Zen vs. Freethought

Maybe it took me actually becoming an official member of my Zen community for me to even contemplate sitting down and determining where I stand, spiritually speaking. Seems kind of back-assward, I know — but I had been so sure that Zen, being a nontheistic religion, would be a perfect fit for my atheistic views. And it can be, I think.

My identity-crisis of faith started when I heard about the “meta-practice” that had been discussed at a meeting I’d missed. One of the sangha members referred to the practice as a “meta-prayer,” which set off my internal BS Meter. It turns out that this practice basically consists of mentally wishing a particular person well, which I can understand and appreciate on some level, if not the literal level that everyone else seems to understand it. Still, her unfortunate choice of vocabulary raised a red Zen flag for me, and that had to be dealt with before I could have peace of mind again.

The underlying tenet of my personal faith, if you can call it that, is that we have to see through the mystical and symbolic BS to get to the heart of the concepts in religion and spirituality, to understand their true nature. Thing is, our minds deal in symbols and representations and conventions. I understand the concept of infinity, for example, but can I realize it myself? Academically, symbolically, I comprehend the idea — but can I, as a mortal being, wired into this physical brain, realize the true nature of infinity? It would take some work.

So, I’ve been laying low on the Zen front for a while, trying to decide where I stand. On one hand, I strongly identify as a freethinker. (The term “atheist” applies, too, and I certainly don’t reject that label, but it doesn’t as effectively convey my need to apply critical thinking.) As a freethinker, I feel the need to examine most claims that come my way, especially ones involving the supernatural, or that otherwise trigger my BS Meter. I require either solid, definitive proof; or I require proof that the claimant is reputable and has proof of their own. (e.g. snopes.com — I don’t research every single e-mail forward myself; I go to Snopes and see if they’ve already researched it.)

On the other hand, the Zen variety of Buddhism asserts that there are some things that cannot be comprehended by the mind. Some things have to be felt, experienced, and not taught or told. This dovetails nicely with my concept of symbolism vs. truth, but doesn’t jive so well with critical thinking. It comes dangerously close to the “blind faith” I’ve so vehemently rejected, especially when the academic truth or discernable logic of a teaching isn’t close to the surface. Trust in your teacher, and have faith that he knows the direction in which a given practice will take you. Granted, if there’s anyone I could trust on that level, it’s Sensei… but it’s hard. It’s a stretch for me.

Yesterday, I went back to the zendo for the Wednesday service. (Realized halfway there that I’d forgotten my zafu, my meditation cushion — I’ll never do that again! I’m partial to my own pillow, thanks — not a big fan of my entire left leg going numb-asleep.) There were several students visiting from a religion class at the University, and Sensei had been requested to put Zen Buddhism in context against other forms of Buddhism and other religions in general.

That was just what I needed.

I may link to the audio of the talk once it’s posted on the Drinking Gourd Podcast (although it’ll be a while — I know, since I’m the producer), but Sensei’s final sticking point was the fact that Zen Buddhism in particular is more about the experience itself than the teachings. In order to realize yourself, you have to sit still and be with yourself. You can’t just be told, “You have Buddha Nature; you are perfect and complete, lacking nothing,” and expect to parrot it back and believe it with your core. You have to eventually realize it for yourself, without really meaning to. Not that I have, mind you. Fully realized my true Buddha Nature, I mean. I get glimpses of the truth of the teaching, but I’m still working with it.

While Sensei’s talk did help, another person’s comment afterward did not. I was talking to someone (Google is a powerful tool, so we’ll just call her Someone) about why I hadn’t been to Zen in a while. After making excuses about getting back into the groove after vacation, and just wanting to be alone at home for whatever reason, I finally let the real reason creep in, to gauge her reaction. I told her that, as someone who strongly identifies as an atheist and a freethinker, some of the teachings of Zen are hard to wrap my mind around. To which she replied (quite inexplicably affecting a Jamaican accent) that I didn’t need my mind, that I’m not supposed to be using my mind, and that my mind would be no use on my deathbed, among other amusing rantings. I laughed along, deciding that she was NOT the person to whom I should take my innermost questions of faith vs. reason in the future.

Despite that unhelpful conversation, I’m once again perfectly content with being a Freethinker who practices Zen Buddhism. There’s a delicate balance there, between critical thinking and “just sitting.” Each has an important place in my spiritual practice (for lack of a better term), and I’m not willing to forsake one for the other.