Zoning Out on Zen? What is This Crazy Stuff Anyway?


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Why Study Zen? The Waterfalls are creating Bubbles on the Lower Level of the Pond

When asked what is reality? A Zen response is What is the sound of one hand clapping? O.K., when asked once what is Buddha? The response was “Dried Dung.” (Alan Watts, Zen, New World Library, 2019, 1948 original publication: 61.). What thuh? What kind of rude answer is this?! Wait. Understand that “there is nothing artificial constructed in Zen.” (D. T. Suzuki, Zen Buddhism, Selected Writings, compliled by William Barrett, Image Books, Doubelday, 1996: 93). The secret of life is given in just 3 words only. “Renounce and Enjoy!” (Eknath Easwaran, The Upanishads, Nilgiri Press, 2nd ed., 2007: 53). What are we to renounce though? Everything of an intellectual logical and thinking view. Does this mean we are to become just stupid and brainless? Not even close. We are to renounce our attachments to ideas we have learned from others as if our lives depended on living those ideas or believing them as “the truth,” no matter how powerfully logical or energetically spiritually meaningful they may mean to us. Why? Because others words, others opinions are not our experience. And the only real is what we experience. Interestingly, and quite paradoxically, Suzuki shows that pure subjectivity is the only real objectivity there ever has been! (Zen Writings, p. 256). O.K., wait, lets unpack this because it is bound to be completely misunderstood.

In a scientific age hell bent on being objective, to hear subjective is the only objective sounds just ludicrous. But Suzuki guides us through the labyrinth.

“Pure subjectivity, instead of vaporizing realities, consolidates everything with which it comes in touch. Nature is no more something to be conquered and subdued. It is the bosom whence we come and whither we go.

There is, then, in the teaching of Zen, no escapism, no mysticism, no denial of existence, no conquering nature, no frustrations, no mere utopianism, no naturalism. Here is a world of the given. Becoming is going on in all its infinitely varied forms, and yet there is the realm of the transcendence within all these changing scenes. Emptiness is suchness, suchness is emptiness.”

What we see, smell, hear, feel, is what we get. Not a logical discussion using words about what it means or what it is, just the pure experiencing of reality as we are in it at the moment. Our problem is as Alan Watts has noted “We think the only things we truly know are those we can put into words.” (Out of Your Mind, Sounds True, 2017: 19) But this is completely false. We can taste salty water, and that very subjectivity is the truly only way we can understand it. We can describe it til the cows come home, and it is never the same as literally experiencing it ourselves by physically drinking it and swallowing it. The experience is the true objectivity, the words take us further away from the experienced reality. Saying “I drank the salty water,” simply does not capture the essence, the experience of the touch, the glass, the water, the taste, the swallowing, the stomach’s reaction, the mouth’s reaction, etc. The reality cannot be in the wordy description anymore than it can come from an expert in salt telling us about what it is like. That cannot even come close to the objective reality of doing it yourself. That is what Zen is all about, the experience. Words cannot convey the experience. Objective experience is the reality of drinking the glass of water, not reading a Ph.D dissertation about its taste, the effects on the body, the chemical composition of salt and water and how they physically interact, etc.

The Chandogya Upanishad teaches simply “Whatever you know is just words, said Sanatkumara, names of finite phenomena. It is the infinite that is the source of abiding joy because it is not subject to change. Therefore seek to know the infinite.” (Enkath Easwaran, The Upanishads, p. 139)

A wise man once said “to attempt to talk about, think about, or know about Ultimate Reality constitutes an impossible task…It is like a sword that wounds, but cannot wound itself; like an eye that sees, but cannot see itself.

A similar difficulty exists for physics in nay attempt to investigate the nature of energy. For there is a point at which physics, as much as metaphysics, enters the realm of tautology and nonsense because of the circular character of the task which it attempts – to study electrons with instruments which are, after all, electrons themselves.

Sir Arthur Eddington described it well: We have perhaps forgotten that there was a time when we wanted to be told what an electron is. The question was never answered… Something unknown is doing we don’t know what – that is what our theory amounts to.

The point which emerges is that what we are counting on measuring in physics, and what we are experiencing in everyday life as sense data, is at root unknown and probably unknowable. These electrons, quarks, energy, the ideas of existence, energy, or even “Reality” are in some way queer. The very fact of not being able to know them makes them all the stranger. There is in all truth, an odd sense of mystery which comes from contemplating the fact that everything is at base something which cannot be known. Every statement that you make about this something turns out to be nonsense. And what is specially strange is that this unknowable something is also the basis of that which I otherwise know so intimately – myself.” (Alan Watts, Become What You Are, Shambala, 2018: 57-59)

Notice the catch here. What we describe in words, on greater magnification, is pure nonsense! It cannot be described. Words are inadequate to describe the extremely small scale. They are also inadequate to explain the really large scale of infinity. What has to happen is we have to experience in order to actually know. Know objectively. The Upanishads are designed to show us how to experiment so we may achieve the aim in this life, if the desire is serious enough to do so. They do not ask us to believe them. They say here is what we ended up with from our experiments, you try it and see what you find out. Zen is part of the process.