Thursday, April 1, 2010

Zen Buddhism is a Koan

Since the early 1970's I had an interest in Zen and its philosophy and practice. I fell in love with the works of Alan Watts and slept with Suzuki Roshi's 'Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind'. If a book had the word Zen in it, I bought it.

It wasn't until around 1988 that I began formal studies with a bona fide real life Soto Zen priest. I sat my first sesshin with Rev. Nonin Chowaney out of Omaha, Nebraska. It wasn't what I thought it was. From what I read Zen was about spontaneity, freedom and of course meditation. When we started sesshin I thought there would be more action, but all we did was sit and stare at a wall for what it seemed like, well, forever. My knees ached, my back ached and I had no idea that there was also so much bowing and full prostations. Then chanting sutras in Japanese! Totally lost.

Well, to get to the point of my post. Zen without Buddhism is basically Taoism. It is more in tune with nature and is about harmony and maintaining balance. Zen is about following the Way and developing a sensitivity and insight into the world, not necessarily the teachings of Buddha.

Buddhism is about ending suffering, finding enlightenment and following the teachings and doctrines of the historical Buddha. In some circles Buddhism can be very dogmatic and overly concerned with form and politics, not unlike the Catholic Church. Yet, I love the teachings of the Buddha and am very much influenced by them.

It just seems to me that Zen and Buddhism can be polar opposites. Zen and its humor and spontaniety...Buddhism with its form, scriptures and ritual. In many ways having them together is a living koan. Reconciling these two into a practice and way of life seems to be the conundrum that I have struggled with over the years....part of my bias is I distrust formal religion and its heirarchy. No wonder Nonin gave me Shinzen....Trust my Dharma name.

But just now as I write, my Dharma name is Trust Zen, not Trust Buddhism...or even Zen Buddhism. Interesting...oh well. My wife wants to talk to me now and put my 'mistress', the laptop aside.

Hands palm to palm,

image courtesy of Buddhism Now


  1. Wow, now I know more about you, Shinzen :)

    I never thought such contradiction as a koan. Now, viewing contradictions in life as koan really helps. Thanks for sharing this great insight, Shinzen :)

  2. Thanks Rizal. They are also like yin and yang, complementary opposites...each containing a seed of the other.

  3. I can feel you on this Shinzen. The polar opposites and the paradox in life is a favorite topic of mine. It is an illusion of opposites as we realize that one can not exist without the other. One gives the other definition and meaning to us. They are indivisible, or one in the same. Zen exists in Buddhism and Buddhism in Zen. You gotta love it!

  4. You're right C.OM. Gotta love it...and live it. I have come to realize there is real no reconciling the is more of just seeing it and then living it day by day...that's the joy of the journey.

  5. That's a great post with a nice get to know ya feel to it Mr. TrustZen. I just have to love it ;-)