Encountering a Zenner can be a strange experience indeed . . .
- By Chuan Zhi
- Dec 02
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Zen people are strange. I've been told this many times, usually before I announce that I am a Zen person. My usual rhetorical thought has always been a humorous, well of course we are! My vocal response is, most often, silence. Having this come up in casual conversation today, I thought I should take this claim a little more "seriously". It didn't take me long to come up with a short list of reasons why we Zenners are, indeed, so strange.
1) We don't concern ourselves much with social norms of etiquette. The notion of what is socially important is mostly a consequence of our wanting to preserve a self-image that is accepted and encouraged by society. We need only reflect on how social norms of a hundred years ago (or 50) differed so drastically from those of today to recognize that our behavior is largely programmed into us by the society we live in. For a person of Zen, there is no desire, or need, to live the life of a robot. For us, the need to preserve an "acceptable image to society" does not extend much beyond wearing clean clothes and treating others with respect, dignity, and kindness. On matters of "social appropriateness" that comprise societal "norms," we are certainly lone wolves. We are quite apt to speak our mind on most any subject should the circumstance or need present itself. Appropriate, for us, means "based on our norms", norms that are dictated by Dharma, not self-interest. This can sometimes make us appear quite inappropriate in social settings, on the phone ... or even email. Some people, I can imagine, might mistake our behavior as impudent. For us, we are just being honest and direct.
2) We "march to a different drummer." A person of Zen is in touch with the inner voice, an egoless muse that supplies the needed checks-and-balances for our actions, that sees the big picture and is unconcerned with petty self-interest. Instead of acting from emotional queues, our actions are governed by Natural Law, or Dharma. If someone yells at us, we're more apt to be concerned for them and ask why they feel the need to yell than to yell back in response. We are also in touch with our inner creative spirit, be it music, art, literature, science ... or simply our inner musings. We are free to express ourselves, or not, according to our sensibilities.
3) We aren't likely to flagrantly project our emotions. We all have emotions, but the person of Zen is less apt to act on them - we might, for example, present an emotionless expression at times when others would expect us to be angry, happy, or sad. The Zen mind is trained to observe emotions, letting them pass as easily and quickly as they arise. When emotions have no staying power, they can't be projected onto others, or reflected back on ourselves to do us harm either. We are unlikely to raise our voice in anger, or perform retaliatory or spiteful acts.
4) We aim to see the big picture and not get caught up in "the little things." I have always liked the expression attributed to Sophocles: "There's no sense in crying over spilt milk". It so well expresses the idea that there's no use upsetting ourselves over the little things. Anyone who has been a parent has witnessed their child spill something on the floor, or on themselves, and then proceed to a long temper tantrum. Yet we do this even as adults -- we come home from the grocery store and realize that we forgot to get milk and eggs, the two main things that sent us there in the first place. We kick ourselves and feel terrible. Or we're using some bleach in the wash and accidently drip some on the shirt we're wearing ... or we accidently ding our car as we pull into the garage, or we forget to lock our bicycle and it gets stolen, or we are laid off from our job, or our lawn mower gets run over by a car .... How we let the little things get to us! None of these kinds of things have any durable effect on us, or should be allowed to interfere with our happiness. With a Grand Universal Perspective, they are all things of trivial consequence. We need only reflect on the tragic situations of most people in the world to see how paying such attention to trivial "dings" in our lives reflects a very real conceit. Consider, for example, that almost half the world - over three billion people - live on less than US $2.50 a day. And according to UNICEF, 22,000 children die each day due to poverty. And they "die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world. Being meek and weak in life makes these dying multitudes even more invisible in death." How is it that, in the face of such severe suffering endured by so many, we can ever consider our own lives miserable when we live in such comparative luxury and safety? (I am, of course, assuming that anyone who has the ability to read this essay on a computer fits into this category.) The person of Zen often seems happy and content when others might consider that he or she has no reason to be.
