I just finished my first European gig of 2015, a three-day non-residential zazen retreat in Munich. The question that kept coming up in different forms during the Q&A sessions and dokusans (private meetings) was “Is Zen enough?”
At first the question confused me. Enough for what?
It seems that a lot of people expect some kind of transformation to occur as a result of whatever sort of self-improvement thing they’re involved in. If you’re neurotic, you go to an analyst, pay him money and expect some kind of cure or at least some advice and help dealing with your neurosis. If you feel like you’ve sinned, you go to a priest and he says some magic words to convince God to forgive you and you’re absolved.
But Zen practice doesn’t offer anything like that. Even so, people tend to expect something like that to happen. They’re disappointed when it doesn’t.
There are studies that claim meditation is no better at fixing your problems than ordinary relaxation or drugs. Those studies are looking at the wrong things.
I’ve participated in some of these studies myself. What they’ve done is hooked up a bunch of wires and blood pressure cuffs and things to me or put me in an MRI machine and said, “All right. Now meditate!”
I suppose they expect some kind of supernatural effect to happen. Like my blood pressure will suddenly drop or my brainwaves will move into the alpha zone or whatever. When that doesn’t happen, or when it happens but it’s only as much of a change as someone else gets when they take anti-depressants or a nap, they conclude that meditation has the same effect as those things.
But that isn’t how meditation works. Not the way I do it, at least.
In Zen meditation, we sit down and be with ourselves. We make no attempt to change anything. We just try to sit very still and very quietly with whatever is there. We’re not even trying to observe it. We’re just trying to remain with it.
When you do that, your blood pressure doesn’t necessarily drop and your brainwaves don’t necessarily switch to a different state. But you may become aware that your blood pressure is too high – probably not directly, but you’ll feel something is off. Or you notice that your mental state is uncomfortably overactive. Seeing how that feels over and over again as you continue working with the practice, you’ll gradually start to notice how you are behaving in ways that make those things happen. You’ll start to see how to stop doing that stuff.
Or maybe people who ask if Zen is enough think that Zen practice is too self-centered. You sit there meditating and maybe you feel better, but what does that do for the world? It’s still a big mess. Shouldn’t we go out there and do something about it?
But if you’re like me, unless you’re on a retreat or something, you only spend an hour or less a day doing zazen. That leaves you eight hours to sleep and fifteen hours each day to do whatever you want to solve the world’s ills. No problem so far.
As for saving the planet and all that, though, I get it. It doesn’t seem like you’re doing much to prevent global warming or nuclear proliferation by sitting and staring at a blank wall. But maybe you are.
My friend Rob Robbins was troubled by the First Bodhisattva Vow, which says, “I vow to save all beings.” It sounds impossible. And it is. If by “saving all beings” you’re imagining you have to be Superman and rescue everybody from whatever trouble they’re in.
Rob found a brilliant way to rephrase that vow. He said, “I vow to save all beings… from myself.”
We can’t do all that much as individuals to solve everything that’s wrong with the world. But we can learn not to add to those problems unnecessarily. We do that by sitting with ourselves and seeing how we personally contribute to the very problems we hope to solve. I don’t mean that we get a magic download during our big transcendent moments about which kinds of plastic are recyclable and which are not. We learn how, moment-by-moment in each of our interactions we very often create problems that don’t really need to be there.
We see it because we sit with ourselves watching it happen in real time.
To me, the question of whether Zen is enough has never seemed problematic. I can do all the things anyone else does to save the world or improve myself psychologically. Nobody has ever suggested I shouldn’t do that kind of stuff. In fact, my daily zazen practice has brought me more in tune with the sorts of things I can do when I’m not on my cushion to help with those matters.
Often it’s not what I expected.
For example, before I moved to Japan I had a very altruistic save-the-world type job. I worked for an organization dedicated to helping mentally handicapped adults function outside of institutions. It was the kind of job anyone who wanted to do good in the world could feel proud of. But I hated it.
Fast forward a few years and I’m living in Japan working for people who make cheezy monster movies. I loved that job. But I felt terribly guilty about it. I’d gone from saving the planet to making trashy movies.
But Nishijima Roshi, my Zen teacher, set me straight. He showed me how to do the job I was doing with the attitude of doing service for the world. It’s like the scene at the end of Woody Allen’s movie Stardust Memories. Woody plays a comedian and filmmaker who feels guilty because he’s not doing something important. He’s just making funny movies. He meets some aliens who tell him, “If you want to do a real service for mankind, tell funnier jokes.”
Nishijima Roshi told me to continue working for Tsuburaya Productions and to do the small things I was able to make the programs we made more helpful. “Just do a little,” he said.
I think a little is often enough.
August 19, 2015 Munich, Germany LECTURE
August 24-29, 2015 Felsentor, Switzerland 5-DAY RETREAT AT STIFTUNG FELSENTOR
August 30-September 4, 2015 Holzkirchen, Germany 5-DAY RETREAT AT BENEDIKTUSHOF MONASTERY
September 4, 2015 Hamburg, Germany SCREENING OF HARDCORE ZEN MOVIE WITH TALK
September 6, 2015 Hamburg, Germany ZEN DAY
September 8t, 2015 Helsinki, Finland LECTURE Mannerheimintie 5, 5th floor Mannerheim hall 5:30pm
September 9, 2015 Malmi, Finland
September 10-13, 2015 Finland 4-DAY RETREAT
September 16-19, 20015 Hebden Bridge, England 4-DAY RETREAT
September 20, 2015 London, England THE ART OF SITTING DOWN & SHUTTING UP (sold out, but there is a waiting list in case people cancel.)
September 21-25, 2015 Belfast, Northern Ireland SPECIFIC DATES TO BE DETERMINED
September 26-27, 2015 Glastonbury, England 2-DAY RETREAT
October 26-27 Cincinnati, Ohio Concert:Nova
November 6-8, 2015 Mt. Baldy, CA 3-DAY RETREAT
April 23, 2016 Long Island, New York Molloy College “Spring Awakening 2016”
All of these events will still happen each week while I’m away.
Every Monday at 8pm there’s zazen at Silverlake Yoga Studio 2 located at 2810 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Beginners only!
Every Saturday at 9:30 there’s zazen at the Veteran’s Memorial Complex located at 4117 Overland Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230. Beginners only!
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