Saturday, July 07, 2007

Zen Buddhism and Love

From Alan Watts and D T Suzuki to Brad Warner I got the impression that Zen was harsh and iconclastic. But there are ways in which the actual practice of Zen has surprised my me. One of those ways is just how 'religious' it all is. By this I mean that there is a great deal of ritual, ceremony, chanting, and dressing up in special clothes. I was expecting something more austere and simple. It isn't very dogmatic or metaphysical, but in form it's remarkably close to Christianity and other religions. It's like Catholicism without the God; reverence without object of reverence; faith without object of faith.

Another thing that surprised me was the emphasis on love. I knew that Tibetan and other forms of Buddhism emphasised direct cultivatation of metta ('loving kindness') and in contrast Zen seemed to emphasise transcendence of ideas of good and evil - something which I was concerned might lead to a sort of amoral attitude. This was reinforced by stories about the association between Zen and the martial arts and it's involvement in pre-war Japanese militarism. Compassion was something that, according to doctrine, arose naturally from awakening, but whether this was true or not I couldn't know.

The godos of the Association Zen Internationale I have practiced with, perhaps especially Jean-Pierre, teach that in the West we have an unbalanced understanding based on attachment to emptiness and negation in Zen - an understanding that can lead to nihilism and amoralism. Soto Zen in Japan, he teaches, is more positive, emphasising espression of appreciation, gratitude and love.

The Zen I have experienced here has not consisted of cerebral mind-games, not has it had the sometimes sickly-sweet 'sincerity' of some Buddhist groups I've experienced - but it has been an exercise in awareness, interdependent living. Day to day activities are practiced with consciousness, with appreciation and emphasising interdependence. Most meals are eaten in silence, but with people serving each other rather than themselves. It's a great atmosphere. And this practice of caring for other people becomes a habit that seeps into the rest of life. Emily was very impressed by my attentiveness when I came out of my 7-day sesshin.

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