Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Zen Buddhism

Zen has two fundamental problems, as I (admittedly fairly ignorantly) see it.

First, it is obsessed with suffering, how to deal with and accept suffering, the source and inevitability of suffering, etc. Just read the "Four Noble Truths" - every one is about suffering. I can't stand that. Life is beautiful; every minute is an opportunity for joy. If you detach yourself from everything in the world in order to avoid being hurt by it, you are also limiting your joy, turning yourself into nothing more than a passive stone, eroded by fate's whimsy. I don't buy it. The best life philosophies should be focused on joy and peace, not tolerating pain.

Zen meditation is often taught as a process of labeling thoughts for what they are, and then setting them aside. You think "I feel pain. I acknowledge that I feel pain. Now I'm going to set that pain aside." In this way we are supposed to learn how to exist in each moment acknowledging the truth of that moment, good or bad, without unnecessary attachments to our emotions or thoughts that artificially cause suffering. BS! Focusing on your breathing may certainly allow you to avoid getting caught up in all the stress in life every minute of the day, but the purpose of that is to enable yourself to enjoy the minutes of your life, not to detach yourself from your emotions by labeling them so that eventually you exist only as an observer of the world, unattached, unsuffering, but present.

To be sure, I agree that it is important to learn to identify the things you can't control and learn to accept them. But I also think it's important to exercise control over what you can, and even to overestimate your powers of control. Life is what we make it. I even think there is a great deal of joy to be had by artificially creating attachment. What else is rooting for a sports team, or a feeling of triumph at a completed construction project or a scientific discovery? Or love? It's all joy from intentional attachment. Without choosing to be happy, and choosing things to pursue to make us happy, there's hardly anything in life left beyond infancy.

I also agree that it's not worthwhile to mentally perseverate on negative feelings and things that are in the past that you can no longer go back and undo. Much of the Zen rhetoric is against this kind of relentless rehashing, and that's fine. But it's not fine to deny that pain is real or that it shouldn't be painful or that it only exists in your head and therefore doesn't exist at all. Pain has a purpose and we have free will to avoid and learn from that pain. We control a huge portion of our destinies. I refuse to be a rock in the stream of the world.

Secondly, it denies the value of the mental world (this was already unavoidably tied up in the bit about suffering, actually.) I fully agree that we should appreciate as much of the joy in our immediate surroundings and in our minute-by-minute activities as possible. But my mental world is part of that. Zen tells me clear my thoughts and focus on my breathing in order to practice being in the moment. But when a Zen master tells me to focus on a dandelion in order that I truly appreciate its beauty, I will necessarily neglect to appreciate the joy in the clover behind me. Likewise, when I immerse myself in the immediate joyful presence of the stimuli of each of my five senses, I am necessarily neglecting the joy of thought. What's the difference? When I walk down the street utterly oblivious to my surroundings, not even recognizing people I know who walk past, I am not so caught up in nothingness that I'm forgetting to enjoy myself, the anti-Buddha. I'm enjoying myself in the best way possible in that moment: toying with logical structures or inventing a fantasy world or dreaming of other wonderful possibilities in life. Why does Buddhism frown on such a pure source of joy?

Anyway, I just read a great book about Zen that ignores all of that crap about suffering. And as for denying the reality that lives in our minds, it doesn't come up frequently or in depth enough to be infuriating. So I loved it. And before I mention the book in a later post, I had to write down my specific complaints about Zen, for clear context. That was really a very disorganized description, but hopefully the point comes across.

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