A Westerner Practices Zen
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Chapter 1


When I was forty years old, I was working as a computer programmer for the Kaiser Cement Company in Oakland, California. Another programmer, who worked there briefly, told me that he was practicing Zen. As a matter of courtesy, I asked him to tell me about it.

He said, "We spend time sitting in silence, trying not to think."

That seemed very strange to me. However, when I inquired further, he had little else to say.

Why would anyone spend time, trying not to think? I found the very idea to be disconcerting. It violated my idea of what a worthwhile activity might be.

At the time, I had been working as a computer programmer for eleven years. Seventeen years earlier I had earned a university degree in science. Both programming and science value thought. Logical, careful analysis is something to be cultivated, not purposely halted. The whole idea of stopping thinking did not make sense.

That other programmer left the company soon afterward. After giving what he had said some consideration, I put it away in the back of my mind and went on with my life. As far as I know, we have never met since.

1.2 Simply Not Religious: I was raised a Roman Catholic. However, I left the Church during my college years. From that point on, I considered myself to be “simply not religious”.

My break with the Church had been difficult. For a long time afterward, I was hostile toward all religion. I felt that I had been trapped and controlled by the Church’s pre-Vatican II intellectual stance. When the Vatican II reforms came along, I felt that they were good for the Church. However, I was not tempted to return.

However, as the years passed, I mellowed. By the time that I met the programmer at the Kaiser Cement Company, who told me that he spent time trying not to think, I was forty years old, and my feelings of hostility toward religion were largely over. However, I still considered religion of any kind, Buddhist, Christian or otherwise, to be just not right for me.

1.3 My Liberating Idea: I now want to tell you about a liberating idea, which occurred to me not long afterward. It is an idea, which removed a mental block I had, to participating in a religion of any kind.

My liberating idea is, that Eastern religions are essentially practices, rather than belief systems. On the other-hand Western religions are essentially belief systems, rather than practices.

What I mean by this is, that Western belief religions, such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism, do have practices, such as prayer, the mass, visiting Mecca, and various ceremonies. However, it is not one’s practice, which is the essential element of defining one as a member of a Western religion, but one’s belief: belief in God, or in Jesus, Mohammed, or the special relationship between God and the Jewish people.

On the other hand, Eastern religions do have beliefs, such as The Buddha, the Dao, rebirth, and various spirits. However, with an Eastern religion it is one’s practice, not one’s belief, which is the essential element in defining one as a member of a religion. These practices include the Hindu practice of yoga and the Buddhist practice of meditation. In other words, it is what one does which counts, not what one believes.

My liberating idea is important to me, because I simply do not find credible such ideas as miraculous occurrences, disembodied spirits or mysticism in general. As far as life after death and a personal God are concerned, I consider those issues to be unknowable. This is an important point. They are not just unknown, they are unknowable. I have exchanged belief for a new category, that is acceptance of the unknowable.

I have no argument with anyone who does believe. Many of the people, whom I love the most dearly, are believers. I have no desire to change them. Just the opposite! I want to love, support, and nurture their belief if belief is right for them. But belief is just not right for me. It would be hypocritical for me to pretend that it is.

People have said that I lack imagination, or that my mind is closed to the wider possibilities. That may be true. However, many of the ideas which people usually associate with belief religions, seem to me to be “magical thinking”. Any expectation, that I accept those ideas, as a condition of membership, would drive me away, not encourage my participation.

I have no intention of accepting, as the price of belonging, any ideas, that I do not find credible. On the other hand, I find, that I can practice Zen Buddhism, while deeply respecting the beliefs of others.

Once again, one identifies oneself as a member of a Western religion, by stating what one believes. One defines oneself as a member of an Eastern religion by stating what one does, such as yoga practice or meditation.

My liberating idea is that Eastern religions are essentially practices, while Western religions are essentially belief systems. This distinction has given me permission, to participate in a religion once again.

