Zen is one of those terms that’s so highly misunderstood, it’s funny. Oh, and..by the way, that wonderful quote in the title comes from Henry Ford, a man of apple pie and Fords, though it could as easily have come from Alan Watts or Shunryu Suzuki.
Very few people know what Zen is, and if at this very second you’re deliberating whether to continue reading because…who gives a shit, gamble another five seconds. In the arsenal of intellectual tools (weapons?) that I’ve compiled in 6 decades, Zen sits at the tippy-top of the pile, burnished and well-worn, like a carpenter’s favorite hammer. More than any other intellectual tool it has provided me many years of perfect reliability, value, fun, and perspective.
First off, to put whole legions of minds at ease, Zen is NOT a religion. It just isn’t. When I go to a dinner party and late in the evening when people begin feeling out who the other guests are, the question invariably comes out: “So… What are you in-to?” Sometimes I say, airplanes or writing, but most of the time I say, “Zen” and it’s instantly followed by, “Oh- Someone said you were Episcopal.” It would have made as much sense if she’d said, “Oh, someone said you were a vegetarian.”
Loosely stated, Zen is a philosophy, but that only covers a small portion of it. In my very first philosophy class at Franklin and Marshall college, Mike Roth…ex-marine, and gritty philosophy professor began by saying, “This semester, we’re going to unequivocally prove the existence of God.” I thought, “…cool!” but then he went on, “…and then I will unequivocally and beyond a doubt disprove the existence of God. Then…you gentlemen will disprove that. And we are going to proceed ad infinitum, until a few of you knuckle-heads begin to see where we are heading. Most truths are like onions. If you peel long enough, you’ll come to another layer…and another.”
By the end of the semester, a handful of us would congregate with Mike in the coffee shop. He’d take a drag on his cigarette, glance around, and ask, “Anybody beginning to get it yet?” Some did. Some didn’t. All I knew was I wanted to know more. Even then, it was the process that was fascinating. He suggested that I go to the bookstore and pick up…not one of Alan Watts or Suzuki’s masterpieces on the subject, but a book of Zen jokes and parables.
“Yeah, that’s part of the deal,” Mike went on. “What trips up a lot of religions is they take themselves WAY too seriously. That and they’re exclusionary. The baptists are going to heaven…everyone else is going to hell or the Catholics are going to heaven and sadly…everyone else is going to hell. You can fill in the blank with almost every religion. Every one of them is convinced their way is the ONLY WAY…and…everyone else is going to hell. It’s all very, very, very serious and humor is not an invited guest. Penn Gillette summed religion up in three words: Threats and Bribes.
Zen prefers to see the humor (absurdity) in life, probably because there’s just so much absurdity. In current parlance, “Ya gotta laugh…otherwise you’d cry”. That’s actually about as Zen as it gets.
A couple of Zen Jokes:
A Zen master lay dying. The monks at his death bed asked if he had any final words of wisdom. The old master said weakly, “Truth is like a river.” The senior monk relayed the message but the confused youngest monk asked, “What does it mean that Truth is like a river?” The master replied, “Okay, Truth is not like a river.” In the silliness and absurdity is a veiled serious message…the absurdity of trying to pidgeon hole and classify things into little boxes.
Breathe in…breathe out. Breathe in…breathe out. Forget this and attaining Enlightenment will be the least of your problems.
Things are not what they seem…nor are they otherwise
Disciple: Oh wise and all-knowing one, show me the place of perfect peace. Master: If I show it to you, it will no longer be peaceful.
“Treat every moment as your last. It is not preparation for something else.” Suzuki
Blessed is he who finds happiness in his own foolishness…for he will always be happy.
Ahhh… here’s where some of the good stuff is. There is Yin and there is Yang. There is black and there is white. There is good and there is bad. And the Zen reality is: you can’t have one without the other. What’s most absurd (humorous) of all is the close proximity of the two. When you witness something truly ugly, disgusting, untenable, try very hard to begin to see if there is some beauty…or perhaps some beautiful truth to be learned from it. Conversely, when you come across that which appears to be only beautiful, only perfect, only wonderful, beware, or perhaps a better word…be curious, to see if there wasn’t some payment, some cost made for the achievement of that beauty. If you don’t see it…look harder.
Last but not least, a good sense of humor is one of the best yardsticks of a sane well-balanced human being. Beware of any thing, any person, any credo…any religion that cannot see the sense of humor (absurdity) in life. Henry