’‘Ow do!’ Is a greeting used in the North of England. Being from the North of England, I understand those three words completely. Soft Southerners would, probably, after a few squawks, and a bit of skipping, say. ‘How do you do?’ So my welcome has, somehow, become a question. ‘‘Ow do’, is not an abbreviation, only a different way of saying hello.
Anyone from outside the United Kingdom is already totally baffled, thinking, ‘What the (insert appropriately) has this to do with Zen Buddhism?’ I would choose everything, but, I’m writing it, or, more correctly, imparting the information for others to consider. The other choice could be that non UK dwellers are absolutely right, and that it has nothing to do with Buddhist meditation practice, at all. The writer is simply welcoming the reader. A Zen master would be nodding in satisfaction, as the major theme explored in the Lotus Sutra has just been very neatly explained, with kindliness, and, without digression. Seven hundred pages in a paragraph; now that really is Zen! So, which is the best choice, of these four, to make about what you have just read? Whaddya mean you don’t understand?
Without the cultural background, everything you have read, is perfectly sensible, although mildly insulting, only if you are a soft Southerner, or reet proud Northener. Zen master’s don’t get miffed, instead, getting very even. They also avoid jumping to a conclusion, preferring a, ‘Wait and see.’ approach. To a non U.K. resident, admittedly, it is probably total gibberish. Many Northeners, Soft Southerners, Welsh, Scots Irish, Australians, Spanish, Americans, etc. etc. Feel the same way about Chinese, and Japanese, Ch’an, or Zen, quotations, and practices. The heritage that makes sense of them is missing. Any reference points are absent. You read, wishing to learn from the words, and, though, perfectly legible, they are meaningless. I understand the dilemma having been through the process myself. What helped? First of all I began to take the wait, and see, concept very seriously. I also realised that in wanting to help others, perhaps a new approach was needed.
A long story ago…High in the Brecon Beacons, is a magical place called Buckland Hall, it’s a retreat centre. One day, while I was there, someone told me, from the depths of a very strange meditation, that Buddha was saying, ‘I am not his parrot.’ I thought I knew what was being said at the time. It’s relevance though is clearly for right now, as this article is being written. It could have been structured in a totally sensible, historically based, way, the same way as has always been used, or, Buddha’s, ‘Not The Parrot,’ could squawk!
Zen Buddhism is based on the concept of Mahayana, which has, as its bedrock, everything is already enlightened, is totally perfect, and blissfully happy as it is. Zen practitioners take the view; this is true, accept it, deal with it. What else is there to discuss? So, practising mindfulness, they stop talking. Their conclusions being arrived at, mainly, through meditation. Mahayana is the, ‘Great Vehicle.’ Unlike a bus, instead of trying to board, while it is in motion, walk behind the vehicle as it clears the way ahead. It has been a long journey since the parrot hatched out on that misty, tree shrouded, Welsh hillside. Much of it spent in relative isolation, along the way there was a realisation that who I am, or thought I was, is irrelevant to this earthly exercise, many would label as their life. Labels are no longer applicable. I am not Buddha’s parrot, so why would even that label be required? Definitions, and labels, were left in the bin at the Mahayana stop. Some readers may have begun to apply one, it is their label. Their judgement, but, more importantly, their sentence upon themselves.
Strong words, gently spoken. I don’t matter, the person is irrelevant. Think of the, ‘me,’ writing this as intelligent software, if that aids your understanding as you read. Ego has disappeared, happily, we embrace non-existence, death holds no fear, it lies defeated, in the dust this body will become. Where has that we suddenly appeared from?
There is an it, that is all. It is all we, life, mountains, the universe are. It is also all Buddha found in his meditations. It is enlightenment, since all is enlightened, which, as a word, describing an idea, may be wrong in its description, and concept. Once it is realised, as a possibility, the implications on our own reality can be tremendous. We does (wait, and see, that apparent mistake may become clearer) not appear overnight, Buddha spent years looking, before reaching his final conclusions, and his explanations are still unfolding. It is the Dao, C’han, the Zen, all just words for the same thing. God, however, is more of a mind set, than a word. If that is how your Ark floats, then you can think along those lines too.
If it is everything, then, as a reality, separation from it is impossible. As an illusion, then, by definition, anything is possible. Zen, is not a religion, it is a philosophy, like all schools of Buddhist thought. Zen, however, may lead you to realising there is no separation for anything. ‘All are one, there are no dualities.’ Buddha also taught, ‘All is an illusion of our own perception.’ Now, ask yourself, ‘how difficult is it to know the mind of God?’ Then go back to ‘All is an illusion of our own perception.’ As many times as you need to. Seriously, without accepting the possibility exists, reading further is a waste of your time. God, is simply the most appropriate word to use in this context. It explains a lot, in a few words. It is also a word we are trying to avoid using.
