Ice Cream and Stomachaches: Zen in Everyday Terms (2)

Now, let’s assume that we have experienced a deep dissatisfaction with life as samsara, and therefore a strong desire to find another way to understand life, though it might seem at first impossible. Without that strong desire, nothing in Buddhism or Zen will make sense, and one might as well spend one’s time on something else more comprehensible, like quantum theory. 

Buddhists have a special term for this desire, also: “arousing the mind of enlightenment,” or “the enlightenment mind.” “Enlightenment” in Japanese is satori, the ordinary word for waking up in the morning, or for coming to understand something in a new way. (Quite recently, politically-minded Americans have begun saying that some people are “woke” but others are not, which is just the right sense of “enlightenment” here.) 

Becoming enlightened in this sense, by the way, is just being enlightened, in the Zen sense. Although some people might go through a very mind-blowing, out-of-this-world “trip” at this point, that really isn’t necessary. What is necessary is a very deep feeling that there is something besides the samsara cycle of ice cream and stomachaches that we can get to, because that is the motivation for entering the “path” of Buddhist practice. You can think of it as something like Alice falling down the rabbit-hole; things begin to look very unusual. 

At this point, we could begin looking at Zen in particular. Although that word (or the Chinese word “Chan” from which it comes) has come to mean all sorts of things in English, including a perfume brand and a certain way of feeling very calm and peaceful no matter what happens to one, it is simply a term that originated, it is said, from the Sanskrit word “dhyana,” meaning, roughly, “meditation,” or perhaps petter, “concentration” or “one-pointedness of mind.” 

Traditionally, in China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and other Asian countries in which this type of Buddhism grew, it was said that an Indian fellow named Bodhidharma (“The Teaching of Enlightenment”) travelled to China to teach his own understanding of dukkha, samsara, nirvana, etc., and gradually acquired some students who went on to teach others and thus found the Chan/Zen tradition. Many scholars of Buddhist history now believe that this is really a myth (just as some think that even “the Buddha” was just a collective term for some people who developed a dissident understanding of traditional Indian spiritual teachings, and some scholars of Christian history think that “Jesus” was a mythical figure, referring to some people who taught Jewish traditions in a somewhat new way), but in any case, a four-line poem that has been attributed to him is very often cited as a short definition of what makes this tradition special:

        “Not standing on written texts,

        A special transmission outside the sutras,

        Directly pointing at the human mind/heart,

        Seeing (one’s) nature and realizing Buddha-hood,
             or enlightenment.”

To understand this, we need to remember that when Buddhist ideas were brought into China, a number of groups arose with their special ways of understanding them, based on various sutras, or Sanskrit texts, that were written in the form of “sermons” by the Buddha. One can hardly believe that he actually delivered them as written, since some of them go on for hundreds of pages, but at least they express the ways their authors understood his teaching.

Much if not most of what the early Chinese Buddhists did was to work hard at studying translations of one or another sutra and commentaries on them (and commentaries on the commentaries, and so on). What the Chan Buddhists thought distinguished themselves from everyone else was that they cut out the middle-person, as it were, developing a practice that went right to the point of seeing life, the “mind” or “heart," in a way that opened a way out of the trap of the samsara cycle.

Ironically, that did not mean that they totally ignored all the old sutras and produced no writings of their own. In fact, many sutras were read and countless new texts were produced in China and the other countries this form of Buddhism spread to, and this has continued to this day in Western countries and everywhere else Zen has sprung up.

qedd© Jon Johanning 2011