Conversation with a True Zen Master

Written on January 25, 2009. Written by .

Buddha in Kamakura
Exploring the zen philosophy on life.
Photo courtesy of chaojikazu

cspice: I still don’t fully understand the zen philosophy. It seems that one is supposed to live in the present moment and demphasize analytical thought. I like the concept of living in the moment and I agree that much of analytical thought is futile, but I think life requires a certain degree of analysis. If you don’t analyze the consequence of your actions, then why would you follow the orders of your boss at work?

Zen Master: Working for a boss is not the ideal position for a zen pracitioner. Ideally, one would find mindful work that did not require the immediate execution of orders. A zen artisan, for example, enjoys his craft and performs his work because it is more interesting to work sometimes and relax sometimes than to relax all the time. Of course the world is not ideal and many of us will be expected to execute orders from others. But that does not mean that we cannot practice zen; we must simply learn to perform our duties mindfully, being aware of the world around us and enjoying its wonders. Regardless of the type of work you do, you will have to do some planning and analytical thinking. Zen doesn’t forbid this, it just encourages us to be aware of such thoughts so they don’t become our awareness.

cspice: [Thinks for a few moments] So you mean that by watching our thoughts we are effectively displacing them from the root of our consciousness, which allows our mindful awareness to sit at the root?

Zen Master: Yes.

cspice: That actually helps me understand… I still think there is a problem though. Analytical thought is not only what keeps us alive, but it is how we influence the external quality of our lives. The practice of zen let’s us improve the internal quality of our lives, which is certainly important, but the external situation can sometimes be overpowering. I think modern culture makes it difficult to deemphasize external factors. One gets the impression that success is a prerequisite for social acceptance, which is so important to everyone. While these concerns may be exaggerated, it sure wouldn’t hurt to have some success just to make things go more smoothly. Plus being successful affords you more freedom, which might get you closer to achieving the ideal zen lifestyle.

Zen master: I agree, success is good if you use it wisely.

cspice: Well here is the problem then. Let’s say you decide that you want to be successful and you realize that analytical thought is the best way to get you there. Now you’ve got a great deal of analysis coming up and its going to be hard to always be “watching” this analysis as it goes by. Basically, there are overhead costs to always keeping a part of your brain watching the other parts. It is going to slow you down. You are competing against others for a slice of the pie and they don’t have this overhead. It would be more efficient to forget about mindfulness for a while and focus on achieving some success. That way you can unleash your mind on the analytical problems of the world and become successful as quickly as possible. Then you can go back to being mindful.

Zen master: [Smiles…] It would be wise to consider carefully exactly how much success you really want and then decide if you really need to abandon mindfulness to achieve your goals.

cspice: [I get the impression that he is smiling at me like a father who sees a son going through the same stages of learning as he did himself as a boy.] I’ve tried that. I’ve analytically optimized how much to analytically optimize my life quality.

Zen master: [Slight chuckle] I see.

cspice: Do you think that is the right approach?

Zen master: I don’t know.

cspice: Well how do you deal with this kind of thing personally?

Zen master: I live with very little analysis.

cpsice: Isn’t it really important though? Wouldn’t you like to know if there was a way to significantly improve your life quality?

Zen master: That would be nice, but I’m in no rush to discover such things.

At this point I realized how he really felt about analysis. I think it was the word “rush” that made me wake up out of the logic of the conversation and come back into awareness. He wasn’t against analysis, he just didn’t want to spend all his time analyzing when there were more pleasant things to be experiencing. When I asked him about things he understood, he presented his understanding. When I asked him about things he didn’t fully understand (perhaps because there is no answer?), he just told me he didn’t know. Even when I pressed, he just told me how he felt without entering into the debate that I was presenting. He didn’t challenge my views or suggest that they were unimportant. Normally I would have felt compelled to find out who was right by pursuing the debate, but because he never really took a stance, there wasn’t much more to say. Because of this I was able to slow down enough to see his point of view, so I thanked him and left.

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2 Comments so far
  1. Aaron K. February 16, 2009 6:43 am

    This is the first I’ve read anything about Zen, but I think I get the gist of their philosophy: constantly being aware of everything around you, especially the positive things in your life and environment (ie, “to smell the roses”), will allow you to enjoy life the most. I think this is what Objectivists, esp. Dr. Branden, would call “awareness,” which they regard as a prerequisite of self-esteem, although they don’t specify what to be aware of, such as the beauty/good things in our lives.

    I also think I understand the dilemma you had in this discussion: it takes mental power/attention to be aware of good things around you, as it does to analyze and perform other mental functions. Thus we need to decide how much brain power to devote to each of these. The Zen man is effectively saying that being “mindful” is the priority, so try to do that as much as possible in your life, overall.

    Is this the same Zen man that went off on you?

  2. cspice February 25, 2009 3:55 am

    Yeah, I’m not sure about calling it a priority, but I think it is possible to direct yourself towards more mindfulness. You can be more mindful in your daily activities and try to reduce exposure to activities that are irreconcilable with mindfulness.

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