Why Do I Practice Zen?

Earlier this month, as I was catching up with an old friend, he asked me why I practice zen. My first reaction was to catalog all of the changes I’ve seen in my life and changes ib the way I exist in the world since I first began meditating five years ago. As I though about it further, I realized that all my examples came down to one thing: to reduce suffering, both my own and that of others. I would but forward that the reduction of suffering, in one way or another, is the reason anyone would engage in any spiritual or religious endeavor.

In his first public talk after becoming enlightened, the Buddha was reported to have said, “I teach one thing and one thing only, suffering and the end of suffering.” The most basic and essential teachings in Buddhism are known as the four noble truths, or as the Big Lebowski himself calls them, The Four Noble Opinions.

The first noble opinion is that all existence is suffering (dukkha). This is not a cynical emo take on life where everything sucks and nothing has meaning, but rather that suffering is an inescapable fact of life. Dukkha can range from simply not getting what you want to the extremes of physical or emotional agony.

The second noble opinion is that the cause of dukkha is craving. Put simply this means that suffering isn’t caused by external circumstances, it’s caused by our thoughts and desires and how we relate to those circumstances.

The third noble opinion is that there is a way to end suffering.

And last but not least, the fourth noble opinion is that the way to end suffering is by following the eightfold path.

I’m not going to go into the eightfold path in detail here (maybe some other day, with some other post), but if you look at the name of some of the aspects of the path like “right speech”, “right action”, and “right livelihood” you might think that sounds moralistic and preachy, good vs. evil stuff.

That’s really not what the eightfold path is about. Instead of equating right with good and inferring that on the other side we have wrong == evil, the eightfold path is more about skillful vs. unskillful. If we recall that the the eightfold path is the way to end suffering, it becomes clear that skillful can be interpreted as “reducing suffering” and unskillful means “increasing suffering”.

To wrap up, I’m going to reference another of the Buddha’s teachings. The gist of Kālāma Sutta is that one should should not believe that a spiritual teaching is true just because people say it is true, rather one should test said teaching out for themselves. If the teaching leads to welfare and happiness (among other criteria, which I won’t dive into here) only then should one accept the teaching as true.

If this post resonates with you, I would encourage you to look a little deeper into the eightfold path, try it out for yourself and see if following the guidance therein lessens your suffering.

-Keith/Meizen (明禅)

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