1.4 A Different Approach: We in the West unjustifiably project our Western idea of religion as belief onto Eastern religions. But belief is not the critical element of an Eastern religion. For example, you are not required to believe in something, in order to obtain a metaphysical goal, such as rebirth or getting into heaven. From the Eastern perspective, rebirth is something that just happens, whether you believe in it or not. I feel free to not believe in rebirth, and still practice Buddhism. Those Buddhists who do believe in rebirth may consider me misinformed, but not evil.

I imagine early Western explorers asking Easterners “What do you believe?” The Easterners tell them what they believe. Then the Easterners wonder, “Why did they ask that?” At the same time, the explorers say to themselves, “Now I understand their religion, because now I know what they believe”. But we need to look at Eastern practices, such as Hindu yoga and Buddhist meditation, in order to understand the essence of an Eastern religion. Easterners are not under any moral obligation to believe in anything specific. Also, Easterners feel free to practice multiple religions. The Japanese tradition of Christian weddings and Buddhist funerals bears this out.

Eastern truth is what is praised by the wise, not something one has a moral obligation to believe, in order to obtain a metaphysical goal, such as going to heaven.

1.5 Scientific Modernism: I developed a distaste, for what I consider to be “magical thinking” during my days as a science student. However, I must be clear, that there is nothing in science, which disproves religion. My resistance is just a matter of opinion, not logical necessity. I fully agree that I may be wrong, and that others may be right.

However when studying science, one cultivates a skeptical attitude toward all things, especially the generally accepted concepts and methods of science itself. This training has led me to be disinclined, to accept many ideas which others may find credible.

This stance does not mean, that I am blind to the wonder and mystery of the universe. It does mean, that I do not need to attribute the origins of this wondrous universe to mystical causes. The simple answer is, “We do not know.” That is what works for me.

Any religious ideas which I accept must be filtered through the tradition of scientific modernism. Like most things in the modern world, if they are in conflict, with scientific discoveries, then they just do not get off the ground.

I feel comfortable doing my Buddhist practice, without feeling required to believe in things, which I find dubious at best. Others may take a different approach. If something to believe is what one is looking for, there is plenty to believe in Buddhism. But I am certainly not looking for something to believe. This is the position which is right for me. I feel I can maintain this stance, without being critical of others.

1.6 Buddhism: About this time our family was having some difficulties which caused us to seek counseling. Our therapist’s office was decorated with Buddhist art.

I do not have the idea “No, not me, I am not crazy,” which prevents many people from seeking the help they need. I had never taken a college level psychology course, but I wish I had. I completely agree with a friend who said, “Why wait for a tragedy to occur? Get things resolved now, rather than regretting it later.” There had been a particularly gruesome tragedy in our neighborhood at the time. I am in favor of doing whatever is necessary to deal with psychological issues as soon as possible.

While observing the Buddhist art in our therapist’s office, the thought occurred to me, that Buddhism and psychology are somewhat related. I do not know, where I had been all my life, but that thought had never occurred to me before. I asked our therapist about it, and he said, “Yes, there is a relationship, although they are certainly not the same thing.” I wanted to explore the idea further, but he was more interested in resolving our issues, than in teaching me about Buddhism. So we did not get far on the subject.

But my curiosity about Buddhism had been aroused. I started to pursue the subject on my own. I would not say I was studying it extensively. It was just a casual interest. However, whenever the subject came up, I took notice.

1.7 Buddhist Teachings: Buddhism is a religion which is centered on the teachings of The Buddha.

The Buddha was an individual, who lived in India about 400 B.C.E. He was a prince, who renounced his prince-ship, and became a great religious teacher.

The Buddha stated, “I teach one thing, the causes and the elimination of suffering.”

The only authority to teach, which The Buddha claimed, was to say, “Study what I say, then see for yourself whether or not it is true.”

Since The Buddha’s time Buddhism has split into two main branches:

The distinction between the two is, that Mahayana (the newer) Buddhism has the Perfection of Wisdom Teaching, that sees the ultimate truths of the universe as being beyond human understanding, rather than a matter of dogma. This state of not knowing is called emptiness.

A Scientific Modernist Interpretation

The human species appears to be unique, in facing the issue of suffering, in a reflective way. Buddhism could be seen as that point in evolutionary history, where humanity reached a certain level of understanding in dealing with the issue of existence and suffering. I am referring to cultural evolution as an extension of biological evolution.

