The history of Buddhism is a history of polemics. Buddhist texts, from the earliest Buddhism to the present, can be read as refuting misconceptions over and over again.
There is no other way. The Dharma offers a different way of dealing with reality than the usual one. If the usual were satisfactory, we would not need the Dharma for anything. At the same time, the Dharma is always interpreted in the light of the usual. In this way it loses its function and meaning. And then there are new formulations, which again…
You see it happen again and again, in the oldest Buddhism and in the later development in India, in China, here in the West. Each time the Dharma has to be saved, so to speak, from cultural habits and self-evidence.
What are the natures of our culture? In what framework do we capture Zen and Zen meditation? What are our usual misunderstandings? To be clear: this text is not a critique of Western thought, but of how they color our view of Dharma.
The Christian West has a long tradition of mysticism. In this tradition, experience is central, the experience of oneness with God. A milestone in the psychology of religion is the standard work William James ‘The Varieties Of Religious Experience’.
Meditation plays an important role in Zen. So it is reasonable to assume that meditation must lead to certain experiences. This creates an idea of lighting as a special experience. Not an experience of oneness with God, in the absence of a God, but also an experience of oneness.
This experience can strike like a thunderbolt: satori, kensho, daikensho… They are the coveted experiences of Western Zen students on the path to enlightenment. This is Western Zen rhetoric. This is not the language of ancient Buddhist scriptures.
Additionally, in the West (as opposed to in the East) we place the mind in the brain, resulting in an explosion of brain research into the effects of meditation.
Western thought is focused on ontology. It is about the question of what exists. The starting point is that reality exists independently of the observer. The next question then is how we can know that reality. That is the question of epistemology. Reality as we know it always remains an imperfect representation of reality as it is.
An important step in a child’s cognitive development in the Christian West is when they come to understand that Santa doesn’t really exist, but God does. Believing in Sinterklaas is what we call magical thinking. God, on the other hand, really exists.
The fundamental distinction between reality as we know it and reality as it is does not exist in the East. If you interpret Eastern texts ontologically, you come to strange conclusions. A sentence like ‘Everything is illusion’ does not mean that everything ‘is’ illusion (in the ontological sense of ‘being’), but rather that we have illusions about everything.
If we are to translate important Zen concepts like ‘absolute reality’ and ‘relative reality’, the misinterpretation is obvious: it is only in the meditative experience of oneness that we are able to see reality as it really is.
We have an ethic of dos and don’ts, of what is allowed and what is not allowed. In the theistic traditions, these commandments come from God’s will. Atheist traditions are not fundamentally different in this regard. Only they are forced to look for another reason for what is and is not allowed.
It makes us very sensitive to what is allowed and what is not allowed. When the word compassion is mentioned, we spontaneously hear a command in it. A Zen verse like: ‘Without likes and dislikes everything becomes clear’ we automatically interpret as: you must not have likes or dislikes.
When we translate the Buddhist term ‘atman’ with ‘ego’, it immediately reads: I must be without ego. The term ego is so inextricably linked with a morally reprehensible selfishness. Some see the death of the ego as the ultimate goal of Zen. If the death of the ego is then to be realized through total surrender to the enlightened teacher, then the door to abuse is wide open.
But how else can we interpret it? The history of Buddhist texts is a history of polemics. So also this text, with all the associated risks. I can only speak from my own experience and understanding, without authority.
1 In meditation we can have all kinds of experiences. But that’s not the point. It’s about how we handle it. We don’t cultivate experiences, we cultivate a way of relating.
2 Meditation does not allow us to experience a deeper reality. It teaches us to understand how we experience reality differently if we handle it differently.
3 Some of these ways of coping can become a source of suffering, others of liberation. Buddhist ethics is not prescriptive but descriptive. We cannot live without likes and dislikes. But when our likes and dislikes become a spasm, then suffering arises. In openness we find freedom.
And that brings us back to that beautiful verse from the oldest Buddhism.
Like the sea, it holds many treasures
but only one taste, that of salt
Likewise, the Dharma contains many treasures
but only one taste, the liberation
Liberation, for yourself and all living beings. That’s what it comes down to in the end.