What is Zen? By its own premises, as we will subsequently consider, words are an inadequate means of description. Yet, the following brief may start us along the path: an awakening from the dream state of convention, a liberation into direct experience.
Humankind's capacity for convention is one of the marvels of our genetic endowment. The primary manifestation of convention making ability is spoken language. We categorize or group together subjects, objects and actions with verbal utterances serving as symbols. This of course extends to the written word as well as other manifestations of symbol such as mathematical, musical and chemical notation. Our ability to express ourselves thru various forms of convention and be understood by others is more than remarkable, it's undeniably powerful, often intoxicating and potentially perilous. How so?
Western intellectual society since the so-called Enlightenment has sought, with a great deal of success I might add, to restrict the totality of human knowledge within a virtual straight jacket of convention. Laws, standards, codes combine to dictate human behaviour more invasively than anytime in human history. We have conflated an artificial system of abstract, generalizing symbols for our infinitely particular reality. For example, it remains obvious that neither the conventional word "water" nor the chemical notation "HO" will quench your thirst any more than the musical symbol "♫" will ring in your ears. This level of commitment to abstraction by society at large requires years of investment in undermining the natural human capacity for direct experience. I'll commence with a few comments on the all too familiar: Western society's modern philosophical commitment to a rational education, or perhaps more appropriately expressed as an hyper-rational indoctrination. This will serve as a prelude to contrast with what is the wholly natural and human yet now seemingly remote concept of Zen.
Indoctrination vs Education
Words are such funny creatures. In any thesaurus you'll find that 'indoctrinate' and 'educate' are synonyms. Yet, we instinctively know better don't we? The "heart" of their long displaced origins still throbs. How about you, would you prefer indoctrination to education?
The English word 'indoctrination' comes from the Latin root 'doctrine', meaning 'teaching'. Similarly, the original sense of 'doctor' simply referred to a 'teacher', notably one who had undergone some recognized academic training to thus qualify for said title. We have the legacy of this meaning in the 'doctorate' awarded to someone who is recognized for achieving the highest level of instruction, e.g. a 'Doctor' of Philosophy. The prefix 'in-' maintains the same meaning, to put into or inside. Indoctrination thus means to put 'teaching inside of'. It starts with a premise: that the student is ignorant, knows nothing, is an empty vessel to be filled. From this foundation the typical child in Western society is subjected to a minimum of 13 years in the public school system and up to 20+ years of unrelenting indoctrination if they go on to pursue university studies. Indoctrination is the shaping, moulding, construction of the individual.
'Education' likewise finds its etymological roots in Latin. It originates from 'ducare' meaning 'to lead' not in the sense of 'lording over', rather 'to draw' or 'to pull'. The prefix 'ex-' meaning 'out' combines to give 'educate' the sense of 'drawing out'. The flavor of the words 'indoctrinate' and 'educate' could not be more different. 'Educate' begins from the premise that the student is wise, knows everything. The role of the teacher is akin to that of a spirit guide who simply 'draws out', brings to the students’ awareness the knowledge that already exists inside of them. This tradition of 'education' marked the pre-Enlightenment liberal arts of the West that focused on critical thinking, liberating the student to later pursue their own interests, a process that was typically achieved in 4 or 5 years. Education is the cultivation of conditions that encourage personal growth. An Eastern Zen master therefore is somewhat akin to our own traditional Western educator from this point of view.
The word 'Zen' arrives to the West from Japan that was in turn received from Buddhist China with ultimate origins in India where the Sanskrit word Dhyāna ( ध्यान ) carries the meaning of 'absorption', most often translated as 'meditation' in English. Particularly with its development in China, a certain Taoist flavor was adopted so that certain schools came to develop Za-Zen, a 'seated' form of meditation that implies stillness, quiet contemplation. However, it has been acknowledged that a number of human activities might qualify so long as one approaches practice in a state of complete fixation and absorption. Particularly, in the former sense of requiring complete attentiveness, Zen practice lends itself to traditional crafts such as carving, playing music, weaving and cooking to name a few. Zen practice might also extend to what are thought of as leisure activities. Personally, I find surfing a calming medium to cultivate this attentive state. To be able to ride an ocean wave, one must literally attune completely with its frequency and amplitude. As waves of one kind of another (visible light, sound, infrared, etc.) are our window into all sensory experience, the opportunity to interface with a wave in a 1:1 ratio with your body, harmonizes one to the very fabric of reality itself. Needless to say, I highly recommend it.
I've had the experience of being called a lecturer or professor, ostensibly teaching traditional plastering, technical draughtsmanship and other subjects. One of the first things I confess, to the shock and dismay of potential students, is that I don't expect to teach them anything; furthermore, I conceive it an impossibility. After all I don't know how I plaster. It is largely not something to be explained anymore than how I might explain how I digest a peach. I simply do plaster. Plastering like traditional handcrafts generally are experiential arts, one learns by doing. Yes, I might demonstrate while others observe, perhaps offering a comment here or there. However, these exhortations are only helpful as occasional guidance to students who are actively teaching themselves. In Zen this visceral experience is captured in the Sanskrit term Upaya ( उपाय ), which has been interpreted as direct pointing. In this way traditional handcrafts lie at the frontier of self-awareness which permits us to tap into our profound unconscious intelligence that circulates our blood, grows our brain or manages any number of other bodily functions, adjoining it with that sliver of conscious mind that may follow a particular interest.
It is purported that the practice of Zen ultimately leads to Satori ( 悟り), the Buddha nature, enlightenment, an awakening. What then might Zencraft awaken us to? Liberation from the dream of separation, division and isolation, an awareness of the deep interconnection of all things.
In the dream state one believes he or she is individual, separate and distinct, not just from others, but from everything. Yet, everyday crafts deny this as fantasy. For example, perhaps we imagine the craft of carving is our exercising our intellectual prowess upon unorganized raw material, a type of chaos typical of nature, be it stone, wood or clay. Yet is it not the nature of the material that determines how we carve? Would we even conceive of carving if these materials did not exist? Does the human create the carving out of stone or is it the stone that generates the human that carves? Wake up! The tendency to identify with this abstraction, this ego if you will, is a grasping for abstraction because abstractions are simplifications. Are you and the universe two? Hold your breath!
Human perfection is not the perfection of the equilateral triangle, neither is it to be found in the Ionic order or any other form of contrived convention. Rather it is the perfection and order of the cloud with its dynamism, spontaneity and undifferentiated borders. Zencraft is therefore not a mere symbol, a representation of nature as some 'other', rather it is the full expression of her. Seen in this way Satori, the Zen awakening is nothing exotic, just the realization of being completely human and living it.