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The Fish Becomes a Dragon
In Western Europe, and also in America, an increasing number of people are practicing Zazen or Zen meditation. In turn, Japanese Buddhists are eagerly observing Christianity, wondering how it will cope with the challenges of a modern, secularized society. Actually, these Buddhists admire how positively the Catholic Church took up these challenges after the Second Vatican Council. As a result, there has arisen a mutual desire among Christians and Zen Buddhists to get to know each other better.
Why do Christians put their mind to Zen meditation? And why do they want to start a dialogue with Buddhism?
I can well imagine some people saying that Christianity is altogether unique, and that Jesus Himself is the unique Way and Door to salvation. Buddhists, these people retort, simply have to become Christians. Yet, I believe strongly that there is another, third option, and this possibility is what I will try to outline.
People often proclaim: "We Christians have our own mystical traditionone so immensely profuse and overpowering that there is simply no cause for any of us to take an active interest in the mystical paths of other religions. What, in Heaven's name, could they bring us?"
Yet it is a fact that, in the wake of the profound secularism that has corroded modern Christianity, a spiritual hunger has emerged seeking inspiration and direction, and it is focused upon the Asian traditions. Why, in spite of the genuine spiritual hunger, this breeze did not come to rest on the vast lake of Christian tradition is a very complex phenomenon. Nevertheless, I would like to point out at least one possible reason.
In our artificial, technocratic, and urbanized society, modern human beings have lost touch with their own bodies. Despite our vast treasure of scientific medical knowledge in the West, we don't know what to do with our physicality. The body as a vehicle for experience or perception, as an instrument for detecting oneself, has become a foreign object.
The most striking characteristic of Buddhist and Hindu mysticism is that they commence with the body. Christianity, on the other hand, has always begun with the Word, a living word from God, which embraced humankind wholly and placed it in the grand tide of history. But the increasingly rationalized, scientifically developed human being is only able to approach Christianity rationally. With the disappearance of physical awareness, a lot of emotions and processes have been lost and have become inaccessible to our culture.
Seen from this perspective it is not surprising that the renewed spiritual hunger that has revealed itself in the West has turned eastward in an effort to learn from its ancient wisdom of body-awareness, and to tap into new sources of experiences that have been lost to the West. Christians, and especially the clergy, who felt their experience of the Divine had become too rigid to continue, uncovered a new impulse in the Eastern ways of meditation, a new way of gaining awareness that would bring life to the Christian tradition.
Although at times the various forms of Hindu Yoga are spiritually very one-sided and extremely complicated, the Buddhist way of Zazen is surprising because of its simplicity and directness. The Zen tradition has, more than other Eastern traditions, preserved its contact with daily life. That is why many people, and many Christians too, feel attracted to the simplicity of the path of Zazen.
What is Zazen?
Zazen is a form of objectless or imageless meditation. The Christian tradition is very familiar with objectless meditation: Just think, for example, of the exhortations of Saint John of the Cross, to whom objectless awareness was the result of a prolonged and intensified communion with biblical words and images that, after a while, became stilled into pure "thusness," most appropriately described as a transparent state of Presence. Zazen has another starting-point. It begins with our own body.
A correct bearing is a precondition of reaching pure natural breathing, a pure breath-consciousness. The correct bearing is, simply stated, sitting erect. This is not done by pushing one's shoulders up. On the contrary, it really takes place when you sink into your pelvis, and findas they say in Japanesehara. Hara is a force, a kind of energy-center, located in the subtle body around the belly, just a few fingers under the navel. There, you have to open the upward-striving forces that enable you to sit erect without any obvious strain to the body.
It sounds very simple to talk about just sitting erect. But, because we have become estranged from our bodies, sitting erect is very hard in reality. It demands quite a lot of practice to learn it, yet it is a good way to get into the swing of your own body. Of course, much more can be said about this topic, but I want to confine myself to a more concise description of what actually matters.
A correct posture is obviously a precondition for breathing properly. It is also a conscious way of getting familiar with your own breath. To the East Asian religions, breath is always the mediating influence that provides us with a proper experience of spiritual reality. Indeed, the same applies to the Bible. If you're in doubt, just read the passage in which Jesus speaks to Nicodemus about the necessity of being born anew. Rebirth occurs through the Spirit, but in Greek and in Hebrew the term "spirit" is synonymous with breath and wind. Jesus also refers to the secret of the wind, while at Whitsun He breathes upon his pupils, before saying: "Receiveth thou the Holy Spirit."