I am not implying that suffering had never been acknowledged or dealt with before the time of The Buddha. However Buddhism, and the Hindu tradition out of which it arose, could be considered to be our species “awakening” to the existence of suffering as a circumstance of life. Small statues and figurines in the lotus meditative posture have been discovered from thousands of years into prehistory. Clearly, the meditative tradition did not start with The Buddha. However, Buddhism and Hinduism could be seen as the window, through which the modern world sees those prehistoric discoveries.

A Philosophical Point

Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy?

Because Buddhism is not based on belief in God, some Westerners consider Buddhism to be a code of conduct or a philosophy, not a religion.

On the other hand, most persons do consider Buddhism to be a religion. Despite how one might define religion, Buddhism has the look and feel of those things, which are generally identified as “religion” in the English language. It serves the same functions that religions traditionally serve, including providing a metaphysical world view, community for individuals and families and acknowledging rites of passage, with ceremonies for birth, marriage, and death. In English, it is the usage, which defines a word.

Science provides my physical world view. Buddhism provides my metaphysical, or religious, world view.

1.8 Atheist / Agnostic / Theist:

  1. Atheist: Does not believe in God. From the Greek “a” (not) “theoc” (God). Pronounce Greek “c” as “s”.
  2. Agnostic: Does not know whether God exists or not. From the Greek “a” (not) “gnostic” (knowing).
  3. Theist: Does believe in God. From the Greek “theoc” (God).

Is Buddhism atheistic?

No. Buddhism would best be described as agnostic. A moral obligation to believe is just not what Buddhism is about. Although belief is strictly optional, few Buddhists would identify themselves as atheists. I think an atheist is a person, whose non-belief is a strongly held position. On the other hand, most Buddhists do not consider belief to be an important issue. One could or could not believe in gods, goddesses or God, or whatever else comes to mind, and still be a Buddhist.

Buddhism would definitely not be considered a theistic religion. Nor should it be considered atheistic. As a Buddhist, I have not experienced the criticism of belief, which characterizes atheism. Buddhists in general, provide loving support for all points of view. If you believe in God, I do not want to argue with you, but provide my loving support, if belief is right for you. You may be right, and I may be wrong. I think that position is agnosticism rather than atheism.

A Scientific Modernist Interpretation

Framing the issue of belief in the terms of atheist, agnostic or theist, shows a bias toward a Western way of thinking. With Western religions, belief is, of course, the main issue. Therefore, in the West, we tend to classify people according to their belief or lack thereof. On the other hand, the issue of belief is relatively unimportant in the East. Therefore, atheistic, agnostic, and theistic is just not an important classification.

A Personal View

In Western terms I view myself as an agnostic. I think the existence and nature of God is a matter of intuition, not fact. Therefore, I cannot criticize those who hold a different intuition. However, if I were to be allowed to choose my own label, I would prefer to be identified as a Buddhist, rather than an atheist, an agnostic or a theist. That is what is significant to me.

It is not, that I do not see the great mystery of existence. Why is there existence rather than nothing at all? I just think the origins of existence are beyond comprehension. The mystery of existence is just too great, to be explained by either science or divine revelation. I prefer Zen Buddhism’s emptiness (4.18), which says the ultimate truth is beyond explanation. On the other hand, if you are a believer, I am happy that you have found something that works for you. Please continue.

1.9 The Buddha was an individual, who lived in India, in the fourth century B.C.E. His name was Siddhartha Gautama. Siddhartha was an Indian prince, who lived in a small kingdom in the foothills of the Himalayas, near the town of Bernardes.

As a prince, Siddhartha was born in a palace, and brought up with every luxury that his devoted parents could provide. However, he found his life of pleasure and luxury to be unfulfilling. Therefore, he renounced his princes-ship, and went out into the forest to live as an ascetic holy man. He was hungry and poor, and made constant sacrifices. However, he also found his life as an ascetic to be equally unfulfilling.

