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Utter Confusion.

MrCrowleyMrCrowley Everywhere New

I have had an interest in Buddhism, in it's various forms, since roughly 2012; however, this waned over the years, and recently (within the last few months) has revived full force. I've practiced basic sitting meditation (zazen) for the last couple of months, mostly daily for ~20 minutes. Additionally, I've read INCESSANTLY on all things Buddhism...from the very basics (four noble truths, eightfold path)...into more complex literature, written by great masters of numerous Mahayana sects. My interests and reading has lead me primarily to Zen, which has essentially served to undue anything I thought I once previously knew with regards to Buddhism...with regards to anything, for that matter.

I'm REALLY hoping that someone can clarify things, at least slightly, at least enough to make this pursuit bearably sustainable. I'm unsure how many of you guys are experienced/studied in Zen. Let me begin by saying, although I am quite intrigued by Zen literature and have literally swallowed up books written by D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts etc in the passed month, I am equally perplexed, frustration, and discouraged the more I read. In fact, I feel it begs the question: Is Zen really Buddhism? Or is it, perhaps, a bit of a cult in it's own right. At times, it seems to stray so far from Pali based Buddhist philosophy, and even so far from other forms of Mahayana schools, that it almost serves as it's own entity. In the relatively significant body of literature that I've read (which claims to be relatively comprehensive on the subject of Zen) in recent months, I have not stumbled upon much of anything in regards to ethics, to actual anecdotes or methods to improve or transform ones character in a "positive" way. I put positive in quotations, as to highlight the point that Zen seems to make ad nauseum of there being no positive or negative...no anything...(but everything)...no duality at all.

If anything, this just opens up the door to nihilism; it opens the door to spontaneous doing of ANY kind...for where is there a place for ethics or morals if duality does not exist at all? If all spontaneous action is an act of Zen...then whatever someone does is a perfect expression of that doing. Again, in Zen there is no place for right and wrong...good or bad. I certainly cannot be the only one to see this as alarming. Please...I beg that you save me from the "well, you don't understand Zen"...I'm simply reading the words on the page. SO..Issue 1: Where and HOW do you fit in ethics? How does Zen result in transformation of character in a "positive" way? If not, what's the point?

Particularly in the Soto sect, the whole intention for attaining Satori enlightenment is absurd and must be entirely avoided. Yet, if there is no intention to attain Satori, and there is no intention to attain anything at all...why spend countless hours sitting in zazen? Hours chanting the heart sutra? Hours sweeping floors and washing dishes? This is a true paradox, and again I ask you please spare me an explanation rooted entirely in Zen gibberish that I'm already confused by. Alan Watts had a great quote in his book "The Way of Zen"...in which he says that this concept is akin to receiving a medicine, that states on the bottle: "This medicine will work as long as you do NOT think of the green elephant when taking it". Of course, there is no way to not think of the green elephant as you take the medicine after reading the instructions now. And, this is what Zen seems to be.

Please someone help me out here...I'm pretty much driving myself insane trying to understand these contradictions. Please guide me...There are no Zen centers near here...Thank you so much.

Comments

  • lobsterlobster Veteran

    Before you go insane (one of my hobbies)
    You can ask a zen teacher here. All of them are ethical Mahayanists.
    http://www.zenforuminternational.org

    As is Jundo and Treeleaf
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treeleaf_Zendo

    Your answer is very simple. The enlightened, the first priority of zen are not conflicted, fearful, over bookish and angst fuelled. Natural 'goodness' not nihilism flows from this ... o:)

    wojciech
  • DakiniDakini Veteran
    edited May 11

    Slow down, grasshopper. You're overdoing it. Remember the Middle Way? It was a good idea, and for good reason. :)

    You're not the first to wonder if Zen is really Buddhism, or if it went out so far on a limb that it sprouted a new tree of its own. And it was D.T. Suzuki, from what I understand, who pushed American Zen way out there, where no Zennie had gone before. You're wise to seek grounding.

