“My experience with Zen was not brief, and yet for all that, it was not fruitful either.”
I came to Zen Buddhism when I was sixteen. I stayed with a daily zazen (sitting meditation practice for ten years) and managed a Zen center on the campus of Smith College for two years. During this time my roshi was Joshu Sasaki Roshi and my primary Buddhism teacher was Taitetsu Unno. When I moved to Miami, Florida in 1981 I affiliated with the International Zen Institute founded by Gesshin Myoko Prabhasa Dharma Roshi, a wonderful German woman I met when she was studying with Sasaki Roshi.
I mention this to emphasize that my experience with Zen was not brief, and yet for all that, it was not fruitful either. I took up Zen in search of enlightenment. Not that I knew what enlightenment was, but that I was certain it would solve all my problems, though I must admit that I didn’t know what they were either. Basically, things sucked and Zen meditation was supposed to make it better. It didn’t.
The failure of Zen to solve my problems rests with me rather than with Zen. I just couldn’t make the commitment Zen demanded. This became unavoidably clear to me as I was about to graduate college and Sasaki Roshi invited me to move to Mount Baldy Zen Center and devote myself fully to Zen practice. The invitation so upset me that I blurted out that I was planning to be a rabbi; something that had not hitherto entered my mind. Roshi was gracious: “Good! Be rabbi. Be Zen rabbi!”
Basically, things sucked and Zen meditation was supposed to make it better. It didn’t.
I’m not sure I ever really understood my resistance to Roshi’s invitation, but during my interview with Zenju Earthlyn Manuel on the Spirituality & Health Podcast I got a hint.
In her new book The Shamanic Bones of Zen, Zenju writes “[Zazen] is for those who ask the question, What is life for? but do not really want an answer.” So that was it. I want an answer.
My sense is that the value of life is in the living, and the living of life has a direction what the Book of Genesis calls “being a blessing to all the families of the earth—all of them, human and otherwise (Genesis 12:3). I am here, again to cite Genesis, “to serve and protect nature” (Genesis 2:15). There is a profound spiritual dimension to this service as the Hebrew word avodah, here translated as serve, is also the Hebrew word Jews use for worship. My actions in service to life are acts of devotion to life and the nondual Aliveness that manifests it.
I don’t think any of this is foreign to Zen or Buddhism in general. On the contrary, the person who lives as a blessing to all the families of the earth—called a Lamed Vavnik in Hebrew—is fulfilling the Buddhist ideal of the Bodhisattava: one who lives to alleviate the suffering of all beings.
I suspect what I wanted from Zen was a clear articulation of this goal of service. Maybe I got it but didn’t hear it. Maybe I heard it but didn’t get it. In any case, Zenju’s question What is life for? is one you should ask regularly. The answer will raise yet another question: Is what your life for, worthy of all the effort you put into living it? Only you can answer this question, and only you can decide if the answer affirms the rightness of how you live now or calls you to a change.
Listen to my conversation with Zenju Earthlyn Manuel on the Spirituality & Health Podcast and consider: What is life for?
Want more from Zenju? Read: “Zenju Earthlyn Manuel Is Not Your Typical Soto Zen Buddhist Priest.”