The world we live in, and the very nature of our mind, push us to stay self-focused and self-protective. We are encouraged to widen our stance in the world by accumulating materials goods, and by pushing away people who are "not like us". We live our lives in a constant state of concern that our "objects" will disappear and our territory will be infringed. Looking over our domain, if we take even a moment to assess the effects of this strategy, it might become clear that these activities do not bring about a happy, fulfilling life. We may notice that the practice of acquisition is endless; that there is never enough. We start to wonder, "Does it need to be this way?"
It is at this point that our spiritual eyes are opened, and the energy to investigate is aroused. Perhaps then, through the recommendation of friends, or from the vast, impersonal but algorithmically wise internet -- we stumble into a Zen Center -- where we are told that Zen is a training in how to wake up, in how to transform our deep suffering into flexible, and kind composure, into ease and joy. This transformation is realized through a particular method of meditation (zazen) both on the cushion and in our daily activities. Zen meditation is offered as the radical practice of "objectless meditation," a path of relinquishing all things, including the self.
Zen training is not merely a "self-improvement" program. It is a program whose endeavor is the transcendence of the whole notion of self and selfishness. Lama Suryadas says: "This endeavor goes against the grain of every self-help program our culture has conditioned us to seek".
But is this what we bargained for? It sounds difficult. Couldn't we just make a few adjustments in our patterns, learn to relax and feel some relief from day-to-day stress?
Since our minds are forever looking to control any given situation in a fruitless attempt to minimize or erase the causes of pain and maximize or permanently establish what is pleasurable, the mind might be willing to make some minor adjustments but it basically wants us to maintain the habits that have made us miserable! And the mind fights really hard for its self-oriented ways.
In recent times, there has been a wholesome effort to extend Zen teaching and the many benefits of zazen to more and more people. And, in order to make zazen increasingly palatable, and possible for people, this ancient radical practice is sometimes clothed in blue jeans and Nikes -- and quietly introduced into the medical and mental health systems as "stress reduction." In addition, there are other attempts to make Zen more accessible by mixing Zen practice with other traditions like Vipassana, or psychology.
I would say that all gates that lead us into exploring the most thorough and compassionate way to lives our lives are wholesome. Please choose whichever one resonates most with you. But, here is my question: In making Zen more accessible, are we forgetting to mention that what we are talking about, while including the benefits of stress reduction, goes beyond it? The Buddha said that there are three characteristics of this human life -- impermanence, dissatisfaction and emptiness. Are we avoiding a discussion of the realization of emptiness?
Zen practice is difficult and dangerous, in that directs us to see the hollowness of our basic concepts of who we are. The essence of Zen is not merely about being relaxed, or about improvement -- it is about being awakened. Zen calls for "relinquishment." Relinquishment of what? Relinquishment of the dualism of opposites -- the ideas of good and bad, being and non-being, pure and impure... of self and other. This relinquishment, when it is total, is the dropping off of body and mind. It is a situation where self-centeredness is vaporized. It is the experience of the end of suffering.
Sometimes teachers of other Buddhist traditions say that Zen meditation is too difficult for most people. It is my experience that almost all meditation practices lead to the same place -- the experiential evidence of not having a separate "self". Zen merely starts at this place. I often liken Zen practice to jumping into the deep end. Are you ready?
Are you are grounded enough in conventional reality to hear about how our lives actually arise? By entering Zen practice, we have come in a door from which there is no way to get out with our ideas of separate self intact.
It takes courage to enter into this difficult and dangerous study.