Before continuing, ask yourself if you are reading from, A) Stubbornness, which is good. B) Fascination, which is just as good. C) Because you are a Southerner out to prove they are not all soft. There is an old Zen saying, ‘There are No Samurai South of Brum.’ OK, it’s a lie, a thought through choice, and what better way to introduce the concept of truth? Truth can be thought of as a river, flowing from a single source. We are all in a canoe, floating by, somewhere along the river. Does it carry us home, or, are we paddling away from the spring by our life choices? Another way to understand truth, is in it being the universal glue, binding reality together. It is also, obviously, the solvent that separates truth, from lies, fact, from fiction. I chose to lie about the Solihull Samurai, I knew I was telling a porky, or fib. Or, I chose to speak from my own ego, for a moment, rather than flowing with the thoughts generating the huge bulk of what is being presented.
Zen goes beyond words, its truth becomes a recognisable force almost like a constant, softly blowing, breeze. Words, which could be called labels just as usefully, in regard to Zen, are meaningless. Anything, without the background, is meaningless. The problem facing you being that the universal background is Zen, in its absolute purity. So, having now shown why describing Zen, (which is just another word), using language, of any kind, is both, theoretically, and practically, impossible. Which is the, non-negotiable, absolute truth. Where do we go from here? There is no path to follow. Very very Zen isn’t it?
Language can be a tourniquet on our understanding sometimes. This is a factual article, that could, possibly, lead into greater insight. ‘No shit Sherlock!’ That was the truth, expressed with humour. I could, admittedly, have used the word, ‘poo,’ instead, but the whole point of what was being expressed would have changed. There would also have to be an acknowledgement that many use the spelling, ‘pooh.’ Words can also be used to paint pictures, but, doing so, takes a lot of words to express the image. These words are the water your horse has been led to. Drink, or not, the words will flow regardless. Whether, or, not, they actually quench a thirst, is, noble horse, entirely up to you. That is also true. Buddha taught one thing that led to this particular river, for this particular mule, ‘We are our own teachers.’ To begin to achieve that status, for yourself, requires total self honesty, and an absolute destruction of the ego self. The strange thing is the one, whichever route you choose, inevitably, leads to the other.
No one would disagree with the statement, ‘That which comes of Earth, will remain on Earth.’ Or, in Derbyshire gabble it would read, ‘There’s no pockets in yer shroud, tha knows.’ Your ego self withers, and dies, with the body. Whatever is left remains in unity, which is where it always was, as enlightened as it ever will be. Ego simply confused the reference points. I do not exist, in unity, in enlightenment, in knowing truth, there can only be a we. Sometimes in total, silent, intimacy. We got there, eventually!
It is the bliss ignorance is not, nor can ever be. It is the we I are, because, I am, no longer applies. It is the we that does not appear overnight. It is beyond definition, beyond the understanding of others, since explanations are meaningless. You can honestly state it is everything, but what does that mean exactly? There can be no exactly in everything! It is not beyond experiencing. The it, though, will always be your this, and someone else’s that. Mahayana was my bus, it could be your tram, or unicycle. I have no more questions for myself, but I also understand why I don’t have anyone’s answers. Once experienced, then we can begin to learn, this is where the fun begins. It is the reason Buddha has a sublime, enigmatic, smile, knowing he needs a we. Your clues lie in the facts that if Zen, is beyond words, then it must lie in silence, and by existing beyond conceptualisation, it is found outside thought too. This is why we can only be our own teachers, unless you can find a way to silently speak instructions, and place unknown thoughts within a person’s mind. It is love, pure unconditional love. A love that loves the other in the way they are totally free. Those who love one another, also tend to understand each other, without anything needing to be said.
Having shredded a few misunderstandings, at the risk of creating a few more. It now seems right to get another small one out of the way. Buddha teaches that there are no dualities, we are all one. After a while it became clear that this was the case. Which, for a practising medium, posed a few problems regarding the souls of our dearly departed loved ones. Your beliefs are sacrosanct, though they may change if you decide to begin Zen meditation, and use the techniques. Change comes from within. That is your within, no one else’s. It only seems right to point out the eternal life many yearn for, but, to me, is an inescapable fact. May be the one, that is the you, reading this, right now.
