If a tree falls in the forest and a Zen Buddhist isn’t around to hear it, does it make a sound?
I was at a family gathering recently and we had been talking about religion for much of the evening. It’s a very … skeptical … group of people so while I don’t hide my Zen inclinations, I don’t make it the centerpiece of conversation either. I’m myself not even comfortable calling Zen a “religion” but that’s far too fine a distinction for most people to understand (and probably technically incorrect to boot).
All this talk of religion did get me thinking about the life as a Zen Buddhist and the contrast in my head that I see as it relates to that of a Christian, a Roman Catholic, Muslim or Jew. First of all, it seems to me that the worst thing that can happen to you (as a Zen Buddhist) if you fail to follow the precepts or don’t live in accordance with the paramitas is that you’ll likely get a little sad (or spread some sadness). This isn’t great, but it’s much less severe a penalty than my Roman Catholic upbringing taught me to expect. And Zen, as far as I understand it, simply informs you that the “penalty” is nothing more than reality operating in response to what you do or don’t do. There’s no superior being outside of ordinary human existence imposing penalties (or handing out presents). But, I am getting far afield of my point…
So, Zen is very personal and you follow the precepts or you don’t. You pay attention to the paramitas or you don’t. When you go to the Zendo (at least my Zendo), no one is especially passionate about you following the “rules.” There’s a lot of talk (or demonstration) about the value and meaning of these things, but no “thou shalls” or “thou shall nots” coming from a Supreme Being. In the end, it’s all very self-driven. I follow the rules (to the extent that I do) simply because they are smart and sensible and help me in my life and, I hope, spreads some cheer in the world. No other reason.
There are probably Christians and Muslims and Roman Catholics and Jews, etc. who follow their rulebooks very carefully in much the same way that dedicated Zen Buddhists do – for internal reasons – for the reason that the rules feel like they are inherently correct and not fear of eternity-long penalties.
I was feeling a little lonely for a minute or two at that dinner. I was drinking some wine and sorely tempted to have some more … so … I had some more. I probably had more than I should have had. This impulse seems to go against one of the precepts, although it’s a little fuzzy to me on the absolute meaning of “do not take intoxicants” – does it mean zero intoxicants or does it mean “don’t take so much that it affects your judgment?” I gather this is a common question (subscription required).
And now, finally, to my point :). I had personally been pretty far away from my religious roots for over twenty years before my wife convinced me to meet Sensei and sit with the Sangha. And now I find myself practicing a religion (which, again, makes me uncomfortable to say), which my son jokingly calls a cult :), and which is apparently the second least trusted religion today! This is all to say that I’m not surrounded by Buddhists (at least as far as I know) and even if I were, I wouldn’t expect them to do much more than give me a meaningful look (if that!) as I poured myself a 3rd glass of wine. And that gets to the core things that stand out about Zen for me – we (I) practice because it’s seems to be inherently correct to do so. The outcomes are predictable and desirable.
Growing up Roman Catholic, I didn’t lack for role models at any time. I was surrounded by Roman Catholics and we all went to church and were steeped in a tradition that was practiced all around us (or at least it was well understood by those around us). Buddhism isn’t quite like that. At this time and age, there simply aren’t that many people practicing in America. Don’t get me wrong – I love my Sangha and I gain a lot of strength from it. But my Sangha members aren’t around during most of my waking hours. Instead, I’m surrounded by people who don’t know about the Precepts and have no shared cultural understanding of Zen. I don’t hold that against them, but I do wonder what it would be like if I did have that shared understanding with most of the people I see every day. That would be truly fascinating.