Zen: looking at things as they really are

Zen: looking at things as they really are

It is really difficult to simply look at things as they really are and plenty of Zen masters have said this. To be able to look directly at reality is in fact what Zen is all about. You can find this in the example that Jesus gives to ‘consider the lilies’ (Matthew 6: 28), not as flowers to be picked or as representing something but just as themselves ‘how they grow’ – in other words just as they are.

As psychoanalysis explains, the difficulty is that we project onto the lilies all our own stuff – desires, aversions, nostalgia, how we might use them or arrange them and so on. The difficulty is that we do it often without recognising that we are … so that what we see becomes a function of ourselves – things to serve me and work for me. If we do it about flowers it’s also true that we do it in personal relationships, where our emotional reaction to the other person is central and we see we are only liking or loving someone that we have largely fashioned to suit ourselves. Falling in love is held up as an envious state but it is a massive projection and often it is only over time that one can begin to see the person for who they really are.

Zen tells us: ‘Wherever your attention alights, at this very point, experience.’ And ‘Feel the consciousness of each person as your own consciousness.’ This is the path of sympathetic insight which leads to love; but where there is no insight then love is replaced by what Dom Aelred Graham calls ‘that feeblest of substitutes – good intentions’.

All this requires pushing aside the egoism of the mind and with that our set opinions. It’s a well-known Zen story but worth repeating:

A Japanese master received a university professor who came to enquire about Zen. The master served the tea. He poured the visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he could no longer restrain himself, ‘it is overfull. No more will go in!’

‘Like this cup’, the Zen master said, ‘you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?’

Clinging to opinions can be a direct block to direct contact with reality, and therefore to union with God… this too is pointed out by Jesus against his enemies – right thinking people but who held uncritically to the accepted views about religion and consequently missed the point:

‘Try not to seek after the true, Only cease to cherish opinions’

Sometimes as we seek the truth we have already decided what truth might look like or what kind it might be… it’s part of clinging and attachment rather than an ‘amiable selflessness’.

‘Obey the nature of things, and you are in concord with The Way… when your thoughts are tied, you turn away from the truth.’ The aim is to become aware of immediate reality with nothing, not even a thought intervening. Only then can our true, that is, the God-centred, self make the egoless response.