After right bearing and proper breathing, the third step in Zazen is correct consciousnessan awareness no longer curbed by images and desires. In Japanese Zen monasteries, practitioners endlessly recite the so-called "Heart Sutra," the hanyo shingyo. The Heart Sutra has a singular refrain: "Form is emptiness, emptiness is form." In an existential analysis, this sutra attempts to show us that reality is essential empty, from which it follows that all our fears are only illusions.
Let me summarize this shortly in my own words: All objects possess form and shape. We say, for example, that a doormat is rectangular and a cushion is round. We attribute certain properties or a quality to the mat and a cushion, and we do this by using a copula or verb-link, such as the word "is." This copula seems so unimportant that several languages omit the word. And yet it has a profound meaning, because before we can establish that the mat is square and the cushion round, we say the mat is there or the cushion is there. The mat exists, the cushion exists.
This declaration is the most essential thing you can say of anything, and yet at the same time the declaration is completely empty. When you claim that something existsthat it "is"you are not imagining its reality. It is impossible to define "is" as one form since it contains all possible forms"is" has countless possibilities. When, in a Zen monastery, the monks say "form is emptiness, emptiness is form," they want to give us an awareness of that pure, undiluted state of being that precedes any form. Moreover, when we enter the state of silence during Zen meditation, and put our minds to Zazen, we begin to shape this formula into a realized, instantaneous awareness.
Once we have learned to adopt the proper posture and practiced proper breathing, it is necessary for us to confront our daily stream of imagesthose pictures and compelling scenes and sequences that pass our mind's eye as if they were filmed. Often these mental images are primarily borrowed from our immediate surroundings, but through the practice of Zazen these images gradually incorporate sights from forgotten yesterdays, pictures we no longer remember or tend to overlook because we feel they are no longer of any importance to us. Zen tradition gives a very simple instruction about how we may handle this phenomenon: We are told not to entertain these images. We are not to suppress them violently, but to let them flow by, gently. Zen teaches us to try, time and again, to reach that state of boundless awareness and emptiness.
In Japan, referring to Mount Fuji, a famous, solitary, high rising peak in the Bay of Tokyo, they say: "Sit in meditation as Mount Fuji." The cloudsyour thoughtslet them pass. Simply let them float by. You must only sit still. Like Mount Fuji.
* * *
What happens when you turn toward the emptiness of the consciousness is that you get in touch with the deepest level of being, with your own singular essence, a "suchness" that is inexplicable, unfathomable, and yet fundamental. The proper source of being, of "thusness," is also a source of beauty. When, after having sat in the silence of Zazen for a while, you stand up and look about you, you notice that everything has acquired its original, innate splendor and beauty again. Your perception has been cleansed and changed and has opened up to the Infinite.
After we practice the basic exercise "form is emptiness," we discover that emptiness always takes shape again, but that the form has been set free from its self-encasement. It has opened up to its original source. Lao Tzu, a Chinese sage from the sixth century BCE, who considerably influenced the Zen tradition in Japan and China, expressed this most eloquently in one of his sayings.
Thirty spokes share the wheel's hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel,
it is the space that makes it useful;
cut doors and windows for a room,
it is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is not there.
You will find similar thoughts and views in the Bible, too. When Jesus seeks to explain the mysterious, unfathomable ascent of the kingdom of God, He lists how human beings have involved themselves in all sorts of practices that make up their daily routine: eating, drinking, marrying, giving into matrimony, buying and selling, building and planting. Yet this entire chain of events is humanity's doom, just as it came to pass in the days of Noah and Lot. But those with a watchful, discerning eye, looking for the kingdom of God, Jesus says, will be saved. (Luke 17:27-30)
Paul asserts the same thing, although somewhat differently. He describes similar processes, and admonishes human beings not to let themselves to be defined by them: "Those who have wives," he elaborates, "should live as though they had none; and those who have been buying property as though they had no possessions." Moreover, Paul adds psychological qualities: "Those who mourn, [should live] as though they were not mourning; and those who enjoy life as though they did not enjoy it." Why? Because time is short.
Paul falls back here on the established eschatological perspective of the Bible. But what he really wants to say is that every form, every sociological process and psychological constitution, is essentially empty. "And those who are involved with the world [should live] as though they were people not engrossed in it. Because this world as we know it is passing away." (1 Cor. 7:25-31)
Zazen is a very deep and radical process. It is not without reason that Zen monks refer to this process with the formula, "Dying the Great Death." In view of the transient nature of their existence, human beings, when facing death, experience the innermost values of their life, and in front of them opens a road that leads them into the light. If, for the Buddhist, the road into the light signifies the pristine unity of everything that exists, what does this signify for the Christian?
The Christian knows himself to be stirred by the word of the self-revealing God. He experiences being addressed individually, something that makes him grasp that in order to gain admission to God's Heart of Hearts, he also must die. He must die the death of Christ that those who follow Him need to share with Him, too.