Then one day, he became enlightened. His basic realization was The Middle Way (5.2). The Middle Way States, that fulfillment is not to be found in the extremes of self-indulgence or self-denial. A fulfilling life is found in avoiding extremes. He then lived a long and happy life as a teacher of The Middle Way and other realizations. He died peacefully at the age of eighty.

Learning about Buddhism is a building process. There are, of course, other teachings beyond The Middle Way. These include the Four Noble Truths (5.3), the Eight Fold Path (5.10), The Precepts (5.11), Nothing is Eternal (26.1 and other philosophical and metaphysical concepts. However, one starts with a basic understanding of the middle way and builds from there. One builds as far as one’s inclination and abilities take one.

The Buddha claimed not to be divine. He stated that, if a person works signs and wonders, then he is not a follower of The Buddha. Of course, as soon as he died, his followers ignored that advice, and attributed all kinds of signs and wonders to his history.

A Modernist Interpretation

Did The Buddha really exist? One can look at this issue in three ways:

  1. The Buddha was just an archetype.
  2. The Buddha existed as an historical person, with no mystical powers.
  3. The Buddha existed as portrayed in Buddhist scripture, amidst a setting of the miraculous occurrences protrayed in scripture.

1. In the first view, The Buddha is just an archetype, who became the focal point of the Buddhist tradition. There was no single individual, named Siddhartha Gautama. But there were possibly several individuals, who contributed to the archetype.

2. In the second view, Siddhartha Gautama did exist as an historical person. However, as he himself claimed, he was not divine. He had no powers beyond what any human could attain with sufficient will and concentration. The supernatural occurrences in Buddhist scripture are the overenthusiastic witness of his devoted followers.

3. In the third view The Buddha existed exactly as portrayed in scripture. The supernatural occurrences portrayed in scripture did occur. This third view represents a literal interpretation of Buddhist scripture, which is similar, to the literal interpretation of the Torah, the Bible and the Koran by fundamentalist Jews, Christians and Muslims.

A modernist interpretation, consistent with the critical reading of texts, includes the first two possibilities. It does not include the third.

A Personal Opinion

In my opinion, Siddhartha Gautama did exist as an historical person. However, the supernatural occurrences surrounding his life, found in scripture are just:

  1. Artifacts of the Hindu culture in which he found himself, and
  2. The over enthusiastic witness of devoted followers.

I hold this same opinion of Jesus, Mohammed, the Judaic ancestors, Lao Tzu, Confucius, and other ancient religious teachers. I do think they existed as historical persons. I do not believe in the “gee whiz” miracle tales of scriptual accounts.

Considering the times in which ancient scriptures were written, it is not surprising that they contain miraculous embellishments. When one reads the literature of ancient times, it seems miracles were being performed on every street corner. One finds that casting horoscopes, and belief in signs and wonders, were a common part of everyday life. Major decisions of war and peace were made on such signs. Rome would go to war, when an eagle flew over the capital, which was taken as an omen of victory. That does not mean we need to give credence to such interpretations today, whether they appear in Christian or Buddhist scripture or elsewhere.

I think Jesus, Mohammed, Confucius, Lao Tzu and the Jewish ancestors all deserve a fair hearing, despite the “gee whiz” miracle tales of their over enthusiastic followers. I am asking the same for The Buddha.

1.10 A Point of Grammar: Here is a point of grammar about the use of the word “the”, as in the term “The Buddha”.

The term “buddha” just means an enlightened person. That is, any enlightened person. This usage is “buddha”, spelled with a lower case “b”. There are many buddhas besides the pre-eminent Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. In fact, one teaching is, that everyone is, indeed, a buddha. But because of our ignorance of “The Buddha’s gentle way”, we just do not realize it yet.

So, why is Siddhartha Gautama called “The Buddha”? Buddha is not his name. His name is Siddhartha Gautama.

Amongst the practitioners of Buddhism, Siddhartha is considered, to be the preeminent example of an enlightened person. Therefore, he has been given the title of “The Buddha.” The point is that, grammatically speaking the word “the” is important. Siddhartha’s name is not Buddha; but his title is “The Buddha.” Therefore, one would say, “The Buddha said this or that” not “Buddha said this or that.”

