Just sitting

August 4, 2006

As I mentioned before, I’ve started studying Zen Buddhism more seriously over the last few months. I’m very much a beginner, but in terms of religion, this is the first thing that’s felt “right” to me in quite a while. But since I’m still in the very early stages of this thing, please excuse anything that’s incorrect or off-base. I’m not representing Buddhism, just what I’ve gotten from it so far.

I saw somewhere the term “spiritual seeker” for people that are constantly looking for a religion to fit their needs. At one point, I would have labeled myself that, but then I kind of gave up on it and just looked at religion as interesting from an intellectual and historical perspective. So, I was somewhat surprised to find myself feeling differently after reading Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen. I can’t recommend that book enough.

I think what I like about Zen, and Soto Zen in particular, is how there’s not a goal. There’s no reaching for enlightenment because, yo, enlightenment is this moment, right now. There’s no reciting of koans or trying to “think about nothing” when you sit zazen in the Shikantaza (“just sitting”) style, it’s just recognizing and reacting to thoughts as the arrive. There isn’t a goal of getting into heaven, achieving nirvana, or getting reincarnated as something/someone better. It’s not even about achieving any sort of personal benefit. Sure, there may be some, but it’s not the goal.

What’s great about the Soto Zen is the simplicity. It is what it is. It is what it isn’t. Everything is everything. Everything is nothing. And there are plenty of those weird paradoxes (that really aren’t) to consider. I also like that the compassion angle on things, right action, pretty much directs one towards a vegetarian diet. One problem with a lot of people who follow Buddhism is that they attempt to justify the eating of flesh in every way imaginable (“if it’s offered to you, you should eat it as to not offend” – come on now, how does that cultivate compassion?). The way I see it, consuming animal products has no part in the Buddhist philosophy. The Great Compassion: Buddhism and Animal Rights by Norm Phelps and Food of Bodhisattvas: Buddhist Teachings on Abstaining from Meat by Shabkar Tsogdruk Rangdrol do a good job of exploring this in more detail.

Last Saturday morning, during my trip to Portland, I went to the Portland Buddhist Priory to join them for their morning zazen session. I was a little nervous since I had never meditated with a group before and was really worried about doing it “right.” But once I met Reverend Master Meiko Jones at the door, I felt much more comfortable. She smiled and spoke quietly, listened to what I had to say, and said that even though this was a “working meditation” day for long-time students, that I was welcome to join them for the morning zazen. She told me not to worry about doing it right, gave me a few instructions about proper bowing, and set me on my way. Only one other man was there, but once I sat down, it wouldn’t really have mattered how many others were in the room. I was uncomfortable (I sat on a mat, but not the cushion because it initally felt too high — big mistake) and a little tense early on, but I relaxed significantly by the end. It was a good experience.

Do I classify myself as a Buddhist now? No. Will I ever? Not sure. Maybe I’ll always say that I “study Buddhism” but never refer to myself as a Buddhist. I don’t know yet. And what’s kind of cool is that any Buddhist worth their salt would say, “Cool.” Brad Warner says that the essence of Zen is to question everything and all authority, including Zen itself. Zen isn’t necessarily something to learn… it’s innate. It’s just a matter of realizing it, which takes time.


One comment

  1. […] As I contemplated in the last paragraph of this post, when does one refer to oneself as a Buddhist? When they’ve decided to start practicing? When one joins a sangha? When you find a teacher? When you go through a refuge ceremony? When one receives the precepts? Never? […]

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