“The arts of Zen are not intended for utilitarian purposes or for purely aesthetic enjoyment, but are meant to train the mind, indeed, to bring it in contact with ultimate reality.” – D. T. Suzuki
“Zen and the art of (fill in the blank)” has become a familiar phrase, a way to describe engaging in an art form, sport or activity at the highest level, a level where the person seems less like they are “doing” the activity as “being” the activity. “Zen and the Art of Archery,” “Zen and the Art of Pottery,” “Zen and the Art of Tennis,” Zen and the Art of Flower Arrangement,” “Zen and the Art of Writing,” “Zen and the Art of Painting,” and the famous “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” are all book titles dealing with complete immersion into the moment where self and activity become one.
Meditation begins with Zen and the art of breathing. When we see the words “I am breathing,” from our conventional perspective we understand this to mean this person “I” am engaged in the activity of “breathing.” There are two phenomena: “I” and “breathing.” One is doing the other. In Zen the same words, “I am breathing” imply one phenomenon. It is saying that in this moment the entire experience of “I” is the phenomenon “breathing.” I am breathing. In that moment, in answer to the question, “Who am I?” The answer is “breathing.”
So, for example, Zen and the art of tennis, is “I” as the phenomena of tennis racquet, ball, court, body moving, eyes concentrating and tracking, mind calculating angles, opponent’s movements, etc. These are not all different and separate phenomena; there is just this one field of integrated and connected experience that is this moment in awareness. Sometimes this is called “flow.” In sports it is often called, “in the zone.” The experience of “I” doing has shifted into “I” being the activity, which amounts to there being no “I” experienced as the doer. When this occurs, what is being done takes on a beautiful sense of unity as the moment in action and the skill level become “peak” while the experience is both relaxed and exhilarating, transcendent and thrilling. In fact it would qualify as what psychologist Abraham Maslow would describe as a “peak experience.” The person so engaged will afterward be astonished at what they have accomplished, unable to explain it.
So, as D.T. Suzuki suggests, “art” in Zen brings us in contact with ultimate reality. This is why, while painting and calligraphy and music, and those activities usually associated with “art,” can be elevated with the descriptor “Zen,” so too can “chopping wood and carrying water,” as in the famous koanic response to the question, “What is Zen?” The point of any of these activities is “ultimate reality.” To be flow; in the zone.
What is “ultimate reality?” The point of Buddhist teaching and of wisdom teachings from all over the world is to point us to ultimate reality. This could be, and has been, described as “God,” but this is a word carrying too much confusion, disagreement and conflict in its application; and confusion, disagreement and conflict are not Zen. Reality is Zen, ultimate reality is Zen. There is no confusion, disagreement and conflict in ultimate reality.
Ultimate reality is here-and-now. And here-and-now is the universe, infinite; how could it be anything else? One very insightful definition of God was given to us by Carl Jung who said it is “a word meant to express all that is not ego.” The ego makes here-and-now (infinitely vast and unified) into here and now (two things rather than one integration) small and personal, the space and time around “me.” Of course, here-and-now is all eternity and infinity; where could its boundary possibly be? This is Zen. And within it is the space and activity around “me.” How could I be excluded except by delusion of my ego. Ultimate reality is here-and-now. Where, when and what else could be? Ultimate reality is the Universe, not as we perceive it with our senses, but as the underlying interdependent fields of energy that our senses are incapable of perceiving except as separate objects, but we are able to intuit as connected. Where is there a gap? Where is there a dividing line? In ultimate reality there is just energy, matter energy and consciousness energy, all interconnected. There is just this moment arising in matter/consciousness energy, everywhere, infinitely.
Eckhart Tolle once answered the question of who we were as “the moment arising in awareness.” The moment arising, here-and-now, with this body and mind, these eyes and hands and brain in the service of this physical moment, here-and-now. Tennis, anyone? How about chopping some wood? Carrying water? This moment, here and now without ego becomes ultimate reality, here-and-now as painting, archery, tennis, chopping wood.
Breathe the art of life. Pick up a paint brush. Pick up your guitar or tennis racquet. Begin to dance. Write a poem. Chop some wood, sweep the floor, wash the dishes, walk a trail, as no one – just the action and the medium of the moment. Suzuki said it is not for utility or aesthetics. It is for contact with ultimate reality. What result other than the very best you are capable of can happen when you get self-conscious or distracted or lazy self out of the way. Ultimate Reality contacted and channeled. Life realized as art. Utility and aesthetics realized at its highest level, not aiming for utility or aesthetics. just God.
Mozart and daVinci would have told you the same thing; their art was in the service of God. It was God happening through them, they would tell you. It is prayer and meditation in action. Only Zen tells us this art is not only for music or painting, aesthetics or entertainment. It is for Life. No confusion, disagreement or conflict, just allow, and there is God, ultimate reality, this ordinary day, this ordinary action, perfect, everywhere that is not ego. Flow.