A Night of Zen

Talk given for ‘First Sunday’, January 2020


This will be thirty minutes of talking, twenty minutes of meditating together, and a final ten minutes of talk: an hour in total.

At the end of the session we’ll gassho together. It just means we all bow to each other and respect each other as equals. It goes like this… [demonstration].

The Christmas holidays are very quiet days outside, aren’t they? Less traffic on the roads. It can feel like peace on Earth has really come…until that relative we don’t like invites an upset and the arguments begin. Peace on Earth would be good. We’re back at work. Christmas is over, but what about peace? Is that over, too?

If I say the word, ‘zen’, what thoughts does it inspire? (Hoping someone will say ‘simplicity’ or ‘calm’).

Zen is certainly calm and simple. Zen is zazen. Zazen is ‘simply sitting’. It’s a very simple form, a distillation of Buddhist and other wisdom. You’re probably more familiar with Buddhism, so I’ll outline Buddhism and then demonstrate how Zen emerges from that tradition.

If I say the word ‘meditation’, what thoughts does it inspire? (Hoping someone will say, ‘bliss’.)

The interesting thing about Buddhist meditation is that, yes we can sometimes bliss out on it, but equally sometimes it can show us things we don’t want to see.

To explain why we might not want to look at things we’ll see when we meditate, I’m going to launch into that Buddhism outline I promised.

Buddhism 101

According to the only log of an earlier oral record we have, which is the Dhamacakapvattana sutta, or the spinning of the dharma wheel teaching, Buddha’s earliest sermon set out the core principles of his message.

It went a bit like this, his four noble truths: “(1) everything in life is impermanent. (2) We can’t stop that, and that means suffering. Specifically: birth, ageing, illness, death, sorrow, grieving, pain, regret and despair.

But, hooray! The cause of the feeling of the suffering, not the condition of it, the cause of the sensation, is something we can do something about. (3) And that’s because the cause of the suffering is craving. (4) If we stop the habit of craving things, and get good at doing so through the use of a method with eight aspects, then we shall live a life with less pain and suffering.

He said craving results from a recipe of five things: feelings dependent on contact that are dependent on senses dependent on ego dependent on consciousness dependent on fabrications. So that means, to get to the good stuff, the life more free from suffering, we need to tackle our craving, and that means we should really look at our fabrications, our fancies, and scrutinise those for ourselves.

Another way of putting the word “fabrications” is, and he put it so politely that we might miss it, “how about ending our own ’ignorance’?”

He reiterated, ‘if you don’t believe impermanence leads to suffering, think on this: we all, all the time, want what we can’t have, have what we don’t want, fear losing what we do have, and we fear getting what we don’t want. That’s the human condition. Our wants are a bottomless pit, so if we want to be happier and more free, our insatiability needs slowly toning down until each expression of it leaves us, and those around us, in peace. Needs are fine. We all have needs. This insatiability thing is something else entirely, and it smells bad.

So what’s the method with eight aspects I mentioned?

The Eightfold Path is Right…

  • understanding: Insight into the true nature of reality
  • intention: The unselfish desire to realize enlightenment
    • These first two are to do with having the right wisdom. They’re the wisdom pillar
  • speech: Using speech compassionately
  • action: Using ethical conduct to manifest compassion
  • living: Making a living through ethical and non-harmful means
    • These next three are to do with conduct and relate to the five precepts of Theravadin monks (avoidance of violence, killing, false, harsh or harmful speech, sexual misconduct, and drug abuse). They’re the conduct pillar
  • effort: Cultivating and encouraging wholesome qualities of generosity, benevolence and wisdom so as to also discourage and prevent unwholesome qualities of anger, greed and ignorance
  • mindfulness: Whole body-and-mind awareness
  • concentration: Meditation or some other dedicated, concentrated practice
    • These last three are the meditation pillar, although effort bridges all three.

Those last two, the mindfulness and concentration, are what we encourage forward by a regular meditation practice. All Buddhist schools put some kind of single-pointed concentration front and centre; usually meditation. In fact, because some of the early Pali suttas like the Anapanasati (Mindful Breathing) lesson said, direct quote:

“Mindfulness of in/out breathing brings practice to its culmination,”

…you can see why that is.

Rinzai Zen in Japan, or Chan: Lin Chi if you’re Chinese—that’s my school—is no different in that regard.

But don’t get the eightfold path wrong. It’s not a Ten Commandments. Rather than take this eightfold list and attempt to fit our daily behaviours into its model through a maddening process of box-ticking and self flagellation for getting it wrong sometimes, what Buddhists are doing instead is sitting on a meditation cushion, concentrating, and, through that process, becoming ‘not-ignorant’. This then leads to discovery of what we are ignorant of, where our fabrications are in error, and seeing these errors helps us begin to dial down our various expressions of insatiability.

We still live in a world of pain; we can’t do anything about that. But we can suffer less, and if we suffer less we also add less to the suffering of others through our actions. In fact, the whole world calms down if I work on myself or, as one Zen monk put it in a calligraphy he wrote for me,

‘Peace in oneself, peace in the world’.

Thich Nhat Hanh

That’s why Buddhists sometimes forget about the eightfold path completely: if we’re sticking with a regular meditation practice, then the last two items on the eightfold list—the other aspects of the path—should unfold for us naturally. That’s also why some zen monks say things like, “just sit and meditate, okay? You’ll work it out…or you won’t. But just sit!”

