A Zen’s-Eye View: Zen practice doesn’t help explain our lives

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We all have our favourite stories, both from religious literature and secular literature. We can read a story and it just changes our lives so we never forget it. That story keeps coming back, and over the years we deepen our understanding and appreciation of it. This is how Zen literature works. Rather than explaining and analyzing, it is poetic, and is meant to leave a short line or phrase that strikes you at a transformative moment in your life.

When I first found Zen, I was suffering from a marriage breakup. There was a phrase in the “Heart Sutra”, a chant that is chanted at all Zen temples. “Without fear, there is no suffering.” I poured all of my sorrow into that phrase and would go for long walks repeating it to myself. That phrase saved me and saw me to the next phase of my life. And still it echoes through my mind when I’m facing hardship. “Without fear, there is no suffering.”

Zen stories, phrases and words are meant to be taken as something that we can attach our path to and be illuminated by. They can be a point of light in the middle of the darkness. In “Mountains and Rivers Sutra”, 13 century Zen master Eihei Dogen is thinking of a story that illustrates the truth that there is no endpoint to Zen training. Practice and realization is one thing, so we don’t have to feel discouraged because we haven’t met a goal. Instead, we can take the light in from the beginning. The story that Dogen is thinking of is about Nanyue and Hui Neng, two Zen masters who lived in seventh century China. Here’s the story.

Nanyue comes to Hui Neng who asks, “What is it that thus appears before you?” In other words, “Who are you really?” Nanyue doesn’t know what to say, so he meditates with this question for a long time. After eight years he comes back to Hui Neng and says, “To explain would miss the mark.” Hui Neng poses another question. “So if it’s like that, what is the point of practice and study?” Nanyue answers, “It’s not that study and practice are pointless; it’s only that they are unlimited.”

We can’t explain our lives; we can only live them. There is no end to the ways in which we try to define or grasp an understanding of this life. If we try to explain our lives, we just end up walling it up into an ingrained set of conditioned beliefs. Nor can we explain our spiritual practices because they too are endless. All we can do is exercise the gifts we’ve been given in this life. Our lives are wide open, like mountains playfully splashing their toes in the waters that flow down their sides and collect in lakes.

Suggested practice: Reflect on a story or phrase that has helped you over a tough spot into and into the next phase of your life.

Kuya Minogue is the resident teacher at Sakura-ji, Creston’s zendo. This column is part of a long essay on an essay by 13th century Zen master Eihei Dogen and is inspired by the teaching of Norman Fischer. For more information, Minogue can be reached at 250-428-6500, and previous columns are available at www.zenwords.net.

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