Why Zen?

Photo by markg6Absurdbeats asked, why Zen over other forms of Buddhism?

This one’s easy. In the following, understand that I’m talking about Buddhism mainly as seen in the US.

There are two basic kinds of Buddhism: Mahayana and Theravada. Mahayana means “Greater Vehicle” and is meant for everybody, including monastic and regular people. Theravada used to be called Hinayana by the Mahayanists, only the Theravadists didn’t like that, because it means “Smaller Vehicle.” I don’t think they meant it as an insult; they only meant that Theravada Buddhism was a practice meant for monks, for people willing to shut themselves away in a monastery and not engage fully in human life, e.g.,  marriage, family, working, etc. And oh yeah, women couldn’t join.

People who like Theravada Buddhism seem to like it for its traditionalism, and claim that it is superior to other forms of Buddhism because it uses Buddha’s “original” teachings. Since the Buddha made it clear that this is an experiential thing, passed mind-to-mind from teacher to student, this doesn’t make sense to me. The argument (and it seems to me that they’re the only ones who care) about whose sutras are more original turns me off. And, while it’s nice that they’ve changed it in the West to include lay people and women, it seems to me that that should invalidate their claim to traditionalism. I get hung up on all this when I think of Theravada.

Vipassana or insight meditation sounded interesting to me, but when I did a little – a very little – reading about it, it just sounded like zazen with a whole lot more language attached to it.

So much for Theravada. In the Mahayana tradition, there are of course many flavors to choose from, but the ones most familiar to us are Tibetan and Zen. I love the Dalai Lama, but every time I look into Tibetan Buddhism, I come smack up against a whole lot of – stuff. Jeweled trees, mandalas, gods, demons, prayer wheels. They’re big into symbolism and images. It’s gorgeous, but I find it all very distracting. I also can’t get behind reincarnation, which is central to Tibetan Buddhism and many other forms. I don’t know everything; reincarnation may be real, but if it is, it’s not something I can afford to focus on in this lifetime.

Overall, among Buddhists, my impression is that all the schools are cool with each other. There are no bitter disagreements, and as far as I know the Dalai Lama doesn’t think Thich Nhat Hahn is going to hell just because they represent different traditions. If I were from Tibet, I would be a Tibetan Buddhist. But I’m an American, so I can choose.

Zen just feels right to me. It always has. It’s simple. The emphasis is on just this. Zen says, basically, sit down and shut up, and see for yourself. No arguments over doctrine. No visualizations. Just this.

Plus, it has lots of stories, and I like stories.

2 Responses to “Why Zen?”

  1. absurdbeats Says:

    So will you be telling stories? PLEASE tell stories!

  2. soundofrain Says:

    Oh, you want stories? I got stories.

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