For thousands of years across a variety of cultures, people who meditate have tried to put their experiences into words that they hoped others who did not meditate would get. Because our entire way of understanding life, the universe, and everything is fundamentally wrong, these teachers were forced to speak in metaphors. But all of the best Buddhist teachers said this quite explicitly. ... If we learn to read the words of ancient Buddhist teachers in that spirit, we no longer see them as doctrines that must be accepted on faith alone but as attempts to tell us about an experience that is not easy to put in words.
The fact that something is not easy to put into words bothers some people, but I wonder why. Is it because of the inexpressible nature of it, or because they have to go through the trouble of finding out themselves, and are not even sure they'll get anything for their trouble?
I've noticed that people who are and are not spiritually inclined both get a little nervous whenever such talk enters the picture. The former group seems upset that something that isn't their true way has entered the picture, which never made any sense to me: if it was and is your true way, why does someone else's true way bother you so?
But they're not my real subject. It's the latter — people not spiritually inclined; people who style themselves as being "rational". They feel uncomfortable with identifying themselves with something that seems anything but"rational", and in fact takes great pride in being paradoxical and contradictory.
I once counted myself in the second of those two categories — the "rational" man (even when I wasn't actually being terribly rational about much of anything). I still count myself as such, but I don't think I've become any less rational for practicing zazen, because I took it on faith that I had to try something for myself to see if it made any difference. I did, and it did. I would like to think there's more going on here than just a placebo effect, and part of me reserves judgment on that score. If anything, I think I've become a tot more rational, because of how the practice has come to let me see my emotional justifications for things as being exactly that.
If sitting quietly for a half an hour or so at a time is beneficial for any reason at all, sans any of the justifications erected around it by zazen's proponents, then maybe someday we'll ditch the trappings entirely. Perhaps the trappings are part of that effect, and if we find some other way to recreate what they do without them, then I'll do that. But for now, I don't feel (or believe) I've sold out my intelligence or spirit by participating in it.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind