(Let me start by saying that I don't claim to know an extreme amount about Zen Buddhism. I'm still trying to get a handle on Buddhism in general. But I think I know a little bit about the Zen mindset. I'll be happy to read any criticisms on what I'm about to say.)
As I was reading various writings on Buddhism, particularly Zen Buddhism, I couldn't help noticing similarities between it and Taoism. Red Pine translated Bodhidharma's teachings. The first footnote is an explanation of the use of the word "path", and says, "When Buddhism came to China, 'Tao' was used to translate 'Dharma' and 'Bodhi'. This was partly because Buddhism was viewed as a foreign version of Taoism. In his 'Bloodstream Sermon,' Bodhidharma says, 'The path is zen.'" And, indeed, the Chinese character used at that point is the character for "tao" that we see throughout the Tao Te Ching.
Buddhism had been known and practiced in China for at least a few centuries before Bodhidharma arrived in 520. According to legend, he introduced Zen Buddhism to China. Personally, with no actual historical knowledge of the matter, I thought it was pretty likely that the Chinese had already incorporated their own Taoist philosophy into Buddhism, and that, when he came along, Bodhidharma found a Zen atmosphere already in place. After all, Taoism had been established in China by at least a few hundred years B.C., with Lao Tzu (who may not have actually existed :) possibly having been born as early as 604 B.C., and Chuang Tzu having died as late as 286 B.C. Since Taoist philosophies are so incredibly similar to Zen's, it seems unlikely that the Chinese did NOT combine the two until Bodhidharma arrived a few hundred years later. In The Tao of Zen, Ray Grigg, who obviously has a much greater knowledge of the subject, says that the combinations did, indeed, come before Bodhidharma.
It seems to me that Taoism and Buddhism both say to let go of all desire, to live without motivation and planning. But the result seems to be different. Perhaps it you practiced Taoism to the most perfect degree, you would end up doing it anyway. But Zen actually comes out and says it. And what it says is to also let go of ego, and finally even identity.
This idea is discussed often in Eugen Herrigel's book, Zen in the Art of Archery. But the explanation that works best for me is in Way of the Peaceful Warrior, by Dan Millman. One character says:
Meditating an action is different from doing it. To do, there must be a doer, a self-conscious someone performing. But when you meditate an action, you've already released all thoughts, even the thought, "I". There's no "you" left to do it. In forgetting yourself, you become what you do, so your action is free, spontaneous, without ambition, inhibition, or fear.
Think of it this way. Any action that a person can perform can be thought of as consisting of the person performing the action. If the person is removed from the situation, not physically, but mentally and emotionally, what is left? The action. The person is still physically there, but the action is all that is truly there. The person is a part of the action. Using archery as an example, the shot is made up of a human body, a bow, an arrow, and a target. It is no longer a person using a bow to shoot an arrow at a target.
In my view, all animals are Zen Masters. The cheetah does not consider its ego or personality when it hunts. It acts without thought, without worry. It doesn't even plan and scheme. The hunt begins when it sees a herd of prey. It watches the group, chooses a victim, stalks up as close as possible, starts running (accelerating to over 60 mph without the least thought of its stride, breathing, or placement of feet), knocks the animal to the ground with claws, and bites. Not a single thought goes through the cheetah's head during the entire process. It simply does. We can learn to do this also.
Zen goes a step beyond Taoism by saying that enlightenment will result from the person's stripping all sense of self away. The enlightened person is part of everything. Herrigel says it this way:
This means that the mind or spirit is present everywhere, because it is nowhere attached to any particular place. And it can remain present because, even when related to this or that object, it does not cling to it by reflection and thus lose its original mobility. Like water filling a pond, which is always ready to flow off again, it can work its inexhaustible power because it is free, and be open to everything because it is empty. This state is essentially a primordial state, and its symbol, the empty circle, is not empty of meaning for him who stands within it.
According to Zen, this enlightenment shows what we truly are, and this knowledge releases us from samsara, the cycle of birth-death-rebirth. This is how it differs from Taoism. Taoism doesn't mention any sort of reincarnation idea. It just says that this is the way to live that will give you the most content life. (OK, Taoism does seem to go a little farther at times. But it can be interpreted so that it does not refer to anything beyond this Earthly existence.)
This knowledge has an interesting consequence. When asked if he practices the Way, Master Joshu said, "I put on my robe, I eat my rice." Shunryu Suzuki says, "To have some deep feeling about Buddhism is not the point; we just do what we should do, like eating supper and going to bed. This is Buddhism" and "If you continue this simple practice every day, you will obtain some wonderful power. Before you attain it, it is something wonderful, but after you attain it, it is nothing special." On the television show Northern Exposure is a character named Marilyn. Most of the time, she seems to be just what we think of as an "enlightened master". Always calm. Always at ease. She cannot be manipulated into doing anything, or having any emotional reaction. She acts only when and how she chooses to. Trying to find the peace that she seems to have, another character asked what she thinks about all day long, as she sits in silence. Her answer was paperclips and colors. (Mostly green I think.)
These Masters behave this way because the important thing is not what you're doing, it is the ego-less way you do it. From Way of the Peaceful Warrior again:
One time I finished my best-ever pommel horse routine and walked over happily to take the tape off my wrists. Soc beckoned me and said, "The routine looked satisfactory, but you did a vary sloppy job taking the tape off. Remember, every-moment satori."
Every breath can be seen as an opportunity to practice enlightenment.
And enlightenment is the realization that nothing is the goal. To gain this simplicity, you must give up that which takes you away from it. Namely, yourself. Give up desire, selfishness, and all the other nasty baggage that comes with our identities. Rid yourself of that identity itself. But don't think that you will then gain some weird or miraculous abilities or knowledge. What you will gain is the realization that such abilities and knowledge wouldn't make you better or happier.
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