Thursday, October 4, 2012

Waves Can Be Our Zen Teachers, by Len Barrow

We have not done a philosophical article for a while here at Zen Waterman so I thought I would have a go at it, as this blog is about Zen, whatever that means.   My late Zen Master Aitken Roshi actually commented to me that (approximately) “some surfers have some realization{in Buddhism} as they engage with waves”.  I thought that this was rather odd but I kept thinking about what he said and came to a conclusion that his statement actually made sense.

We can learn a lot about the Zen and by extension ourselves by just paying attention to waves.  In Zen Waves are dependently originated.  This just means that many natural causes comes together to cause a wave to “become”.  The waves are not on their own individual power.  They are an aggregate of nature and various causes and conditions.  Waves do not have “selves” that steer them around in a scientific view.  They logically have specific causes and conditions in nature that cause them to manifest or become.

 Let us take a clean 4 foot wave on the south shore.  To get a South Swell on the shores on Oahu (Hawaii) you need a storm in the southern hemisphere.  The storm has to be in just the right swell window.  This takes specific weather patterns by New Zealand and Australia to keep the cyclone pointed at Hawaii’s swell window.  To get a storm in the southern hemisphere you need the Suns energy which drives weather patterns on earth.  For a clean 4’ wave to manifest you need the right tide and offshore winds as well as correct reef shape.  In other words the wave that you see as independent and on its own power is actually highly dependent on many causes and conditions in nature.  It is as if the whole universe is behind it.  There really is no wave per se but an aggregate of causes and natural conditions.   This is what Zen Buddhism argues and this wonderfully correlates with the western scientific view.

Theich Nhat Han, the Vietnamese Zen Master who helped stop the Vietnam war and was nominated for the noble peace prize by Martin Luther King, clearly states the above phenomena in the following statement:

“People normally cut reality into compartments, and so are unable to see the interdependence of all phenomena.  To see all in one and one in all is to break through the great barrier which narrow’s ones perception of reality, a barrier which Buddhism calls the attachment to false view of self”.

In relation to the above quote, let us look at our conception of self from a Buddhist manner.  Selves manifest in the same ways as waves! Science has shown us this.  This idea is not even controversial. 

What are the causes and conditions that cause you to be dependently originated like the wave. What natural conditions and causes lead to the manifestation of yourself?  This list is almost endless that it boggles the mind.  Let us see look at some of the factors that allow “you” to come into being.  To start off with the absolute basics, you need oxygen and water.  You even need trees to create oxygen which we breath.  If you don’t have these natural factors you cease to manifest as yourself.  You also need your mother and father, not to mention their ancestors.  You need wheats, cows, etc., (if you are not a vegetarian) that become food.   Cows need grass to graze on.  To have your personality you need the culture around you which helps shape it.  If you are surfers you obviously exist in relation to the ocean which also shapes your mentality.  You even need bacteria for you to manifest.  In fact Scientific American (August issue) just stated that bacteria outnumber your cells in a ten to one ratio in your body!  To many scientists the question of a self independently existing is ludicrous and incorrect as bacteria seem to be at least partially running our bodies for their benefit!  The famous biologist Dr. Margulis stated that “the idea of a self is warped, we are a walking feeding trough for Bacteria and Cells”.  What “is” you?  According to Zen we are a matrix of nature and its causes and conditions.  Like the wave, we completely lack a self due to dependent origination.  This is the Buddhist concept of Anatta or “no self”.    

Remember that the western view of the self relies on a self-phenomena that is unchanging and concretely existing on its own power.  The western philosopher which structured our current view of the self, Renee Descarte, stated that “I think, therefore I am”.  A trained  Zen Buddhist would indicate the opposite by saying “I think therefore I am not”.

In the end Zen argues that there is no self (Annata) but just an aggregation of causes and natural conditions.  This may sound terrifying to some as your individuality becomes “shattered” yet this is pure freedom, for there becomes no real reason to be angry or fearful at anyone or anything.    If there is no self on its own power then logically there can be no death, no life span (stated in the Diamond Sutra…sutra or “bundled writing” which forms the basis of Zen!).  We can live in peace.  We are but wonderful manifestations of the “play of Nature” just as an ocean wave is.  What a noble heritage!  I find this view to be most gratifying and it gives me reason not to be too attached to things and people.  This is very important as Buddhism argues that attachment to things, people and events (Buddha’s 1st Noble Truth) are our primary cause for suffering.  The antidote to this suffering is to see dependent arising (Buddha’s 3rd  Noble Truth)  thus we become less attached and free (Nirvana or cessation of suffering).  The above discussion may seem a bit abstract and even bizarre yet test the logic scientifically.  I was actually pissed off when I found the logic (I study western logic) to be sound as I had to give up my conventional western view of self.  Despite this the happiness crept in after time. 

People wonder why I am happy driving a dilapidated VW van and living a surfing lifestyle that barely involves money yet involves tremendous unpaid public service (I have received civil awards for my homeless programs and work my ass off to enrich other people’s lives).  Many people think that my choice of lifestyle is bizarre and stupid but thanks to my teachers the waves, and a bit of Zen I am honestly content and happy about things! 

Let us realize this.  We can modify our behavior and be more kind and compassionate.  We already recognize a wave as being dependently originated and without a self.  That is why after the wave pounds us, we don’t say that “it” did us wrong.  We do not personify the wave and say “Hey Bob the wave, I hate you for what you did to me….and I will hate you forever Bob the wave”. This is what a deluded mind does in Zen theory.  Let us be free from this thinking.   We don’t think the wave is a concrete entity with a separate soul or self –substance.   Instead we view the wave as being dependently arisen. 

Let us do the same with people and events.  They are just like waves.

Let us see them as dependently arisen, as an aggregate of causes and natural conditions.  This will allow us to live in freedom just as the waves are free and perfect.   Why not be happy?

Let me leave you with this Zen Koan (type of riddle):  “What was your original face before you were born”.

Or better yet, a Koan that I have created: “What was the wave’s original face before it was born”

And   “Is there such a thing as Zen……..what is there to talk about?”

I must warn you, I am an exquisite liar!


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