Monday, February 24, 2014

Zen and the Real World

Kanja Odland Roshi

No one can guarantee anything when it comes to Zen practice. Well, I can almost guarantee that if you do zazen (the meditation that is the foundation of Zen), you will get pain in the legs sometimes and it’s quite likely that you will feel tired when you do it in the early mornings; that you will have moments of discouragement and moments of ease and joy. There are many things that are quite probable, but luckily, there is nothing that is certain other than this: if it is a practice that resonates with you, in doing it you cannot escape and your mind seeks unification with everything else. Your whole being moves into the territory of non-separation, and there’s an absolute attraction towards experiencing reality as it is. To quote the cybernetic race in Star Trek called the Borg, "Resistance is futile; you will be assimilated." Some people say that the whole idea of “oneness” is either a romantic New Age idea or something that is so natural that we don’t need to do anything other than just be.

Isn’t it better to use the time doing something that produces useful results in the real world instead of wasting time in meditation? "Go and help people in the real world," some people might say. Or, "Don’t just sit there
do something!" But in Zen we find a different approach. My first Zen teacher, Philip Kapleau, had a baseball cap that said, "Don’t just do somethingsit there!"

For quite a while now I have pondered what people mean when they say "the real world." If there’s something called "the real world" then there must be something that is "not real," and what part of the world is that, then? Buddhist philosophy tells us that reality exists as one unified whole, but at the same time it is multi-dimensional and it can be perceived in a million different ways. Seen from another perspective, it can be said that nothing exists; that everything is unreal. The first time we attempt to do zazen we approach this unreal, multidimensional reality from a new vantage point, and through this new approach we actually have a chance to experience this reality as simultaneously real and unreal.

Zen practice simply put is to peel away the veils of samsara and realize nirvana within. Samsara-only is a confined world built of notions and form, birth and death and because of its limitations it is unsatisfying. Nirvana is the unlimited world of emptiness and no-form that can make us free from the bondage of dissatisfaction. With practice, we start unveiling and after a while there’s no turning back: what we have started cannot be undone. Even with tiny glimpses of the world as nirvana in the midst of samsara, we know that we must continue this peeling-away process. We cannot stand being constricted any more, but it isn’t an easy process so sometimes we might curse the fact that we started this whole business. We could instead have continued living peacefully protected by our clothes of ignorance instead of undressing. Most people would describe their life only from the point of view of samsara because they don’t dare to think thoughts as vast as unthinkable nirvana. The samsara-only world has no room for anything but limited thoughtsand it is created through them.

We cannot blame others, society or anything else for how we perceive our world, because we ourselves are the creators of our own reality, we ourselves create samsara and nirvana. "Our thought now being no-thought, our dancing and songs are the voice of the Dharma” as Zen Master Hakuin puts it in his Chant in Praise of Zazen. No-thought doesn’t mean never thinking. Nevertheless, we have to begin with returning to the world of silence, the world of the quiet, empty mind, the world that exists before thoughts are born. And when we are in that space, we suddenly find ourselves realizing the world of nirvana. Zen practice exists because the ineffable world of nirvana exists and zazen is the gate to that world. But the world of samsara also exists within nirvana and it’s not about getting rid of one thing and getting hold of something else. It is about realizing the world as it is: samsara and nirvana as one.

When I started doing zazen thirty years ago, I was going to art school. After practicing regularly for some time, I started to feel that the art world was all fake; everyone was just faking it. Like the emperor’s new clothes, it seemed so pretentious and false. It became impossible for me to continue. The work I did in the evenings and on weekends aiding the elderly and disabled felt much more genuine and meaningful; it made much more sense to me. It took many years before I could return to doing art. Zen practice has made it possible to relate to art differently, or rather to relate to myself differently. For a time I had to reject that whole world, but now when I no longer think of myself as an artist creating art, I simply enjoy finding and exploring form and color (these days using a camera). But the artist-ego still pops up now and then: for example, an artist friend doesn’t comment on some images I show her and I start to imagine all kinds of things about what she thinks. Wow, all the imagining that goes on–it’s amazing! We create worlds, universes with our thoughts and imaginings and in the center we place our self. And whether we see ourselves on top or at the bottom, winning or losing, we are always at the center. In the long run it’s such a burden to carry the responsibility of being the main actor in the TV series Samsara: An Epic Adventure, and there are endless seasons of it available for download. Watching season 1214, episode 26, we reflect, "This seems so familiar and it feels like the same story is repeating itself over and over with just a few tiny differences." Well, the repetition and predictability is what makes it so addictive.

I found a website called The Escape: An Epic Adventure presenting different options for adventurous travel: "India on Motorcycle," "Diving in Mombasa," and "Vintage Cycling in America." I must say that it looked quite exciting to me. Adventures like that might not at all be escapist; they might even be the opposite. We might dismiss things as superficial or some other negative thing, just because we ourselves don’t dare to try them. I looked at a picture on that website and when I saw a bunch of leather-clad guys with big motorcycles in India somewhere, I felt an urge to frown and say, "This looks so macho, who do they think they are? They should do something important instead, like helping people in the world." Oops!

Some people say living in a Zen community is escapism; others claim that not living in a Zen community is escapism. Some people say that having a relationship is escapism; others say not having one is escapism—and so forth and so on. It all depends on the circumstances. What it is not to escape? That’s something for each one of us to find out and for some of us, a Buddhist meditation practice may be a way of finding out. But whatever you do my advice is this: don’t make the mistake of trying to escape challenge. Challenge yourself, be daring and step out of your comfort zone. Otherwise the small, predictable world of samsara-only will tend to flourish. Without at least a glimpse of nirvana-also it’s very hard to deal with pain, discouragement, and impermanence and it’s impossible to experience real happiness.

I will end with a quote from the diaries of Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman living in Amsterdam during the Second World War [1]:
Yes, we carry everything within us, God and Heaven and Hell and Earth and Life and Death and all of history. The externals are simply so many props; everything we need is within us. And we have to take everything that comes: the bad with the good, which does not mean we cannot devote our life to curing the bad. But we must know what motives inspire our struggle, and we must begin with ourselves, every day anew. 
There was a time when I thought that I had to come up with a host of brilliant ideas each day, and now I sometimes feel like a barren stretch of land on which nothing grows, but which is nevertheless spanned by a high, wide sky. And this way is by far the better. Something has crystallized. I have looked our destruction, our miserable end, which has already begun in so many small ways in our daily life, straight in the eye and accepted it into my life, and my love of life has not been diminished. I am not bitter or rebellious, or in any way discouraged. I continue to grow from day to day, even with the likelihood of destruction staring me in the face.
[1] Hilleseum, Etty. 1999. An Interrupted Life: The Diaries, 19411943, and Letters from Westerbork by Etty Hillesum. London: Persephone Books Ltd.  

Kanja Odland Roshi: Zen Priest & Writer

Kanja Odland Roshi was born in Stockholm, Sweden in 1963. She started her Zen training in 1984, as a student of both Philip Kapleau Roshi and his successor, Bodhin Kjolhede Roshi. She was ordained as a Zen priest in 1999 and was given permission to teach by Kjolhede Roshi in 2001. Since then she has been teaching full-time. Together with her co-teacher Sante Poromaa Roshi, she has been instrumental in the creation of a training temple in rural Sweden called Zengården, started in 1990, as well as the growth and development of a network of city Zen centers in Sweden, Finland, and Scotland. 

She offers regular sesshin at Zengården in English, gives public talks on Zen, take photos, writes articles, and recently published the book Vandring på spårlös stig (Wandering on the Traceless Path), available in Swedish.

Photos courtesy of Kanja Odland Roshi

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