Zen reduces it all to its utmost simplicity, so it is with the practice. Sit, meditate, think upon the meditation, repeat as often as necessary. Meditation cannot, actually, be taught, only experienced. Again, many readers will argue otherwise, then, dear reader, stop reading! Life is based not on arguments, but choices, not between good and bad, but a choice, and, perhaps, a better choice. Sometimes the option is as stark as following another’s instruction or not. Being based on Zen, the instructions are simple.
The first instruction is actually common sense. Meditation takes time. Only you can decide how much time you wish to spend on it. That time needs to be spent wisely, without interruption. It takes about five minutes to actually enter a meditative state, this decreases to two, or three, with practice. The suggestion is to allow fifteen minutes a session, but it will need preparing for. Mobile off, or silent, a space to be in, etc. Uninterrupted means just that. Think about what would prevent you having fifteen minutes of silent solitude, and put remedial actions in place. This preparation becomes part of your meditation as it is mindfulness practice in action. If you do decide to follow the instructions, here is the second; remember the previous two sentences.
Music, is not recommended, at first. It takes a little while to recognise the meditative state, to become comfortable within it, and then begin to benefit, and learn from, the calm inner quiet. The whole point of the exercise is to maintain a relaxed awareness. Music, while relaxing, is too complicated and, can, too easily, become the focus of your awareness. The same applies to Apps of meditation bells etc. Until you are comfortable, within silence, you are advised to sit, in silence. Consider this after you have tried the exercise, it might help you understand the strange quiet you became aware of. Part of the process is your ego mind becomes so bored it wanders off; to play by itself, or, as with most, fed up, two year old, toddlers, throws a temper tantrum a tiny tornado would be proud of, and then falls asleep.
When there was still an ‘I,’ the ego was seen as just that, a grumpy toddler always wanting to play. It was visualised sitting in a buggy, squealing to be taken to the park. Over time, the child realised that, to get play times, it had to behave appropriately. The mistake, though, was to use, ‘corporal punishment.’ However there is the possibility of a digression appearing here, which is a practice I really excel at, so, the kid gets strapped in the buggy again, and we progress instead.
As Buddha said, ‘We teach ourself, in all things.’ Welcome to the classroom, find your chair, or floor section. ZAZEN is the name applied to the practice of sitting quietly, which is all you will be doing if you choose to try the exercise. The chair needs a straight back, but with enough seat padding to be cosy. If you choose the floor, make sure your thighs are supported by a cushion(s) or pillow. You don’t need a Zafu, and Zabuton, but, if you have them, you now know why they work. You need to be comfortable, so loose clothing is best, but it needs to be environment appropriate, or the heating needs to be clothing appropriate. Think it all through, consciously, take it semi seriously, which is a better choice than seriously. If you really need the jargon applied to all you do, then, ‘Welcome to the Zendo.’
1) Sit comfortably, in a position you can maintain for fifteen minutes. Allow yourself a minute or two to get into this position. If you are in a chair your feet should be on the floor, that is, of course, both feet.
2) Get comfortable, so you won’t fidget for fifteen minutes! Which is what those two minutes were for. It is a separate instruction, because you are going to sit quietly, not have a coffee. Eventually you may learn that you can meditate over coffee, but the jargon dictates that is being mindfully present, rather than meditating. As you become comfortable, close your eyes.
3) Relax, and, as you breath in, tell yourself, via a thought, ‘I am breathing in.’ Relax, in this context, means no movement, which, if you are comfortable, is a no brainer. If you need to move, because of cramp, that is a brainer movement, so make it, then return to being relaxed. If you need to cough, then, cough. Do not try to suppress a sneeze either, but don’t wipe your nose with your sleeve. You are, quite simply, sitting, so sit.
4) Relax, and, as you breath out, tell yourself, via a thought, ‘I am breathing out.’
5) Ignore other thoughts, and try to consciously breath. Be aware of each breath as it is taken, in, then out. Tell yourself, in a thought, what you are doing. Be aware only of sitting, in a room you know like the back of your hand. What else are you doing, in reality? Nothing, so what else is there to be aware of? What else can you be aware of without making it up? Remember, this as each thought around kids, work, bills, etc. Enters your mind, you are sitting quietly. Let the thought go. You can act on it later. This awareness of making the choice to detach yourself from normal behaviour is what it is all about, but, in all things, you can only remain aware, the off switch is sleep. This phase of meditating is actually brain active, not brain relaxed, things quickly begin to settle down. You soon only hear the thoughts attached to each breath. Make each one a point of focus for your awareness, as each breath, in or out, is made, let the thought into your mind, then replace it with the opposite thought as the opposite action occurs. Do not deviate, and, if you do, because you will. Simply return to the thoughts on breathing.
