Mindfulness as a practice mostly turns up these days stripped of its context. While it is possible to make something work out of context, I can’t help but feel uneasy about this. I’ve long had a gut feeling that mindfulness, and the Zen Buddhist tradition it comes from are not for me. Some of that is underpinned by how I understand Buddhism in relation to the world. For me it’s always seems like a path of transcendence, where the idea is to overcome the world, move beyond and above to free yourself. As a Pagan, I consider myself of this world, and I have no desire to transcend it.
This summer I read The Spirit of Zen, by Solala Towler, and reviewed it for Spiral Nature. You can read the review here – http://www.spiralnature.com/reviews/spirit-of-zen-towler/
I learned more about the history of Zen in the introduction to this book that I’ve ever picked up from the casual New Age mindfulness material out there. It did not change my opinion that Zen would not be a good addition to my Pagan world view.
The Spirit of Zen is for the greater part a collection of Zen stories, or koans. These are fascinating. I think in the west we’re used to the idea that teaching stories come with their message writ large and easy to spot. Christian parables do not make you work to figure out what you should learn from the story. Koans, by contrast, are not easy to understand. The meanings are obscure, not self announcing. What they say loud and clear to the casual reader is that you need to spend years working with these tales to come to your own understanding. As many of the tales feature teacher/student scenarios, the casual reader can see that right understandings exist, and that the whole point is to work for them.
Mindfulness is part of the Zen process. So are the koans. I expect there are other things too that as a casual observer, I’ve not picked up on. This is a path towards enlightenment, one that must be worked hard for and yet at the same time cannot be attained by working hard at it. Here there are clear overlaps with Taoism, and at the points of overlap I almost felt I knew what was going on. However, there was a violence in these stories that I found unsettling, and did not understand, and do not know how to respond to. As this is not my path, I’m ok with that, but it makes me wonder about how we bandy Zen about in western thinking and whether we’d still do that if we’d all read the story about the monk who kills a cat to make a point to his students which as far as I can make out, the students don’t actually get.
The question is, what happens when you take part of a process and use it in a way it was not intended for? Clearly it isn’t going to work in the same way that being part of the true process would. How much power does an activity lose if taken out of context? How much meaning does it have? How much is the breadth and history of a tradition important to following it, in whole or in part? How much can you ignore and still say you are doing the things? Modern Christians cherry-pick all the time from their traditions and their sacred text. To some degree this is both necessary and normal, but to what degree?
I don’t have any answers here, but I think the questions are important.