When I think about the art of Zen I cannot rid my head of the stock image of a shiny-headed monk, Mongolian-featured and yellow-robed, seated with his legs knotted into a lotus and his hands quietly folded together.

It is an image of absolute stillness. The monk is both in this world (there is substance and solidity to him: he is well-fed and well-tended as a healthy shrub) and yet, at the same time, he is above the world, and utterly immune to its everyday cares. He looks as if he has been sitting like that forever, with his eyes closed and his shoulders slightly stooped, his features – unfurrowed brow, the merest trace of a smile – expressing an exquisite peace.

This monk is the very picture of enlightenment as a kind of majestic imperturbability. When I imagine the inside of his head, I see a one-stringed instrument: pluck it and you get a single note, pure, unwavering, everlasting, in perfect tune with the one-minded universe.

Do I find this image of complete contentment attractive? Well, yes and no. I am drawn to Buddhism’s idealization of enlightened peace. Yet I can’t help worrying about how closely that peace appears to resemble a glorious blankness; as if the highest possible state of mind we can aspire to is the preternaturally becalmed one that finds a cozy parallel in checking out. As if attaining meditative nirvana was tantamount to a good spring clean. As if wonder had come full circle to rest at stupefaction. As if transcendence meant, merely, to overcome.

I’m convinced that this resistance of mine is fundamentally Jewish. Judaism, I’ve always felt (and Judaism happens to be the tradition I was brought up in, and in whose culture I am steeped), is practically the Anti-Buddhism With its perpetual hand-wringing, its guilt and its angst, the endless push and pull of its bless you/punish you dynamic, Judaism is anything but still. Its rule-bound prescriptiveness is practically anathema to Buddhism, as is its fondness for ritual, and its continual neurotic, commentary.

Judaism doesn’t have much truck with the quieter paths to enlightenment. It is a practical, material faith that likes to dirty its hands in the mess and muddle of everyday living. It doesn’t have time to ponder the universe that is contained in a grain of sand, much less to exclaim: ‘Wow! a grain of sand, how beautiful’.

Okay, I’m exaggerating. But only a bit, and only to cover myself for not feeling sufficiently swept away by this week’s readings, never mind that I chose them!

By way of warming up, we read a poem called Looking For Each Other by the Vietnamese-born Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, a very twentieth century monk who has combined a life of monastic discipline with charitable worldly activity, and who coined the phrase Engaged Buddhism. The poem reads like a biographical journey…all my life I have been looking for you kind of thing.

Thich Nhat Hanh searches and he finds. The storm within him is quelled by the gentle rain of divine compassion. With gratitude he offers the Godhead a pledge of commitment:

With my one-pointed mind
I vow to nourish your solidity and freedom in myself
So I can offer solidity and freedom to countless others,
Now and forever.

We read a couple of didactic poems by the 9th century Chinese ‘holy fool’ Huang Po. Teaching from outside of the monastery system, Huang Po delighted in being subversive, defiantly insisting that enlightenment would not be found in attempting to obliterate senses and thought.

Unobstructed freedom is to be neither attached not detached. 

This is enlightenment.


It is also, I think, the most humane face of Buddhism. It accepts that humans are by nature attached to things, to ideas, to people, to the world, and it suggests that some middle path is achievable by mere mortals who unlike monks are unable to live apart from the world.

I felt my Jewish resistance thaw a little with Huang Po. I felt meltingly grateful for his seeming affection for essential human fallibility; for the distinct lack of perfection common to us all.

For obvious reasons Zen motifs have influenced numerous modern poets, from Mary Oliver, to Alan Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, and Gary Synder – one of whose poems, Hay for the Horses, we read together.

I’d love to reprint Synder’s poem here, but I’m sure it is still in copyright, and so I’ll restrict myself to giving you select chunks. The poem is a sort of character portrait, painted in miniature, but with supremely confident stokes, and it gives you just enough information to appreciate the lifestyle of its central subject, a 68-year old hay bucker, who has driven half the night to deliver hay to a mountain farmstead.

Synder describes the early morning unloading hay in terms of striking beauty, so that you feel his keen appreciation for the dignity of heavy labour.

         We stacked the bales up clean
         To splintery redwood rafters
         High in the dark, flecks of alfalfa
         Whirling through shingle-cracks of light,
         Itch of haydust in the
         Sweaty shirt and shoes.

Over lunch, under the Black Oak, out in the hot corral, where the old mare munches hay and the grasshoppers crackle in the scrub, the hay bucker says “I’m sixty-eight”….

         “I first bucked hay when I was seventeen.
         I thought, that day I started,
         I sure would hate to do this all my life.
         And dammit, that’s just what
         I’ve gone and done.”

All our focus in the group centered on these last lines, on the intrinsic mystery and fascination with how people live their lives. Did the hay bucker have ambitions to live differently? To see the world? To school himself and maybe join the white collar ranks of the literate and numerate? When he was young he thought he couldn’t stand to buck hay forever. But which of us at seventeen imagines how quickly the years fly by before we find ourselves at sixty-eight? Besides, there’s that wry ‘dammit’ at the end – accompanied perhaps by a wink or a shrug, as if to say, ‘but it ain’t been all that bad’.

Snyder is clearly saying that our hay bucker is content. He has found a stillness amid life’s tidal ebbs and flows, and you can imagine him chuckle at the jumped up aspirations of the younger farmhands telling him they’ll never be caught bucking hay when they’re his age. But whether or not the hay bucker in enlightened is another matter. My inner Jewish resister is whispering that it’s all very well for Synder to find poetry in the man’s fixity, but is his stillness the hard won stillness of enlightenment or the stalled immobility of resignation?

Angie pointed out that the question is impossible to call in a culture where there’s a life coach round every corner, encouraging you to grow and build, and move forward and self realize! And, of course, aspiration is the American religion du jour. What you do in the world is all-important. Imagine the leaden silence that would fall over the middle-American dinner party table if you said “I’m a hay bucker’ in response to someone turning to you with a polite ‘and what do you do?’ …. As opposed to the admiration that would greet a back-to-the-land reply from those city quitting small holders (‘actually, I make organic goat cheese’) or overeducated neo-artisans (‘I make hand-crafted wooden furniture’).

Stella was reminded of that Douglas Malloch poem that says if you can’t be a tree, then be a bush, but be the best bush you can be. Malloch meant it to be inspirational. But even Stella admitted its make-do philosophy was a little hard to swallow. You can’t simply be told to be content with less because “We can’t all be captains”. You have to discover the more inside of the less for yourself.

And Jewish resistance or not, I’m not sure I’m convinced that the more is always there for the finding… Clearly, I’ve a way to go with Zen.