I've got a lot of books about Zen. Back in college I liked "The Supreme Doctrine" so much I couldn't bear returning it to the San Jose Public Library, so I kept it.
My attitude toward Zen Buddhism is decidedly mixed, though. I resonate with the philosophical aspects, but when Zen gets too religious and supernatural, that turns me off.
Which is why I'm enjoying a re-reading of Kosho Uchiyama's "Opening the Hand of Thought: Foundations of Zen Buddhist Practice" so much.
On the back cover there's a quote from the book which pretty much sums it up:
When we let go of our conceptions, there is no other possible reality than what is right now. This undeniable reality is the reality of life fundamentally connected to everything in the universe. Right now is all-important. Dwelling here and now, in this reality, letting go of all the accidental things that arise in our minds, is what I mean by "opening the hand of thought."
Pretty simple and self-explanatory. Except, maybe, for the word accidental.
Basically Uchiyama is saying that mostly, happenings in our lives could have occurred otherwise. So let's not take them so seriously, clinging on to ideas about this-and-that so zealously.
l don't claim to understand the subtleties of this notion of accidental. Yet the gist of it makes sense to me. Uchiyama contrasts "accidental" with "inevitable/undeniable" (the fourth undeniable reality is the one I have the most problem with accepting).
The first undeniable reality is that every living thing dies, and the second undeniable reality is that we suffer throughout our lives because we don't understand death. The truth derived from these two points is the importance of clarifying the matter of birth and death.
The third undeniable reality is that all of the thoughts and feelings that arise in my head simply arise haphazardly, by chance. And the conclusion we can derive from that is not to hold on to all that comes up in our head. That is what we are doing when we sit zazen.
What we call "I" or "ego" arises by chance or accident, so we just let go instead of grasping thoughts and "I." When we let go of all our notions about things, everything becomes really true. This is the fourth undeniable reality, complete tranquility. It is also described as "all things are as they are."
Therefore, when we let go of everything, we do not create artificial attachments and connections. Everything is as it is. Everything exists in one accidental way or another. This is the present reality of life. It is the reality of that which cannot be grasped, the reality about which nothing can be said. This very ungraspability is what is absolutely real about things.
...As far as human thought is concerned, anything is thinkable. But you have to have some stability, and think when all these things come up: Is this true or false? Is this best for me or not? You have to reflect upon yourself, and you see yourself as relative, as accidental, you can't help but conclude that your thoughts must be accidents, too.
"Anything is thinkable." For sure.
We humans think about God, soul, spirit, heaven, hell, life after death, death after life, aliens on distant star systems, Big Foot, angels, all kinds of stuff that isn't part of what Uchiyama calls the "present reality of life."
So Zen Buddhism, along with Buddhism in general, doesn't have a need for God. (Unfortunately, religious Buddhism does have a need for rebirth and other unproven supernatural concepts, which is why I prefer Zen or Buddhism stripped of superstition.)
Uchiyama's book has helped me better understand how Zen looks upon zazen, meditation. Most people who meditate, and this described me during the bulk of my forty-two year meditation career, are seeking some benefit from their meditation.
Relaxation. Enlightenment. God-realization. Health. Concentration. Brain development. Mystical experience. 5trrggAll kinds of things.
But recall Uchiyama's words above: everything is as it is. Pretty damn simple. Utterly natural. What are you experiencing now? That's it! Everything as it is.
Ultimately, all we can say is that the reality of life is as it is. ...But is there any other way to live besides living life as it is? Of course not. Whatever our way of life may be, that is the reality of life, so there is no possibility of living outside the reality of life.
Nevertheless, it is all too possible to live losing sight of that reality, and because of that, to suffer and agonize about our lives.
Buddhists say that all beings have buddha nature.
I used to think this was some special state that needed to be attained, the result of enlightenment. Not true. Buddha nature really means, what is. So of course every being in existence already has Buddha nature.
The zazen taught in Zen Buddhism is the actualization of the Middle Way that is at the very quick of life; it is life as life -- that is, life as interdependence. Zazen enables life to be life by letting it be.
One might well ask: Whether we exert ourselves or not, aren't we always living life as it is? Isn't it nonsense to speak of living apart from life? This is indeed so, and it is the basis for the Buddhist teaching that all beings have buddha nature. That is, actualizing life is our very nature.
Nevertheless, it is also true that we aren't always living fully, we aren't always actualizing our life. This is because unlike the flowers in the fields, human beings bear the burden of thought. Thought has a dual nature: thought springs from life, and yet it has the ability to think of things totally ungrounded and detached from the fact of life. This is delusion, and it leads to strange consequences.
To just sit. And experience. What is actually here. Now. Breath. Sitting on cushion. Thoughts coming and going. Bodily sensations. Sounds. That's buddha nature. That's zazen. That's meditation.
There's nothing to achieve. Life isn't an achievement. Life is living. Here. Now. Stuff happens. Things come and go. Such are the "accidents" of life Uchiyama referred to.
Life could have been otherwise for me. For you. For everybody.
Genes, parents, upbringing, education, culture, family, friends, encounters of all sorts. These everchanging "causes and conditions," as Buddhism puts it, have made us what we are, and will continue to do so.
What doesn't change is life living life. That's what the aim of Zen is: what always is. Until it isn't.
The attitude of the practitioner in practicing Zazen as a Mahayana Buddhist teaching never means to attempt to artificially create some new self by means of practice. Nor should it be aimed at decreasing delusion and finally eliminating it altogether.
We practice zazen, neither aiming at having a special mystical experience nor trying to gain greater enlightenment. Zazen as true Mahayana teaching is always the whole self just truly being the whole self, life truly being life.
No God involved. Imaginary ideas distract us from what is true, real, grounded in here and now.
Buddhism does not raise the question of God. ...In contrast to a posture of bowing down before the God of Christianity or some god of another religion, the fundamental posture of Buddhism is the true self settling on the true self.
...In Buddhism as religion, zazen -- in which we let go of all these human thoughts and feelings -- is the foundation of our lives. It is zazen that protects, guides, and gives strength to our daily actions, as well as to our lives as a whole, and in turn to the society in which we live.
Therefore we can say that zazen is for the Buddhist much as God is for the Christian. ...Zazen, which is letting go and opening the hand of thought, is the only true teacher.