Buddhism also has three jewels (see how much Buddhism loves listy things? That’s because it started about 500 years before writing got popular in India. Rhyming lists were how people remembered).

The three jewels are:

  • Buddha, without whom we wouldn’t have had the teaching,
  • dharma or the wisdom of his message, and
  • sangha or community in which to practice.

I’ve meditated for eleven years. Two of those years I meditated alone. The most recent two and a bit years I’ve been back with a sangha. Most of that time I’ve been ensuring the sangha runs. That’s why I’ve been made a priest. I have a parish. Comparing what meditation is like alone for two years, with what it’s like when shared, for myself I can say community is great for pointing out when I’m being a numpty. If we meditate alone, there’s nobody to point that out. I wouldn’t say it’s dangerous to meditate alone. Buddhism had hermits throughout history. It still has a few, even in Europe, in caves in France and Spain. It’s just that it might take longer to have good outcomes going it alone.

Zen 101

Now, some sanghas and schools do emphasise consciously working through the eightfold path, the box ticking, as well as the meditating. Others say ‘just sit’. My Buddhist lineage is more the ‘just sit’ type, and basically that’s what Zen is—just sit—for the very reasons just explained above.

But this is really splitting hairs. There’s still self-analysis in Zen. The day my Zen master gave me my Hangesa (hold it up to show) he did a talk on taming the ego. He made the point that we can’t eliminate our ego entirely. We shouldn’t even try.

The ego is a wild horse to tame.

Michael Pockley, 2019.

But we can choose where to direct the ego, what to channel it into, and when to take it out of the equation. That’s what being a zen master is, in a way. It’s self mastery. If we’re doing self analysis combined with our meditation practice we will develop, for ourselves, those ‘skillful means’ outlined in the method with the eight aspects. (The self critique is not explicitly talked about or ritualised in Zen, but it’s still there.)

In fact, whatever Buddhist school you’re in, the emphasis is the same: do the meditation and the insight about the self, the self analysis, will be right. Conversely: do self analysis without the meditation and we’ll probably lose our way.

Meditation becomes like a mirror. It holds up a mirror to the self, to ourselves, until there is no mirror, no more need for the introspection, and we’re living as freely as we can in our given situation.

Zen neither confirms nor denies that it is Buddhism. In fact, it’s just as influenced by Taoism as it is Buddhism, and if we had more time tonight I could explore that side of it with you. But Taoism is strange to us in the West, whereas we’re getting more familiar with what Buddhism might be. So that’s why my 101 has started here.

In fact, this very point may well be why western Zen may one day forget all about its Taoist root. I hope it doesn’t. Taoism, to my mind, is beautiful.

But the relationship between Zen and Buddhism is also nuanced. Some Zennites claim not to be Buddhist. It’s an old dispute. It isn’t resolved, but we’re all OK with it that way. The question, “Is Zen Buddhism?” doesn’t really need an answer.

So having done a whistle-stop tour of its scriptural origins to show you Buddhism, why Buddhists emphasise meditating, and why Zen Buddhism turns that up to eleven, I’d like to talk about the way Zen approaches meditation, and hopefully we can also do some!

So…what is Zen Meditation?

  • Posture
  • Focus on the breath, the thoracic diaphragm
  • Monkey mind
  • Gap between thoughts
  • Try it for 20 minutes

For an excellent guide to the practicalities of getting the meditation posture right and, thereby, sustaining a good meditation practice, read Michael Pockley’s book, How to Meditate on the Train.

So why might we not like what we see?

At the beginning I said meditation can sometimes show us things we don’t want to see. If I’ve been meditating for so many years what was it I didn’t want to see within myself?

I’m not always a nice person. I tend towards pomposity. I manipulate conversations with a voice that can demand it be heard. I’m almost always surprised when people act on emotion. I favour seriousness over the funny side of life. It was easier to blame others for the crisis that led to my awakening than it was to see how I was a bully to myself inviting the negative attention I thought I deserved and was brought up to believe I needed. I’m damaged goods. We all are.

In fact, we may not share a religion together in this room, but we do probably share a similar background, and I’m pretty sure you’ll relate to this: a lot of my drama has been about seeking out negative attention to confirm that I am originally sinful, hell-bound, unworthy of acceptance so that I could perpetuate what I grew up thinking was a normal scenario – and occasionally even punishing others if they didn’t give me the negativity I actively sought.

But when I meditate, rather than those sorts of tendencies controlling me, dictating my life, my suffering, the grip of those cravings for acceptance or adoration or peace or perfection or punishment are lessened. I don’t tend to punish myself so much any more.

I also have found a peace. To put it in words similar to Philippians 4:7, if that isn’t Pauline heresy for which I will burn in hell, it often feels to me, in such a crazed world, like the peace which passes all understanding, the beauty of the whole universe guarding my mind. It’s this peace which encourages me in my practice, guides my steps to live the simple Way. As Christians I think you’ll know, in that sense, exactly what I mean. The entire heavens reverberate with the declaration, ‘Peace on Earth and goodwill to all beings’.

Zen is very simple. I just come back to the breath. But it isn’t always easy.


Pingu, x

  • This helped me fine tune my words: A Basic Buddhism Guide: Basic Buddhist Concepts
  • This summary of the basic lists is excellent…or it was the day I used it. Good old Wikipedia: Outline of Buddhism – Wikipedia
  • If you want to get into the pre-written language part of Buddhist history, the advanced culture of the Indus Valley civilisation, give Noble Ross Reat’s ‘Buddhism: A History’ a whizz.