Universality and Ritual, Part 2 – The Universality of Zazen

universal: “[I]ncluding or covering all or a whole collectively or distributively without limit or exception… [E]xistent or operative everywhere or under all conditions...” Merriam-Webster

ritual: “[A]ccording to religious law… social custom or normal protocol.” Merriam-Webster

My previous post briefly explored the natural dichotomy existing between these two words before moving on to consider what I refer to as the universality of stillness, of which I stated: “the experience of stillness and silence is universal, the truth to be found therein is universal, but just as soon as we begin to put that truth into words we fall into the realm of disagreement and argumentation.” One might hear echoes of the words of William James in such a statement. In one of his lectures transcribed in The Varieties of Religious Experience, James posits that “feeling is the deeper source of religion, and that philosophic and theological formulas are secondary products, like translations of a text into another tongue” (p. 470).
James, of course, is referring to transcendent or mystical experience when he refers to feeling. I’ll consider some exceptions later on, but for the most part I interpret such transcendent or mystical experience to be that which either results from or which, in fact, is the most complete experience of the stillness and silence that I’ve been speaking of. As I make this statement, I am aware that on the one hand I am being more specific than James in that I have rooted mystical experience (for the most part, anyway) in the ground of stillness and silence. On the other hand I am being more general in that, for my way of thinking, the ease with which James classifies mystical experience as experiences of God already reflects one of the “translations of a text into another tongue” to which he refers. Using such words as “God” or “Buddha-mind” takes an experience which is in essence ineffable and positions it within the preexisting (or quickly adopted) metaphysical framework of the experiencer. Please keep these points in mind as you consider this longer selection from one of James’ lectures:
In mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness. This is the everlasting and triumphant mystical tradition, hardly altered by differences of clime or creed. In Hinduism, in Neoplatonism, in Sufism, in Christian mysticism, in Whitmanism, we find the same recurring note, so that there is about mystical utterances an eternal unanimity which ought to make a critic stop and think, and which brings it about that the mystical classics have, as has been said, neither birthday nor native land. Perpetually telling of the unity of man with God, their speech antedates languages, and they do not grow old. (p. 457)

The Universality of Zazen

Perhaps this goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: The metaphysical reality that exists for one exists for all, regardless of belief or lack thereof. Whatever is… is, and whether we know it or not or whether we have words for it or not is inconsequential. Similarly, the neurobiological form that gives rise to the mind of any one of us is – within the realm of human variation, anyway – the same form that gives rise to the mind of each and every one of us. We all eat and drink and breathe and wonder; we all adopt or construct some sort of explanation as to how and why we are here; and, most prescient for the purposes of this particular blog post, we all have the capacity for what we commonly refer to as mystical or transcendent experience. This is at least a somewhat complete description of the universality of humanness.

Now, some mystical or transcendent experiences might occur quite spontaneously – so-called peak experiences, for instance, or apparitions brought on by grief or stress or trauma. Others might accompany the ingestion of psychotropic drugs or the entrance into trance-like states. However, to the extent that such states of mind are a function of our unique and individual karma it is difficult to call them universal. Zazen, on the other hand – seated meditation – is different in that the experience of stillness that I’ve been speaking of is predicated upon the stilling of our individual karma. We have to “get out of the way,” so to speak, in order for the experience of stillness and silence to arise. This is the essence of the universality of zazen.

How does this sit with you and your own personal view of metaphysical reality? Does it resonate with you that truth is accessible to us right here and right now simply by “getting out of the way” so as to experience “things-as-it-is,” or do you think of ultimate reality as something that we gain access to only after slipping through some sort of mental portal into “another dimension”? That does seem to be a common metaphysical conception, doesn’t it? For instance, one might think of God-focused prayer as opening up some kind of portal leading toward divine union and light, whereas prayer from any other orientation – or the act of sitting zazen for that matter – opens the portal door so that the forces of darkness might enter into us and lead us down the path of separation and death. A modern heaven and hell worldview essentially requires that we think of conventional and ultimate reality in such a portal-like way. After all, now that we know that heaven is not up above the clouds and hell is not deep in the bowels of the earth we are forced to conclude that these realms must exist outside of our everyday space-time continuum – entered into via one portal or another.

But there are no portals opening up when we enter into zazen (though my saying so will not convince one who is inclined to believe otherwise); there is only a more and more complete cessation of individual karma – a more and more refined experience of stillness. This stillness is not Buddhist or Christian, Jewish or Muslim, Hindu or Pagan – it is universal. Zazen, therefore, is universal.

I introduced this diagram last week in Universality and Ritual, Part 1. Please keep it in mind as I close with the following story: For a time, my ex-wife and I attended the Quaker service here in town. Members of the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers) are, of course, Christians who believe that the process of sitting together in silence allows them to discern the voice of God within them and in their midst. Now, the whys and wherefores of a couple of Buddhists enjoying silence with the Quakers need not be delved into at the present time. Suffice to say, however, that this Buddhist sitting zazen in the pews of that Quaker meeting house felt quite at home amongst the stillness, silence, and truth to be found there. Nothing seemed forced or contrived, for as one sits immersed in the immediate experience of stillness and silence, there are no views separating one from another; there is only the shared experience of something universally profound.



James, W. (2002). The varieties of religious experience: A study in human nature – The Gifford lectures on natural religion delivered at Edinburgh in 1901-1902. The Modern Library.


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Iris image manipulated by author using Photoshop. Original Laitr Keiows photo via:


Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank


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