Zen? What’s the Point?

My good friend and colleague, James Ford, recently posted an interesting entry on his blog, “Monkey Mind: Easily Distracted”, that set me to thinking. Now, I need a disclaimer at the outset: Though I am deeply influenced by Buddhism in general and Zen in particular, I do not think of myself as a Buddhist. James is the expert on Zen, not me. But there is one thing I am an expert on, and that is my own experience and thoughts. So, here is what I think, how Zen has informed my own spiritual life and how that inspires my work for racial reconciliation.

Let’s start with a Greek concept, since that’s where James started: Teleology. The word comes from two Greek words, Telos + Logos. It is the telos part that interests me. Now, telos does not translate nicely into English. It is usually rendered as end, in the sense of goal. For example, a teleological explanation in biology would look like “in order to do so and so the organism exhibits ­­­such and such behavior.”

And that is accurate enough, but there is a deeper meaning, too. A telos is not simply the goal to be achieved but rather that which beckons onward, always just out of reach but inspiring us to continue, to reach farther, to go deeper. For example, some medieval theologians spoke of reunion with God as the telos of creation. And Aristotle included telos as one of the four causes of observable phenomena. In order to understand a phenomenon, you have to understand that to which the actor is reaching. Think of it as the answer to the questions, “What’s the point? Why bother?”

With this idea in mind, let us now turn to Zen. What’s the point of Zen? Why bother? What is its telos? Well, Zen is a branch on the Mahayana tree within the forest of Buddhism. And that would certainly suggest that, like all of Buddhism, it must aim somehow or other at Enlightenment.

And to what end is Enlightenment? Why bother? The usual answer is that one seeks Enlightenment in order to overcome dukkha, the existential despair that arises from the realization of our aloneness. And yet. There is also the Second Noble Truth that tells us that dukkha arises from attachment. Shouldn’t that also apply to an attachment to Enlightenment? And doesn’t that invalidate the entire enterprise? Paradox! What’s a practitioner to do? Why bother?

Like all religion, Zen is no stranger to paradox. In fact, Zen seems to me to embrace paradox much more forthrightly and intentionally than most religions. But. This embrace of paradox is not just for the fun of it or to dazzle or to hide behind. It is rather to point the way to a deeper experience of a deeper truth. The paradoxes are teaching paradoxes, not hiding paradoxes. They are nothing but rafts to carry us across the river of illusion. Who would carry the raft around after arriving safely on the other side?

The raft is not the goal. The goal is…? That is the question, isn’t it? What is the goal, what is the telos, of Zen? Is it not that very awakening that we just noticed the Second Noble truth tells us we must not be attached to? But how can we let go of attachment to awakening, even while reaching for it, even while being inspired by it and continuing on toward it?

What I am beginning to understand is that the letting go of attachment is the recognition that there is nothing to let go of. As Dogen said, “Form is emptiness.” But what is there then? There is only this. And this. And this. As Dogen also said, “Emptiness is form.” The paradox is that this world, with all of its multifarious beauty, is both two and not two. Simultaneously. The solution to the paradox is the realization that these are not two separate truths, but a single reality, no more paradoxical than an electron’s being both a particle and a wave. Simultaneously.

When I’ve spoken about this to people who know me well, I am sometimes asked how this surrender is compatible with my dedication to racial reconciliation. Doesn’t that dedication imply a rejection of “the way things are”? Doesn’t surrender imply capitulation, and thus despair? Well, oddly enough, it doesn’t. On the contrary, it inspires me to go on, to continue the struggle. But how could that be?

It’s about the paradox of two yet not two. To surrender to this paradox is, among other things, to realize that I cannot be truly free of dukkha while others languish in the pain and slavery of oppression. Thus it is that I am inspired to reach further, to go deeper, even as I surrender to this very moment.

And so I sit. Simply sit. And count my breaths. In those moments of sitting, of being present to myself, I find myself present to far more than myself. For if there is only this, and this, and this, then surely there is only thee and thee and thee in this very moment as well. And then I rise. And it is enough. How can that be enough? Because in this surrender, I am renewed in the struggle, I am refreshed and able to carry on.


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