How many times, whoever makes a spiritual journey of any kind, be it yoga, meditation, Tai Chi or holistic disciplines such as Reiki, Shiatsu, have heard a question like that? According to the common (and ignorant) mentality, those who embrace a type of philosophy and life should always be calm and peaceful, not swearing, not overdoing in anything and maybe being slapped without reacting.
What being Zen means
«A special transmission outside the scriptures
Not founded upon words and letters;
By pointing directly to [one’s] mind
It lets one see into [one’s own true] nature and [thus] attain Buddhahood.»
Four Sacred Verses of Bodhidharma
What Zen is
A brief mention of Zen. It is a current of Buddhism developed in Japan around 1200. It is based on the Chinese tradition Chan, attributed to the mythical founder Bodhidharma, who lived between the 5th and the 6th centuries. Chan is a Chinese word that tries to copy, in terms of pronunciation, the Sanskrit Dhyana. This is generally translated as “meditation“, even if it means “vision”. It is one of the eight Angas of Patanjali’s yoga, seventh before Samadhi (mystical ecstasy). Bodhidharma was in fact an Indian Buddhist monk who went to China to spread his thought. He is also said to be the founder of Shaolin martial arts. So from Dhyana, Chan is born, which in Japan becomes Zen (same ideograms, different pronunciation). In short, it is a set of Buddhist schools based on the practice of meditation and the experience of satori (awakening or enlightenment) at the expense of scripture.
Zen in everyday life
Over the centuries, Zen practice has given rise not only to various schools of thought but also to many arts such as haiku (poetry), ikebana (flower composition), shodo (calligraphy), zen-ga (painting), no (theatre), the culinary art. It has also influenced Japanese martial arts, such as judo, karate, aikido, kendo and kyudo (archery). This type of approach, therefore, is applicable to every aspect of human life, for this reason in the last century it has become so popular and widespread even in the West. The problem of us Westerners is that all that we receive from the East, we usually cripple it by distorting it. Therefore we have given to Zen connotations that are not purely of its own, but which come mainly from moralism and the Christian religion. Thus a belief was created about what Zen should be or not, according to a common idea that is fairly widespread. But what is this idea?
What Zen is and what is not
It is rather easy for the ordinary human being to decide how others should live their life, especially when it concerns a path that the accuser barely knows. “It’s alright for them. They aren’t the ones sticking their necks out!”, they say. So it often happens that, if you take a spiritual path of any kind, you meet people who will look at you sideways judging you and pretending to know your path much better than you. They know what you have to eat, what not, when, the words you have to say and the forbidden ones, the behaviours granted and those not. All things, by the way, that they carefully do not follow! Finally, a day happens when they see you angry and call you this way: “Ehi buddy, you are Zen! You should never be pissed off!” But is it really like this? Whoever follows any spiritual path (not only Zen of course) must follow specific diets, cannot say bad words, can not be angry or show emotions in general, can not, ultimately, ever let go? Nothing could be more false!
First of all, we have seen what the essence of Zen is: the achievement of satori (enlightenment) through meditative practice and all that is functional to it. Just this! There is nothing more! There is no talk of suppressing emotions, of being unperturbed, of diets (in many Zen monasteries, everything is eaten, even animals) or specific moral behaviour. Zen is just the opposite: achieving the essence of things without so many frills and rituals. It is more a question of deconstructing than doing: slowly destroying the superstructures created by society, education, culture, religion, morals, etc. As Picasso said:
“It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child”
Make a spiritual journey today
Why is Zen united to spirituality in general?
Many books have been written about Zen. Especially since it was spread during the 50s and 60s in the USA. Its doctrinal simplicity, the focus on practice rather than on doctrines or scriptures, has meant that it was easy to be received by the Western world, very far from the mentality of the East. Thus we find books that have become famous, such as “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance” just to name one, which adapt this discipline to everyday Western life. From there to consider, for the ignorant mind, all spiritual paths as Zen, was a moment.
So you just have to look calm or say that you practice meditation, or make a spiritual citation (of any kind) that you are now labelled as Zen. Not that there is nothing wrong with it, it is simply to explain a social and cultural dynamic. Every spiritual path has its own intimate peculiarity and often diverge from each other even by a lot. But one thing is certain: if you take one of these paths, for the common person you will always be labelled in the same way, regardless of the path chosen.
