Embracing life as it comes
“Life is like a river all of us must travel, with all its beauty, danger and uncertainty.”—Zen
In my youth I was captivated by books of great power and elegance, such as Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” What an intriguing and tantalizing subject for young minds hungry for truth, wisdom, and high purpose. I still have that classic nestled in my shuttered book shelf by my bed. I shall always treasure it because the insights and solace it gave me endures to this day.
It wasn’t an esoteric treatise on Zen but a novel, subtle invitation to it that impressed me and made me try to get a better grip on the subject. No one has a monopoly on the search for truth and wisdom. It’s open to everyone. Since I preferred to wrestle with life’s great questions in the rough-and-tumble world far from the high, thick walls of a secluded monastery run by Buddhist monks, I saw no need to follow one of the cardinal tenets of the true sage: “Those who know it (read truth and ultimate reality) do not speak; those who speak it, do not know.”
With this background, I feel free to talk about my modest knowledge of Zen, from the point of view of an intrepid “beginner’s mind” that has paddled through some interesting rivers in his long journey in life and wants to share his experience with kindred souls hesitant to make the voyage I am certain will dramatically change their lives:
Let me begin with the message that when one possesses even just a partial spirit of Zen, the whole world looks very different. As practitioners like to say: “Flowers that looked drab become prettier and an ordinary mountain stream is suddenly cooler and refreshing.”
This heightened awareness could mean enjoying, at a deeper level, the innocent laughter of your child, the balmy, soft breeze at your porch or the park, being seduced by the exquisite beauty of wild roses, as they are caressed by the wind and sun, or pausing to marvel at the silent strength and majesty of an old narra tree on your way to work.
Whether your job is driving a truck, repairing cars, conditioning motorcycles, teaching schoolchildren, editing a newspaper, ministering to the medical needs of patients, prosecuting/defending legal cases, running an advertising-political campaign or managing a company, it means being fully involved and fully focused (mindfulness) on what you are supposed to be doing at the moment, to the extent that you and your work become one and indistinguishable.
If you are a sports buff, it could mean the joy over your triumph over fatigue and pain, as you fully involve your self at a higher and higher level. Doing things that are difficult strengthens your willpower and self-control. It also strengthens your “mental muscles.” Like any other muscle, the more you exercise them, the stronger they become.
Simply put, Zen is all about achieving an ideal symmetry and unity of mind and body. The idea is to blur the distinction between object (your work or “doing”) and subject (you) so that thought and action blend into a unified, irreversible oneness. By doing so, you become a more alert, resilient, and sensitive person more capable of extraordinary intuitive insights (satori) into the human condition and ultimate truths.
From a practical standpoint, the high quality of your work is the product of that single-minded engagement. In every human activity, at work or at play, a calm, clear, focused mind will always have an edge over one that is cluttered, tentative, and tense. That is quintessential Zen.
We are all familiar with stories about athletes being “in the zone” when they are so “locked-in” they can’t seem to do anything wrong. The brilliant performances of great athletes like LeBron James, Roger Federer, Steffi Graf, and Jack Nicklaus during memorable, high-stakes games highlight an effortless combination of grace and power, the doer and the “doing” being in flawless unison. We see the same blurring of the “doer” and the “doing” in the art of ballet, when the dancers and the dance become an indistinguishable flow and patterns of movement. That is also Zen.
Zen is also present in the test of wills between a master hunter and a worthy prey, whether the chase is in a jungle in Brazil, a savannah in Africa, or deep waters in the Pacific, when the hunter must enter the mind of his prey, identify with it, and “become” the very object of his hunt in order to track it down, catch, or kill it. Such deep identification leads invariably to a kindred respect and empathy for the fallen. That’s why true hunters always pay silent tribute to their dangerous adversary, after defeating it.
“Doing nothing” but embracing life fully, without angst, whether it’s joy or pain. That’s Zen in a nutshell—and You don’t have to be students of a Zen roshi and live in a monastery to undergo rigorous zazen and koan conditioning to appreciate its basic lessons. So take the voyage while you can: Avoid the stagnant, safe waters in the river (which is another name for copping out), and don’t anticipate the final destination: Instead, think of each aspect of the journey as your destination. You will be rewarded with a more meaningful life.
Narciso Reyes Jr. (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an international book author and former diplomat. He lived in Beijing in 1978-81 as bureau chief of the Philippine News Agency.
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