In Western culture we quite naturally refer to the founders of our belief religions by their names. We refer to Jesus as “Jesus”, not “The Jesus”, and we refer to Mohammed as “Mohammed”, not “The Mohammed”. This leads many Westerners to assume, that the founder of Buddhism must have been an individual, whose name was “Buddha”. However, when talking about Siddhartha Gautama, it is grammatically correct to refer to him by his title “The Buddha”, not by using the word “Buddha”, as if that were his name.

I find, that using the grammatically correct title of “The Buddha” in ordinary conversation, with people who do not understand this distinction, can make one sound pretentious. Virtually everyone I know, who is not a Buddhist, refers to the founder of Buddhism as “Buddha” not “The Buddha”. Usually, when talking about Buddhism to non-Buddhists, I am not trying to give them a grammar lesson. So, I use the terms “Buddha” and “The Buddha” interchangeably, depending on the circumstances.

In the same vein the pronunciation of the word Buddha is with a short “oo” sound, like in “book” or “look” not a long “oo” sound like in “food” or “boot”. On the other hand, it is not the very short “u” sound like in “buck” or “bud”. I start by making an “oo” sound, then make it as short as possible.

Using the correct pronunciation takes some getting used to. And again, using the correct pronunciation can also make one sound stuffy and pretentious in non-Buddhist circles. I use the two pronunciations interchangeably. I often forget the correct pronunciation completely, and identify myself as a “Booodhist”, rather than a “Buddhist”.

1.11 No Special Powers: The Buddha did not claim to have powers beyond what can be accomplished with sufficient insight and effort.

It is true, that The Buddha did claim to have the power to see into his past lives. But rebirth was a given in his society. This is not the omnipotent power which one associates with divinity.

It is also true, that Hindu gods, such as Shiva, Vishnu and Brahmin, do appear in Buddhist scripture. However the important point is, that they sit at the feet of The Buddha and listen to what The Buddha has to say. The message is, you can believe in gods, if you want to. But do not put the powers of gods above humanity. Humanity comes first. Any powers which the gods may possess, come second.

The Buddha was not divine.

Buddhist advice is, “If a man tells you, that he has met a god in the forest, do not tell him he is wrong. Listen to what he has to say about his god, then tell him about Buddhism.”

The god he met in the forest is obviously real to him. Pointless argument about the existence of his god will only generate ill will and get nowhere. He obviously feels that he did meet a god in the forest. It is doubtful, that you can convince him otherwise. However, there is no reason you cannot have a fruitful discussion about Buddhism.

Scripture says that The Buddha maintained a “noble silence”, when questioned about metaphysical issues, such as the existence of deities. This is usually interpreted to mean, there are no answers to such questions. It does not mean, that there are, or there are not, gods, goddesses, or a Supreme Being. It just means, that there are no definitive answers to such questions.

The Buddha specifically warned that endless debate about metaphysical issues is a distraction, from what is really important. What is really important is to do everything in one’s power, to reduce the suffering of oneself and others.

This is what has become a religion for me.

1.12 Compassion: I do not agree with all the ideas expressed in my readings on Buddhism. However one thing which strongly appeals to me, is the spirit of compassion and tolerance which pervades Buddhist culture.

Like many individuals, I have always been profoundly disturbed by suffering. This is not something which came to me with Buddhism. I have always felt this way, even during those many years, when I would have identified myself as being “simply not religious.”

For example, during our rainy Northern California winters, when the snails are out on the pavement, I have always been careful about where I step. If I accidentally wound one, I go back and kill it completely, so that it does not suffer. Now that I have become a Buddhist, I continue to do so, even though Buddhist teachings discourage killing. But in this case, it does fit the Buddhist emphasis on reducing the net suffering in the universe.

However, Buddhism is practical. You cannot fail to walk down a path, simply because you might injure an ant. It is the spirit in which it is done which counts. If you cannot walk from point A to point B without killing a few ants, then so be it. If there were a practical way to get from point A to point B without killing the ants, that would be preferable. But if you cannot, then so long as you are acting with the intention of preventing as much suffering as is practical, then you are practicing Buddhism.