The calm before, during and after the storm
One of the main elements of spiritual research is the achievement of inner peace. More or less, every journey has the purpose or side effect of obtaining a basic serenity that makes the person calm even in the midst of the most difficult situations. This is quite undeniable: we have never heard of a spirituality made up to make the man agitated, insecure and terrified of everything, or super excited and hyperactive, or worse a fanatic always ready to attack what is different from the what in which he/she believes (attention I speak of spirituality, not of religions!). The error that the common man makes (and often also those who follow these paths) is to absolutize this concept of tranquillity, in order to believe that the spiritual man must be impassive in the face of events, unassailable by external phenomena, emotionless. Obviously, there is nothing more wrong!
Spiritual paths make you more awake, not lifeless! Sensitivity increases and so does compassion and empathy. However, we become more aware of emotions, fewer victims of future anxieties and more capable of loving ourselves for what we are. This means everything less than impassive and devoid of emotions! A spiritual person gets pissed off just like the others, simply that he/she gets over it quickly. Once we’ve achieved the purpose for which the rage is served, we don’t think about it anymore, for hours and hours, or even days, mulling over what happened. The same goes for all the other emotions: let’s them arrive, savours them and in the same way, let’s them go. Doing so, we are neither victims nor we shy away from it. We get excited like the others, maybe even more, but we are not overwhelmed: we know how to let go of the emotion and return to our peace.
This is the true detachment: not letting our essence damaged, while the soul participates and enjoys life. The tragic events of existence mark us and upset us like the others, but we know how to learn from them to get up, grow and learn. Ultimately, the difference between a “normal” person and a “Zen” person is in essence rather than in appearance.
The two monks and the woman
Here is a meaningful story about what it means to be a spiritual person.
Two monks, returning to the monastery, arrived at the ford of the river, met a beautifully dressed woman who was waiting. As she saw them, she politely asked if one of them could pick her up and carry her across the river so her clothes wouldn’t get wet. One of the monks smiled and accepted the request. He picked her up and forded the river, with the other monk following them from behind. Once he arrived on the other side, he placed the woman back on the ground, she thanked him and greeted the two monks. The two continued on their way to the monastery in silence.
The other monk had a frowning face and a spirit troubled by the brother’s regrettable behaviour. He kept thinking about how unbecoming it was for a monk to even touch a woman, even more, hold her in his arms for that whole journey! So, as they proceeded quickly, the companion brooded and railed within himself. The other, feeling that something was wrong, once he glimpsed the monastery in the distance, stopped and asked: “Brother, what is bothering you? I feel you gloomy ”. The companion was just waiting for it and poured out everything: “Don’t you even see it? Do you think it’s the way to behave? We are monks, we can’t even touch women! But you allowed yourself to take her in your arms! What if they saw us? What will people think of us? ” The other monk merely smiled, answering: “See, I let the woman go immediately after the ford. You still carry her with you ”.
Zen as self-expression
The spiritual path makes us unique
The main characteristic of those who make a spiritual journey is to be unique, not to be a piece of inert ice. And we don’t become unique, or we were born it, but we discover our uniqueness slowly. We are all unique, but most people are afraid of their uniqueness and prefer to conform to the mass that surrounds them. The spiritual way does not flatten the character, rather it amplifies it. If one is an eccentric, spirituality will probably make him even more eccentric! This is because spirituality reduces the fear of others’ judgment until it disappears. If one has a fiery character, his ardour will be even more intense.
Padre Pio was famous for his grumpy and intractable temper, yet they still made him a saint. This applies to a lot of other personalities considered spiritual masters. Suffice it to think of Socrates, who lived in semi-poverty, walked around the squares striking up conversations with passersby and put them in crisis, he did not participate in political life except in an indirect way, forming young future politicians. He called himself a horsefly that teases the cow to keep it awake and push it forward. He compared himself to the midwife who helps the parturient to bring to light the life she carries in her womb.
