Zen Maps, Zen Shoes

“Zen is simply a voice crying, “Wake up! Wake up!”
Maha Sthavira Sangharakshita

Sometimes westerners have a hard time appreciating Zen because the form in which it has come to us is so eastern. Priests with shaved heads in Japanese robes, incense, prostrations before the altar, and unfamiliar chants can feel alien. But those are forms and Zen itself is formless. To reject Zen because of its trappings is like refusing to travel a road because you don’t like the map.

The way Zen looks to us has nothing to do with Zen. The point of Zen, at least as I understand it, is the direct unmediated experience of life. The forms of practice handed down by the masters are cultural tools intended to guide us toward the Zen experience, they are not the essence of Zen. One could become attached to the forms. One could argue that Zen practice must include work with koans, for instance. That attachment would seem very un-Zen.

Zen has come packaged with Buddhism, and some mistake both of them for religions. People have put deities and sacred texts into both Zen and Buddhism, but those are not what they are about. Zen and Buddhism both suggest a way of living, they have moral considerations and they have become ceremonial over time. So they look religious, but Buddhism is more of a solution to a problem than a religion, and real Zen could be found with as much validity in art or sport or in cleaning the toilet. Zen and Buddhism blend harmoniously, but neither is ultimately dependent upon the other.

If you want to walk on rough ground, you put on shoes. The shoes are not the essential part of walking, but they facilitate the walk. If you want to experience awake consciousness you might chose to put on the practices of Zen. The trappings are not the essential part, but they can facilitate the experience.

To the Meditation Archive Menu

To the current Meditation of the Week

© 2003 Tom Barrett