    Here's an essay you might find helpful, that I just now came across (linked below). I also think you'd find the writings of Stuart Lachs (profiled in linked blog) helpful. He says that at some point in Zen's evolutionary history, it branched off toward emphasizing instant enlightenment, or sudden insight. Prior to that development, one branch of Zen had emphasized the need for the practitioner to cultivate morality, along with insight. But it was believed that morality (or "virtue", as the Buddha called it) was, or should be, a cornerstone of enlightened consciousness, and that it took effort to evolve one's virtue alongside one's insight. Unfortunately, that branch got trimmed from the tree, and left behind.

    Lachs became a monk in the US, but also studied extensively in Taiwan and Japan. He knows whereof he speaks. He used to have all his essays posted on his own website, but that seems to be gone, now, and his essays are scattered around other Zen websites. I heartily recommend you put down your Suzuki, and spend some time exploring the internet to find Lachs' essays. Kind of like a treasure hunt. :) He and a couple of other people founded a field of inquiry or critique called "Critical Zen". His analysis of Zen's weak spots would probably resonate with you.
    http://sweepingzen.com/coming-down-the-zen-clouds-by-stuart-lachs/

    lobsterWalker
  • KeromeKerome Did I fall in the forest? Europe Veteran

    I know some people who would say "very good! Utter confusion is the best state for studying Zen".

    Shoshinsilverwojciech
  • federicafederica seeker of the clear blue sky Moderator

    If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

    If it sounds good, do it.
    If it doesn't, find something else.

    Zen Buddhism arose in China. In my opinion, it is an interpretation od some aspects of Traditional Buddhism, with a hefty dose of Taoism thrown in for good measure.
    Buddhism per se, as some would identify it, arose in India, quite a long time before.

    Personally, although I like sitting Meditation - I also like standing meditation and walking meditation, and am more drawn towards the teachings as they originally arose.

    Zen sheds a lot of stuff, (minimalist thinking) but then compounds the simplicity by giving the illusion of Complexities, conundrums and Koans.

    Fer Chrissakes! (Soory, Jeezus!)

    SIM - PLI - FY.

    That's MY motto.

    Why carry crap when the journey could be lighter?

    Bunks
  • SpinyNormanSpinyNorman It's still all old bollocks Veteran

    @Kerome said:
    I know some people who would say "very good! Utter confusion is the best state for studying Zen".

    It certainly confuses me. :p

    wojciech
  • silversilver In the beginning there was nothing, and then it exploded. USA, Left coast. Veteran

    How could you miss it, @MrCrowley ?
    You've bitten off more than you can chew! :grin:

    I dare say I'm one of the quickest to go bonkers when I do things like that meself. :3

    All I really want to share with you, is a couple of books that I highly would recommend:
    1. The Iron Cow of Zen, by Albert Low.
    2. Questions to a Zen Master - Practical and Spiritual Answers from the Great Japanese Master / Taisen Deshimaru

    ...and I highly recommend them because they are compact, and they kept my interest (and that's a small miracle) and I had to get my own (used) copies. I think you'll like them.

    lobsterHozan
  • WalkerWalker Veteran

    Zen went through cultural osmosis as it spread east, influencing, and being influenced itself by Taoism and Confucianism. But it is not unique in that regard. Buddhism went through changes in Tibet, when it encountered the Bon religion. Pure Land Buddhism has aspects that I would consider almost like Evangelical Christianity. So, it is perhaps unrealistic to single out Zen as somehow a separate sect from Buddhism as a whole, while not applying the same critique to the other schools.

    The Four Noble Truths themselves are often misinterpreted as nihilism, but that's not really what Buddha was trying to convey with them.

  • DakiniDakini Veteran
    edited May 11

    @Walker said:
    Zen went through cultural osmosis as it spread east, influencing, and being influenced itself by Taoism and Confucianism. But it is not unique in that regard. Buddhism went through changes in Tibet, when it encountered the Bon religion. Pure Land Buddhism has aspects that I would consider almost like Evangelical Christianity. So, it is perhaps unrealistic to single out Zen as somehow a separate sect from Buddhism as a whole, while not applying the same critique to the other schools.

    The Four Noble Truths themselves are often misinterpreted as nihilism, but that's not really what Buddha was trying to convey with them.

    Yes, this is certainly true. There are people who look at Tibetan Buddhism and say, "Is this really Buddhism?!" OP, it can be a bit of a search process to find a Buddhism that resonates with you. Some people eventually settle in to studying on their own at home, practicing a sort of bare-bones Buddhism without the frills. I find that to be closest to Stephen Batchelor's "Secular Buddhism", actually. Or you may eventually discover that Theravada suits you best, or the Thai Forest Tradition, which is Theravada-based.

