Karen Maezen Miller tells us that she can’t explain the principles of Zen because there are no principles of Zen.
From time to time I get an email like this:
“I have tried to read several books on the principles of Zen, but have found them difficult to pierce because they are heavy with jargon. Do you have any suggestions for books on using the principles of Zen in one’s everyday life?”
I told the writer that I couldn’t recommend books on the principles of Zen because there are no principles of Zen.
Zen is not a set of principles or beliefs, but the direct experience of your life without the filter of your egocentric interpretation. The practice of Zen is the practice of quieting the mind so that we can experience our lives more fully. When we do that, we reveal the truth to ourselves. Nothing written about it will be of use except the writing that points you back to the matter at hand: being alive.
This might seem like heresy coming from someone purported to write about spirituality in everyday life. The truth is that I never intend to illustrate Zen with episodes from my life; the actual life of each of us is Zen. When I write about my life, it might illuminate your experience as well. Call it Zen or call it breakfast, lunch and dinner.
We’re so accustomed to approaching everything through the intellect that we don’t understand how to grasp things directly. I try to remind people of the things they already do that they don’t understand. Hint: everything.
Like eating. We don’t have to understand digestion in order to glean the carotene from a carrot.
Like breathing. We don’t have to understand the cardio-pulmonary system before we can inhale.
Like reading. We don’t have to understand the mysterious mechanics of language comprehension to get to the end of this unprincipled post.
Martin Davis says
I have struggled with the principle of separating Zen from Buddhism – of distinguishing Zen from a religious philosophy.
It is the nature of the mind to complicate things – to want to break everything down into a set of instructions or procedures. Life viewed this way becomes a process, which is really not the way life is at all. Life is ALWAYS full-on reality right now. Zen is not a process or a means to get somewhere in life – Zen is observing life right now in every action. The practice of meditation is not a step on a process, it is a way of slowing down the mind so that it can observe itself and see through the illusions of its own creation.
"Grasping directly" is a good expression of the purpose of the purposelessness of Zen.
Karen Maezen Miller says
Some would argue that not even Buddhism is a religious philosophy, and some wouldn't struggle to distinguish the difference at all, thus ending the argument by arriving at the true nature of mind. We can only see for ourselves. Thank you for your effort.
Can I confess that nothing comes as more of a relief to me than the realisation that there is nothing to believe, nothing to grasp with my intellect – that there is only waking up? A childhood of theology classes and study bibles may have something to do with this.