About a year and a half ago I was running a Buddhist meditation group here in town. I was discouraged that only one person kept showing up so I decided to make some fliers to post around. It was kind of a struggle to find the right words for the flier. When I first started this group, someone said that because I identified it with "Buddhist" meditation I might scare some folks away. He pointed out that while some people may be interested in "meditation" in a generic sort of way, a lot of them have no interest whatsoever in actual Buddhism.
I understand. This is a prevalent viewpoint in America and one that has helped turn Buddhism into the wishy-washy, spiritual feel-good-a-thon it’s become. But I practice zazen, which is Buddhist meditation, which is different from Hindu or Christian or Jain or Taoist meditation. It’s a specific method that the Buddha used which he based his entire teachings upon. This form of meditation is the most practical path to personal liberation. It has nothing to do with gods and goddesses or holy and unholy. It has to do with one thing and one thing only: suffering and the way to end it.
I get that there are people that would like to learn about and practice meditation without having to become Buddhist. That’s perfectly fine. Many Buddhists don’t even self-identify as Buddhist. Meditation can be used for many things, from simple de-stressing to getting totally blissed out in alternative mind frames. It’s completely possible to practice most forms of meditation and never even hear the word “Buddhist.”
Not so with zazen. Zazen is distinctly Buddhist, but that doesn't mean that you become one when you start doing it. That's like saying you stop being a Christian when you begin studying physics. Zazen is beyond these silly labels but we have to keep using them in order to convey meaning sometimes.
People don’t have to abandon their faith or convert to Buddhism in order to practice zazen. However, the point of zazen is to see things as they really are and one needs to be prepared for the idea that they may not like what comes up. Our minds are crazy places and zazen lets us see deeply into the madness. Sometimes it’s liberating. Sometimes it’s horrifying. The point is, either way, it doesn’t matter. It is only necessary to watch what happens, and not get too attached to whatever it is.
Since zazen lets us see Truth as it really is, it’s possible to become frustrated or discouraged when it doesn’t conform to what we want. Having insights into the nature of our lives is only one step of the process. The other is accepting what we find. No matter how disappointing or ugly the Truth turns out to be, no amount of wishing is going to change it. For some, this can be crushing. Deeply held beliefs can be swayed, twisted or even destroyed. Buddhism accepts this and doesn’t hold on very tightly to beliefs. In other religions, belief is usually the cornerstone of the entire shindig. If zazen starts messing with that foundation then practitioners can quickly run into trouble.
I’m not saying it’s always better to be a Buddhist during this process. I’m saying that, as a Buddhist, should I ever run into doubt during my practice, IT DOESN’T MATTER. Did the Buddha really exist? Doesn’t matter. Are his teachings the ultimate Truth? Doesn’t matter. Am I wasting my time? Doesn’t matter. What if this is all wrong? It doesn’t fucking matter. This is often hard for practitioners of other religions to comprehend. It certainly does matter to Christians that Christ really lived. It definitely matters to Muslims that Muhammad’s teachings are the ultimate Truth. The doubt that assails members of other religions is viewed as natural, but still something to be overcome with faith.
Zen looks at doubt as a natural part of practice as well, but understands that it’s not something to be overcome. You just sit with it. Doubt, just like faith, boredom, hate, jealousy, and everything else, comes and goes on its own. We don’t control it; we only strive not to get too caught up in it.
Zazen can destroy Buddhists as well. Anyone that isn’t willing to accept things as they are is in for a real nightmare. Personally, I think the Buddha’s teachings (as well as those of Brad Warner and Gudo Nishijima) prepare us for this unique journey. They guide us and help us to relax when we encounter something that at first seems terrifying or antithetical to our ideas. Zazen and the teachings are specifically designed for this path to awakening. They are the tools perfectly suited to the job at hand. There’s no doubt they’re useful in non-Buddhist hands as well, but practitioners should exercise caution. Zazen isn’t a delicate little brush, meant to gently sweep debris of off our true selves. It’s a fucking hammer meant to smash through good and evil, right and wrong, intelligence and ignorance, faith and doubt, love and hate…whatever you’ve got. You’d better be ready for the pile of rubble.