The Impossibility of Zen

Serenity, Not.

Duo Dickinson / 9.16.22

America is having its annual whirlwind season. Thousands of cars clog college town streets everywhere as out-of-it students aimlessly wander in matriculation. Younger students have begun migrating between school and home every day. This comes on the heels of millions of summer vacations, during which the formerly quarantined could revel in life without COVID.

About 2,500 years ago, a prince, Siddhartha Gautama, became Buddha, “the Awakened One,” through encounters with others and extreme focus. The prince, Siddhartha, found his salvation through meditation that manifested Zen, or oneness with everything without doing anything. He was quoted as saying, “Wisdom says we are nothing”; his humanity — our humanity — is transcended.

Five hundred years later the idea that our frenzies on earth are not who we ultimately are was in full assertion by another voice, Jesus Christ. One co-conspirator, Matthew, recounted Jesus — who became Christ — to say:

Therefore I say unto you, Do not be anxious for your life, what you will eat, or what you will drink; nor for your body, what wear. Is not the life more than the food, and the body than the clothing? Behold the birds of the heaven, they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; but your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not more valuable than they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to the measure of his life? And why are you anxious concerning clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin (Mt 6:25-28).

Being as Type A as I am, what I hear in these words is “Chill. In this season of change when high schoolers become college students and architects become professors, we should just realize that all this hubbub just isn’t as important as we think it should be. Amid a thousand other revelations of living the life of a very active and vital human Jesus, the calm of Christ is a challenge for we who are afflicted with performance.

The higher power of Zen should obviate the sturm und drang of the endless obsessions here on earth. But it is not just our good angels telling us to smell the lilies. Singer Olivia Newton John was said to be a wonderful human, newly remembered by her passing. But her singing of the words written by John Farrar evoked pure disdain in me when I was in full ambitious overdrive 25 years ago:

Have you never been mellow?
Have you never tried
To find a comfort from inside you?

Have you never been happy
Just to hear your song?
Have you never let someone else be strong?

I am not “mellow.” But somehow, I should be. The lilies are. Buddha was. Christ wanted me to just cut it out and know God’s love and continual provision. But I am not a lily, Buddha, or Christ. And I am probably not alone.

My long dead Aunt Summey was said to have remarked, “Would you rather be a pig satisfied, or a human unsatisfied?” For many, that question answers itself. We are in ascending rages over everything that is only seen on the screens of our devices. We are most definitely not “mellow.” Despite the guilt we feel in its absence, Zen is rarely in the cards for humans.

It is the human condition to know that we are in flux, to try to be in control and are despondent when we are not. I think it is because, unlike the lilies, we know that we, each of us, will die.

Christ and Buddha both knew there was more to life than college admission, salary, vacation, or the grade we receive on today’s History quiz. We can only know what we have been given — this moment, in this place, what we value. Beyond the immediacy of filling our stomachs, Jesus asks us to have faith unto acceptance of God’s infinite love. Until I have lost all control it is a bridge too far for me to live that faith.

But the bridge too far always comes before us. Unlike the lilies, we know that we will leave this shore and that this life ends. The exquisite gifts of God — life, love, joy, our implausibly inexplicable existence — are not there because our hubbub made them; those gifts are there despite all our silliness. As a “human unsatisfied” there is no victimhood in my spinning, unlike the lilies. The Peace of Jesus or the Zen of Buddha are as elusive as the Mellow of Olivia.

Why do I even think of Aunt Summey, or feel annoyed at Olivia Newton John, or so far from Jesus’ call to a non-anxious existence? Though I can carve out a vacation or go to school, or even work unto exhaustion, there is little I can actually control in this life. I cannot find Zen, no matter how hard I try (or don’t try). I am but a human, and I really have never been mellow.

subscribe to the Mockingbird newsletter


4 responses to “The Impossibility of Zen”

  1. Harold Horwich says:

    Me neither, and I don’t think I aspire to it either. As Descartes said, “I fret therefore I am.”

  2. Trevor Giuliani says:

    Zen is great! It’s a fantastic spiritual tradition with so much to learn from in an age when wisdom is sorely lacking. I’ve spent some time with Zen priests, dug into Dogen’s writings and practiced zazen (meditation). But it’s not the Gospel. And yet there is a feeling like we’re ignoring our basic calmness and equanimity by constant output of thought, word and deed (whether sinful or not) without the retreat into silence, peace, and concentration that brings so much relief. That is the kernel of wisdom that Dharma based religion brings that we need so much today. It’s true, the character of God feels like a law we can never live up to, but we know the Gospel is also the truth along with the law, they go together. There is profound freedom and peace inherent in the fact that we are already forgiven and cherished creatures loved so deeply, and created to live with God (!). When the Lord’s peace feels far away, perhaps a lesson from Zen is that we can sit quietly, release our searching and striving if only for a few moments and reconnect to something greater than ourselves… and there’s a heck of a lot of grace in that. In the doing of it we make a law out of spiritual practice, but that’s an ego struggle and false pride, with a little maturity we can see that we prop ourselves up to deny the need for spiritual aid and that, yes, we can do things to make us feel better that are entirely non-material and actually healthy: whoa, who knew?! If only I could do it as consistently as brushing my teeth, feeding myself… thanks be to God that His grace is sufficient in my weakness.

  3. […] In Mockingbird: The Impossibility of Zen […]

  4. massolrac says:

    …doesn’t the Bible say, “Be Still and Know God”…? Zen meditation (or even, I daresay, any meditation technique) will help for the so-called ‘Type A’ (or intellectually restless, left-brain-dominant) person to relax, breathe deeply, listen to John Coltrane’s ‘Soul Eyes’ or Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, etc. and forget yourself for a few moments…you may not find ‘God’ right away, but you will be on the right path, and if you keep at it, make it a habit, do not stop (relaxing)…I will boldly say, you will eventually find Jesus’ Kingdom of Heaven right here on earth, and may notice it to be identical to the Way of the Tao, Here & Now…(!)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *