Storybook Zen, Real Time Zen

I first encountered Zen in the 1960s through the books of Paul Reps, Alan Watts, and D. T. Suzuki (which were pretty much the only books available at that time). The representations of ancient sages engaging in cryptic dialogue, exchanging shouts and blows, and experiencing something called sudden enlightenment was quite appealing to my naïve spiritual sensibility. I was so taken with this "storybook Zen" that when I met my first real teacher, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, I was a little disappointed. He was calm, quiet, and wise, but he didn't shout or hit people and didn't seem to talk much about enlightenment (though if you listened closely you could see he was always talking about it). He taught us to sit in meditation (something the early books I had read didn't talk about much) and gave talks that were often simply encouragements to keep sitting and maintaining faith in Buddha's way.

Today we have over 10,000 books on Buddhism in English, and hundreds of Buddhist centers and teachers of varying traditions. Buddhist ideas and practices have been incorporated into numerous fields and initiatives, from psychotherapy and neurology to hospice and prison work. One would think that with all this real-time integration the storybook Zen of those early days would have been long forgotten. But it is not so.

Storybook Zen (and storybook Buddhism) persists. Many people still privately yearn for a grand spiritual epiphany that will transform everything, make them forever happy, and solve all their problems. This is not a mistake as much as human nature, always to be dreaming of a place that is safe, comfortable and secure. This is ego's dream. The point of Buddhism is not to satisfy ego's dream, but to wake up from it.

The Buddha himself often said, "I teach suffering and an end to suffering." But this "end to suffering" is not the magical removal of all discord and loss from our lives. Loss is an irreducible fact. Nothing lasts, and everything that we love or care about is destined to pass away. Enlightenment doesn't change this fact. What it changes is our yearning for things to be otherwise; it removes our clinging to things in the hope that some sort of cosmic exception might be made for us. Awakening, if it is authentic, brings us down from these clouds and deposits us firmly on the ground, where we can stand on our own two feet. Loss doesn't end -- that is wishful thinking -- but it becomes transparent. We can see through it, and thoroughly understand it. That insight transforms our lives and turns us into a vessel of compassion for others.

The spiritual storybook is what brings us to the path. As a necessary magnet to get us started it is useful and helpful. But part of studying the path is understanding when to leave the storybook behind and begin writing our own story of transformation, one that takes place moment by moment in real time.

There is a Zen saying: "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him." This story is widely misunderstood. It doesn't mean that you literally kill or get rid of anything. It simply means that when you see yourself recreating the idealized storybook that got you started, drop it. Put the storybook down. You don't need it anymore; in fact if you cling to it it becomes just another obstacle. The story that matters is the story of your own life, your own insight and awareness. That story is real. It is happening now. It is the only place that real awakening -- as opposed to storybook awakening -- can really happen.