Zen and our Mad World

[This text was first published in The Diamond Sword, a collection of talks by Kongo Roshi, Zen Buddhist Temple of Chicago, first edition 1987, second edition 1992, pp 25-28.]

There are so many questions concerning Zen. I must get several calls each week from people asking about Zen Buddhism. Everyone is interested when lectures are held. Well, a lecture is held anytime you sit down on a cushion and face the wall. If you are all there, if you are open, there is a lecture taking place. What makes Zen unique is that the lecture comes from the inside. Everyone is expecting to be enlightened, improved upon by someone else's spoken or written word. Maybe it's because we don't trust ourselves enough.

Of course this shows our absolute lack of any perception as to what Zen is. I swear one day I am going to change the sign on our Temple to Zazen Buddhist Temple. Zen is not good enough. The only way to really hit home is to revert to the original name of the sect: the Zazen Sect. You can't miss that. Zazen means sitting meditation. Through the practice of zazen we begin to understand that what we are dealing with is a common norm of everyday anxieties and everyday tension. All of these very small things are multiplied many times every day, until suddenly we discover our world is verging on madness. Is this not a mad world? My god, turn on the news. How much of that can you listen to? Stop and realize that the state of the world is a reflection of our own condition. It is something immediate which penetrates us as individuals. Zen can help you considerably in this matter. The problem with most people when they come to Zen is that they are looking for something to add on to their lives; they are looking to acquire something. We want to gain enlightenment. We want to become super in some way. We want to escape this egoistic shell - although we don't know why because we spend so much time perfecting it and keeping it polished and smooth. But only daily practice of zazen will show you that you've been duped by your own mind. You've been duped. You get nothing. Nothing. What you will come to perceive, if you practice zazen daily, is that it is really quite the reverse. You are not getting anything. You're not getting a thing, but you are losing. You have less anxiety; you have less tension; you are mentally gritting your teeth less often. Things become smoother. "Ah, what the heck. It is not worth bothering about." About 99% of your mental baggage is like that. It's not worth bothering about. Indeed, all things do pass, like each one of us. So, we come to realize that all of the monumental problems that we confront daily, which we insist on accepting and piling on our shoulders like Atlas, really don't exist. These problems exist in our own minds because we insist on holding and clinging - the mind is very sticky. But as you practice zazen you lose; you lose all of the garbage; you lose all of the non-essentials.

You know Mu, the famous koan in Rinzai Zen (Master Joshu is asked if a cat has Buddha nature and he answers "Mu.") is always translated or stated in English as meaning "nothing." This is false; this is absolutely wrong. The original Chinese character is not just "nothing," but a subtraction from having. It means the opposite of "to have." Do you understand? It is "to have not, to be without, to not grasp, to not cling, to not embrace, to let go," and when you have not, you radiate outward. So you are no longer in the state where you are sucking in the world, but, because each individual person is a microcosm, there is some power, some god, some universal force that begins to radiate from the inside out. This is Chinese Mu, "have not." So it is not nothing. Many people sit and ask themselves - mu, mu - nothing what? NOTHING!

I think if all Zen students studied performing arts, and if some time in their life they had to dance before the public, to play before the public, or to act before the public, just once, they would really see the value of Zen. Oh, how we inhibit ourselves, and this is going on all day, every day, on a much less grandiose stage. Small settings that take place throughout our day give us opportunities for performance. Many, many years ago, when I was still active playing professionally as a musician, I was looking, looking for something that would allow me to keep my hands off myself, to stop messing and interfering with my mind so that a free flow would occur. I remember it to this day. I tried many forms of meditation at that time, back thirty some years ago. But most forms of meditation always add on, always pile on; we can't seem to get away from its conceptual thinking. We have to conceive of some idea; we have to elaborate on it, and the next thing you know you are just piling one boil on top of another, not getting rid of anything; you're just adding to. You've been duped again by your own mind. Damn fool, you try to run away, and you go and fall into your own trap, just like butterflies in your hand. It's the story of life. But from practicing zazen I came to realize that the real wonder of zazen is that it diminishes the unessential. I said, "Of course, idiot, how can you unblock your mind, if you keep piling and piling? How can the water flow freely into a drain if you continue throwing leaves into it? Sweep it out!" You get rid of the unessential, and then what is essential is allowed to flow of its own accord. So anyone looking for magical results with zazen practice is looking in the wrong place. Anyone who wants to travel astrally is looking in the wrong place. If you want to become a god you had better go talk to Rajneesh. Zen is very dry, not much to it at all. Not much to it.

I was in Kroch's and Brentano's bookstore the other day, and I am glad to see that Zen is no longer popular. We are back to the state where we have two standard books on Zen, one by Alan Watts and one by Suzuki. I said "Ah, we have come full cycle now." Why do I say good? We don't get so many window shoppers - people who want to try on the Zen cloak for awhile. In the last several years, I have noticed a nice change after the revolution in the old sixties days and into the Vietnam days. People are coming to the Temple with a more sober attitude, and with a better inner perception of what Zen Buddhism is all about. I'm really glad for that. So, Zen may be less popular superficially, but those coming to the Temple have a better idea of what they are coming for. It makes my job easier and more rewarding for you. So, that old standard lecture still exists. It consists of three words: PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE!