Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A path of one's own

Before I left for my retreat, someone said something to me about my "spirituality". I, as always, replied that I had no idea what that concept meant. I don't.

In spite of that, I tell others that without a spiritual life, I probably wouldn't be "okay", or even alive, for that matter. I tell others who are not getting anywhere in therapy that I believe that the answer to their suffering ultimately lies in finding a spiritual base.

So, why do I bandy around a word that I don't understand?

Well, for one thing, I don't know what other word to use.

When I suggest to other people that they find a spiritual path, I don't proselytize for mine. I do recommend meditation to anyone, but it doesn't matter what "brand" that is. Meditation is just plain ol' good for people: it helps settle the mind. Scientific studies have proven it also promotes good physical health, helps people deal with difficult situations and with chronic pain. It doesn't remove problems, but a regular meditation practice inbues anyone with more equanimity than they would overwise have. How could one knock that?

Why do I practice Zen Buddhism instead of Tibetan Buddhism (or any number of other contemplative practices)? The answer is very simple and has nothing to do with relative merits. I like it.

Finding ones' path is like fishing, with us as the fish. We get "hooked" by something that resonates within us. We also may be put off by things that don't, and so we keep on searching.

Here's how I got involved with Zen and why I've stuck around for so long:

One day I was in a tiny bookstore with barely stocked shelves. My companion (now forgetten) was engrossed in reading a book and I knew we'd not be leaving soon. I was standing in the "Religion" section of the store, which had about a dozen books on it. "Everyday Zen: Love and Work", by Charlotte Joko Beck was sitting there and I picked it up and starting reading. I knew something about Zen, but not much. This book was different than what I expected. Its relevancy to everyday life (hence the title) was dead on. Just plain good advice. I bought the book, read it twice, and then went on to read Kapleau's "The Three Pillars of Zen".

Now, the Kapleau book was a totally different animal. I still have mixed feelings about this book which has enticed so many into Zen practice. There's a chapter that has quotes from many Japanese people about their enlightenment experiences. It felt somewhat like a highly evolved infomercial. I, too, could actually become enlightened?! Wow! I'll buy that!

But, there was my big hook (as it has been for many others). I had meditated for years, but it was "just" to be calmer. Now, I discovered there was some really big reward for meditating!

I was also reeled in easily by other things that spoke just to me: I feel very comfortable with Japanese culture and its aesthetics. The austerity and strictness of Japanese Zen Buddhism appeals to me. And lastly, all the crazy stories and writing seemed like an impenetrable puzzle that I wanted (and still do) get to the bottom of.

So, Zen Buddhism had me by my proverbial balls.

I love the Dalai Lama and his teachings. There is much about Tibetan Buddhism that I am very attracted to, but it just doesn't hook me.

There are many schools of Buddhism, each with their own merits, traditions and practices.

The Dalai Lama suggested that Westerners looking for a path not turn to Buddhism so easily, but find that which is the same in the religion of their heritage, I thought, "Yeah, he's right", but there's nothing in Judaism that hooks me at all. I'm not running from it, but I sure have one big obstacle in regards to it: I don't believe in God. Sure, I could see "God" as a metaphor, but why bother when I have found something in which I don't have to compromise anything?

I have great faith in Zen. That's probably the most important thing. There's an enormous amount about Zen that I don't understand. This is fine, and in fact, it keeps me hanging in there with it. My desire to understand, not just intellectually but with experience, is great. But I also trust that the Buddha's teachings are the absolute truth. Of this I have no doubt, none at all. The teachings of the ancestors in the Zen tradition, well, they intrigue me. The teaching stories and methods of "training" that this tradition offers is one that I wrestle with, but I have some reservations and doubts about. This keeps things lively! But, again, I stil have great faith that it "works" (for me).

I think this is key. You know you've found the right path for you when you discover that you have enough faith to engage fully.

Image Note: This Japanese scroll calligraphy of Bodhidharma reads “Zen points directly to the human heart, see into your nature and become Buddha”. Hakuin Ekaku

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