Why Zen Does Not Teach Mental Techniques
Matsuoka Roshi would often entwine his middle and fore-fingers, raising them aloft and declaring, “Mind and body are just one; they cannot be separated.” This is not an example of belaboring the obvious, or debating the Cartesian separation of spirit and body, one of the primary memes of Western culture. It is a concise way of explaining why Zen emphasizes the physical, rather than the mental, in its meditation, zazen.
The question often arises, Why do we not emphasize mental practices, such as meditating upon compassion, for example? Thich Nhat Hahn has done so, in his writings for Western students; and the Buddha himself is said to have conveyed such messages, notably in the “Metta Sutta,” or “Loving Kindness Sutra,” with its refrain, “May all beings be happy.”
Virtues are Innate
The first principle, I suggest, is that human beings are already innately compassionate, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary that we witness in the public sphere; as well as in our own behavior, or inner feelings, toward others. The reasons this innate compassion does not always come to the fore, are all the usual suspects—the underpinning traits of self-centered striving and personal clinging—that Buddha analyzed as the main source of Dukkha, suffering, in this life.
Secondly, while it may be necessary to teach others such values as generosity, the first of the Buddhist perfections (S. paramita); or the practice of compassion; any such teaching is limited to what can be expressed in language, and therefore necessarily conceptual, not actual. The pedagogical theory amounts to hoping that—by going through the motions, and focusing conscious attention on the concept—true compassion, or generosity, or patience, et cetera, will one day arise.
Personal versus Social Practice
There is nothing wrong with this approach, but it is limited, or one-sided. We should take care to divide Buddhist teachings and practices into two parallel tracks—the personal versus the social—for the sake of clarity, and not to confuse the one with the other. Particularly when it comes to the attitude we adopt in zazen.
On one level, our Zen practice is intensely personal. On another, it is social in its application and import. It is not for naught that Soto Zen stresses the personal practice of zazen over all other methods, including such techniques as koan practice, meditating upon an illogical riddle, of the Rinzai sect; and the various mental preoccupations taught in more traditional forms of meditation, such as Vipassana. I am not trained in either of these methods, so my comments should not be taken as a critique. I am only pointing out the difference in Zen meditation, as I understand it.