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Nothing Holy: A Zen Primer


Most of us associate Zen with black robes and rock gardens, but do we really know what it is? Norman Fischer takes us through the principles and practices of the major schools of Zen.

1. A Zen Wave

Like ocean waters, intellectual currents are always in motion. They churn up organic matter from below, creating and extending powerful nutritional mixtures. When groups of people at a particular historical moment begin to experience the world in a particular way, naturally they meet and talk, ponder, read and write. They are open to diverse influences. Eventually the energy of their discourse crests and breaks like a sudden wave, and soon people around them find themselves affected. So cultures mix, dissolve and change.

In this way, a Zen wave broke on North American shores in the middle of the twentieth century. It probably didn't begin as a Zen wave at all, but rather as a reflex to the unprecedented violence the first part of the century had seen. After two devastating world wars, small groups of people here and there in the West were beginning to realize, as if coming out of a daze, that the modernist culture they had depended on to humanize and liberalize the planet wasn't doing that at all. Instead it was bringing large-scale suffering and dehumanization. What was the alternative?

In the early 1950's, D.T. Suzuki, the great Japanese Zen scholar and practitioner, arrived at Columbia University in New York to teach some classes on Zen. Suzuki was a magnet for the yearning that was at that time still underground. The people who met him, attended his classes or were otherwise influenced by his visit constitute a Who's Who of American cultural innovation at that period. Alan Watts, whose popular books on Zen were hugely influential, was there. So was John Cage, who from then on wrote music based on chance operations, on the theory that being open to the present moment, without conscious control, was the essence of Suzuki's—and Zen's—message.

Cage influenced Merce Cunningham, the dancer-choreographer, who in turn influenced many others in the performance art field. The Zen-derived notion of spontaneous improvisation became the essence of bebop, the post-war jazz movement. For Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen and the other Beat-generation poets, Zen was a primary source, a sharp tool for prying the lid off literary culture as they knew it.

Within ten years, lively Japanese Zen masters who, from their side of the Pacific, had also been dreaming a Zen wave, were coming to America to settle. With the 1960's and the coming of age of a new generation radicalized by the Vietnam war and psychotropic drugs, what had been churning underneath for decades broke out in a glorious and exhilarating spray. The first Zen centers in America were bursting with students willing to make serious commitments right away. It was an exciting and confusing time, perhaps unprecedented in the history of world religions.

I was part of this Zen wave. The cultural undercurrents I have been describing took place during my formative years. A student of literature and religion, I was sensitive enough to feel the brokenness that lay under the placid social veneer of the American culture I was raised in. So when I discovered Zen in the writings of D.T. Suzuki in the late 1960's, I was dumbstruck. Here was exactly what I needed, a completely new way of experiencing the world. The compromising, experiential and immediate search for meaning that Zen proposed, without need of doctrine or belief, struck a chord in me. Like so many, I wasn't looking for a new religion: I wanted a way to blast through the options that seemed available to me. I wanted real freedom. Zen promised this.

So in 1970, I moved to California in search of Zen and an entirely new life. I learned how to meditate. I practiced alone in cabins in the redwood forest in Northern California for some years, until I saw that I needed to practice with others. I began my formal Zen training at the Berkeley Zen Center, and, after five years there, enrolled in Tassajara, the first Zen monastery in the Western world. I have been practicing Zen full-time ever since.

2. Zen Roots

What is Zen, and how does it differ from other schools of Buddhism?

Unlike Christianity, in which early wild schisms led eventually to centralized control, Buddhism has always been open-ended and various. While a few key concepts (like the four noble truths, with their simultaneously gloomy and hopeful view of human nature) have always held firm, methods, philosophies and interpretations have differed widely. India was the first Buddhist country. Through the centuries, it gradually spawned hundreds of sects and sub-sects, and thousands of scriptures, and tens of thousands of commentaries on those scriptures. When Buddhism spread over Central Asian trade routes to China, all this material came at once. The Chinese were blasted with a cacophony of religious insight that was exotic, extravagant and, most importantly, foreign. The Chinese had long cherished their own twin traditions of Confucianism and Taoism and were resistant to ideologies introduced by barbarians from beyond the borders of the "Middle Kingdom." There was also a severe linguistic challenge for the Chinese in digesting the Buddhist message from abroad. The Sanskrit language was so different from Chinese in sensibility and syntax that translation was almost impossible.

Gradually, Indian and Central Asian Buddhism began to be reshaped by its encounter with Chinese culture. This reshaping eventually led to the creation of Zen, an entirely new school of Buddhism. (The word "Zen" is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese "Ch'an," which means “meditation.” Here we use "Zen" because it is the word generally used in the West. Ch’an, though, did not come to Japan and become “Zen” until around the eighth century.)

Bodhidharma is the legendary founder of Zen in China. He is said to have arrived in China about 520. (Buddhism had by then been known in China for about 400 years.) He was soon summoned to the emperor, who had questions for him. "According to the teachings, how do I understand the merit I have accrued in building temples and making donations to monks?" the emperor asked. Bodhidharma, usually depicted as a scowling, hooded, bearded figure, shot back, "There is no merit." "What then is the meaning of the Buddha's Holy Truths?" the emperor asked. "Empty, nothing holy," Bodhidharma replied. Shocked, the emperor imperiously asked, "Who addresses me thus?" "I don't know," Bodhidharma replied, turned on his heel and left the court, to which he never returned.

He repaired to a distant monastery, where, it is said, he sat facing a wall for nine years, in constant meditation. A single disciple sought him out, and to test the disciple's sincerity, Bodhidharma refused to see him. The disciple stood outside in the snow all night long. In the morning he presented Bodhidharma with his severed arm as a token of his seriousness. The monk become Bodhidharma's heir, and thus began the Zen transmission in China. So, at least, the story goes.

This legend illustrates Zen's style and values. Zen is a pithy, stripped-down, determined, uncompromising, cut-to-the-chase, meditation-based Buddhism that takes no interest in doctrinal refinements. Not relying on scripture, doctrine or ritual, Zen is verified by personal experience and is passed on from master to disciple, hand to hand, ineffably, through hard, intimate training.

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