    Don't let it get to you, OP; you're going about it a bit too intensely right now, by the sound of it, and have overwhelmed yourself. Lighten up a bit, and take it easy.

    And btw, you're right about the tendency toward nihilism, IMO. I've read comments by scholars who refer to Nagarjuna, whose commentaries on the Buddha's teachings came to form the foundation of Mahayana, or one of the foundations, as "that old nihilist". So some experts think he went a little too far in his interpretation of the Buddha's words. You're in good company, with your doubts. Questioning as you go along is not at all a bad thing. It's part of the process. You're doing a good job, as you learn and investigate, IMO. Trust your instincts, and don't be afraid to question.

    mosquitoShoshinlobster
  • mosquitomosquito Explorer

    I don't know much about Zen, but I'm familiar with confusion.

    Putting aside the dilemma for a while, when the confusion arises - such mind can be made an object of observation. We can learn what increases the confusion and what decreases it. We can learn what's the nature of confusion. We can learn how mind will never take a rest if we keep feeding it. But even without learning anything, such an observation can be fascinating and also - calming.

    Irrelevant? Maybe. But it is also a way of discovering, how much of what we think of "Zen", "ethics", ..., are just our own labels, and that those things - if exist on their own at all - are more related to the nameless silence that's "in us" than to some external definitions...

    So, practice, is the guide.....: )

    lobster
  • DavidDavid some guy The Hammer in Ontario, Canada, eh Veteran

    @MrCrowley I don't know if this is the same person but I knew another by the same handle a few years back and we had a lot of great conversations. I went by the handle ourself and Mr Crowley called me simply "self".

    Whether it's the same person or not it's good to see you here.

    @MrCrowley said:
    I have had an interest in Buddhism, in it's various forms, since roughly 2012; however, this waned over the years, and recently (within the last few months) has revived full force. I've practiced basic sitting meditation (zazen) for the last couple of months, mostly daily for ~20 minutes. Additionally, I've read INCESSANTLY on all things Buddhism...from the very basics (four noble truths, eightfold path)...into more complex literature, written by great masters of numerous Mahayana sects. My interests and reading has lead me primarily to Zen, which has essentially served to undue anything I thought I once previously knew with regards to Buddhism...with regards to anything, for that matter.

    I'm REALLY hoping that someone can clarify things, at least slightly, at least enough to make this pursuit bearably sustainable. I'm unsure how many of you guys are experienced/studied in Zen. Let me begin by saying, although I am quite intrigued by Zen literature and have literally swallowed up books written by D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts etc in the passed month, I am equally perplexed, frustration, and discouraged the more I read. In fact, I feel it begs the question: Is Zen really Buddhism? Or is it, perhaps, a bit of a cult in it's own right.

    Zen was born as a school of thought when Buddhism and Toaism intertwined. Roshi, the honorary title given to masters of Zen actually means Lao Tzu. My views may a bit off the beaten paths as my view is also a kind of mixture of Buddhism and Taoism.

    At times, it seems to stray so far from Pali based Buddhist philosophy, and even so far from other forms of Mahayana schools, that it almost serves as it's own entity. In the relatively significant body of literature that I've read (which claims to be relatively comprehensive on the subject of Zen) in recent months, I have not stumbled upon much of anything in regards to ethics, to actual anecdotes or methods to improve or transform ones character in a "positive" way. I put positive in quotations, as to highlight the point that Zen seems to make ad nauseum of there being no positive or negative...no anything...(but everything)...no duality at all.

    If anything, this just opens up the door to nihilism; it opens the door to spontaneous doing of ANY kind...for where is there a place for ethics or morals if duality does not exist at all? If all spontaneous action is an act of Zen...then whatever someone does is a perfect expression of that doing. Again, in Zen there is no place for right and wrong...good or bad. I certainly cannot be the only one to see this as alarming.

    Labels can be so confusing. For myself, when I see beyond the duality of imagined good or bad I see a good that has no opposite. An objective good instead of a subjective good. I mean, if we have a true nature of any sort it would seem to me to necessarily be one of cooperation. If the answer was nihilism then Buddha would have let his body rot instead of trying to help.