For Christians, the significance of Zazen is as follows. Zazen can help the Christian unfold the depths of his existence to the voice of God, the God who loves him. It may help him absorb the words of the Bible not merely on verbal or rational grounds, but by using it to fill up the vital sources of his life.
* * *
Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. In Europe, the knowledge of Zen is often restricted to Zazen, to silent meditation. Should you go to Japan, however, you'll be surprised to learn how much of the Zen experience of emptiness has taken shape in the various levels of Japanese culture. You will find Zen in the rites of the monastery, in the beauty of the Zen garden, in the refined esthetics of the tea ceremony, and in the enormous power behind the cultivation of the various martial arts. You may also encounter Zen in daily life. Zen, after all, is doing normal things with a pure and undivided attention. As writer Karlfried Graf Dürckheim stated: "Our daily life is our exercise." It is about attention: When we sit we should sit, we should walk when we walk, and when we make our bed we should not think about the newspaper we want to read afterwards.
The Christian tradition also emphasizes that no matter what your experience of God might have been, it all boils down to living unobtrusivelythe seemingly uneventful days of daily practice and the performance of small acts.
What is the best description for the emptiness of Zazen? I believe the most adequate expression for Zazen is the one I just mentioned: "Dying the Great Death." Its emptiness is so sweeping that one can speak of Zazen as a dying experience. It is not the physical demise we know of and may observe from close proximity, but it is the inner death that has been proclaimed by all great mystics. Emptying your mind culminates in the loss of self, which is experienced as "dying."
For the Zen Buddhist, the point of "dying" is satori or illumination. It is a burst, a breakthrough into the light. Zen is part of a greater Buddhist tradition commonly referred to as "Mahayana" (literally "the Great Vehicle," or that which holds everything), whose main characteristics are an attitude of compassion and mildness toward everything that exists. The ideal figure within the Mahayana tradition is the Bodhisattva. The Bodhisattva has received illumination and is fit to enter Nirvana, the blissful unity in which human beings are freed from all their sufferings. She or he, however, refuses to go, and instead dedicates him- or herself to the redemption of creation. The solemn promise of the Bodhisattva is recited daily in the Zen temples: "Regardless of the countless number of beings, I promise to save them all."
Is Zazen a purely personal way? It certainly seems that way. And yet over-personalization is something that is strongly condemned by Zen tradition. From the outset, the intention of Zazen is to introduce you to an all-embracing compassion and a universal mildness. Remarkably, in the vow spoken by the Bodhisattva, both savior and pupil speak concurrently: "Despite the number of my passions and delusions, I promise to still them. Irrespective of the number of Dharma teachings and cosmic wisdom, I promise to master them." In these latter two affirmations the pupil is speakingand the path of the pupil is ultimately the way of self-sacrificial compassion.
Each and every one of the Zen monks I have met in Japan were, to my mind, people with an exceeding mildness, in whose warmth you could really feel at home. Mildness and compassion are also a fundamental aspect of the experience of emptiness. And we might add a third aspect, namely the element of force. It demands enormous energy to withstand the unceasing flow of images. What I mean by this I can best explain with a symbolthe image of a dragon.
As opposed to Western fairy tales and, for that matter, biblical metaphors, in which the dragon is the symbol of the destructive forces of existence, the Chinese and Japanese traditions perceive the dragon as a symbol of vigor. In most temples you see the dragon pictured on a wall or the ceiling of a sacred space. A familiar expression in Zen tradition runs as follows: "At the dragon gate the fish becomes a dragon."
Imagine yourself to be the Yellow River, breaking through the massive rock formations, splashing and thundering through a small ravine. At the bottom of the waterfall are quiet, murky waters, where fish thrive and swim in the still, muddy ponds. But there are also fish that generate such a force in themselves that they are able to overcome the waterfall. They swim against the stream of ideas and images.
It really demands the utmost effort to reach a state of imagelessness and not be swept along. These fish develop bulging eyes, acquire horns on their heads, and start to grow more and more frightening in appearance, until they gradually become dragons. The closer they approach the inner stillness, the greater their force becomes, as does their ability to defy the thundering violence of the water. They swim against the stream and, by the time the stillness is perfect and they have landed on top of the waterfall, these fish have become dragons. It is at that moment that the expression heard so often in Zen tradition applies to them: "Buddha, that is you."
When this happens in Zen practice, you have broken through into the spiritual dimension of your existence. A vigor and essence develop within you. You no longer know fear and are able to endure everything. There is light, compassion, and force, and the emptiness has grown fertile.
Excerpted from The Eye Aware by Jeroen Witkam. Copyright © 2001 by Jeroen Witkam. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.