A Bit of “Real Talk” on Zen Reality
I’ve been thinking a lot lately of Clifford Geertz’s anthropological approach to religion, and his working definition thereof:
“1.) Religion is a system of symbols which
2.) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by
3.) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and
4.) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that
5.) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.”
It seems that we Zennists have a tendency to not regard our religion in the same manner as other world faith traditions, and suffice it to say with no small amount of supremacy in regards to even other Buddhist traditions (powerful and pervasive moods of uniqueness indeed).
If we were to take a moment to genuinely and critically examine our own religious (and yes, I know some of you will eschew that term, and I’ll just reference again the above definition) praxis and experience, where might we locate our non dual/absolute “kensho” experiences in this definition?
In each of the Zen schools I’ve been instructed in, there seems to be a general order of practice that looks something like this:
A.) Full engagement with reality through basic meditative awareness [i.e. “Mountain is mountain, water is water”]
B.) Delving deeply into that seemingly stable portrait of what we’ll come to call relative reality until it starts to fray and eventually unravel in our experience [i.e. “Mountain is water, water is mountain”]
C.) Resting in the unraveled “absolute” reality so as to fully adopt it [i.e. “No mountain, no water”]
D.) Reintegrating this awareness into our lives in the “relative” appearance of reality [i.e. “Mountain grow out of the sky, water flows upward”]
E.) Resting in reality as it appears, in other words, our ordinary lives already in progress, where nothing has really changed except for our perspective [i.e. “Mountain is mountain, water is water” again].
I suspect that it could be argued that this latter noted “perspective” is in fact but functional narrative in the work of meaning making, that allows us to cope with our lives (and assuredly, our “primal wound” of consciousness) with more ease. And yes, I’m directly pointing here toward the concept of sunyata itself as a foundational building block in what Geertz would term “formulating conceptions of a general order of existence.”
I often speak with my (usually by the point of these conversations, nominally) Christian friends and colleagues about the reality that their narrative of an anthropomorphic deity really did serve them in many occasions, to bring comfort, meaning, and hope in the face of the seemingly insurmountable odds, even if there was no literal, external deity to actually intercede in their experience. In other words, the function and efficacy of the relative and absolute / “two truths” construct does not necessarily cease when viewed as just that.
I suspect that in our current age of “Why Buddhism is True” and apologetic alignments of ancient Buddhist cosmology with contemporary quantum physics, there will be some push back on even considering this…and that’s not to touch the resistance that those of us who are called Zen teachers might have at really owning the fact that our empires are likely made entirely of but dirt (as Trent Reznor might put it). But, it could make for a fruitful discussion, so, alas, thoughts?