Tuesday, 19 July 2011
The Three Pillars of Zen by Philip Kapleau
I've long wondered about Dharmic religion and how (and why) it differs at its fundaments from Abrahamic religion.
But I've more often wondered just how different a concept of 'enlightenment' Buddhists have from, say, 18th century Europeans. And - you know, by extension - just what can be gained by sitting there doing nothing with your legs crossed for hours on end, probably up a mountain.
I've never been able to stay still for very long: not even during sleep. That's not to say I am what one might call an "active" person: on the contrary, I'm passive like Poland; passive like Paraguay probably is passive; passive like a massive but non-aggressive dinosaur. A diplodocus or something.
But I move a lot. I am jittery. I think it's a nervous condition related to my underlying certainty that pretty much most things around me could possibly kill me at any given point. Or maybe I've just got too much or not enough fluid in certain systems that may or may not be working as my evolution as an Homo Sapien reckons they ought to, at what one might call optimum capacity.
And it bothers me that a philosophy so centred on the mind (to attain enlightenment) seems to require a perfectly disciplined and functioning body to not really use.
Another thing - my stomach isn't great. Maybe that's due to my posture; maybe it's an absence or presence of certain enzymes. I don't know; it makes a lot of noise; it's already a focal point of my physical manifestation: I'm not sure I want my mental or spiritual being to be centred there at all. I quite like that bit being in (or near) my brain. Is that an issue?
Yep: ideas are bad.
Ideas are bad is the first lesson Mr Kapleau teaches his reader, and the first point at which my hackles were raised. (*Checks definition of hackles*)
"Idea-mongering" has always been discouraged by Zen masters, he says.
He doesn't mention, at this juncture, (or at any other for that matter), his beloved teacher Yasutani Roshi's vehement support of Imperial Japan and - by extension or possibly by actual association - nationalism, anti-semitism and, yep, you guessed it, only Nazi bloody Germany.
A pure and infinite discouragement of the notion of "ideas" as the way to create meaning out of the human existence I could entertain as what it is (philosophy), but looked at in the context of everything this book doesn't say it stinks of pretty much the same horse shit that every other religious text's teaching exudes: hypocricy. It seems to say that you oughtn't to have ideas unless they've been carefully orchestrated by your Zen master.
But to be fair, this book isn't wholly about doctrine; it's about practice: it's about what Zen Buddhists do.
That the book is invaluable for anyone really interested in Zen - as its lead "review" claims - can't really be contested. What bothers me is how soon I find fault with its author and his blinkered world view. It's not really what I expected. Once he's out of the way, things get better.
The dialogues between masters and students are genuinely interesting in their depiction (a presumably accurate one) of religious and pedagogical relationships. The revelations of Zen (if they can be so called when presented in this form which I imagine they can't) are just as everyday and as uninspiring as any others when presented in this manner.
There are a few colourful anecdotes to help illustrate why you are nothing and you are everything and if the universe dies you die too, but none of it is anything that any free-thinking mentally-healthy child hasn't toyed with if not firmly grasped by the age of about eleven.
The descriptions of enlightenment evoke the empty feeling of having completed your favourite computer game: particularly the ones that allow you to keep playing in the same world, despite there being no more for you to accomplish or to experience.
"What a curse a thought is: stop thinking; stop analysing", Kapleau seems to scream (and sometimes actually writes) throughout the text.
Yeah, I get you, but I'm struggling to see how this faith (if that's not too Abrahamic a word for it) can really help anyone but the lost, the desperate and the distraught.
The Zen structure seems no less geared toward the strong leading the week and the enlightened shepherding the ignorant than does Christianity. It's just a different goal: a promise of a reward here on earth, rather than in the afterlife.
You can tell by the personal accounts - certainly by those written by Westerners (especially the hilariously Martin-Amis-character-type American businessman) - that the quest for enlightenment is one that calls to people who have often searched rigorously and thoroughly in other walks of life: the corporate environment; Christianity; vegetarianism, and God only knows where else.
I think the reason Mr. Zen Pyramid sent me this book to read was in response to a poem I wrote ('Beware Enlightenment') about the fads and fashions of philosophy and the pitfalls of theism and atheism. The cover note inside the book said "When having doubts becomes a way of life".
It was a confused more than a confusing poem and - like many from my recently-ground-to-a-halt collection Has Doubts - its aim was to explore the human interaction with these human concepts of God, knowledge, philosophy, etc: to ask questions, not to provide answers (despite the advisory nature of the statement in its title).
The word 'Enlightenment' as I used it was mainly a reference to the 18th century fad (a fad still going, arguably) for emphasising logic and reason above superstition and supernature. But it was at least partly a catch-all term for any reactionary philosophy. Because, as I said in another poem earlier in the same project - (excuse me while I quote myself) -* "...what are answers but / Questions when the're dead?"
And if I have to explain the cyclical nature of that (most certainly rhetorical) question up there, and/or its deliberate grammatical ambiguity, then why are you still reading this blog post? (That's another rhetorical one: you're bored, certainly.)
I think what this proves to me is that nobody else's teaching or practice or enlightenment is every going to be good enough for me. I may very well fashion quite the same pillars if left to my own devices with chisel and stone, and indeed I have - I'm convinced I became enlightened in the Zen sense at around the age of 11 or 12 on a school playing field: during a game of football, in fact - but I'd personally rather use my experience to inform my next question. I don't want to keep playing the same computer game on the 'easy' setting; I might want to take up a whole new computer game, or - you know - kayaking or origami or something.
Or sitting around having and dismissing ideas.
Maybe even mongering a few.
In summary, then: this book was a difficult read. Interesting, informative, and worthwhile, but I don't think it's changed my life especially. (Although it might have: I might not know it yet.)
I'm off to read some George R. R. Martin now.
Catch you later!
* that was a punctuation joke there. I'll explain it if you buy me a drink.