“Zen, the religion of Low Expectations.” What an advertising slogan it would be!
The phrase came to mind, and I was trying to figure out where it came from. I thought it was Alan Watts, but it seems his quote about Zen was “The region of no religion.” When I looked at the “Religion of Low Expectations,” I got plenty of hits on Google—many of which were derogatory, a lot of them directed at Islam, and the ones that did involve Buddhism usually slammed it. Christianity didn’t fare so well, and I left the search results before it came to Judaism. I figured I knew where it was headed, so no need to go further.
Those articles and blogs tended to denigrate the practitioners of those various traditions, in the vein of, “How can you expect anything more from them?” The religions themselves suffered as well, but most diatribes seemed to be aimed at the “ist” rather than the “ism.”This was not my intended direction for this piece. In fact, I’m being very complimentary about Zen and Zen practitioners.
If it were to have a point, Zen practice is to get to the point where there are no expectations. Note that I say “get to” rather than realize this from Day One. I think back to my own practice, and I was totally hung up on the Four Noble Truths for ages, and I expected Zen to address them. Period. Nothing past that, just the Four Truths. It was as if I thought the Buddha taught during lunch one day rather than for 40 years, and that the Dharma went no further than that. Little did I know....literally.
On the one hand, there’s much more to the practice and teachings than that, on the other, even Four Noble Truths are four too many. That may come off as “Zen Paradox/Elitist/What do you know anyway” nonsense. I can almost guarantee that, since it almost makes my eyes roll. Part of the reason for that is that is so incomplete a statement. Zen practice doesn’t exclude Sutra study, meditation, chanting, incense burning, bowing to statues, bowing to each other, Dharma teaching, gongan work, none of that. Go to any Zen monastery, temple, or storefront rent-a-zendo, and there’s a good chance that you’ll experience two of them in a given meeting. But the words provide nothing.
I love reading Sutras, especially when there are multiple translations. I find chanting a great experience, even when it’s not in English. I’m too prone to attach to the words and their meaning when the chant is in English, I can read the words like they’re rpose. When it’s in Sino/Korean, it requires total concentration, from the sound of the words to the sound of the moktak to the sound of the voices of the other chanters. One stray thought, and it all unravels really quickly. Even though we do all that, it’s all too much. But we do it anyway. None of these separately or collectively will result in our realization of our essential True Buddha Nature. Likewise none of those actions will prevent that realization.
We can’t expect that anything will or will not bring about that realization. Huineng awakened when he heard the Diamond Sutra. Jinul had his when reading. For others it’s been the sound of a rock hitting bamboo, a tweak of the nose, and as many other ways as there have been realizations. As soon as there is a judgment about someone else’s realization, or a judgment about what you expect yours to be, that’s a step away from your own awakened nature. As soon as there’s an expectation that just sitting or chanting or a Sutra is guaranteed Enlightenment, you’ve missed it.
“To find Buddha, you have to see your nature. Whoever sees his nature is a Buddha. If you don’t see your nature, invoking Buddhas, reciting Sutras, making offerings, and keeping precepts are all useless. Invoking Buddhas results in good karma, reciting Sutras results in a good memory, keeping precepts results in good rebirth, and making offerings results in future blessings—but no Buddha.”
I’d add that he didn’t say that doing any of them precludes seeing your True Buddha Nature. His message was not to expect them to do anything. They may be of help, they may do no harm, they may be a hindrance. Worst case is you'll have a good memory, a fortunate rebirth, and good karma. Nothing wrong there, until you expect that good karma, rebirth, blessings, and memory are the gateway to awakening. Even the most irascible Zen Masters would quote liberally from Sutras, which according to Bodhidharma’s equation, equals a good memory. At least you may remember where you parked your car, if not who said what in which Sutra. It’s all good.
Sengcan says in the Xinxin Ming:
“To come directly into harmony with this reality,
just simply say when doubt arises, "Not two."
In this "not two" nothing is separate,
nothing is excluded.
No matter when or where,
enlightenment means entering this truth.
And this truth is beyond extension or diminution in time or space;
in it a single thought is ten thousand years.”
Don’t doubt that there is enlightened and ignorant. And likewise don’t doubt that enlightenment contains ignorance, and ignorance contains enlightenment without obstruction. As soon as a certainty is reached, the gates of hell are entered. As soon as doubt is raised, the gates to the heavens throw themselves open.
Huangbo Xiyun states:
“Thus Gautama Buddha silently transmitted to Mahakasyapa the doctrine that the One Mind, which is the substance of all things, is co-extensive with the Void and fills the entire world of phenomena.”
Whatever it is you expect Zen will provide you, it will fall short, and fulfill completely. If you expect for relaxation, prepare for tension, and in accepting that, reclaim the mind at peace. Expect Zen to provide you with answers, only get more questions. Expect anything, get nothing. Expect nothing, and the world opens before your eyes, even in its great great Void, where there is no Void, only vast potential.