ZEN ≠ ZAZEN ≠ MEDITATION
December is the month that we focus on the life and teachings of that original Monster of Zen, Shakyamuni the historical Buddha. In what follows I will attempt to demonstrate the absolute relevance and modernity of his teachings, as preserved in the teachings and practices of Zen Buddhism. As some of these connections are not obvious in verbal presentation, I have included some charts as illustrations of the intersections and interfaces of what are usually presented as separate teachings.
INTERFACE OF ZEN & ZAZEN
Zen is not the same as zazen, and zazen is not the same as other meditations. It may seem heretical to propose that Zen is not equal to zazen, and that zazen is not equal to meditation. But bear with me. There are so many alternative offerings of meditation today that it is time to differentiate Zen’s method from the rest.
Zen is not equivalent to its meditation method, zazen, simply because there is so much more to Zen as a philosophy, and as a formative force throughout history. This has primarily been true of the history of the East, but following its introduction to America in the late 1890s, and especially after WWII, westerners in general, and Americans in particular, have become more and more interested in Zen, along with a parallel engagement with other meditative traditions and styles, such as Yoga, as well as other Buddhist and non-Buddhist variations.
Zen is known as the meditation sect of Buddhism, but zazen is not its sole method of teaching. Zen boasts an extensive literature on buddha-dharma as experienced and expounded by its adherents, beginning with Bodhidharma’s journey out of India, and tracing its evolution through China, Korea and Japan, to the Far East. However, distribution of the Buddhist canon, in the form of written sutras and commentaries, had preceded The 28th Patriarch by centuries, and his bringing Zen from the West to the East was definitely focused on the direct practice of upright sitting, or what we now refer to as zazen, or more precisely, shikantaza.
ZAZEN & MEDITATION
The great sage’s meditation practice did not conform to the traditional style known as dhyana, or contemplation, though this is how the local punditry interpreted his “wall-gazing Zen.” He was demonstrating shikantaza, or “objectless meditation,” which amounts to an oxymoron. Meditation is defined as the focus of attention on something, and so inherently implies a division of subject and object. If our direct experience in sitting becomes objectless, then by definition it must also become subject-less (which, revealingly, is not a recognized construction in English; thus the hyphen). In the most salient sense, then, zazen transcends normal meditation.
“Zen” is phonetic Japanese for “Ch’an,” which is phonetic Chinese for the Sanskrit “dhyana,” one of the traditional Six Paramitas of Buddhism. Thus, Zen is actually a misnomer. Which is a good thing, because what Zen is pointing to cannot be named. In Taoism there is a similar idea, paraphrasing: “Naming is the source of all (particular) things; but that which is eternally real is nameless.”
ZEN & FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS
To elicit a bigger picture of the place of Zen and zazen in our world of practice, I would like to refer you to a couple of semantic models illustrating my ideas of the interrelationships, or operative interfaces, of the various dimensions thereof that we encounter both on the cushion and in daily life. Turning to Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths, we see that they can be modeled as a system, the simplest geometry for which is the tetrahedron (“system” defined as having an inside and an outside):
These are usually presented in text in a linear layout, beginning with the First Noble Truth, that of the Existence of Suffering, followed by the Origin and Cessation of Suffering, and finally the Noble Eightfold Path, leading to the cessation of suffering.
First, we must examine and challenge the use and meaning of the word “suffering” to translate the Sanskrit “dukkha.” Unfortunately, suffering is fraught with narrow connotations of human pain — not only physical, but emotional, mental, and even existential in nature — but I do not believe that that is the intended meaning of the original term. I think Buddha was teaching a universal principle, that of unrelenting and inexorable change, which we interpret from the perspective of personal angst.