December 6, 2012
Your Moment of Zen
— Joy Brennan
Every episode of Jon Stewart's The Daily Show ends with a brief, unedited and un-editorialized video clip, usually extracted from the programming at a mainstream television news source. Stewart intones his final words, "Here it is, your moment of Zen," and the clip plays. What these clips share among themselves is not clear. Even less clear is what they have to do with Zen, a school of Buddhist religious practice transmitted from Japan to the United States during the twentieth century, with roots extending back to early medieval China.
But one thing is clear: this "Moment of Zen" segment plays upon some key aspects of our culture's general attitude towards and understanding of Zen—it appears formless, undemanding, and perhaps even absurd. And what Stewart's clips do not capture about our attitude towards Zen is made up for in the pages of the New York Times and the commercial ads flickering on our many kinds of screens: Zen appears to have a lot to do with spas, tea, yoga, and the kind of physical beauty that is attributed to the radiation of inner peace.
These (mis)understandings of Zen are instances of the uncanny human ability to mistake something for its inverse, for Zen is nothing if not highly structured and demanding.
Zen came to flourish among native-born Americans during the politically and socially turbulent times of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The first generations of Japanese Zen teachers in America seem to have been both alarmed by their American students' lifestyle choices and at the same time impressed with those same students' serious dedication to the practice of Zen. Those young people may have had shaggy hair, scruffy jeans, questionable employment histories, and sex lives unrestrained by the mores their parents at least preached, but they were still getting up at three-thirty in the morning at places like Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, Shasta Abbey and Zen Mountain Monastery to embark upon arduous days of six or more hours of silent meditation in addition to study time and a work schedule that included cooking, cleaning, sewing, hauling, mending, chopping, and generally tending to the temple buildings and grounds. Hair and blue jean styles aside, many of them are still doing these same things at these same places, and many others as well. Here then the situation is just the reverse from what the ads tell us: on the surface those students' lives might have looked loose and unrestrained, but simple adherence to the practice schedule at a residential Zen center required a form of discipline far more demanding than most ordinary lives, not to mention of a run-of-the-mill American style yoga class or a walk through the woods.
Formal Zen practice, moreover, is one of the most highly ritualized forms of Buddhist practice undertaken in America. Other prevalent forms of Buddhist practice combine highly structured meditative forms--such as those that are guided by the voice of a teacher or that are organized into graded levels of cultivated awareness with specific objects and goals--with rituals and temple rules for comportment that are relaxed by comparison. In a reversal of this combination, Zen brings together a completely unstructured form of meditative practice--the objectless meditation practice known as shikantaza, often referred to as "just sitting"--with a highly demanding set of ritual forms. A beginning Zen student is often made anxious or even disgusted by the ritual demands of simply entering and leaving the Zen practice space (zendo): one must hold one's hands in a certain way, bow at certain times, step first with this foot rather than that, sit on the cushion just so, etc. And when the practitioner sits to meditate, she is thrown headlong into the chaos of inner life, with no structure from the voice of a teacher or graded set of goals to guide her. The external forms are thus ritually demanding, while the meditative form is internally demanding precisely because of its lack of structure. But either way, Zen is still not a walk in the woods.
Our association of Zen with the formless vapidities offered by commercial images of inner peace, yoga by the beach, and the wryly absurd rather than the rigors of ritual, study, work, and the physical and emotional difficulties of formless meditation is ironic. Commercial culture is expert at producing this kind of irony, as when the Mercedes-Benz brand used Janis Joplin's "Mercedes Benz" in its own commercials. Whether Zen as it is actually practiced and lived will gain a toe-hold in our cultural imagination awaits to be seen.
"Living Two Traditions." Tricycle Magazine, Winter 2002.
See Dainin Katagiri's lament about his American students in Shohaku Okamura's Living by Vow (Wisdom Publications, 2012).
The Art of Just Sitting, edited by John Daido Loori (Wisdom Publications, 2004), is a good introduction to shikantaza.
Joy Brennan is a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago Divinity School.