It’s part of Zen’s great and simple beauty that it is inherently ready to self-destruct. It’s a self-destructing system.
It’s part of Zen’s great and simple beauty that it is inherently ready to self-destruct. It’s a self-destructing system. It must be. The heart of its liberation requires it – a nothing at all from which Zen itself can’t be exempt. Yet it’s so beautiful.
Primo Levi, the Nobel prize-winning author, an industrial chemist by trade, said that beauty is the simplest design with the requisite strength for the job. Zen seems to fit that definition very well. A simple, clearly laid out structure, with plenty of room for the human soul to wrangle and wrestle with itself as it gradually learns to weather out its own storms, as we grow in the call of simplicity, all the while inching closer and closer to the edge of an abyss we had no idea was waiting for us… and Zen innocently organizes the whole thing in its simple beauty, with us entirely unawares…
But isn’t this whole universe a self-destructing system? Isn’t everything that arises within our experience, from the morning cup of coffee to our dearest friends and family, the same? Is there anything that isn’t? The answer might lie in the very heart of our most ordinary experience.
* * *
The poet W.H.Auden said that the poet’s hope is “to be like some valley cheese, local, but prized elsewhere.”
The Zen masters we study in the koans were so local their identities dissolved into the mountains where they lived. And here they are, ten thousand miles and over a thousand years later, prized, cherished, and teaching us how to come to life.
* * *
For sure the koans can seem inscrutable. They should. If we try to tame them with common sense and approach them with logic and our usual habits of mind, we haven’t even started on the real journey of Zen.
But they’re really not inscrutable. They are very straightforward and clear – but only once we have settled the matter of a lifetime, and opened our eye to the clear reality of this existence. Then the koans are plain as day. (On the whole. It sometimes gets a little more subtle when we start dealing with koans where differences in style and approach are explored, and degrees of clarity or depth are articulated. But even then the fundamental fact is always shining clear and bright.)
* * *
I don’t know much about this and may be wrong, but it seems that one of the principles in the Zen arts is to organize something to resemble its apparent opposite. Take sword-fighting and make it graceful as dance. Take delicate little flowers and make them look like an awesome cliff-face or mountain landscape. Flowers, after all, have a magnificent power: they have emerged, their force has driven them “through the green fuse” into existence, as Dylan Thomas said.
Likewise take a group of restless human beings whose minds and bodies, except in sleep, are constantly moving, and plant them in a zendo, as still as boulders.
What emerges from this kind of collision of apparent polarities? For us in the zendo – can we learn to give up our resistance, to accept things, and then to accept them limitlessly, infinitely, as a boulder does?