There are a couple of notes I want to jot down, following up to the two satori-like experiences I had last year.
The first comment of note is I finally understand the true purpose of zen koans (and it’s slightly deeper than what you might think).
The second thing is, zen is not a religion. I repeat, not a religion, in spite of being called in the more formal sense – Zen Buddhism.
My two notes aside, the real reason for this post is drive a proverbial stake in the ground regarding the cause and effect of what Carlos Castaneda often referred to as stopping the world, which ironically was one of the few things he actually got right.
Satori (Japanese, zen), finding enlightenment, stopping the world – the long and short of any of these – are philosophical systems meant to promote and explain what happens when the monkey brain – one term used for our ever present internal dialogue – finally shuts the fuck up.
That is it in a nutshell. When our mind stops constantly telling us what things are, then that, as reason goes, is when we are finally free to see things as they truly are.
This was why Bodhidharma sat in cave, staring at a wall for 7 long years. This is why zen masters shout ridiculous sounding riddles at their acolytes. Both to hopefully trigger the mind to do something it can’t do on it’s own, and that’s to shut that internal dialogue down.
Here is something I learned last year. And it took two episodes for me to see the similarity. The first was coming back from Zamora in the very early spring where I saw two very dissimilar trees on a hilltop standing side by side. One was either dying or in some deep autumnal sleep (witness the hanging dead brown leaves) and the other was a Jacaranda that was in full bloom, every branch covered in purple blossoms.
The other incident occurred later that summer while I was waiting for a bus in Portland. It was late afternoon (7 pm?) with clear blue skies. My face, the earth, the sidewalks and surrounding buildings were all radiating warmth from the sun (and the heat of the day) when a cold north wind suddenly blew in.
In the both instances, my mind perceived paradoxes. First – visual – life and death standing side by side. Second – touch – there was the incongruity of both hot and cold occupying the same place at the same time, like as my mind remembered at the time, swimming in a fresh water thermocline.
And what resulted in both instances was my mind stopped. The internal chatter stopped. The person known as Spike ceased to exist. And with that time stopped. And for two wonderful and too brief moments, I was in the eternal present.
[Being in the eternal present is the sensation one feels when time stops. And I discover as I write this, that past and future are mortal constructs (did I say that right?).]
So, zen koans – what is the sound of one hand clapping?, kind of nonsense – was (is) all about presenting the acolyte with a verbal paradox to serve the student in which to trigger satori.
I was thinking about this on my run this morning and it occurred to me that to use mere words to conjure a paradox can’t possibly be nearly as powerful (i.e. as effective) as those triggered by one of the five senses.
I’ll illustrate this with a slightly tangential example. There are two ways in which a person can think, one with words the other with images. The latter is called thinking visually. And it is considered superior to thinking with words. Simply because images are more data rich than words.
If you have ever been fortunate enough to have found that dream state of conscious (on the cusp of waking, but neither asleep or awake) and then you were able to utilize that waking dream state to think about your day (solving a problem at work, etc.) then you were most probably thinking visually (and most wonderfully also found a new way to approach your problem).
Okay, okay. So, the end of all this nattering – and where I really want to throw some sand into the proverbial works – is to say that satori in the sense that I have experienced is not sustainable, at least in this life.
Why? And the reason is flesh. You can mortify it. You can deny it. And you can momentarily transcend it. But this side of death, you can’t escape it.
Now the sand. If what I just said is true, retroactively apply this truth to the Buddha. Ouch.
Am I then saying the Buddha lied? No, I’m not saying that. What someone did – and what others said he did – are often times, two entirely different things.
Zen as I mentioned earlier, is not a religion. In fact it is an anti-religion. Zen was the resulting creative attempt to strip the religious dogma from cult. And how did the Buddha cult arise? First, there is always mans’ compulsive need to codify. Second, the priest class has always been the lazy man’s way into a job where you don’t have to fight (or even work) to get fed.
(What zen really is is a brilliant cultural system unifying the arts and nature with a positive life model which atypically places the highest values on the quiet and the ordinary. Zen, through both the material tear (i.e. rip) and the primacy placed on individual enlightenment, is ultimately about freedom.)