The Unthinkable Lightness Of Being

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2018-03-20 21:00:00 No comments

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Before I started practicing Zen seriously, I read approximately five-and-a-half metric butt-tons of books on Buddhism generally and Zen specifically. The book that kicked off my practice in earnest was Brad Warner's Hardcore Zen, which confronted me in language I couldn't help but pay attention to that the only thing that mattered was one's own practice. Since then, I've read other books on Zen of one kind or another, and apart from Brad's other books, the one that had the most impact was a book that for many people in the West -- for instance, John Cage -- served as an introduction to Zen generally: John Blofeld's translation of The Zen Teachings Of Huang Po.

Huang Po is like a lot of other Zen texts: if you don't already have some personal grounding in what they're talking about, it'll either seem like good advice that you have no idea how to apply on your own, or just sound like total mystification for mystification's sake. It's the kind of thing that works best if you come to it after some existing work -- maybe call it a 200-level text, despite it being a mere 130-something pages, only because there's meat and potatoes (and broccoli, and that yummy gravy with minced onion in it) on every single page.

One thing that strikes me most about it -- and again, I think it's something I wouldn't have had the wherewithal to discuss correctly earlier on -- is how it made clear(er) for me the idea that Zen and Buddhism are not anti-intellectual, but non-intellectual.

Zen is not against thought or disciplines of thinking generally, because those things have their place in the world, and we urgently need them to live well. It just claims that there are areas within ourselves that are not amenable to being addressed by ourselves through our intellects, and that they need to be approached by teaching ourselves how to relax our intellectual grip on ourselves, to see ourselves without the layer of ideation we apply to everything -- including things we don't even realize we're applying ideation to in the first place. Most of us don't believe we do that, so of course we resist it when it's pointed out to us.

The other thing about Zen that comes to mind now when reading Huang Po is how Zen is also as indifferent to faith as it is to intellect. It doesn't really care what you believe; it cares what you do.

Many people come into Zen and encounter its texts as if they were exhortations to believe in a specific philosophy of mind, rather than an exhortation to perform certain practices that facilitate introspection and the dissipation of habitual ego-based delusion. Once you do that, then you're free to subscribe to or dispense with any of the more general proclamations around Zen, but pretty much any Zen teacher worth his salt (and the rest of his spice rack) knows you can't will yourself into enlightenment any more than you can think yourself into it. You have to cultivate a place where both of those things fall away by themselves, and where enlightenment can assert itself naturally -- because it was already there the whole time, waiting for a moment when it could step up.

Seeing things like this play out in my own life reaffirms something I first encountered argued most directly by the likes of Stephen Jay Gould. We need an outer life guided by science, and an inner life guided by whatever we think we need most for it. Maybe someday we'll get to a point where we can use scientific disciplines to provide everyone with the kinds of insight and self-actualization many of them obtain from belief systems and practice paths. Until then ....

Tags: Brad Warner Buddhism Huang Po John Blofeld Stephen Jay Gould Zen intellectualism science