Zen Outside the Box

Where there is carrion lying, meat-eating birds circle and descend. Life and death are two. The living attack the dead, to their own profit. The dead lose nothing by it. They gain too, by being disposed of. Or they seem to, if you must think in terms of gain and loss. Do you then approach the study of Zen with the idea that there is something to be gained by it? This question is not intended as an implicit accusation. But it is, nevertheless, a serious question. Where there is a lot of fuss about “spirituality,” “enlightenment” or just “turning on,” it is often because there are buzzards hovering around a corpse. This hovering, this circling, this descending, this celebration of victory, are not what is meant by the Study of Zen—even though they may be a highly useful exercise in other contexts. And they enrich the birds of appetite.
Zen enriches no one. There is no body to be found. The birds may come and circle for a while in the place where it is thought to be. But they soon go elsewhere. When they are gone, the “nothing,” the “no-body” that was there, suddenly appears. That is Zen. It was there all the time but the scavengers missed it, because it was not their kind of prey. – Thomas Merton

So reads the author’s note to Zen and the Birds of Appetite – one which for years now I’ve assumed I would one day work into a blog post. It’s rather harsh, isn’t it? Who are those scavengers? Am I one of them?

I think it’s safe to say that, for any given individual, Zen practice is an ever-changing dynamic. During my tenure helping out with the instruction of beginners, it was quite common to find people hoping to gain something, whether it be refuge, meaning, knowledge, enlightenment, peace of mind, community, an escape from the chaos of modernity, or a means to cope with pain, grief, anxiety, depression and substance abuse. And how could I possibly claim exemption from a good number of those!

Ox-herding Picture Number 9

As practice progresses, however, (toward what?) one begins to realize change. But what exactly has changed? If anything, what is gained via Zen practice amounts to addition by subtraction – a dropping off of ideas, concepts, beliefs, expectations, unnecessary stuff and unnecessary activity. But what happens when we begin to drop off huge chunks of what we once thought Zen practice was all about?

In another century I might have been one of those monks who heads off into the mountains to live as a hermit up above some little village. But even as my mind is such, the life that I am living includes a house, a job, a partner, and so many other predictable worldly connections.    

My practice these days is a solitary one. I have a zendo set up in my living room where I sit in meditation daily, most often alone. On the other hand, it’s difficult to say that my practice is truly solitary when I’m sitting with the entire world each time that I do – not unlike that monk up in the mountains practicing for the sake of all of the townspeople down below and the world all around.

Now, some might say that I need a teacher. But, in fact, I have many. The entire world is my teacher. Some might say that I need a community to practice with. In fact, I have one. The entire world is my community. Such ideas have gotten me labeled individualistic, arrogant, egotistical, and delusional. More often than not, though, such labels are assigned to me whenever I refuse to stay inside the box that has been created for me by the mind of another.
Zen student to teacher: "I come seeking liberation."
Zen teacher to student: "Who has enslaved you? Show me your chains!" +
Indeed. Did the student need to hear even a single additional word?

This past week, while driving home from Colorado, my partner and I listened to a series of lectures by Ram Das packaged together as Experiments in Truth. Somewhere along the way, Ram Das suggested that the ideal method for becoming free would be one that self-destructs once it is no longer needed. In other words, the method frees the self from clinging even as it leaves nothing behind to cling to. Of course, this is not necessarily an original idea. The Buddha himself remarked that once you’ve used the raft of the teachings to reach the other side it no longer makes much sense to go around carrying that raft on your back. The following is an excerpt of what the Buddha reportedly said:
There is the case where the man, having crossed over, would think, 'How useful this raft has been to me! For it was in dependence on this raft that, making an effort with my hands & feet, I have crossed over to safety on the further shore. Why don't I, having dragged it on dry land or sinking it in the water, go wherever I like?' In doing this, he would be doing what should be done with the raft. In the same way, monks, I have taught the Dhamma compared to a raft, for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of holding onto. Understanding the Dhamma as taught compared to a raft, you should let go even of Dhammas, to say nothing of non-Dhammas. (MN 22)

What does the Buddha mean by “crossing over”? Some will say that he is referring to anuttara samyak sambodhi, unsurpassed right awakening. But such a person – with the understanding of a Buddha – would not need to be told what to do with the raft at that point, would she? I tend to think, then, that he is referring to ordinary monks, with ordinary understanding. He is telling us the attitude we should have toward the very method that leads to our liberation.

There is a scene in the remade film version of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge in which Bill Murray’s character is sitting reading at the entrance to a cave high up in the snow-packed Himalayas. He sits in lotus posture, dutifully reading the words of some holy book, no doubt. His fire burns low, and he is starting to shiver. He has no fuel left to burn – save for the book in his hands, and the stack of others at his side. Slowly, with a half-smile on his face it seems, he begins to tear pages from his book and throw them on the fire. The words of others can only take us so far. At some point we have to stand on our own two feet, so to speak, and look our very existence right in the eye that we might finally resolve the “great matter.” At such time the words of another will mean not a whit.

A skilled psychotherapist will have a client convey his story just enough to be able to guide him beyond it to greater psychological health. On the other hand, an unskilled therapist will have a client mired in his story, mired in the telling of his story, and mired in a perceived need to have the psychotherapist hear his story. Bad psychotherapy, then, involves an endless rehashing of stories of victimhood or brokenness to the point where those stories have more power over the individual than the actual experience(s) of harm ever did.

So, have we become attached to our deluded nature, our suffering self, our need for dependency on a teacher, our teacher’s need for our dependency on her, our need for a parental figure to guide us, our need to associate with others just like us, our journey toward some presumed perfect way of seeing and being, the retelling of our story, etc., etc.? Are we like the birds of appetite that Merton speaks of – always circling, always ready to dive in and snatch a morsel that never seems to satisfy our insatiable hunger?  

Dogen resolved the “great matter” to his satisfaction and then went on to teach so many others – including me. The man depicted in the Ox-herding Pictures found his mind and walked off back to the marketplace. How much more do you need to know in order to enjoy the freedom of your birthright? The answer will come to you. In the meantime, I’ll be sitting quietly in meditation and looking for you out in the marketplace!

Ox-herding Picture Number 10

+ I’ve stumbled across variations on this dialogue numerous times with the only attribution being “Zen Story” or something to that effect. One possible early Western source is a transcribed lecture by Alan Watts from the 1970s. See references below. The version here has been adapted for the sake of brevity and impact.  

Ox-herding Pictures 9 & 10 via:


Majjhima Nikaya 22 (MN 22). Alagaddupama sutta: the water-snake simile (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Tr.). Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 17 December 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.022.than.html
Merton, T. (1968) Zen and the birds of appetite. Published by New Directions.
Watts, A. (1996) Myth and religion: The edited transcripts. Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc.

Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank


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