Some time back, when I was a relatively new student of Zen, I mentioned the fact that I was such a student offhandedly to someone. I knew this person not better than casually, so their opinion wasn't of much consequence to me. What took me aback was the dismissive response: "I don't like Eastern religions, they're too passive." So I asked him about that TV show he had mentioned a couple of sentences back, and he went off on that tack for a good ten minutes.
Later, I realized I'd wanted to twist his nose off for that line — "they're too passive" — but after we'd gone our ways I realized his view about Zen et al. was not materially different from the view I had before I started studying it. All this business of "cutting off thinking" and "doctrine of no-mind" bugged me. I'd worked good and hard to have something resembling a mind of my own, so why throw it out? Especially in a world that valued intelligence nowhere nearly as much as it claimed it did?
The short version I give people now, when they're inclined to hear it, is that Zen is a non-intellectual activity rather than an anti-intellectual or counter-intellectual activity. Brains matter. Knowing how to build bridges and stave off diseases is not just so much trivia. But it's all of a different class from self-knowledge, which is highly personalized and only emerges from one's own work. Most of what goes on inside us is not something we thought our way into, and isn't something we can think our way out of.
I say most of because I do want to carve out space for the way things like REBT work, which I have seen good results for with my own eyes and for which there's a body of clinical literature. Maybe Zen is nothing more than the most boiled-down, primitive version of that, and maybe someday a highly refined REBT — and a society that respects the need for people to perform their own psychic restorations — will eclipse it. But I like the fact that Zen is an art rather than a science; we need the latter, but we also long for the former.
When people talk about Zen or Buddhism being passive, they typically say so out of the conventional ignorance people have about such things. Zen is badly understood in the West for the same reason many things are: the real thing is not that straightforward, is fairly quiet and unassuming, is surrounded by a lot of hype and merchandising, and most people don't have the patience or discipline to drill through all that and approach the truth. Most people would rather settle for whatever they think they know about something, especially something that simply isn't that important to their daily life.
There's another aspect to this worth delving into. I've been reading recently about a fascinating-sounding book entitled Sounds Like Titanic, a memoir about a journalist-turned-violinist, Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman, who found herself playing to audiences that weren't even hearing her play but instead hearing prerecorded versions of the music. Vox had a review, and touched on the implications Hindman teased out of her experiences:
After graduating from Columbia, Hindman continued her work as a fake violinist, because despite her Ivy League degree, despite the Iraq War looming over the country, despite Hindman’s deep belief that America should understand the Middle East if it was going to go to war there and that she had the expertise to help America achieve that understanding, she could not find a newspaper that was hiring a Middle Eastern war correspondent. At least the violin gig paid.
What Hindman eventually concludes, though, is that America did not want explanation in the years after 9/11. America wanted soothing. And that’s what the violin tour she was faking working at had to offer: It gave the appearance of a live performance of a knockoff of a movie soundtrack about a historical tragedy. And in so doing, it “strengthened [Americans’] resolve to believe that even the most shocking national tragedy will evolve over time, become a story told by old women with good senses of humor.” It was deliberately fake, and it was deliberately bland, and it was comforting.
One of the other common mistaken assumptions people have about Zen is that it's meant to be soothing. Brad Warner talks about this one a lot. Zen is not at all meant to be soothing. It's meant to wake you up and get you to notice what the heck is right in front of you, because that is the easiest thing in the world to ignore.
The mass-market "self-care" version of pop Buddhism of yoga classes and mindfulness sessions drops all of this stuff because it doesn't sell to people who are, in ways we are now only beginning to appreciate fully, systematically traumatized by a society that seems to have been built for algorithms and capital instead of human beings. They want something they can use to cope with the world instead of help them fix it.
My take is that Zen isn't about hiding, and most definitely not about something used by others to trick you into doing rotten things on their behalf without you getting too upset about it. It's about building a core of stability and self-reliance that is for your own use. You take this core with you out into the world, where you can then go about the difficult business of dismantling all the crummy, inhumane things about this world and replacing them with better things. Nowhere did the Buddha command anyone to be doormats. Anyone who tells you otherwise either doesn't know the whole story, or wants you not to know the whole story.
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Other Lives Of The Mind