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Some Thoughts on Zen

This is a gorgeous, humbling, and risky project.

It seems to me that Zen is a way of exploring what it is to be alive and in particular alive as human beings in a pretty mysterious universe. That apparently simple thought radiates lots of other thoughts, such as a sense of the largeness of things, and an intuition that being human is something we have to discover, step after step. It implies that our lives do not stop at our skin, but that we are entangled with many other beings, who affect us and whom we affect.

One of the things I love most about zen is that it accepts that life is simultaneously beautiful and difficult, and it asks us not to turn away from either. It suggests that it is helpful in this matter of being alive in a beautiful and difficult world to foster an attitude of warmth and curiosity; this allows us to live with a more open heart and mind, and to notice what happens when we do.

Over the centuries, zen has developed a few methods that can help us navigate life's beauties and difficulties: meditation, inquiry, intimate conversation, and communal ritual. In the deep stillness of meditation it's possible to experience the river under the river, which has been called essential nature and the Tao and the ground of being and God. But meditation is more than that; it is also a dynamic engagement with the world, through which it's possible to become more receptive to the stuff and matter of our lives in all their complexity. Inquiry uses questioning to deconstruct what is habitual or taken for granted in our thoughts and feelings, and through imagination it makes us aware of both what we can't know and what might be possible. Meditation and inquiry go on within each of us and also in what we do together; with them we can bring to light the courage to care shamelessly about life, and to become more willing to act, to make mistakes, and to try again.

Over time we might find that life seems more and more dreamlike less solid and certain, more mutable and surprising and that there are several aspects to our experience of this dream: the everyday, or how things appear to us; the eternal, how they are in and of themselves; and the imaginal, how we and they might influence each other. In some ways zen is about becoming aware of the simultaneous presence of all these aspects, in ourselves and in the world, and to find a way through the dream, step by step, that embraces all three.

This is a gorgeous, humbling, and risky project. There is no recipe or guidebook; each of us must discover, over a lifetime, what it means for ourselves. What zen offers are some methods, some metaphors, some guidance, and some companionship on the way and these are no small things. Zen is not a dogma, but an ever-changing organism or network, made up of what each practitioner discovers, and the fields that are created as those discoveries influence each other.

It would be great to have an English word for this, but all the names it's been called in the past like dhyana and chan and zen simply mean meditation, which isn't a word we can appropriate for ourselves. Since it takes six paragraphs of English to fail to explain what I mean by it, I'll gratefully stick with zen until someone has a stroke of naming genius. Whatever we call it, it's vital to remember that it's available everywhere all the time in every age, in every place, in every circumstance of our daily lives. Part of our contribution to the living organism of zen is to recognize it as it arises in the here and now, and to give expression to what we recognize. To make a joyful noise. To make a joyful silence. To understand more and more what it is to be really alive, and to extend our living hands into the world.