That is, of course, only if you wish to consider yourself to be practicing Buddhism.

1.13 Too Harsh? One person who read a draft of this book, said my statements concerning my lack of belief seemed “pretty harsh.” My intention was to be honest, not to be harsh.

Is it possible to be loving and compassionate, and to be honest at the same time? I think it is. But honesty can offend. I understand her point of view. On the one hand, dishonesty would be an injustice to her. On the other hand, silence would be an injustice to me.

You might find yourself in strong disagreement with my lack of faith. You might find it offensive. But let me ask you to consider this. Hearing an alternative point of view might strengthen your faith.

I think it must be acknowledged, that there are indeed persons of good moral character, whose world view does not include monotheistic religion. I consider myself to be one of them. Despite what some believers might think, many persons do live meaningful, moral, and fulfilling lives, even though they do not believe in a Supreme Being or life after death.

In my opinion, behaving like a responsible adult is its own reward. It is part of growing up. If a belief religion helps you to behave like a responsible adult, then I applaud that belief. All I can say is “Please continue.” However there are millions of persons, who behave like responsible adults, who have no religion at all. For twenty-five years after I left the Church, and before I became a Buddhist, I considered myself to be one of them.

The most fundamental morality code is the “golden rule.” That is, to treat all other beings as one would wish to be treated, if the circumstances were reversed. That idea does not excuse one from experiencing appropriate civil penalties for criminal misbehavior. But everyone must be treated with fairness and compassion. No one must be treated with cruelty. The golden rule is the common thread behind all morality. One does not need to be practicing a religion in order to follow the golden rule. It worked for me, during the twenty-five years I considered myself to be “simply not religious.” Buddhism has added some refinements, but its effect is the same.

Religions also provide a world view. The monotheistic world view is a good one, but not the only one. You will witness a different one, if you continue reading. Experiencing an alternative viewpoint might strengthen your faith.

I definitely do NOT want to leave the false impression, that one is required to be a non-believer in order to be a Buddhist. There are many Buddhists who believe in gods, goddesses, God, spirits, dragons and life after death. But in Zen one expresses one's beliefs as one's own, while NOT criticizing the beliefs, or lack of beliefs of others.

Some Buddhist sects do adhere to a specific metaphysical system. But in Zen, the concept of emptiness (4.18) states, that no metaphysical system is the ultimate truth. The most important Zen chant, The Heart Sutra (28.11), states, that not even The Buddha’s most basic teaching, The Four Noble Truths (5.3) are the ultimate truth.

It is not my intention to offend. I will be as gentle as possible. But I am committed to being honest. I hope you will not find my honesty “too harsh.”

1.14 Marriage Encounter: I now want to return, to how I encountered Buddhism.

My wife and I belong to a group called Marriage Encounter. Along with several other couples, we get together on a regular basis, to explore the difficulties and hard work it takes to make a marriage work.

Marriage encounter originated in the Roman Catholic Church, and most of its members are Catholic. There are five couples and one previously married lady in our local group. Most of the couples are Catholic. One couple and the one single lady are protestants. For many years, I identified myself as “simply not religious.” Now I identify myself as a Buddhist.

Sometime before I encountered Buddhism, our Marriage Encounter circle was going through a period, where we would get together once a month for a day long activity. We would each take a turn making the arrangements and leading the group. Then we would get together over a potluck dinner and discuss the day’s activities.

When it came the turn of one lady to lead the group, she asked if we would be interested in attending the Sunday morning program at a Zen Buddhist farm, nearby on the coast. It sounded interesting. So, one Sunday morning we all piled into some cars, and off we went.

Unfortunately we lost our way, and arrived after the meditation instruction was over. However, we were just in time for the lecture. We sat on meditation cushions and listened to a Buddhist monk describe how she had resolved some personal difficulties. I thought the talk was just right for a Marriage Encounter outing. But the lady who had arranged the trip was disappointed. She had wanted the talk to be about Buddhism. Although she is a devoted Catholic, she had wanted us to learn something about this other religion.