6) At some time in the process, which may not be at your first attempt, you will suddenly realise things have changed, The chatter in your mind has stopped. You will be aware of the change, and, like everyone else who has tried to do this, for the thousands of years the knowledge has existed, you will pull yourself straight out of it. It is not that you cannot meditate, rather that you can, and it’s a bit of a shock. The quiet mind is a strange place to be. Looking around your environment will reassure you it was the only change that occurred. It may have felt like a silk wrapped frozen chicken just whacked your forehead, but it was the mind silenced. The impossibility of caging the wind, made possible. If you have time you can go back to the beginning, if not, next time will do. Be kind to yourself!
7) A few sessions will be required to become proficient at switching off the babble of the monkey mind. With regular practice, it becomes another way of being, the cliff seems to shrink, the landing becomes less of a shock. Eventually, it is a way of life. This may not actually be the better choice, which was the experience of someone who made that choice, then felt a good choice was to re-think.
That really is all there is to it, but the only way to see, and understand, that is all there is to it, is to do it. As Yoda said,‘There is no try. Do, or, do not.’ Some readers already disagree with what they have read. If you are happy on your path, if you are progressing as you wish, without fear, or doubt, choose to ignore the words.
You may be wondering where are all the promises of the changes this will make to your life? Shouldn’t there be babble about the thrill, and wonderment, connecting with the raw universal energy actually is. Without any apology, there will not be any. It won’t have happened either. Silencing the mind, to meditate properly, is like the first breath a new born child takes. It is a crib, but one where sleep is uninterrupted by ego’s dreams. The connection is always there too. Strangely, enlightenment is vastly overrated because the closer it draws the more mundane it appears.
Your life can change, if you choose to make the changes eventually, as you grow. Zen meditation enables those choices to be appropriate to you. The eternal you. Not the construction of others’ expectations. No one practising any form of spiritual, holistic, and alternate therapy, would argue ego has any place within it. As regards mediumship, channelling, and Angelic work, the same applies. The higher beings, having no ego, do not communicate with ego. That their words are often relayed from an ego space, is something those, with ego, must address for themselves. Again, the voice of experience speaks. Silencing the mind allows the self to become apparent, and, once the self becomes known, it can explore. One thing you may discover, quite quickly, is that We only do, ‘Wait and see.’
Another wonder experienced meditators, and possibly alternative therapists, and others, may have, is there is no mention of protecting yourself first. The whole point of Zen meditation is to become aware of reality, minus the ego. Once that is achieved other things begin to happen. The reality of the universe is that separation from it is an illusion caused by ego. Protecting oneself, before undertaking meditation, simply armours the very thing you are trying to find a way around. Another way to look at this is to use the, ‘G,’ word. You are a part of God. Protecting yourself, from God, separates yourself from God. It also says to God, ‘I don’t trust the way you have organised things, so, I’m going to do it my way.’ If you still wish to practice your own, preferred, protection ritual, feel free to, it is your choice.
All this practice, as described can do is silence the ego mind. It is a very small step. Other techniques, such as SHIKINTAZA, and the use of KOAN are useless without the silence within. Practising them may even be detrimental to progress, unless Zazen is realised first. Zazen, is unique, in that it cannot be taught. Only the means of achieving it. You may find that Zazen leads you to understanding why this is so.
Lao Tsu, is often quoted, ‘The journey of a thousand miles, begins with a single step.’ This seems the entirely appropriate, perhaps the only choice to make here. Zen teaches differently. This is the river from which the horse drinks, before setting out, and, while drinking, noble horse, the farrier will fit your shoes. The shoed mule, we became, learned slowly. Knowing that beyond belief, and faith, there can only be certainty, understanding that nothing else truly exists when separated from that certainty.
Zen meditation is a small step away from mindfulness practice. That step is the one under the doorway of the eternal now. Awareness is the key to the door, and the path to the doorstep. Meditation gradually allows that awareness to grow. Sit, breath, don’t think. Don’t place yourself out of your surroundings, be aware of your surroundings, be fully aware of yourself within those surroundings, at all times. Try to do this as often as possible. This one small paragraph is all that needed to be said. So, after having made fun of them throughout this article. It seems fair to let the soft Southerners have the final word. ‘How do you do….Zen?’
© Alan Stevens 2015