In my journey into Buddhism and Zen, I found an odd paradox that at its most basic there is not much to learn. Because there’s nothing really to grasp as such, no mysterious or secret knowledge to attain or grasp. No bedrock of truth to build a life upon. Instead, it’s the philosophy letting go of such certainties.
In the west, we have the drive towards a dehumanising sterile worldview, objective, rational, ideographic, conceptual. We get so caught up in our heads that thought has become our master. Yet Zen teaches us that thoughts are not the way to reduce our suffering.
Recall, there are moments in life when words and ideas are not necessary, even an impediment. A moment looking at a sunset, playing with a pet or a child, an intimacy with your friends or partner. It’s here in these moments when we’re closest to reality and closest to understanding Zen. The use of body language, a shared look, a hug, a smile. A moment of unspoken recognition.
To be asked how we’re feeling would engage our mind, get us thinking, using our memory to recall words and meanings. Such an effort drags us out of the moment, take us away from the experience.
This is I feel a problem with many of us. We have this idea that we need to define all our experiences. We’ve become obsessive record keepers.
We have idolised thought at the expense of emotion and our physical forms. To Philosophize, that is to do philosophy, to seek and understanding, is to think.
As such everyone is filling their heads with ideas. We try to bottle everything up in thoughts like wine into bottles and think we understand, but such an attempt is to miss what’s going on. Words are a poor container of reality, they are never enough.
Ideas help protect us from life because they create a distance, a separation. It’s why we feel so disconnected, from ourselves, from each other and the world at large. Alienated, isolated and alone. We dare not share the feelings, because that’s showing vulnerability.
It’s particularly difficult for me because for many years ideas, knowledge, thinking have been my life. I suffer from severe anxiety and fear. It drove me to think more, to understand, comprehend, and I read a lot. I learned a lot. But I had to learn to let go and accept my desperate neediness for certainty was the cause of my suffering.
It’s been a hard habit to break, to stop studying, thinking, and instead just go with actions and feelings.
Instead of thought, Zen asks us to put away such distractions and be here in the moment, with what’s going on. Such intimacy with life is what I have dubbed Passionate Entanglement.
In the Far East as a whole, their belief system is to embrace more a Pathos of life or the Pathos of the Moment.
Such a pathos reminds me of the Sublime in western art and philosophy. That’s a quality that is so great it’s beyond comprehension, beyond categories and descriptions. The moment is so grand as to take itself away from such dissection of the mind, a reality beyond the mind.
In Japan, it’s called ‘Mono no aware’ (物の哀れ, もののあはれ), it’s an ‘awareness to ephemera’, or the ‘impermanence of things’. It’s part of their aesthetic attitude towards existence. Being an artist has helped me see and understand. Because as an artist you spend a lot of time looking at the world and your own reaction towards it. Very much like zen. Each moment offers an opportunity to regain a connection towards reality. A sensitivity to life felt as poignancy to towards our transitory existence, and it’s bittersweet ‘texture’.
Wabi-Sabi is the Japanese attitude towards the aesthetics of existence, the imperfect, fleeing world and the feelings they invoke.
Life can pass us by in a whirlwind so it’s important to learn to feel it, to enjoy it whilst we can. Too often we anaesthetise ourselves the everyday experiences because those moments can be scary. But being here and now, letting goes of the grasping the mind we get to live in a deeper, richer way.
The Japanese tea ceremony seems to be the epitome of such an attitude. The aesthetic choice of the location, the utensils, the tea, and the time away from the frenetic pace of life to enjoy some time with others. The practice of Zen is to be mindful, avoid the traps of over-analysis and thought. Instead, notice the sights, sounds smells, tactile sensations and feelings.
Because there’s nothing to grasp, nothing that needs to be done, just be here.
Buddhism and Zen is a signpost that points towards something that can’t be put into concept, or words.
To ‘understand’ Buddhism we need to recognise the difference between the signpost and the path. The difference between knowledge and practice, the Map and the terrain.
Zen is an Intimacy with reality, or the moment, a place beyond our bloated minds full of ideas and grasping insecurity. Beyond the concepts lies a reality, a mind, a stillness, that remains in contact with what’s going on.
It’s what makes Asian philosophy so distinct from the west, they understand life is not something to be solved, but an experience to be lived.
We are often caught up in our heads trying to grasp truth, yet it never works out. But if we let go of the grasping mind, we can see the answer was in front of us the whole time.
For more thoughts on Zen subscribe to my newsletter.
Sun, hand image via Peakpx