    Please...I beg that you save me from the "well, you don't understand Zen"...I'm simply reading the words on the page. SO..Issue 1: Where and HOW do you fit in ethics? How does Zen result in transformation of character in a "positive" way? If not, what's the point?

    Particularly in the Soto sect, the whole intention for attaining Satori enlightenment is absurd and must be entirely avoided. Yet, if there is no intention to attain Satori, and there is no intention to attain anything at all...why spend countless hours sitting in zazen? Hours chanting the heart sutra? Hours sweeping floors and washing dishes? This is a true paradox, and again I ask you please spare me an explanation rooted entirely in Zen gibberish that I'm already confused by. Alan Watts had a great quote in his book "The Way of Zen"...in which he says that this concept is akin to receiving a medicine, that states on the bottle: "This medicine will work as long as you do NOT think of the green elephant when taking it". Of course, there is no way to not think of the green elephant as you take the medicine after reading the instructions now. And, this is what Zen seems to be.

    I think this warning was about the journey being the destination in a way. Or doing instead of trying... I think of trying to catch a ball while over thinking and so missing the ball.

    Please someone help me out here...I'm pretty much driving myself insane trying to understand these contradictions. Please guide me...There are no Zen centers near here...Thank you so much.

    I'm likely not much help though to be honest Taoism helped get me through the seeming contradictions and turned all opposites into complimentaries.

  • IronRabbitIronRabbit Veteran

    @Kerome said:
    I know some people who would say "very good! Utter confusion is the best state for studying Zen".

    If one is not ready to wrap their head around the IN-EF-FA BIL-I-TY of Zen and "just sit" with the complexities, vagaries, and the emptiness........maybe Vipassana or some varieties of "focused" or "directed" meditiations like "Metta" or Tonglen" might better suit.

  • ShoshinShoshin No one in particular Nowhere Special Veteran
    edited May 13

    Utter Confusion.

    @MrCrowley

    If you want to understand how ethics fits in with Zen...

    "The most essential method which includes all other methods is to behold the Mind-The Mind is the root from which all things grow-If one can understand the Mind....Everything else is included"
    ( including ethics :) )

    ~Bodhidharma~

    The intellect is just the spring board into the mind's pool, feel the fear and take the plunge...

    "How Zen Traps You" ~Alan Watts~ may help you to eff the ineffable ...he;s quite thoughtless when it comes to Zen :winky:

  • genkakugenkaku Northampton, Mass. U.S.A. Veteran
    edited May 14

    Where and HOW do you fit in ethics? How does Zen result in transformation of character in a "positive" way?

    @MrCrowley -- This will probably piss you off but it worked out for me. Sit.

    Most disciplines start by listing the rules and after a while you catch the brass ring ... yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. So you start out reading all the rules and memorizing and thinking you must be getting closer to the goal.

    My experience was like this until I stopped -- or anyway put the brakes on looking for Santa Claus or "the point." Never mind the ethics for a moment -- what is actually happening? What happened for me was that the ethics revealed themselves after pursuing the practice. Sit when you're stupid; sit when you're smart; sit when you're holy; sit when you're not. A little at a time, the ethics are the only possible choice, not because someone else says so but because trial and error proves it. Go ahead, fuck up. Be confused. Be frustrated as a wet cat. Question it all ... and sit.

    Everyone would like a promise at the end of the chosen rainbow. But if all you ever got was another promise, how would this be different from all the other promises you or others have made to you ... you know, the ones that didn't work out"?

    Stuart Lachs is a buddy of mine and I recommend his stuff, assuming you need to fill the intellectually-honest coffers. But the bigger question, I think, is, "If I'm so smart, how come I"m not happy?"

    It's slow, it's sometimes confusing, its often infuriating ... do it anyway.

    Or don't.

    Best wishes.

    PS. FWIW I liked the old-timers better than the newcomers: Huang Po, Hui Neng; Hui Hai; Ummon; words attributed to Gautama, etc. ... they pushed my confusion buttons better. I like people who say their piece and stop trying to help me, "defend the Dharma" or paste together another nest for Zen.

    lobster
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