Monday, December 30, 2013

Zazen vs. Meditation

One of the reasons I was initially attracted to Zen Buddhism is that I associated it with calm and inner peace. Find myself running too fast in the world? Letting too many things mess up my equilibrium? Need to remind myself what's important to me? Zen - and specifically Zen meditation  - is the answer! I'm oversimplifying somewhat but, at root, this is kind of what I thought about Zen Buddhism when I started studying it.

During the intervening ten or eleven years, one thing I've learned is that there is a big difference between popular ideas of meditation like the ones I had and Zen meditation (or zazen). One the most important differences is that while popular meditation seems to promise things like happiness, reduced stress, and inner peace, zazen does not. More deeply, Zen itself makes no claims about providing these things to practitioners. Even so, whenever you hear a Zen monk speak - or even just look at the way they carry themselves - you can just tell they have achieved those things (although 'contentment' might be a more accurate word than 'happiness'). So why is this? I believe the explanation lies in the philosophical differences between Zen and the self-help/new-age movement.

A few disclaimers before I continue. In writing about these differences, I'm not trying to say one way or the other is wrong or could never be helpful to anyone. I'm just sharing my own experiences and understanding. Let's also define some terms: 'meditation' will refer to popular practices and 'zazen' will stand for Zen meditation specifically. Now, onward...

The best place I can think to begin explaining the philosophical differences between zazen and meditation is to say that meditation seems to view unhappiness (or more broadly, suffering) as an emotional state that is very different from happiness. It's a kind of negative energy from which we need to free ourselves in order to be happy or at peace. In contrast, Zen views both suffering and happiness as responses to the world around us. So, in essence, they are the same thing.

Further, in Zen both happiness and suffering are temporary states. We are happy until something makes us unhappy, and then we remain unhappy until something makes us happy again. Zen is about escaping from this vicious circle entirely. As a result, from a Zen perspective, the idea of meditating to end unhappiness or stress is wrong-minded.

While Zen Buddhists see suffering as an inherent part of being alive, we also believe that much of the suffering people endure is unnecessary. It is needlessly self-induced. When we are unhappy or stressed or lacking inner peace, it is often not the result of external factors but due to our own undisciplined thinking. The human mind is a magnificent machine that can solve the deepest scientific questions about the universe, envision masterpieces of art, and compose symphonies. However, in our day to day life, it can be more like a spoiled brat: running amok as if high on sugar and stamping its foot and screaming if it doesn't get a cookie that it wants right away. The Zen view is that, left undisciplined, the mind is more likely to create suffering than symphonies. Zazen is the means of disciplining the unruly mind and, by extension, ourselves and our approach to life.

This Zen idea of zazen as a form of self-discipline, or a way to bring the mind under control and focus it, is very different from popular thinking related to meditation. Most commonly, meditation seems to be presented as some kind of altered state of consciousness or a sleepy never-never land we visit to chill out. In contrast to these ideas, during zazen, one is alert and acutely aware of the immediate moment. Posture and/or breathing is rigorously paid mind to and, in some Zen meditation groups, a teacher will give you a little whack if you are not sitting correctly or are doing something else not appropriate for zazen. Compared to meditation, zazen seems a lot less like relaxation and much more like lining up before a drill sergeant for marching.

That may seem like a bit of an exaggeration, but there's definitely some truth to it. Just like a gymnast standing on one foot on a balance beam must have absolute focus and control over their body, during zazen we must have absolute focus and control of our minds in order to discipline them. To extend the metaphor, the time during which we sit in zazen is the same as the 'center' on which the gymnast's body is balanced. If the gymnast lets their body move off-center either backward or forward, they will fall. In zazen, we focus on the present moment and do not let ourselves move off-center by thinking about the past or future.

And when I say 'the present moment', I really mean right that second and nothing more. We do not think about what we will be doing even in an hour in the future, nor actively consider what has happened to us within the last hour. This kind of focus takes a good deal of effort at first, because we are simply not used to reining in our minds this way. When someone has achieved this focus during zazen for a sustained amount of time, we say they have entered samadhi. I've found that, when I am in samadhi, I have those feelings of calm, peace, and contentment promised by meditation.

Unfortunately, while one can have these feelings during meditation or samadhi (and perhaps even hold onto them for a short time afterwards), unless one is learning to discipline the mind, the feelings will 'wear off' within a few hours. This is why the focus of zazen is not these emotional benefits but the ability to discipline the mind. Without this discipline, nothing is actually gained. Further, once this discipline is mastered, it can be summoned and maintained during normal life.

So the positive emotional benefits are ancillary benefits of zazen - as opposed to the goal in meditation - and they occur as a result of the discipline we're learning by repeatedly sitting in zazen. In essence, sitting in zazen and experiencing samadhi in training us to recognize what the right mindset feels like. As we become familiar with the experience, we almost instinctively know when we are engaged in undisciplined behavior and we can shut it down. This helps us rein in our minds and avoid needless, self-induced suffering.

A final point also needs to be made about the difference between zazen and meditation. While meditation often uses phrases such as 'finding inner peace' or 'seeking truth', Zen practitioners believe we already have inner peace and truth. However, because our minds are not disciplined, we cannot focus on these things. The writing of ancient Zen masters all the way back to Bodhidharma repeatedly exhort us to merely sit in zazen because, in so doing, truth and understanding come without effort.

In fact, the picture to the right and the quote: "Peace comes from within; do not seek it without" is attributed to the Buddha. So you can see that this tenet goes right back to the origins and root of Zen Buddhism.

The implication of this tenet is that using zazen to seek... anything...or to actively strive for something is wrong-minded. Again, this is very different than meditation which often refers to a 'journey' we are on with some goal at the end of the trip. No trajectory of this kind is desired in Zen Buddhism.

It was difficult for me to put all this into words, and I may not have everything correct or stated as clearly as I intend. However, this is something that has been simmering in my head for a couple years now, and I wanted to take a stab at crystallizing it!

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