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Realizing the Principles of Zen Buddhism in the Pursuit of Enlightenment

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In every hobby, every sport, and every action there is the potential for enlightenment. Through the repeated practice of an art, hobby, etc., one can realize the principles behind Zen Buddhism. All that stands in the way of the practitioner’s Buddhist enlightenment is his own perception of the practice and of the world around him. Until he comes to understand that everything is interrelated; that is, until he understands that nothing exists without being defined by something else, enlightenment will forever be out of reach. Upon the realization that all things lack their own-essence (because nothing can exist without being defined by something else), he will come to see that: the bowler does not seek to knock down the pins, the batter does not seek to hit the ball, and the archer does not seek to pierce the target. All are looking to find “real insight into the ultimate state of being,” (Onuma 26) by realizing and understanding how they themselves relate to the goal of their sport of choice.

No-mind (mushin)

The concept of no-mind rests at the center of Zen Buddhism. One who possesses this quality is totally aware of everything. And yet, nothing is able to disturb him, despite his total awareness (Salgado, April 11). He sees things as “neither independent substances nor dreams or illusions…. without denying the forms encountered in daily life [he], nonetheless, does not cling to them or take them to be the only reality” (Kasulis 44). This person looks at situations with a non-dualistic perspective (an understanding objects are interrelated with other things). He understands that bowling pins only exist because the bowler defines them; targets only exist because archers define them, and so on. The reverse is true as well; a bowler only exists because he has bowling pins to fell, and the archer only exists because he has a target to shoot at. Because these objects, lacking their own-essences, require someone/something to define their existence, it can be said that the objects are interchangeable. The archer is the target, and vice-versa. Therefore, in a way, when shooting at the target the archer is shooting at himself.

This state of total awareness brought on through enlightenment resulting from the continual practice of a specific art form, is something only a select few are privy to. The vast majority of people see things as being dualistic. In other words, people see the archer only as the archer, and the target as only the target. They are unable to see the interrelatedness of objects. One’s own thoughts lead to their downfall in this area.

Thinking/Not Thinking/Without Thinking

If one is pursuing Zen enlightenment, one must be prepared for their own thoughts to betray them. Because we think in language, and language is inherently dualistic, our thoughts too are dualistic (Salgado, April 18). As humans, everyday we think about where we must go and what we must do. In our thoughts we put names to things, places, and situations without regard for the interrelatedness that plays a role in their existence. In addition to this, if one is obsesses about the right way to do something, it means that conversely there is a wrong way to do it. Looking at things in terms of right and wrong, good and evil, etc., is dualistic and will only serve to slow, stop, or even reverse one’s progress as one seeks enlightenment.

In his book Zen in the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel reports on his pursuit of Zen enlightenment through learning archery. He describes a point in his quest where; after a long period of training under his master, he develops a method of loosening his grip of the arrow. Because this method allowed him to fire the arrow in a manner he considered to be very good, he continued to make use of it. Upon seeing his disciple’s new technique, the master felt he had been cheated and “declined to instruct [him] any further” (Herrigel 50). Had it not been for his friend who consulted with the master in Herrigel’s behalf, his journey to discover Zen would have ended there; all a result of his thinking.

By developing a special technique for the sole purpose of loosing the arrow, Herrigel was thinking dualistically in a couple different ways. He separated his own existence from that of the bow and of the arrow. And he was thinking only of what he must do in order to fire a correct shot. He was sure that this was what needed to be done. This is the detriment that thinking will bring to journey to discover Zen.

In addition to thinking of what one must do, thinking of what one must not do will also inhibit one’s spiritual growth. “Not thinking” and “thinking” are merely two sides of the same coin. “Not thinking” inspires the same dualistic perspective that “thinking” encourages. An example of this comes from the writings of T.P. Kasulis, who describes an encounter between two Zen monks and a woman.

The woman is in need of help crossing a river. The first of the two monks declines to help her, thinking that because of his status as a monk, he must not touch women. The second Zen monk does not hesitate to carry her across the river. He is later chastised by the first monk for doing so and responds by saying, “as soon as we had crossed the river I put her down. But you! You have been carrying her all of this time” (Kasulis 46). The mistake that the first monk made was separating the notions of male and female. He was thinking dualistically. The second monk’s actions however, represented the ideal Zen Buddhist reaction to this situation. He acted without thinking.

To act without thinking is merely to act. Without thinking of potential consequences (either positive or negative), one only does what is believed to be right, and then moves on to something else. Living life in this manner does not mean that one can never experience thoughts. Rather, one does have thoughts, but an individual thought never leads to another (Salgado, April 11). By always acting “without thinking,” one lives from action to action, and is not subject to the dualistic pitfalls created by both “thinking” and “not thinking.”

Conclusion

In order to reach enlightenment in Zen Buddhism, one is not limited only to practicing activities such as bowling and archery. A nearly infinite number of hobbies can act as a pathway to this understanding. For instance, even the mastery of a video game can foster the growth of Zen principles. By playing Super Mario World 3 for example, one can learn to act without thinking. After going through the levels enough times, playing them well becomes almost second nature. One no longer aims to obtain points through various methods within the game, or thinks about the benefits collecting bonuses, extra-lives, etc. One just plays the game. Thoughts occur, but do not connect. The experience is truly Zen.

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