Buddhism is about the discovery of our own potential: it's about beauty, and about love. Buddhism embraces mankind's quest for knowledge in all its many manifestations: spiritual knowledge, scientific knowledge, knowledge of art and music, but most of all, knowledge of Self: knowledge of who we are as opposed to who we think we are. This is the ultimate source of joy and happiness. And isn't that what we all want?
Some time ago I gave a talk about Zen Buddhism to a group of Junior High School students. The "talk" quickly turned into a question and answer session that centered on the single question, "Why is Zen so pessimistic?"
When this question was first asked, it surprised me, for I had never heard of Zen being described this way. I tried to understand where the question was coming from.
By "pessimism", are you referring to the fact that a Zen Buddhist must acknowledge that life in samsara is bitter and painful - the first of the Buddha's Four Noble Truths?"
"No - it's just so … so negative." She replied.
"Well, we do have a practice of negating things in order to detach from them - Detachment, of course, was the Buddha's solution to overcoming the bitterness and pain of life in samsara. The second of his Four Noble Truths."
She tried to clarify herself more. "I see pictures of people practicing Zen - they're sitting on cushions for hours at a time. It seems so boring … what a waste of time! And for what?" She said. "It just seems so … depressing."
Of course, on one level I agreed with her. For what indeed? People can spend their lives sitting on a cushion aiming at enlightenment and never get it. Usually it's simply because they're trying to attain "it" that prevents them from attaining it. But this wasn't what concerned her. She was a young adolescent looking forward to her future -- perhaps a career and family. She was inquisitive and thoughtful. Zen clearly had captured her interest and she was trying to solve an important question.
She continued: "And then I see shows on TV … Zen people walking around like they're in a daze … expressionless, emotionless. Someone asks them a question and they just stand there, speechless. It just seems so strange … it's like they're just down on everything!"
I knew I had to reply quickly to this or she would put me into that same category of people, but the question took me off-guard. She had been witnessing the outward expression of mankind's inner struggle for liberation -- outwardly there's not much to see: it appears boring and even perhaps frightful to a young adult or child. But the reason there's not much going on on the outside is because all the action is happening on the inside. I had to quickly come up with a way of explaining this that could be easily understood by a young adult.
"Have you ever had thoughts about who you are?" I asked her. "Have you ever thought about who it is who's 'doing the thinking'? Ever considered why it is that you are the one who's here in this world instead of someone else? Have you ever considered things from a position 'outside yourself?'" I asked these questions because they were questions I had pondered silently to myself when I was young and I suspected that some other young people did too.
This time it was my turn to take her off-guard. She didn't have a quick reply, but sat thinking. Then she said "Sure … I've had those thoughts. I've always wondered about stuff like that."
"If someone had seen you -- watched you -- when you were having those thoughts what do you think they would have thought? That you looked dull and boring?"
"I guess." She said.
"But when you were having those thoughts, did you feel dull and boring?"
I explained: "When Zen Buddhists meditate, we contemplate things like this. In fact, these questions are at the root of Chan Buddhism: they are at the root of understanding who we are. And, as you know, they are not boring at all! - they're some of the most stimulating and engrossing subjects a person can ponder over! What can be more exciting and positive than learning who we are and growing beyond our imagined limitations?"
Another student added to the discussion: "But what's with the dull, void, looks that you get from people who meditate a lot?"
"Have you ever watched TV … cartoons, or some adventure show, or something that really captured your interest?" I asked him.
"Have you ever watched someone else who was engrossed in something so much that they were oblivious to everything around them?"
"Yea." He said, with a slight grin, realizing where I was going. "They have a dull and void expression don't they."
"Yep." I said.
I continued to explain that what appears like a passive, maybe even negative or "pessimistic" activity is anything but. We can get so thoroughly engaged in meditation that we not only loose track of what's going on around us, but we even loose track of ourselves. We, in effect, disappear: we enter the emptiness of being, which we refer to as Sunyata. The sense of elation that this brings is indescribable. Emptiness doesn't mean that nothing's there, it just means that we - our egos -- aren't there. This allows the experience of pure awareness; awareness without the interference of our judging and evaluating mind. It's an awe-inspiring, ecstatic, experience that has been responsible for some of the most beautiful art and poetry in the history of mankind. Jelaluddin Rumi, a Sufi poet and teacher, was said to have spoken his thousands of verses of love-poetry while in this state of contemplative rapture and I quoted one of my favorite verses:
The world dances around the Sun.
The morning light breaks, spinning with delight.
How could anyone touched by love
not dance like a weeping willow?
In Buddhist art we see statues and paintings of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas sitting in meditation with rapturous smiles. And the experience is not confined to Buddhist mystical traditions, as we know from the numerous Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu Mystics and the art and poetry they left behind.
"Buddhism is anything but pessimistic." I emphasized. "It's about embracing life, about the discovery of our own potential, about beauty, and about love. Buddhism embraces mankind's quest for knowledge in all its many manifestations: spiritual knowledge, scientific knowledge, knowledge of art and music, but most of all, knowledge of Self: knowledge of who we are as opposed to who we think we are. This is the ultimate source of joy and happiness. And isn't that what we all want?"
The questions stopped and silence filled the large room, then the bell rang and the students left to go to their next class. As I was leaving, the teacher said he was impressed with how well the discussion went considering it was one of the "rowdiest" groups of kids he had ever had.
Nothing could have made me happier.
Spring morning on the lake: the wind merges
with the rain,
Worldly matters are like flowers that fall only to
I retire to contemplate behind closed doors,
a place of true joy,
While the floating clouds come and go the whole