‘Principles’ of any kind are foreign to Zen. – Eugen Herrigel – The Method of Zen
“The moment between before and after is called Truth.” – Dainin Katagiri
“Allow the “isness” of all things. Move deeply into the Now…” – Eckhart Tolle
There is a classic Zen story of two monks journeying on a path which was interrupted by a stream with large flat stepping stones leading the way across to the other side, and as they approached, they saw a woman in a beautiful kimono fretting about crossing the stream as the current washed over the stones. One of the monks, without ado, walked up to her and asked if he could assist, and then with her assent, carried her across the stream, his companion following. With the two monks across the stream and the woman on her way, after about five minutes of walking, the monk who had not helped the woman queried to his companion as to why, when their order strictly forbade contact with women, believing such contact led to the disturbance of tranquility, had he been so bold as to carry her. To which the monk looked at his companion and said simply, “she needed help so I helped her – – – Why do you ask? Are you still carrying her? I left her back at the stream.”
I love this story for I see two important lessons contained in it. The first lesson is a warning against getting caught in the orthodoxy of rules which are meant to assist us in keeping our lives on some path that is in some way meant to be spiritual, ethical, or psychologically healthy. For it can be in strictly observing the “rule” that we fall out of the spirit the rule is meant to help us maintain. So, in this case, a rule meant to support the monks’ tranquility was a cause for disturbance in the mind of the monk caught up in observing the rule. This story points to how living the true spirit of Zen, which is to have a mind that flows as naturally and unselfconsciously as a stream, sometimes means ignoring rules lest we find ourselves trapped in keeping to some idea about how we are supposed to be, balling us all up in our attempting to be observant.
Secondly, this story serves as a great reminder that the true spirit of Zen is in the authenticity, compassion, spontaneity, tranquility, and attitude of service in the here-and-now which the helpful monk displayed even as he broke his order’s rule. The monk who carried the woman physically never carried any mental disturbance by carrying her – and so was a living manifestation of the mental tranquility which the rule was meant to foster. His observant companion, on the other hand, had quite lost his tranquility when his companion did the most natural, that is, Zen, action in the moment and for the situation. We very often find the truth of Zen lies in seeming contradictions which are paradoxes that are no contradiction.
How often is our own tranquility disrupted by our rehashing that which is now in the past? We fret over whether we did what was the best or the right thing for the situation, over whether someone likes or dislikes us, was impressed or disapproving of us, was kind or cruel, perhaps rude, thoughtless, dismissive or insulting to us, whether we made a mistake which others will be critical of, or for which we are critical of ourselves. We, like the monk in the story may get caught in whether we ought to live strictly within some set of rules, doing the “right” thing. Our mind spins in the past, unable to be clear and positive in this present moment where our life actually is unfolding. Like the rule-conscious monk, we might be trying so hard to live up to our expectations of ourselves for faultlessness that we find ourselves quite out of the spirit of clarity, spontaneity, and mindful presence to which we aspire. As for Zen, it is not, cannot be, bound by any strict set of rules constructed by human minds. True Zen, not Zen-in-training, lives only by the rule of Dharma, or Tao. Zen in training has many, many rules, just as it was for these two monks, but true Zen is the Tao or “watercourse way,” that which goes wherever it needs to go in the natural course of events, is whatever it needs to be, is the unaffected witness, action, and servant of the moment.
This gets us to the paradoxical nature of Zen training which, in its classic form, is rigidly rule-bound, the rules of conduct, behavior, and training for a Zen aspirant being very challenging. Why should this be? And what relevance does it have for contemporary seekers of awakening into clarity, sanity, truth, and ease of action in their lives? Let us look at the goal of Zen training – to awaken a person to their original, natural self. So why not just say, be free! Be natural!
Many have approached “being Zen” in this manner, but it doesn’t work because we have no idea what being natural is. Particularly in our contemporary American culture, we mistake being natural with license to do anything we want, to express our desires and be uninhibited in our actions. No, if our perception of Life and who we are is distorted then we cannot be natural; we are just uninhibited expressions of a distortion. The result is the selfishness, self-indulgence, insensitivity, and obsession with appearance and opinion that marks the narcissist in our culture. It is pathological, not natural. We are then not being uninhibited in living and expressing our natural selves, but rather, our egos. We live in an egocentric, narcissistic culture, and as such, we NEED rules of conduct to keep people’s egos from harming others and even from harming themselves.
Zen takes this conundrum and does a kind of judo with it. For people who do not know their natural selves, rules of conduct are needed, and so Zen gives them rules of conduct to break the old habits of egocentric self-absorption, self-indulgence, and neuroticism. The object of Zen training is to awaken into the realization that we have been trained by our culture and our personal experience to be unnatural. We have been trained to find our identity in the false sense of self that is our ego, our sense of separate self, constructed in our mind by all sorts of psycho-social conditioning factors. We are obsessed with the material, the competitive, the sensational, the sexualized, the prideful, self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing values of our society and we must be trained to let go of this identity to find the clear and natural being beneath it all, and this is a challenging task.
It takes great discipline to break an endless list of old habits, to arrive at, as the Zen koan challenges, our “original face before we were conceived by our mother and father”- before we were conceived, that is, shaped by, psycho-social conditioning factors. “Who are you?” challenges the Zen Master, and you must have great faith that the Zen Master already knows what you do not. All your ego tendencies seek to assert themselves in cleverness, intellectualism, and false modesty and the Master says “No!” “Sit still and learn the rhythm of your own breathing. Watch your clever mind until you realize who is watching!” Slowly, the natural rhythm of your own existence begins to reveal itself and you begin to be increasingly empty of ego-self. The intelligence which is the silent selfless mind begins to be realized, the body begins to relax as the mind relaxes, and the realization of being consciousness which has this human life begins to be experienced. All the discipline is necessary to wear down the willfulness, self-absorption, and the sloppiness of the egoic self until, there you are, a natural human being.
There is a Zen saying that we need a raft to get to the other shore of self-realization, but once we arrive at the other shore, the raft is to be left behind so we can explore and get to know this other shore. We do not carry the raft with us. The discipline of Zen training, the hours of sitting in meditation, of practiced mindfulness, of study, of rules which break old bad habits, of coming into selfless present moment consciousness, is the raft which carries us to the shore of True-Self realization. We discover the natural wisdom and compassion of unimpeded awareness, of action anchored in unselfconscious confidence in the goodness of our intention which cannot be shamed by mistake, only taken as lesson learned in the improvement of our skills. In the story of the two monks, one is still carrying the raft of rules while the other has left the raft behind, no longer needed, just as he has left behind all self-conscious and impure thought habits so that he could carry the woman with no mental disturbance. And then he left her back at the stream and serenely and naturally continued on his way into new moments that will have new needs to which he can be an unselfconscious servant, a true and natural human being. This is the way of Zen.