June 2016: Wisdom

A central teaching about Zen wisdom has been drummed into Zen practitioners ever since Bodhidharma first opened his mouth after sitting for 9 years in a cave in 6th century China: you can’t get Zen wisdom by listening to teachers-not even by listening to the great Bodhidharma himself.   You can’t get it by reading this article. Or any article or any book.  Instead,  Zen wisdom is based squarely on the bodily experience of no-self, the experience of dropping our words, thoughts, and preferences.  There is a place in our practice for study, discussion, and reflection, but the wisdom that Zen offers starts with no-self, through the bodily experience of zazen, and nowhere else.

This teaching is very clear, but we have to be reminded of it over and over again. Why? a) we often think of wisdom as coming only from books or experts and b) reading a book or listening to a talk can sound a whole lot more attractive than sitting silently on a cushion for hours.

For 2500 years Buddhists have been mining the experience of no-self for its wisdom.  I’m not going to get to much of that here. But I think there are two fundamental truths that our practice of zazen can teach us, two truths that open up the path of Zen wisdom.

First, the world is not what we think.  When we get completely quiet and calm, we realize how much our thoughts and emotions normally color our world.   Our usual way of perceiving our world (and the events in it) is literally and figuratively self-centered.  Everything happens to my left and my right, in front of and behind me.  My story, my preferences, my concerns, my winning or losing are the central point.

The practice of no-self allows us to experience the world without our thinking mind coloring it.   It allows us to question the solidity of our world and our story.

Secondly, we ourselves are not what we think.  We are in fact more than what we think.   We are our everyday thinking self, and we are the quiet self that we call no-self.  As we start to identify with both of these selves, the way we move through the world begins to change.

I think of this no-self aspect of ourselves as a subtle yet powerful ally.  Knowing it allows us to be less incessantly stuck in our own self-centered perspective.  It allows us to open ourselves to a range of creative possibilities.  It has a tendency to loosen the knotty problems we find ourselves bound by at work and in family life.

Part of Zen wisdom is also the humility to know that Zen practice does not solve everything. It’s my belief that Zen wisdom is also a compound factor, one that helps other wisdoms grow.   It opens us to learning from other disciplines, other people, and learning from our own successes and failures.

The Dalai Lama puts it this way in his commentary on the Heart Sutra:

“The way we tend to perceive things to be does not accord with the way they are.  ….This does not nihilistically deny the fact of our experience.  The existence of things and events is not in dispute; it is the manner in which they exist that must be clarified.

Clarifying that is the work of Zen wisdom.