I do not remember whether or not at the time I associated our experience at the farm, with the programmer at the Kaiser Cement Company, who had told me he spent time trying not to think. The two experiences had occurred in different contexts. I probably did not put the two events together until years later. It was only then, that they came together to form a significant pattern. That is just the way it is with the mind. It often takes years of small occurrences for the significance of isolated events to make themselves evident.

But from that time on, I knew that a local Zen Buddhist community existed. And now I even knew how to get there.

1.15 My Interest in Buddhism had been aroused by the Buddhist art, which I had encountered in our therapist’s office. I began reading about Buddhism. I cannot say I was studying it regularly. It was just an occasional interest. But whenever the subject came up I paid attention. I found Buddhism to be interesting, but not compelling.

I found some of the reading to be exotic and difficult, and some to be down to Earth and easy. In general, translations of oriental texts were exotic and difficult, and books written by Westerners were relatively easy. This, no doubt, was because of the different cultural perspective.

One book which caught my attention, has the curious title of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It was written by a Westerner, who like myself is oriented toward science and engineering. I found it interesting. But I could not see how his engineering and science oriented observations had much to do with Zen or Buddhism. It all seemed to be such down to Earth stuff. I was well into practice, before I realized that what Zen is about is really down to Earth stuff.

Zen Buddhism is not an exotic religion of the mountain tops. Zen is a religion of the towns and farms down in the valley. It is the practice of ordinary people living out their everyday lives. It turned out that virtually everything he has to say in the broadest sense, is about Zen. But it did not appear so at the time.

1.16 A Paradigm Shift: Then one day I read something which transformed me from being just an interested bystander, to being serious about Zen Buddhism.

For me this was a paradigm shift. A paradigm shift occurs after a long period of accumulating ideas, without a change in basic thinking. Then suddenly, a relatively insignificant idea or event causes a revolutionary change in thinking. In general, all religious “conversions” are paradigm shifts.

My paradigm shift occurred following my reading of a passage in the introduction to the book The Three Pillars of Zen. It stated that the famous psychiatrist, Carl G. Jung, was reading about Zen in the last few weeks of his life. Jung instructed his secretary to write the author and say “He sometimes felt as if he himself could have said exactly this! It was just ‘it’!" The passage implied to me, that Jung died happily, having discovered that a point of view which he had been trying to establish for a long period of time already existed.

Now here is a respected member of a science-oriented profession recommending a religion. It also identifies Zen from among the many Buddhist sects to consider. My idle curiosity was replaced by a sense of purpose.

In my opinion, we only get one life, and this is the one I get. Do I want to wait until a few weeks before I die, to get involved with something of potential value? If this practice has something to offer, then the time to get involved is now.

At this point, I remembered the Sunday morning program at the Zen Buddhist farm nearby on the coast. And now I even knew how to get there. I started attending regularly.

So, what did I find?

1.17 Chapter Summary: I had left the Catholic Church during my college years. I had felt controlled and trapped by the Church’s pre-Vatican II stance. Afterward, I felt hostile to all religion. But as time passed I mellowed. When the Vatican II reforms came along, I felt they were good for the Church and its members. But I was not tempted to return.

Since that time until I became a Zen Buddhist, I identified myself as “simply not religious.” I felt the Golden Rule was the only moral code anyone might need. I still feel that way. Buddhism has just made the details more specific.

Quite by accident, I developed a casual interest in Buddhism. I liked what I discovered.

A major stepping stone on my journey to Zen was “my liberating idea (1.3).” My liberating idea is, that Western religions are essentially belief systems, while Eastern religions are essentially practices. That idea gave me permission to participate in a religion once again.

I experienced a paradigm shift toward Zen Buddhism when I read Karl Jung’s comment, that Zen Buddhism is what he had been trying to say all along. All religious conversions are essentially paradigm shifts.

At that point I remembered the Zen Buddhist farm nearby on the coast. Now, I even knew how to get there. I started attending their Sunday morning public program regularly. A few months later, in December 1987, seven years after I had met the computer programmer at the Kaiser Cement Company, who told me he spent time trying not to think, I became a non-resident member of the Zen Buddhist community at the farm.

End of Chapter One
A Westerner Practices Zen
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