5) We recognize that we are not in control of things. Most things that happen to us are outside our control. The earth spins on its axis without our permission or guidance, and isn't this the way of most all things? Getting upset because something happens to us is like getting angry at the universe for being the way it is. Things happen and that's it. When we get angry or upset, those feelings come about because of a lack of recognition of cause and effect -- because we fail to recognize the nature of Suchness (Tathata). How silly is it to become personally involved in an event which has no intrinsic involvement with us? Everything is about cause and effect: Karma. When we understand the antecedents to an action, we understand the action itself, and we see that it is not an act against us at all, but just another effect from an antecedent cause. We see also that this is the very nature of all things. When we become the observer, instead of the participant, this all becomes clear. To others, we may, as observers, appear detached from the world. What they may fail to recognize is that we're intimately engaged within it: no longer an outsider looking in, we're an insider looking out.
6) We do not judge others any more than we judge ourselves - we seek to understand others, as we do ourselves. Once we escape the constraints of an imagined personal self we recognize that we all are "in the same boat." We all suffer the same myriad forms of pain and suffering - psychological, social, physical and spiritual. We all struggle to deal the best we can with the hardships of life, and we all seek to spend time doing things that are enjoyable, avoiding those that are painful. When we have an insult thrown our way we recognize that hate is a manifestation of suffering. Our response is not retaliatory, but compassionate. Reflecting this way, we don't engage in arguments or insults or self-denigrating abuse. We've all experienced a moment when we've felt we were treated wrongly and have reacted reflexively in a feverish heat. But when we spend time considering deeply the source of these emotions we gain an understanding of them: with that understanding comes compassion, and with compassion our reactions to hateful, spiteful, or angry actions toward us are not reacted to personally. We may appear impassive, unmovable.
I could go on. But the point is that we Zenners are probably off the charts when it comes to strangeness. Why? We spend so much time contemplating things - mediation. It changes our minds, our perspectives, our understandings of ourselves and the world we live in. Our subsequent behavior must surely seem odd and incomprehensible to one not treading Zen's mystical path. But for some of us, oddness is part of the allure of the mystical life too. To become other than what we think ourselves to be, and what we want others to think of us as, gives direction to our spiritual life. When the urge arises to step outside social and cultural norms, to shed ourselves of programmed, conditioned, behavior, the resulting transformation within cannot help but be recognized by those around us. And it is inevitably misunderstood by many of those not on the same journey.
I thought I would end this essay here, but on further reflection, I think it fair to point out that Zen people are of many types and it is not fair for me to categorize us all in the same way. Perhaps the portrait I have painted is of the archetypal Zennist, or the Zen adept. But we Zennists, as a whole, are likely to present the way I have portrayed us here to varying degrees. Zen is a difficult thing to put into words, and usually, whenever we try to do so, we go grievously wrong. But I hoped to present to the non-Zennist, by this discourse, some of the experiences we go though on Zen's path - both the effects they have on us, and the effects they have on others. Ultimately, none of us are a closed book. We cannot affect ourselves without affecting others. Nor can we disregard the views that others have on us as irrelevant or without justification. The person of Zen looks at the big picture: sees the cracks in the cement, the bee on the flower. We recognize that everything affects everything else, and that we are all merely cogs in the Great Machine that is the universe.
On a personal note, I believe that once we attain Self-knowledge, the knowledge of Universal Law, or Dharma, we have no other path than to live our lives in such a way that it serves to improve our lot as a species, as a world, and even as a universe. To some, our actions may seem crazy, as did Mahatma Gandhi's as he fought for India's independence from Great Brittan in the early 20th century in personally extreme ways, or Siddhartha's as he fasted for months in an effort to understand what was Universal Truth. Both were fully prepared to give up their lives in order that they would lead the Noble Path - a path who's value was perceived as far superior to that of the individual self. Saints or crazy people? There are those who see it one way, and those who see it the other. But perception is only as clear as our minds allow it to be. When the mind is clouded by self-interest, emotional baggage from our past, judgments, critiques, etc., how much are we truly able to perceive past our own immediate personal reality? While we Zenners may be easily judged by others, it is the Self that guides our lives, and its voice is, for us, the only one that counts.