Zen stories

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.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

11 responses to “Zen stories

  • garycohenblog

    I have been aware of the Buddhist teachings on Mindfulness for a long time. Like many people I have noticed it’s increasingly used in the mainstream media and as a modality of Therapy. These often appear to be quite different from the original teachings and in Therapy are adapted to suit a cognitive behavioural approach.
    Personally I would recommend the work of Thich Naht Hahn and avoid the New age and Westernised Therapies approach.

  • stevetanham

    You can, of course, kill a cat in ‘thought’ only; in the sense that Schrodinger did In his quantum considerations. The motion may shock, and thus engender deeper attention, without harming the animal – which I would deplore, too.

  • Sarah Snell-Pym (@Saffy)

    Tantric Buddism has more earthly means of enlightenment rather than transcendence but very much has been altered in it’s journey to the west/Britian with only certain parts being cherry picked i.e. mindfullness. Here’s a quick introduction podcast covering the history of it http://www.historytoday.com/podcast/podcast-tibets-secret-temple

  • Andrew Merton

    Hi Nimue, I echo your sentiments on ‘mindfulness’ as used by the western self-help ‘gurus’. But I absolutely wanted to correct something regarding your impression about Zen (and Buddhist ‘enlightenment’ in general). It is absolutely not about ‘transcending’ or in any way ‘leaving’ this reality – quite the contrary: the moment of ‘satori’ (the experience of enlightenment, however brief) is a ‘transcendent’ (i.e. as if you stood outside reality) understanding of reality itself – so the result is a vivifying experience which engages you more in this reality, makes you feel incredibly ‘part of’ this reality (on so many more levels then you’d previously imagined). The only thing that doesn’t ‘stay’ is your ego – that insight allows you to ‘detach’ yourself from reality and kind of ‘melt’ into the world around you. So it is a very real (more real than can be said in mere words) experience.
    And so the practice of Mindfulness is all about ‘staying fully in your body’ or keeping that insightful vivifying and real engagement going, to make it last day-in day-out. I don’t suppose you’ve read Joanna Van Der Hoeven’s pair of books on Zen Druidry but while you may already know much of the content, it offers a different perspective on the parallels of the two practices.
    Koans are mind-riddles meant to ‘break your brain’ – to get you out of your habitual thinking and to give up on trying to answer them – the answer is there is no answer (and then you realize that contradiction works in reality which should snowball into seeing how seminal contradiction is to reality’s overall functioning). I’m dismayed about the violence in the stories, but like Steve Tanham said above, they are thought experiments and are jarring only for the effect – and never meant to be real actions.
    I hope you can see the ‘all roads lead to rome’ aspect that allows all kinds of thought techniques (be it Zen, or feeling Awen) to lead to deeper understanding of and fuller engagement in Reality as a Whole – and absolutely not an attempt to escape or leave it in any way.

  • David Robertson

    Nice article. Spiritual tradititions arent static and many spand hundreds if not thousands of years, they all usually have core aspects to them, but change with the times they’re in. So I would say it’s utterly impossible to completely follow a tradition, especially considering some aspects are only applicable in certain contexts, such as how to act in war versus peacetime. Christians in the Roman era acted very differently to Christians a few hundred years later with such an emphasis on martyrdom, as an example. So I guess picking and choosing is necessary for such diverse and ancient traditions like Zen, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism etc.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: