved. I knew Zen was related to Buddhism, but I didn't know exactly how. I knew many of the koan I appreciate mention a variety of specific "Zen masters" of the past, but not who they were or where their stories took place. These were the bits of information I was after.

Zen's connection to Buddhism is of particular interest to me. I'm not Buddhist, nor could I be, but I believe Zen has "gotten a few things right". I wondered if it was really wise to proceed to "steal ideas" from Zen, if its background is truly religious and mythological. ...It's not that I have strong disdain for Buddhism: I appreciate the story of Siddhartha Gautama, and believe that he (insomuch as we can believe his historical accuracy) had some wonderful things to say. But I don't believe in, say, reincarnation, or the idea that a Buddha can create entire worlds with a single thought. Or that women and men should live separate lives. : ) And the like. That is to say, I want nothing to do with the underlying mysticism.

So the deeper question I suppose I was asking was: is Zen itself mystical? In practice, it certainly seems to have its benefits. I've experienced a sense calm, heightened perception, and a general sense of "rightness" about the task of Zen meditation... aside from feeling like I looked a little silly. It helped me deal with some pretty serious pain and uncertainty. I also like that, with Zen, one ostensibly tends to have increased compassion, calm, and reason. Put another way: I tend to really like people who practice Zen. So as I approached this problem, I knew the questions I asked needed to avoid confirmation bias. That is, I need to ask questions to disprove Zen's utility, not to confirm it.

Perhaps a better-if-less-scientific question would be: what's the minimum set of Zen aspects that can impart these benefits (subjective as they may be)? Can they be employed out of the context of spiritualism?

Several things struck me about Zen's history this week:
  • During WWII, many Japanese Zen practitioners were active supporters of the war, especially against China. To my mind, this suggests Zen does not always impart "wisdom", "compassion", or "loving-kindness".
  • Part of Zen's teaching is to move away from duality. So it's somewhat ironic of me to chide them for contradicting themselves on the point of "transmission without doctrine". That is to say, Buddha's "Lotus Sermon", which is considered the birth of Zen, was a sermon given without words, to show that not all communication is linguistic and that the truth of the human condition must be directly experienced rather than spoken of. ...And yet a very large part of Zen practice is study of Buddhist scriptures. Hmmmn.
  • It strikes me that much of Zen is structured to impart rank and recognition to its practicioners. This also strikes me as counter-intuitive. Another part of Zen is the dissolution of ego, and it hardly seems appropriate to "graduate" among the ranks of Zen in light of that.
These are, perhaps, strawman arguments. Of course the most vocal population of Zen will have hogged the spotlight, and they will be the first that I discover when looking for evidence. Yet these discoveries do suggest to me, along with other evidence I shalln't go into, that--if there is a "truth" to Zen, or an underlying practice that best represents it--such a thing is not clear, even to those who have practiced for decades.

Based on this "hunch", I think there may be an underlying philosophy that I like, coupled with a few physical aspects of human biology (ie: the benefits of relaxation). As I suggested above, I would like to know what those are and "extract" them from Zen.

...More about this in the future.

(Calligraphy by Kanjuro Shibata XX "Enso", from the collection of Jordan Langelier.)

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