A personal approach to Zen

Monat: September 2021


From very early on starting with Zen practice some are confronted with koans.

One of the most popular ones is…

… When both hands have clapped a sound is produced; listen to the sound of one hand clapping.” Sometimes the koan is set in question-and-answer form, as in the question “What is Buddha?” and its answer, “Three pounds of flax.”

Some definitions say a koan is a riddle or puzzle that Zen Buddhists use during meditation to help them unravel greater truths about the world and about themselves. Zen masters have been testing their students with these stories, questions, or phrases for centuries. … It is up to the Zen student to tease out their meaning.

After reading some of them and books like Dropping Ashes on the Buddha, I don’t believe that as well, because they don’t seem to be riddles to be solved.

It is something to meditate on and lose attachment but I don’t get behind it.

I know I shouldn’t even think about getting behind it and just sit with them. Even that seems to be too much.

As I do get that Zen practice is a lively exchange and dialogue between master and student and there, koans do have their own meanings and dynamics.
As I don’t have a live Zen master but approaching this through books and podcasts those koans are very troubling.

I do get that they should help to lose any attachment, to be like a meditation in words, to lose any logical sense of the world and just let me sit, unattached, but aware.

I don’t know if that’s right but according to Zen practice there is no wrong or right, there is just it, and that’s ok.

Maybe I get to a retreat once and learn from real masters and get a better approach to koans. For the time being, I just let them be as they are and not disturb me.

When meditating and asking myself „Who am I?“ I think of „a blue elephant with a red ponytail sitting on a cloud“ and I hear some master say „You are attached to color“ and my reply would be „I’m a protein bar without chocolate“, maybe he’s answering „you are hungry?“.

As I did study literature and I know about the power of concepts created by our own language and how misleading they can be, my western socialized mind thinks of Jacques Derrida and his deconstruction.

This comes from an intellectual point of view near to the concept of koans, demanding to question everything which comes as a tradition through language over time, constructed by men and their biases.

I know I shouldn’t use an intellectual approach because this seems just wrong in Zen practice but I can’t help it.

Maybe I just should let that go but it seems too important.

I also tend to look back at lyrics where language is used to create a feeling and also is illogical in many cases.

Benjamin Myers, in his novel ‚The Offening‘, lets his protagonist Dulcie say to Robert…

… a good poem breaks open the oyster shell of the mind to expose the pearl within. It finds words for feelings whose definitions defy all attempts at verbal expression.

With such a definition I can work and I decided, though it has nothing to do with Zen practice, I go back to lyrics (many poets are Zen practitioners also) and away from koans, for the time being, not neglecting them totally but let them rest.

Maybe time gives me a good teacher and I can reactivate an approach to koans again.

Maybe time also resolves all the cognitive dissonance and after they sit with me for a while and meditating with them I’ll find my peace with them.

Picture from Book of Longing, by Leonard Cohen, a collection of his poems and drawings from the last twenty years. Reprinted by arrangement with Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishing, ©2006 by Leonard Cohen


Hope is a double-edged sword, on the one hand, it makes us look positively into the future and endure current situations with which we are not satisfied.

On the other hand, we often get involved in situations that are bad compromises in the hope that something will change soon and we can then solve the compromise.

We as humans are probably the only species on earth that has the ability to hope. We can dream ourselves into possible, better life circumstances and say to ourselves „one day…“.

Why do we have this ability? Is it a survival strategy that makes us superior to other animals, the ability to ‚endure‘ situations in the hope that something will improve?

Or are we with the hope also hopelessly lost at the same time and we give away our potential? Sure, hope drives us and makes us strive for a better life, but at the same time, it is often a source of despair when hopes are disappointed.

How can we reasonably consider and reflect on hope, classify it as realistic and useful, and when can we protect ourselves from hopeless hope, which becomes a striving that is futile and actually causes agony.

Is the hope of a dying person for an afterlife nonsensical or does it make it easier to say goodbye to this world? Is the hope for an improvement in the housing situation or the financial situation or an improvement in health good in itself, does it drive us enough?

Does hope make us lethargic or motivate us, does it make us actively change life circumstances and take risks? Or does it make us sit back and live with maggoty compromises because we just tell ourselves „it will get better“ until it can’t get any better?

Surely this is to be evaluated depending on the situation and hope can have many different forms. Our striving for a better life with the help of hope has certainly its sense and we have this ability certainly not in vain but it can also become a trap for us.

I wish to be able to deal with my hopes better and to realize that action is better now and life circumstances have to be changed actively because a compromise does not work. At the same time, I hope that I do not lose my hopes and compromise when I have to, for my own sake and for the sake of others.

Of course, I also hope to learn when hope makes no sense and pure acceptance of the circumstances will save me from suffering caused by hope.

For you, too, I hope that you can deal with hope.

Being Anxious

I’m meditating now for several months on different schedules and methods, from extended (for me) 15 minutes to half an hour or just very short sessions.

The effect surprises me because I’m getting more and more anxious and the opposite was expected.

Actually, I do feel emptiness and fear especially after I tried transcendental meditation. I feel isolated and alone and I am more afraid about the future than I ever have been.

Plus, I do feel socially isolated, though I’m living with my family, my wife, my wonderful kids who I love a lot. It’s crazy but I feel like I don’t get a connection to them.

Maybe this is supposed to be and to happen when you confront yourself with your inner self without layering noise and actions above your inner life in order to numb your inner voice.

But actually, with the anxiety growing, I do tend to do exactly this, trying to numb it down. Playing music because I can’t bear the silence, drinking in the evening because I can’t bear my own thoughts.

I do worry as I ever did but it scares me even more and my gut feeling is very bad, I do feel ‚dark clouds‘ or something similar like a weight in my belly and I definitely don’t feel free or light or happy at any time of the day.

The only pause is when asleep and in deep dreams and certainly the short time after awaking, there I feel ok. But then the other stuff crushes in immediately.

So, does this mean it does me badly or shall I confront myself with every fear and try to knock it down or try to resolve it through deep changes in my life?
I can’t narrow it down. It doesn’t make sense and makes sense. Everything is coming up where I made compromises and didn’t feel well with them.

And there are those things that I don’t want to admit to myself.

Mostly, it’s connected to my vulnerability and the inability to post it to other human beings, especially the ones who are near to me. The reason for sure can be found in the way I was brought up and the way I think I have to behave in this world, being strong, not showing my fears.

The stillness is also frightening because I see the ‚normal‘ life as a failure, our consuming, producing, polluting strategy. War in Afghanistan, people kill other people for no reasonable reason.

Climate change is inevitable and will affect my children. My children getting addicts and fuck up their lives. Anything.

It’s more than being worried.

No strategy is to be found yet, and I can’t accept the Zen saying that everything is meaningless and life is suffering.

Yes, it is but I can not overcome it, I feel it and to numb it through meditation seems counterintuitive and wrong.

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