Stories & Reflections
By Paulo Coelho
WARRIOR OF THE LIGHT ONLINE has often transcribed classic texts of the Zen school. But what does it mean, exactly? As Ming Zhen Shakya explains, Zen is to Buddhism what the Kabbalah is to Judaism, contemplation is to Christianity, Sufi dancing is to Islam: in other words, it is the mystical practice of philosophical or spiritual teaching.
The Zen school began in China as a mixture of the Buddhism from Nepal with the local Taoist traditions (which we shall discuss later). Between the years 700 and 1200, monks traveled to Japan and there developed two types of meditation based on physical posture: the Rinzai style says that all human beings can achieve illumination if they live their existence with respect and sobriety, while the Soto style preaches the importance of lengthy training in order to reach this objective.
According to most religions, an illuminated man is someone who manages to free himself from his own egotism, understands that he his merely a small – but important – part in God’s Great plan, and does everything possible to concentrate on the good working of this part. As he moves in this direction, superfluous things lose their importance, and with this his suffering recedes.
According to the Zen masters, we all have an intuitive knowledge of the reason for our existence. But most philosophical or religious teachings are nothing but ways of provoking, deep down inside us, the contact with the wisdom which is already there – buried deep in layers of prejudice, guilt, mental confusion and false ideas about our own importance.
Zen Buddhism – especially that which was elaborated from the Soto style – developed a series of techniques to enable man to reach this inner peace and comprehension. To us, with our Western vision of our inner search, these techniques are deeply related to the words of Jesus, in the Gospel according to Matthew: “when thou prayest, enter thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to the Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.”
Someone practicing Zen finds a calm place, and sits in a position in which he can keep his balance for a long time, but without support for his spine; therefore the best-known posture is with the legs crossed, the hands linked in front over his pelvis. At some monasteries I visited in Japan they use a type of leather cushion in order to raise the body slightly, and allow for better blood circulation in the legs.
Now one must try to remain motionless for as long as possible, while obeying a few simples rules. The head must lean forward, the eyes focused on nothing, but not closed, because that can cause sleepiness. One observes one’s breathing, trying not influence its rhythm – it should be as natural as possible, for as the zazen (the name for this posture) is held, one’s inhalation and exhalation tend to become more paused and slower.
Although many who claim to know the techniques of meditation think that one must “empty one’s mind”, we all – and all the great Zen masters – know that this is impossible. The main idea is not to try and control our thoughts and emotions, nor seek spiritual contact with God; all this will come in its own time, as we become more and more calm.
Since the practice of Zen is extremely simple, without any religious or philosophical connotations, it helps us – paradoxically – to connect to God and to answer our doubts in an unconscious way. The next time you are at home with nothing to do, and think everything around you is annoying and repetitive, try to sit down in a quiet place, remain still, and let the world go on around you.
You will see that, in order to do the important things in life, at times one must allow oneself to do nothing.
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