Understanding Zen

When you get into Zen or Buddhism, you will hear people talk about emptiness, impermanence, ignorance and no-self among countless other descriptions of reality. If you encounter these concepts and they don’t make any sense to you, that is fine. If you have never seen a chicken it would be hard to imagine one, even if you’ve had a chicken nugget. People who talk about Zen have a funny habit of saying it’s all right in front of you, in the here and now and in the same breath telling you that there is no self. That is the beauty of Zen, it has no problem with paradox and contradiction. What can you expect from words.

If you hear anybody talking about emptiness, they mean emptiness. It’s like when your car runs out of gas and you need to fill up. This need comes from emptiness. Emptiness also happens to be a popular description of the ultimate reality. Usually your mind is full of thoughts, when you stop thinking and experience the world, emptiness is a word that attempts to describe that. If you get hungry, you are experiencing emptiness of the stomach. Have a sandwich.

Impermanence is how things become empty. You drive around and use gas, burn the energy in your belly, the ice and snow break up the road and make pot holes, the winter turns to summer and the ice and snow melt. That is impermanence. It is a nice practice noticing impermanence in the world. Even the sun will burn out some day. In the 70’s and 80’s, when I was young, it was fashionable to curl your hair by getting a permanent. This was done every few months. Even permanents weren’t permanent.

No-self and ignorance go hand in hand. Ignorance in Buddhism is the idea that you have a self. There is nothing wrong with being ignorant in the Buddhist sense. It is the predominant way of interpreting the world. Of course you have a self. You have a name and you can step through a hula hoop to demonstrate that you are not connected to anything else in the world. We all have a self. We get selfish, self absorbed, and we suffer. When we notice how we are connected to our food and our parents and our friends and our atmosphere to support our lives, we can no longer imagine that we are self contained pods, completely separate from the rest of the world. When we take into account all of the things that make life possible for our self and question where exactly the philosophical line between self and not self is drawn, we can see cracks in our firm idea of what is self. If we change our way of looking at self, we may notice that what we think of as our self, is not exactly us. That’s why we can lose a toe or an appendix and still feel like ourselves. Self is an impermanent idea, empty of fixed meaning, so only in our ignorance do we think we know just what we are.

If you ever dispel your ignorance, recognize that you have no-self, and experience the impermanent, empty nature of reality, then good luck finding better words to explain it to everybody else. In the meantime, eat a sandwich then wash your plate.


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