Over the weekend, my family played host to two visitors from the French Zen Monastery, Kanshoji. Aside from having to give up my bedroom, it was as always, an interesting and (ahem) enlightening experience. During one emotional conversation (though partly it was down to being an embarrassing pile of hangover), I cried. Quite a bit. Because it made me rethink all my recent life choices.
My extended family, both German and Filipino, is incredibly Catholic, but ironically both my parents rejected Catholicism in favour of Zen Buddhism. I grew up, not as a zen practitioner, but within the community. It was not part of daily life but I spent holidays on retreat, taking part in ceremonies, chanting during mealtimes, working in the kitchen, hanging out in the forest while the adults were meditating. It was part of my life from before I can remember, and I loved it, deeply. I was the Zen Baby, who knew everyone and was exempt from meditation. I got to pick and choose the parts of the culture I wanted.
Things became difficult the older I got because the expectation to begin practising weighed down on me. It was fine as a four-year-old to run around being noisy, to spend Zazen (meditation) doodling instead of sitting. But at 15 the community, all these admirable people who have dedicated their lives to the practise and the Buddha way, began to expect me to sit zazen also. I did try, but hot damn was it difficult. Zazen translates as ‘sitting in concentration’ and it is so, so much harder than that sounds. At 19 I am scarcely more ready to sit zazen than I was at 15 (though I did manage a short weekly session for a limited period) and even less prepared to give up my selfish ways to follow the Buddha way.
That is not to say I don’t want to: unlike many practitioners who come to it later in life, I have had the gift of growing up with Zen without it being pushed on me. I am endlessly grateful to my parents for allowing me to experience the benefits of this life, the joys, without forcing it on me (it is a religion, after all, despite how much I dislike that description). I see how it changes the people who sacrifice for it, see how it has changed my parents for the better. Zen teaches compassion above all, that giving is the true path to happiness, or more accurately the true path away from suffering. It teaches us not to hold on the happy emotions, or to reject the negative ones, that chasing our desires only leads to further suffering.
To do so, Zen demands sacrifice. We learn to recognise our flaws and to accept them. We learn to let go of our desires and to become less selfish. We learn that everything is impermanent, to cut the illusions that daily life presents us with. We learn to be one with the world around us. And its bloody difficult. One has to give up so much of what is deemed as part of a ‘normal’ life, from jobs to private homes to hair. (I felt this personally very strongly when I shaved off all my hair last year: a difficult choice, a bountiful reward).
I know many who came to Zen as a way of escaping a damaging lifestyle, once they recognised that something in their way of life was in serious need of repair. Often (though not always), they flourish. But what if you happen to thrive in normal life too? I know Ignorance and Aversion are two of the Three Poisons (the other being Greed), but is it ever alright to continue with life because it suits you, well-knowing that you are living it at the cost of a better life within Zen? I know my parents have had trouble dovetailing modern, western, city life with zen – they are not mutually exclusive, but you cannot commit fully to both simultaneously. Their compromise works, but I know at least for my mum there is so much more she would like to work on within Zen that having a job and a mortgage doesn’t allow. Man, even shaving her head for Ango gave her anxiety for a month.
For me, I always admired this way of life, especially on retreat. I would immerse myself in the lifestyle for a week or so every year, revelling in the community around me. Monastic life, on a temporary basis, is so refreshing. There is something deeply satisfying about working alongside all these people from around the continent, working together to keep the community going. It was a reset button on my mindset; I’d return from the monastery with a fresh resolve to be a better human, start meditating, be more selfless. This would inevitably dissipate over the following weeks or months because I didn’t meditate, or even truly try to uphold these values, and I’d return the next year feeling deeply guilty for having forgotten.
Now, in my early stages of this thing called adulting, I recognise the need for a more compassionate life, yet cannot quite commit. I have, as of yet, chosen to follow my interest in creating art, which I fail to see fitting in well with the Buddha way. I’ve struggled for a long time with justifying making art – my brain craves this justification, craves a purpose for what I make, because part of me can’t help but see making art as inherently selfish and self-obsessed. For this reason, I make art for an audience, try to connect with the viewer/reader, try to make them laugh. That is my service, even if the motivation is selfish.
It is ironic, then that I spend most of my days self-flagellating myself for not creating enough, not drawing enough, not doing enough. I fixate on the end product and berate my hands for not completing enough work, berate my brain for being too lazy to get my hands to do anything. This is the opposite of my confusion about Zen, this intensely strong emotion that tells me I am not doing enough for myself, as opposed to too much. In quite a beautiful feat of doublethink, my brain is able to hold both these contradictions so strongly at once.
But I am not an autonomous human. I don’t yet know who I am, and maybe I never will, but I am not at a point in my life where I am ready to build this new facet of my personality. It is difficult to accept, just as it is difficult to accept that I’ll never get to the end of my infinite to-do list (more on that another time). It frustrates me because I feel I should make use of this head start in zen life – why postpone being a good person? That just seems like procrastination to me. But on the other hand, I don’t yet have much to give.
They say the world is made up of creators and destroyers, though most people are only consumers now. I would like to be a creator before I can become a giver. I want to be secure in myself before I begin breaking that personality down again. I think it is very possible to be both an artist and a zen Buddhist - Buddha himself found the Middle Way between extremes - and that is what I hope to be some day. It is also true that you have to be ready to sacrifice to Zen, and deep within my I am not prepared yet to sacrifice my desire to do something good with my art. I already make art with a purpose, and perhaps I will begin to direct that purpose towards the Dharma. I just cannot expect myself to be a whole, healthy, selfless human at this point in my personal journey.
And honestly, if that makes me selfish, then fuck yeah I’ll embrace it.
I do truly believe that Zen is the answer to humanity’s problems. That with it, we can overcome the three poisons and reduce suffering. This is not some religious propaganda. This is just a way of life.
But I also recognise that many people are not ready for Zen. I believe you too should fully embrace it, because it can make not only your life better, but the people and the world around you too. However, you need something to give before you can give.
So, take the time you need. We’ll think about Zen, inching toward it. And hopefully I’ll see you sometime in the future, and we’ll walk the Buddha way together.
Kanshoji Monastery (France)