The essence of Zen, of course, is direct seeing into the nature of reality, unmediated meditation. The Buddha, of course, was a scientist, a psychologist, a meditative technologist, whose primary interest was untangling the inner knots of delusion to reveal the clear ground of awakening and peace. He eschewed, of course, the supernatural and had no interest in the cosmological – he cared only about liberation from suffering. Buddhism is not properly a religion at all, of course, but simply “Awake-ism,” a set of practical, universal techniques for freeing the mind and opening our compassionate hearts. The staffs and shouts of the Zen adepts of old, of course, are completely without baggage – they cut equally through all conditioning, speculation, hesitation, and superstition.
So why is it that the more I come to understand our ancestors, the more it strikes me that their lives and their Dharma unfolded in a supernatural world populated by powerful Buddhas and bodhisattvas and beset by demons and erratic deities?
I recently read the amazing diary of the Japanese monk Ennin’s travels to China around 840 AD. Really a wonderful read, and part of what surfaces incontrovertibly in the account is that in Japan as well as in great Tang China – the “Golden Age of Zen” – the primary religious act was petitionary prayer. The role of a Buddhist monk was much less about salvation than about technology: he was there to call forth spiritual power to aid and support the unreliable maritime, military, and agricultural technologies. Ennin does make passing references to the wisdom and compassion of the great teachers of the age, but it is abundantly clear that the success of a monk and a lineage was more than anything related to the efficacy of his spiritual interventions. It was for these supernatural powers, this access and leverage in the realm that brought rain and waves and military defeat, that the Emperor patronized Buddhism when he did. The popularity of Buddhism, in aristocratic and common society alike, wasn’t based on its profound teachings of emptiness or the great compassion of its saints – it was based on winning magic competitions, on getting rain during the drought faster than the Daoists can. Ennin’s pilgrimage is for the “Dharma,” and he does collect sutras and receive teachings, but what really seems to light him up are the miraculous stories of Manjushri’s manifestations, of Buddha relics, of strange and auspicious happenings.
Society has moved on, we say – we’ve evolved. Those supernatural accretions of Buddhism can be easily shed, revealing a basically secular humanist, scientific materialist essence. But who is to say? Only we secular humanist scientific materialists would see it that way, would claim to identify the wheat and the chaff as we have. It would certainly startle Monk Ennin to learn that the essence of the Buddha Way is completely apart from prayers to the sea, rain-bringing dragons, and the miraculous manifestations of Manjushri and Kannon.
I don’t suggest that we should pretend to adopt some cosmology, some forced understanding of a spiritual world that in fact we don’t have. I appreciate that we should question the “essence” of Zen that we are so often offered. I do think it’s important to look in our practice for what a friend of mine has been calling “Whole Religion,” not just settling for a religion of “essences” like white flour and vitamins. But at the same time I resist the impulse I sometimes see in the Sangha and feel in myself to try to believe in these things – in literal rebirth, in the more-than-psychological efficacy of ritual, etc. It can be sincere, no doubt, but it often has the flavor to me of an imposition, a stretch of one’s own credulity. Because deep down, at the root of our conditioning as twenty-first century, first world people, it’s just not how we see the world. It may be how we’d like to see it, or how we think it’d be cool to see it, but it goes against everything we’ve been taught.
I’m not sure where this leaves us, but it’s on my mind. And being on my mind, everywhere I turn – from the Green Gulch altar to the Dogen on my bookshelf – I see reference to Buddhas, bodhisattvas, deities, and a spirit world much richer and odder than our own.