24 June 2012

Two Kinds of Zen

The longer I'm at this, the more I think I'm beginning to see the contours of what boils down to two different kinds of Zen.

The first kind of Zen is essentially an affair of the head.  It focuses on thoughts and ideas.  It would have us not be fixed to concepts or viewpoints.  It is suspicious of anything – anything – that is not resolvable into some kind of rational form, linguistically mediated, which it can then yea or nay based on its approximation to being rigid or not.  It tends to be somewhat antinomian and tradition-bucking, if not in word then at least in deed.  It asserts little but questions a lot.  It is profoundly psychological or epistemological.  It resembles nothing so much as good old fashioned 17th century European skepticism now conveyed in 21st century Buddhist lingo. 

The second kind of Zen is essentially an affair of the heart.  It focuses on action and presence in the world.  It would have us surrender ourselves before the smallest of critters, before the demands of the moment, before the needs of the times.  It doesn't worry about concepts, ideas or anything like that; instead it focuses on service, attention, patience and dedication.  It does not question anything; rather it answers calls from every corner.  It acts in silence and oftentimes obscurity.  It is good old fashioned egoless compassion in its utter timelessness and formlessness.  It is profoundly moral and ethical.  No one would think of it as particularly "Buddhist" or "Zen."

The lines are somewhat overdrawn here, but not by much.  And it isn't that the two aren't somewhat related, either.  After all, the latter accomplishes wordlessly what the former only talks about.   But therein lies the rub, right?  One does, the other only talks/thinks.

In teisho in sesshin this week we heard about a guy in India who for the last 30 years has been planting seeds.  It all started when he was brought to tears seeing myriads of snakes stranded on an island, perishing in the sun.  After a little consultation, he did what he could: he started planting vegetation that could provide moisture and cover.  Thirty years later, the island is now a lush forest of well over 1300 acres.  Tigers and elephants now make it their home.  He didn't set out to lure large fauna.  He just started doing what he could in response to need.

I had heard a similar story before, but one that was purely fictional: Jean Giono's The Man Who Planted Trees (L'homme qui plantait des arbres)Instead of an island in India, this tale was set on a barren Alpine wasteland.  Year after year the man – saying nothing the whole time – planted acorns – thousands of acorns.  In due time, as the trees grew, flowing water, lush vegetation, and all manner of creatures began to populate the previously stony, cold, lifeless landscape. 

Designations such as "true-to-life" or "purely fictional" don't much matter here.  What matters is that spirit of dedication, resolve, patience and care that all of us – all of us, whether European or Indian or Peruvian or Inuit – know deep in our bones to be the height of human expression.  It is that spirit that brings life where there was none before.

To me, that is what Zen is: the coming to the end of dukkha by quickening (in the very old sense of the word, meaning "springing to life") the spirit of dedication, resolve, patience and care where it had been dead or dormant.  Time on the mat translates not into a conceptless mental state but a spontaneous, outflowing, active life of selfless service.  I am always amazed at just how seamless and fitting my actions are after a chunk of time on the mat.  I see it in others, and others have commented that they see it in me.  This isn't the stuff of mere mindgames.  It has eyes and hands and legs and feet all over in the world.

Maybe it's just me, but I'd rather hear tales of tree planters than a discourse on not being attached to concepts any day of the week!

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