Back in seminary, I took a course that allowed me to delve deeply into Zen Buddhism. One of the first questions that I and many people have asked is simply, “What is Zen?”
I got all kinds of fascinating answers from my professor and the books we read. Among them:
“Zen can’t be talked (or written) about, it can only be practiced.”
“Zen is a riddle that can never be solved.”
“Zen is form without emptiness and emptiness without form.”
“Zen is manure on a rake.”
“Zen just is….”
In life, our thoughts take us places. It might go something like this in my head on any given day: I’m hungry, but I don’t want fast food. Those Whoppers always look so good in the commercials, but they never live up to the hype. Ha ha, remember those Burger King commercials in the eighties with Emmanuel Lewis? The sandwich was bigger than his head! I met him once in a Home Depot in Atlanta. He was still short, but I heard he really does well with the ladies. I wonder if it’s his charm or his money? He’s probably broke by now, or is he? I’m pretty sure Gary Coleman’s broke. These child actors have it rough. If my kids wanted to be actors, I’d never let them. No, I would let them, I’d just have some competent financial advisers. But why should I wait until my kids become successful child actors to get a good financial adviser? I’m almost 32, and I don’t have a will….
And on and on. Any given thought is like a train approaching you in the station.
If you reach out your hand and grab on, there’s no telling where it’s going to take you. Negative thoughts are obviously more detrimental than positive ones, but any thoughts that are free to roam without mindfulness and focus can’t possibly take us where we truly want to go.
Meditation in general and Zen in particular are about not getting on the train. When thoughts of hunger or anger or self-doubt or addiction or hatred or anything pop up, we don’t have to go along for the ride. We can stand back on the platform and watch them come and go. We’re used to hopping on, used to getting carried away, but we really don’t have to.