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The more gullible spiritual tourist may find themselves gulled into believing that Zen is some exotic practice:
- they may be told to shave off their hair
- they may be given an exotic-sounding name like 'Shambala'
- they may wear special robes
- they may learn new jargon words
- a seeker may even be encouraged to travel thousands of miles and commit months to a meditation retreat
However, none of these things have anything whatsoever to do with Zen.
Going to a monastery or on retreat may well help you to clear your mind. It is easy to find peace and quiet when there is nothing to do except sit, eat and sleep.
What happens when you return to everyday life? Huanchu Daoren wrote that it is easy to find clarity in seclusion, but not so easy in the city centre.
Retreats cater for both the earnest student and the dilettante.
The only Zen you find on the
top of a mountain is the Zen you bring there.
(Robert M. Pirsig)
The dilettante is basically a meditation/alternative therapy/spiritual tourist. They are listless, bored, gratification seekers.
They drift around various classes undertaking whatever interests them. Unfortunately, these people never stick any class long enough to gain skill, understanding or integrity.
In lieu of meaningful knowledge they possess titbits from various teachers and enjoy sharing their experiences with other dilettantes. This has nothing whatsoever to do with Zen.
Zen has become kitsch in modern times. People who lack any real understanding have adopted symbols believed to represent Zen (a pile of stones/enso etc).
This contradicts the very nature of Zen - which is the unsymbolisation of the world.
There is a Zen story about a master and his student crossing a river. The student shows-off to the master by walking across the surface of the water. The master wades through the water instead.
When he has crossed, the master says to the student: "If I'd known you were going to perform a miracle, I'd have broken both of your legs."
What does this story mean?
Zen is not something special. The study is not cultivating anything remarkable or worthy of a performance. It is not an image, label, badge or adjunct to your personality.
Zen is not a mysterious endeavour that can only be pursued in the quiet confines of a monastery somewhere. It is deeply ordinary. There is nothing exotic or exciting about Zen.
Zen is concerned with your everyday mind. How you use your mind; your thoughts, memories, perceptions, values, opinions... and how these affect your ability to see the world around you.
The more muddled your mind is, the less clearly you see reality.
Notice what is taking place
Zen can be whittled down to the simplicity of Buddha holding a flower and saying absolutely nothing.
Yet, some 'meditators' regularly go on retreat and possess absolutely no understanding of the roles played by attention and awareness.
Many people cannot distinguish between contemplation and meditation; a simplistic insight. Zen is in danger of being lost to pretentiousness and falsehood.
Loss of 'self'
A vulgar mind seeks exoticism. It fails to notice the subtle, the small, the anonymous. Sensitivity, awareness, attention and tranquillity are the outcome of continual work.
There are no shortcuts.
Reality is here and now
Zen is about seeing things as they really are. Seeing what is right in front of you. To accomplish this you need to clear your mind.
Shed the clutter
Adding clutter such as a special new name, a costume, a special place to meditate etc will not help you to accomplish mental clarity and awareness.
In fact, the more you add, the further away you get from the truth (which is here and now). Zen is about paring away the things that occlude reality, not substituting one thing for another.
or vulgar, often pretentious bad taste, especially in the arts.
(American Heritage Dictionary)
The idea of tai chi
Tai chi employs Taoist influences in the same way that Zen does. The study of Zen can enhance your tai chi. But do not go astray. Seek the essence of the art, not the idea of tai chi.
Tai chi gone awry
In the 20th Century people began to see tai chi as some kind of performance art, akin to dance. This is a folly. Taijiquan is a martial art; its purpose is combat, not entertainment.
People who become interested in performance tend to collect pretty forms. This is a clue concerning their motivation.
Other people practice unlikely offshoots such as 'shibashi' - a qigong method that calls itself tai chi qigong - a perplexing and meaningless description?
What makes tai chi 'tai chi'?
Tai chi is not simply slow motion exercise. There are very specific qualities that need to be present for the training to be called 'tai chi'.
You cannot simply ad lib and think that you are performing tai chi.
The wisdom of famous taijiquan masters came to be known as The Tai Chi Classics. These three are the most widely read:
provide a detailed outline of
taijiquan is and how it should be employed.
Correct practice of taijiquan must follow the
Exoticism is commonplace
When enough people seek exoticism rather than integrity and substance, the facile becomes the norm. This has happened in both Zen and tai chi.
Questioning the commonplace seems contentious and argumentative. Do not be deterred. Seek the essence; the wellspring, the origin, the authentic.
Do not seek to follow in the
footsteps of the men of old.
Seek what they sought.
18 March 1997
Last updated 17 September 2019