Zen is probably the least understood philosophy on the planet, not because it is so difficult, but because it’s so simple that most people leap to one conclusion or another and end up missing the point entirely.
First off, Zen is not a religion, but a philosophy, a huge distinction. There is no god to bow down to or worship and it doesn’t attempt to give you a set of rules which must be followed. Instead, it gently and cheerfully shows you how to attain a state of consciousness where your individual ego empties itself such that it isn’t you against the universe, but you as an integral part of the universe.
Max Ehrmann wrote an incredibly beautiful poem/song/essay entitled, Desiderata which takes its wisdom from the teachings of Zen. Every line is a gem worth memorizing, though one line sums up the Zen aspect fairly well: You are a Child of the Universe, no less than the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here. For what it’s worth, a few years ago, I torch-cut every word, every letter from steel and placed them at the top of the walls going around my studio. I wasn’t sorry I did so.
Ever heard the term, Zen Irony? Zen Paradox? Zen Humor? By its very nature, Zen exists in a state of perpetual irony and embraces it in order to understand the universe.
Zen is the only philosophy or study of life that has a built-in sense of humor…and a good one at that. A quote or two…or three:
Sex is like air. It’s not important, unless you aren’t getting any.
Experience is something you don’t get, until just after you need it.
If you tell the truth, you don’t have anything to remember. ( I love this one)
Always remember that you are Unique…just like everyone else.
It is possible that your sole purpose in life…is simply to serve as a warning to others.
Zen Paradoxes: The paradoxes and the ironies have served me extremely well over the years. When I come upon someone who is extremely bitter or extremely macho, cynical, unemotional, authoritarian, funny, or extremely anything, I instantly begin looking for the story behind who they are. Examine the life of any comedian, and you will see someone who has experienced much sorrow.
One of the most extremely religious women I ever met, eventually told her story. She has a burden of self-imposed guilt that I don’t believe anyone could bear. That is sad, and there’s little that can be done about it. The most macho men I’ve ever met, have the baddest cars, baddest attitudes, ready for a fight, are the ones who are the most miserable. Whenever I meet someone who comes across in the extreme…any extreme, look for the paradox behind the action. You might be amazed.
Zen Mind is Open Mind: ZEN always considers the possibility that it might, on occasion, be wrong. In any study, scientific or otherwise, the only way to ultimately find the truth of something is to consider along the way that you just might not have found it…yet. Once an individual decides that they know everything and there is nothing left to learn, they have failed life’s most important test.
Annie and Alan Watts: As a child, I’d watch Alan Watts, a famous Zen master, on black-and- white TV, walking around in a kimono, and saying things that sounded simple, and yet somehow profound. At the time, he seemed to be saying, “All we really have is the here and the now. The past is history, the future…a promise that may never be fulfilled.” Do you remember the lead song in Annie? “Tomorrow, tomorrow. I love ya, tomorrow. You’re always a day away.” It’s true. We never arrive at tomorrow. We only have today.
It wasn’t until the first week at Franklin and Marshall, that I ran headlong into a new technique for examining serious questions about life. My professor, Mike Roth, was short, tough, smoked like a chimney; he was Jewish as well as an ex-Marine lieutenant. He had bad acne and was pretty ugly, but, oh what a mind…
The first day of class, he lit up, and then told us,”This week we are going to do an amazing thing. We are going to prove…beyond a shadow of a doubt, that God does, indeed, exist. You will be able to call your moms and dads, sisters and brothers, that you have found…”THE ANSWER.” Looks and mumblings flashed around the classroom and everyone sat up a little straighter in their chairs. He took a long puff on his cigarette and continued, “And next week, we are going to scratch a little deeper and prove with absolute certitude, that God is just a concept, created by some very clever men.” He took a second puff and explained that we were going to continue to peel off layer upon layer of truth and counter-truth until… Several hands shot up in the classroom at this point. One guy called out, “Until what?”
Mike smiled at this point. He’d hooked an entire roomful of already clever gentlemen. “Until you realize that some questions are formed like an onion. Some people are frightened to peel even one layer away. Others are intent to have a very large pile…of onion skins.”
Desiderata – by Max Ehrmann
Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant, they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism. Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love, for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is perennial as the grass.
Take kindly to the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
Max Ehrmann c.1920