Zen – this three letter iconic word includes so many practices and philosophies, often in contradiction with one another. In its origin, it embodies an aspiration to revisit the unfettered teachings of the Dharma as bestowed by Shakyamuni who, unlike Kasyapa and (St) Paul, had no great inclination to big-time politics or to the founding of churches and parishes. Central to the teachings is the realization of the (ultimately) illusory nature the self, the cultivation of friendship, or sangha, the realization that life (ultimately) sucks, especially if one’s ambition is to grab as much as one can and/or hope to hoodwink death.
Within Zen one will find a theistic leaning – towards ‘big mind’ i.e. the identification of the self with the entire cosmos. Some would say that ‘big mind’ is a God substitute, or a shadow of God, a bit like saying “Fine, I’ll let go of the self, only if I can exchange it for a cosmic self”. This is bargain-Zen, insurance policy-Zen.
Within Zen one will also find a deconstructive approach, geared towards the experience of groundlessness or relativity or interdependence or emptiness (sunyata), a painstaking process of recognition of the non-substantiality of the self. Meister Eckhart called this ‘intimate poverty’. The Zen tradition calls it ‘grabbing an ordinary person’s nose and twisting it hard’. Or:
The thief left it behind
Moon at the window
What this may awaken is a sense of deep perplexity when faced with the sheer vastness of the phenomenal world. After which one puts the kettle on... Yes, God is dead, but it’s not such a big deal. The shadows of God also vanished - all the assorted religious, psycho-social ideals, from enlightenment to universal solidarity – after which we can have tea with milk, one sugar please. This is not cynicism of course, but rather a form of profound scepticism. This is where Nagarjuna meets Pyrrho, where east meets west, where Zen meets western (anti)philosophy. Zen is philosophical by being fiercely anti-philosophy. There is more to philosophy than the analytic tradition; there is an unbroken practice in the west linking philosophy to life-as-it-is-lived.
There is another meeting point between Zen and western anti-philosophy: it is the appreciation of becoming, what Zen sums up with the saying ‘samsara is nirvana’ and philosophers like Heraclitus, Nietzsche, Merleau-Ponty, Helene Cixous, Deleuze have expressed in various ways, all agreeing (obliquely) on the need to refrain from resorting to metaphysics and transcendence. Why? Because: 1)it would be a cop-out; 2) it is a form of denigration of immanence, or of ‘living-and-dying’.
Zen is iconoclastic and anarchic. Anarchy in the UK is associated with nineteen-seventies loud bands that couldn’t play nor sing, but there is more to anarchy, for example the Russian evolutionist and activist Kropotkin who stressed how evolution comes out of cooperation rather than Darwinian survival of the fittest (and the richest). This means that the hierarchical structure of sanghas comes under scrutiny, and the relation teacher-student becomes more akin to that between a more experienced and a less experienced person, rather than guru-disciple or feudal lord-vassal.
Last but not least, friendship and the sharing of practice = sangha. I like Nietzsche’s definition of community as ‘shared blindness’, a place where we can shed our pretence to know anything and be free of knowledge. Is that ‘bombu’? sounds good. If so, please ignore everything I just said.
Manu Bazzano is part of the IZT team. You can visit his own website at: www.manubazzano.com.
moon photo by Derek Gavey