In Thomas Merton’s survey of Buddhism titled Mystics and Zen Masters, he takes on the difficult task of explaining Zen to the western mind. In fact, during the discourse he regularly expresses how problematic the task is. For starters, the primary “scripture” or text that Zen adherents study are the koans. They are seemingly nonsense sayings on which they regularly meditate. You may have heard some of these before:
Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?
A lot of them tell like stories though:
Ryokan, a Zen master, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening a thief visited the hut only to discover there was nothing to steal.
Ryokan returned and caught him. “You have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you should not return empty-handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.”
The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away.
Ryoken sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused, “I wish I could have given him this beautiful moon.”
Anyway, what are you supposed to get out of meditating on these? Western scholars have been confounded for hundreds of years when they visit the east to try and figure this stuff out. Merton warns against several ways NOT to interpret Zen, but is hard-pressed to find a solution. He tries though and I found this passage he quoted from a respected Zen teacher to be helpful:
Jade is tested by fire, gold is tested by a touchstone, a sword is tested by a hair, water is tested by a stick. In our school on word or one phrase, one action or one state, one entrance or one departure, on “Hello!” or on “How are you!” is used to judge the depth of the student’s understanding, to observe whether he is facing forward or backward. If he is a fellow with blood in his veins he will immediately go off shaking his sleeves behind him and though you shout after him he will not come back.
– Hekigan Roku quoted in Miura and Sasaki
He goes onto explain:
The last lines of this quotation must not be understood to mean that mere rudeness is an adequate indication of Zen enlightenment. It refers to the student’s ability to “move on” and not stop at the question or the answer or the logical implications of words and acts. If he is alive, he will move. To study a koan is to learn not to be stopped by it, not to hesitate in the presence of a difficulty which is only illusory. To know where to go next without interminable figuring and discussions. To have no plans for “causing effects” and “getting results.”
I find that this is not at all unlike the walk of the mature Christian. There are the big questions: Why is there so much suffering in the world? How can I trust God if he allowed my child to die? And the more sticky doctrinal questions: Did God predestine me to salvation? How the heck is the body of Christ actually present in the bread and wine? And so on. But the disciple of Jesus, the one devoted to the Triune God, he has moved on from being troubled by all these. Not that he doesn’t have beliefs and opinions about these difficult questions. He may even be passionate about how they should be answered. But in his heart, they matter not.
Nothing life can throw at him, no logic or circumstance, can shake his faith. Throw him in prison and he will not despair. Threaten her with death and she won’t even consider renouncing any of it. These people aren’t crazy. They aren’t fanatics. But their love for the Lord, (or his hold on them, whichever you prefer) is not shaken by someone shouting after them. They will shake it off and keep walking.