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It is common in Zen stories for the student to ask a question such as, "What is the meaning of life?" and the master to reply, "A pint of milk costs 37p."
The master may seem very awkward and obtuse at first. Consider it further. The question was wildly speculative. The answer was not. Could any answer truly be considered an 'answer'?
Reality is too immense to be rendered using thought, words and concepts. Seeing the limitations of language enables you to become aware of your own conditioning.
Language is a convention; the way in which words are built, connected and employed is an artificial construct.
The word for 'chair' will never be a chair; you cannot sit on the word or the idea.
In the given example, the master gives an answer that is real: "A pint of milk costs 37p." Rather than engage in a potentially pointless debate, the master has made a factual statement.
Opinion, conditioning, perspective, politics, religion have no bearing on his answer. It was a pure statement of fact, untarnished by 'self'.
The Zen answer actually tells you everything you need to know. It points the questioner directly to reality; to substance, to the tangible. You cannot understand reality by analysing its parts.
We read the world wrong and say that it deceives us.
Confusing Buddhism and Zen
Buddhists often love to engage in heated debates concerning their religion. This is fine if you like that sort of thing.
Zen refrains from that approach - rather than get caught up in chit-chat, discussions or gossip - the practitioner keeps it factual.
Zen is a synthesis of Buddhism and 'contemplative' Taoism. This branch of Taoism is concerned with 'the Science of the Essence'... seeing things as they actually are.
There is no need for lengthy chats. Contemplation entails working things through for yourself.
Seeing the truth requires no conversation. You just need to get out of your own way. The root of Zen is 'the flower sermon' - a lesson without words.
Much of the stress we encounter in our lives is caused by worries, anxieties, opinions, speculation... TV, politics, the news and gossip all fuel this.
The mind is not settled and the emotions are unbalanced.
Imagine that somebody approaches you with a view to engaging your interest in a conversation about the latest media scandal. If you join in, your mind is caught up.
Your heart rate goes up. You experience emotions. Instead, you say "It is raining outside." Now what happens?
Not engaging in speculation, debate or argument frees your mind from the burden of faux caring. It is none of your business. What you think does not matter.
Will your opinions change anything? Do you honestly, truly care whether or not a TV celebrity is getting married, divorced, is pregnant or has a tattoo?
Why do you think that your opinion matters? What makes you so wise? Is your method best?
People volunteer opinions about pretty much everything. They put the world to rights, all the while overweight, unfit and unhappy. It is easy to commit your time to talk, for talk requires no action.
If people are so wise, how come they are physically stiff, have various health conditions, troubled relationships?
Zen proposes an end to chatter. A quiet mind, unconcerned by the orchestra of human prattle.
I threw my cup away
when I saw a child
drinking from his hands at the trough.
1 March 1996
Last updated 19 March 2018