“What a strange thing!
to be alive
beneath cherry blossoms.”
Often, when we hear about Zen, what comes to mind is the practice of meditation, some rituals, what could appear to be nonsense phrases called Koan and more or less “funny” stories of which most ignore the name that is Mondo. All this is filled with a series of more or less known rituals of which some have became a sort of “recognition mark” of this sacred discipline. Many see it as a sort of “crazy wisdom”, a term in vogue in the last few years.
What people often ignore when entering in touch with a discipline, is the potential that lies beyond it – the spirit of the same discipline. It is a superficial way to approach every spiritual or inner discipline or a discipline for inner development. It seems that the same happens with Zen.
But Zen is more than this, because beyond every external appearance lies its real meaning. Indeed, Zen shares the meaning of living in the present moment, the so claimed “here and now”, and this is more than difficult than what it would seem through reading books of the leading contemporary teachers in such a field (and we state this with all due respect towards these teachers and their followers).
We have already mentioned the term zanshin that represents a practice intended to make the practitioner to stay in tune with the present moment. Those who have tried it know how difficult it is to follow something that changes constantly, and the recent moment has this peculiarity: it’s a moment, and the next moment is different, and so on… the present is never the same. The subject who lives these changes – us – is a product of the past, his attention is always absorbed with conditionings and habits belonging to what had already been experienced, and the same experiences produce projections of a future that is still not here – is still not “present”. It’s a possibility that is often lived in the form of expectation. So, the subject is almost never synched, tuned into the “present moment”. So, how to live this “now”?
The previously mentioned zanshin is a gateway (one of the gateways) through which this could be accomplished. A Zen practitioner knows the importance of being present to every gesture, both in life and in the dojo during the practice. The same greeting with joined hands before and after the practice of meditation (Zazen), when one wishes to move, change the position of a leg…. this greeting (gassho) keeps the attention of the practitioner and, at the same time, shows respect towards others.
From such education has risen the vision of Zen disciplines of incomparable beauty and elegance. Such disciplines became through time, the means for self- realization such as Chado or Cha No Yu (the ceremony of Tea), Kendo (the Way of the Sword), Kyudo (the Way of the Arch), Shodo (the art of calligraphy), Haiku (poetry) and the bases for many martial arts such as Karate-do and Ju-do.
A natural elegance is what links all these practices, an elegance filled with the spirit of the being present through the gesture, namely through the conscious action. And, conscious action means giving a meaning and, at the same time, to find a meaning to what one is doing. Many people feel that life (at least their life) has no sense; an approach such as Zen is just what one needs to give a meaning to life, to every gesture, to everything we do through conscious, intentional and focused actions.
But how to achieve the spirit of this conscious action, this zanshin?
“Empty your cup” claims a Zen statement, and this is the way explained through this marvelous metaphor. Many state that Zen is a philosophy which is not adequate to our life, but the author of this essay, thinks the opposite. Maybe it’s not so. Life, as we live it, is filled with commitments, duties, and responsibilities that put a burden on us, and even the moments which are considered “free time” are filled with something that continues to make us feel this burden. Our minds, emotional states and life itself are filled with something of which we can’t free ourselves. We can’t release the burden. Preoccupations, anxieties and tensions impose themselves above all.
Every morning we wake up preparing ourselves for a battlefield, for a battle that is lost before it begins, because in such way we are deprived of a well-being that is promised from all sides, but is never achieved.
The practice of Zen states and shows in practice that the only “battle” that has to be fought is focused on finding an inner stillness, an inner harmony, allowing all the chaos that represents our daily life to move around us without overwhelming us, so that we could become “the eye of the cyclone” that is not involved in any motion of the storm.
This is the “spirit of the samurai”, the spectator (conscious witness) and maker (through a detached action) of his world, the victor before having fought the battle. Still in himself, such a warrior faces the primal source of his fears and is victorious. Without fear, his every action is pure, unconditioned, efficient, lucid, elegant and balanced – an intentional action.
Meditation, a topic which has been discussed several times on this blog, is one of the responses to the chaos – the “fullness” we experience in modern life. If a convulsed movement happens during the practice, we don’t react. We cease the movement, just staying apart, observing as witnesses. In such a way, we don’t remain in the surface field of a tension, but we delve deeper to the core of the cause of the same tension, stress, anxiety, and fear.
This practice gives an energy which was previously totally ignored, (the energy of Being) which allows the practitioner to be a conscious and active interpreter of his life.