Another, even more eccentric, was Diogenes of Sinope, who called himself a mad Socrates. They called him the Dog because he often slept on the street and had an ascetic life that was clearly in contrast with the lavish behaviour of the time. The amount of anecdotes about his witty and sharp responses and his bizarre actions is boundless. The most extreme was certainly when he put himself in Agora square and masturbated in front of everyone, saying: “I wish it were as easy to banish hunger by rubbing my belly”.
Spirituality as breaking a pattern
There is often a gap and not infrequently a contradiction between spiritual and religious life. Which is not at all strange, in fact, I would say a duty. Usually, religion is born from the ashes of spirituality, in other words: when a person of high spiritual calibre, thanks to his/her teachings and his/her charisma, dies leaving a conspicuous following of people, from his/her teachings, often, a religion is born. Maybe not immediately after his/her death, sometimes it takes time. These teachings are crystallized and slowly absolutized until they become dogmas (explicit or not).
Separation is created between the followers and the others and rigid hierarchies are created, with strict rules for the whole community. If religion becomes important, and therefore attracts the interest of political power, it goes without saying that soon the spirituality from which that religion was born disappears completely. In these cases, a new spiritual movement is born, breaking with that now sclerotized in a religion. A striking example is Buddhism itself, born out of opposition to Hindu Brahmanism which has become rigid and ritualistic.
«Exhausted with gay pleasures, I embrace my wife.
The narrow path of asceticism is not for me:
My mind runs in the opposite direction.
It is easy to be glib about Zen – I’ll just keep my mouth shut
And rely on love play all day long.»
Zen was not less, it has gone through phases in which it has become politicized, in which the essence has been lost in favour of exteriority. Fortunately, there were masters who were able to revive the original spirit, one of them was Ikkyu. He lived in the 1400s, and after touring various masters and monasteries and reaching the satori, he dedicated himself to a vagabond life. Fed up with the stupid rules and attitudes of many of his companions and teachers, more interested in power and ritual than in essence, he spent his days in contact with ordinary people, mostly artists (he was a famous poet ), attending taverns, brothels and spending time in meditation but also to enjoy the pleasures of life such as alcohol and sex.
He died at the age of 87 due to malaria. The last years of his life he was an abbot of an important Zen monastery in Kyoto, to make it clear that, despite his eccentric life and despite being criticized by most, he had a vast following of disciples and was recognized as a saint. Still revered and respected, his body is preserved in the temple of Kyotanabe. In Japan, it is so famous and important that a vast literature has been dedicated to it, including anime and manga.
Conclusion: even the spiritual ones, in their own small way, get mad
In view of all that, and I have reported a tiny part of examples of holy fool and eccentric masters (the bibliography is vast in this regard), how do we even think that the spiritual person must be free of emotions, impassive, always in a fake calm?
Spirituality is the opposite of rigidity, it has no patterns, it has no rules, the Spirit “blows where it wants” and how it wants. Are you one who swears from morning to night and always says bad words? You can easily be a saint! Are you one who likes to enjoy sex? The same! Do you prefer to live in chastity? Do it, that’s fine. There are no rules, I repeat: the important thing is not to absolutize one’s way of living by judging others.
You are Zen, spiritual because you live in the essence without giving up the external life, not because you meditate every day, you are vegan, you go to church or you do charity. Nothing outward can make you enlightened. Enlightenment, awakening, is defined as a moment in which we understand that everything is ONE and there is no separation between creation and the uncreated, between the finite and the Infinite.
The difference between an enlightened person and one who is not consists in the fact that the Enlightened does not see the difference.
Everything is an illusion, according to many spiritualities: in other words, we are under the illusion that there are separate entities when in reality everything is ONE. If everything is ONE, there is no difference between blasphemy and prayer, between sex and meditation. If everything is illusion, so do the spiritual journey, religion and all their instruments. In the face of that, it is only our attitude and our intention that make the difference, not the external practices. I conclude with the last Ikkyu poem:
«After I’m gone, some of you will seclude yourselves in the forests and mountains to meditate, while others may drink rice wine and enjoy the company of women. Both kinds of Zen are fine, but if some become professional clerics, babbling about “Zen as the Way,” they are my enemies.»