Attached to non attachment: “What’s Left?” July 2009, MRR #314

Ask yourself why you practice zazen? If it is to reach some specific goal, or to create some special state of mind, then you are heading in the opposite direction from zazen. You create a separation from reality. Please, trust zazen as it is, surrender to reality here and now, forget body and mind, and do not DO zazen, do not DO anything, don’t be mindful, don’t be anything – just let zazen be and follow along.

Muho Noelke

Of all the whacky religions people believe in, I’m kind of fond of Zen Buddhism.

Maybe it was because of my proximity to the Beats when I lived in San Francisco between three and six years of age. Or because of my dad’s interest in all things Beatnik during my adolescence.

Or maybe it’s because Zen reminds me of Unitarianism. The local Unitarian church offered draft counseling when I lived in Ventura and was facing conscription for the Vietnam War, keeping me sane if not saving my ass as I confronted the US government during the ‘60s. Unitarianism, like Zen, doesn’t demand that its adherents believe in anything really, not even god.

Perfect for an agnostic like me. Except that I’ve always lacked the personal discipline to pursue any type of spiritual practice, even the bare bones, anti-formalist, anti-scriptural, purely experiential immediatism of Zen. I mean, I can’t even fucking sit and meditate for fifteen minutes a day when I have no job and all the time in the world. And Zen requires a lot of self-discipline, contrary to popular belief.

It’s one of these popular misconceptions that I want to take on at the moment. The common perception of Zen is of a rarified, somewhat cerebral, comfortably pacifist, tolerant religion of robed, head shaven monks who spend all their time ensconced in monasteries engaged in quiet contemplation. This image has been fostered by western appropriation of certain Zen concepts, principle among them the notion of mindfulness. Popularized by Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hahn, among others, mindfulness has spread from the realm of New Age spirituality and entered the mainstream medical and psychiatric communities. The practice of mindfulness is now touted as being able to alleviate depression, anxiety and stress, reduce pain and suffering, and help people to be happy.

All well and good, except that this medical extraction of mindfulness out of the general framework of Zen Buddhism, much like the pharmaceutical purification of a particular chemical from a complex herb, tends to make mindfulness into a kind of drug. Instead of understanding mindfulness as a means of awareness sufficient unto itself, it becomes a cure for various ailments, something to be used to achieve an end. In the process, this reinforces the passive, peaceful stereotype of Zen Buddhism, when nothing about Zen could be further from the truth.

Kaiten Nukariya’s aptly titled 1913 work Religion of the Samurai first advanced the understanding of Zen as a warrior religion, something that para-fascist Julius Evola reiterated in his 1981 monograph Lo Zen. It was Evola’s controversial contention that all Buddhism, at its base and when not bastardized by popularization, is a warrior religion, given that Gautama Buddha was by birth a member of India’s Kashatriya caste. Brian Daizen Victoria wrote his book Zen at War in 1998, which claimed that Zen was instrumental to the rise of Japanese militarism from the Meiji Restoration to the Second World War. Victoria’s thesis is not without its critics, but the links between Zen Buddhism and military practice are hard to discount. Nor are they difficult to appreciate.

Zen mental training has a number of direct applications to warrior preparation, beginning with intense concentration that allows for the perfection of fighting skills. The powerful moment-to-moment awareness cultivated by Zen is an ideal state of mind for the warrior, permitting appropriate action to arise spontaneously, which is crucial to anyone in the heat of battle. And the settling, or clearing, of the mind, the standing apart from thought employed by Zen certainly facilitates the standing back from any moral qualms that might arise from fighting and killing. No doubt, western practitioners of mindfulness as a form of therapy would be appalled to learn of the easy application of this technique to the art of war. Yet its historical reality is incontrovertible.

The singular western focus on mindfulness also tends to limit the qualities of mindfulness itself. Or, as Muho Noelke, abbot of Antaiji Monastery, once said:
We should always try to be active coming out of samadhi. For this, we have to forget things like “I should be mindful of this or that.” If you are mindful, you are already creating a separation (“I – am – mindful – of -…”). Don’t be mindful, please! When you walk, just walk. Let the walk walk. Let the talk talk (Dogen Zenji says: “When we open our mouths, it is filled with Dharma”). Let the eating eat, the sitting sit, the work work. Let sleep sleep.

Easier said than done.

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