Quickly, without thinking good or evil, what is your original face before your parents were born. – From the Gateless Gate
Every person is on the path of self-realization, whether they ever reach the transcendental realization or not. To the Taoist, understanding comes from not knowing. Because to know something with certainty blocks off all other potential paths. To live happily – be open-minded and receptive. To artfully live, a human being must learn not to force their dichotomous assumptions (such as good/evil) onto situations. People often misinterpret the meaning of Taoism’s seek the middle path. This does not mean to be conservative, or not “rock the boat”. It means to find balance and not force things to extremes towards a preconceived outcome. Doing this intuitively connects a person to the Way – the Tao. And, in this way, the Tao gave birth to Zen.
It is common to hear the word Zen used as a metaphor for impenetrable mystery. Something is said to be Zen when it appears on the surface to be a puzzling enigma. Zen-like thoughts provoke contemplation far beyond words. In popular usage, people who have a mysterious deep mastery are called “zen masters”. Like Phil Jackson the basketball coach, who coached the Chicago Bulls to win three championships in a row – twice. And when a person is referred to as being very Zen, it means they are peaceful or relaxed. How does one gain this peacefulness? Through self-realization.
In Zen, a person’s epiphany of self-realization arrives after searching for meaning with the aid of koans. Koans come in several varieties: stories, parables, paradoxes, dialogues, statements, questions. The intent of Zen Koans is not to be solved or understood in the traditional sense. Koans are understood by manifesting an awareness of their metaphysical root – the transcendental kernel of inspiration. Koans are brief, and like poetry, there can be layers of meaning to sort through. Whenever I want to understand a complicated or new idea I rely on word origins – etymology – as one of the first steps. The word koan is derived from the ancient Chinese word gong’an: gong – high ranking nobility; a Duke or magistrate/judge; and an – table or bench. The concept of the koan could be metaphorically linked to the legal term precedent. So koans are the collection of wisdom from preceding Zen masters which generate contemplation in students of Zen.
Zen has its origins in the Chinese Chan Buddhism school of thought. The word Zen is the Japanese pronunciation of Chan – 禪 . Chan was heavily influenced by Taoism. When Buddhism came to China, many ancient Taoist terms were incorporated into the teachings. Chan/Zen began with the legendary monk – Bodhidharma. A Buddhist by training, he came to the Shaolin Monastery and merged Taoist teachings with Buddhism. It is said, his awakening came after years of gazing at the wall of a cave. And for all followers of Taoism and Zen the mind awakens as the Diamond Sutra describes: Out of nowhere, the mind comes forth.
Teaching is storytelling. Philosophy, religion, science, history, art, music, and so much of human civilization is founded on the stories we tell to illustrate or inspire. And so to realize your true self, read the stories of the Tao, Zen, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Physics… What rings true to you will produce the spark of illumination. Zhuangzi was a Taoist Master. Several officials from the king once offered him a high position in the king’s court. Zhuangzi, always the storyteller said: “I understand the kingdom has a sacred turtle, which has been dead for three thousand years. The king keeps it in a fine cloth, and it is boxed and stored in his ancestral temple. Now, would this turtle prefer to be dead and have its bones preserved and honored? Or would the turtle prefer to be alive with its tail dragging in the mud?”
The officials answered, “Alive with its tail dragging in the mud.”
“Go away then.” Zhaungzi said, “I prefer to drag my tail in the mud.”
To find the path to self-realization, follow your true nature; learn from great stories. And drag your tail in the mud. Happiness is the absence of striving for happiness. – Zhuangzi