zen and mindfulness: single-minded way


This is the tenth in a series of topics from the seminal book on Zen: Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. I’m going chapter by chapter and offering my thoughts on the subject Suzuki addresses. You should definitely check out Suzuki’s book. It has changed many lives.

I would love to be able to tell you that by reading my writing you will gain the kind of enlightenment or understanding that will eliminate your anxiety, but I can’t. My hope is this writing will encourage you to take on that kind of practice that will provide you that kind of relief, that purge of anxiety. That is the most I can hope for.

Why is that? Our words are references to our context. It’s how we share with each other, but they don’t have any inherent meaning separate from what our culture has gradually developed. That said, it’s almost magically effective. Here I am, sitting in a coffee shop in Chicago. There you are, reading these words, and we are sharing with each other, even with so much space and time between us. Language is one of our most wonderful technologies.

Yet it will never transmit accurately enough for the message you need to assimilate if you going to have the kind of understanding you need to “max out” your mindfulness and understanding of reality. My context, the one I reference when I write these words, will always be at least slightly different than your context, and in that difference lies the dullness of meaning.

When I describe something as being “perfectly red,” how do you know what I mean? If we were each given 100 shades of red to choose from as the shade of red we believe to be the ideal shade of red, we would very likely choose different samples. This is a trivial example but it illustrates the point. To take a heavier example, when I say something is “beautiful,” do I mean exactly the same thing you would mean if you said it. Do you always mean the same thing when you write that something is beautiful? Has your concept of perfect beauty changed over time?

You see, the contexts are different and so the message can only be so sharp. Language is wonderful but it is not a perfect vessel.

I believe in this chapter of Suzuki’s book, he is encouraging his listeners to understand that you cannot totally “get” Buddhism through the philosophy. You shouldn’t try. It’s fine to speculate on things and think about them and discuss them, but you must understand these tools are too blunt to really understand Buddhism perfectly.

I think it is the same with my idea of mindfulness as I’m writing about it. I can describe it for you and use metaphors and similes and encourage you to try certain practices to help your understanding, but in the end we will only really begin to understand each other when we both have a practice, and even then it will only be a rough understanding. I don’t know that your experience of mindfulness will be exactly like mine. How could I? The best I can hope for is you feel it to be intuitively right for you just like I do for me.

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