This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

NOTICE:
This Dark Age is now available in paperback on Amazon. The print version is MUCH cleaner than this online version, which is largely unedited and has fallen by the wayside as the project has grown. If you’ve appreciated my writing, please consider leaving a review on the relevant paperback volumes. The print edition also includes new sections (Military History, War Psychology, Dogmatic Theology).

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Zen Buddhism

Like all sects, the Japanese school of Zen Buddhism traces its doctrine back to Gautama himself. The story runs as follows:

The Buddha offered many teachings, and those most easily grasped by the masses were gathered and recorded in the Pali canon. However, there was a more esoteric aspect to his sermons that ws not always recorded because only the keenest of his students perceived it. The relevant example here occurred during the Flower Sermon. Rather than preach via words, the Buddha merely held a golden lotus in the air. As we might expect, the point was missed by almost everyone except for one follower named Mahakasyapa, who indicated his comprehension with a subtle smile. This smile caught the eye of the Buddha, who then designated Mahakasyapa his successor. This insight—The Secret of the Flower—was handed down via twenty-eight patriarchs in India and then carried to China with by Bodhidharma in 520 AD. Finally, in the twelve century AD, this secret teaching spread to Japan and became Zen.

Zen has associations with Amidism but is more or less indifferent to the concepts or organized religion such as scriptural authority, adherence to strict orthodoxy, and iconography. It is far more like a mysticism than a ritual system, more an art than a science. We could say that it differs from orthodoxy Mahayana in the same way that Christ’s sermons and the writings of Christian mystics differ from mainstream systematic Christian theology.

The fundamental creed of Zen is that the kingdom of God is within the heart of man; that the Buddha is not to be found in books, in images, much less in rational concepts, but is in the depths of the heart. The result is an approach to Enlightenment that sets out to exasperate the mind, that it may finally see.

The whole style of Zen is aptly conveyed by that original Flower Sermon, intended as it is to reproduce the insight given to Mahakasyapa, and its method follows accordingly. In fact it is so much like that situation that it is almost absurd to witness. To enter into Zen is to have one’s mind baffled and (intentionally) overwhelmed by paradox and nonsense.

The method or practice of Zen can be described through a few key concepts:

First, zazen. Zazen means ‘seated meditation’ and Zen monks are commonly portrayed in Western films (accurately so) in a large hall seated in a specific posture deep in meditation. This is the lotus posture of Hindu origin.

On what does the student meditate? Here we encounter the confounding element of Zen, which we mentioned above but did not name: the koan.

Koan means simply ‘problem’ but these are problems presented in the form of a riddle that, from a rational point of view, are insoluable or just plain nonsense. A famous example tells of a student who just entered the monastery and asks:

“Please give me instruction, Master.”

The master asks, “Have you had your breakfast?”

“Yes, I have,” replied the student.

“Then go and wash your bowls.”

Or another, which is perhaps more familiar in Western parlance:

“The clapping of two hands emits a sound. What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

During zazen the full force of the mind is intended to be thrown at these problems and then, as no solution is forthcoming, our trust in concepts and logic fades and we are forcibly brought to a point of surrender, and this provides the possibility of an insight. This insight, sometimes years in the making, is called satori. Obviously this practice would be torture to the scientific rationalist.

The student is, however, not alone. A third term, sanzen, comes into play and refers to the daily (twice daily, in fact) interaction between the student and the master. The meetings are brief and during this time the student brings their understanding before the master and the master corrects, affirms, and dismisses.

For the Zen practitioner, the experience of satori is not the same as Enlightenment, nor is it a destination at all, but the beginning of the journey. It may come after years of disciplined focus, but it is merely the first discernment.

Beyond the enigma of the koan, we find that Zen teachings allow us to realize a degree of peace and appreciation for the beauty of things. Some passages sound very much like they could have come directly from Taoist literature, and in fact Zen and Taoism are closely allied. Consider the following poem by Matsunaga Teitoku:

“The morning glory blooms but an hour, and yet it differs not at heart

From the giant pine that lives for a thousand years.”

What is the meaning of this teaching? Is this the standard Buddhist emphasis on impermanence and the inevitability of death? Or is something more going on here. Let us refer to the commentary of Kinso for an answer:

“He who has found the way in the morning may die at peace in the evening. To bloom in the morning, to await the heat of the sun, and then to perish, such is the lot appointed to the morning glory by Providence. There are pines, indeed, which have lived for a thousand years, but the morning glory, who must die so soon, never for a moment forgets herself, or shows herself to be envious of others. Every morning her flowers unfold, magically fair, they yield the natural virtue that has been granted to them, then they wither. And thus they perform their duty faithfully. Why condemn that faithfulness as vain and profitless.

“It is the same with the pine as with the morning glory, but as the life of the latter is the shorter, it illustrates the principle in a more striking way. The giant pine does not ponder on its thousand years, nor the morning glory on its life of a single day. Each does simply what it must. Certainly, the fate of the morning glory is other than that of the pine, yet their destiny is alike in this, that they fulfill the will of Providence, and are content.”

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