We are living in unprecedented circumstances. Lives are being interrupted, and we’re wondering where to seek hope in these uncertain times.
People are being forced to reevaluate and restructure their lives. People are being told to not come into contact with each other and are being shamed if they decide to do so. We’re also facing an economic crisis like nothing we’ve seen or experienced since the 1930s.
Okay, you’ve heard all this already. You’re on this wagon, too. You or someone you know may be severely affected by the pandemic, whether falling ill or falling into a financial crisis. Impending hopelessness is clinging to our backs, and we could all use a little bit of hope in uncertain times, like these.
This is an article about maintaining hope through the Buddhist tradition known as Zen. Many are familiar with this term and equate it to calmness or being “chilled out.” How about we go a bit deeper than that for the sake of sanity in the current Corona-ladened world. Let’s look at the history of Zen, its philosophy, and how to harness it to keep balanced and at peace.
Where Did Zen Come From?
In the 5th century BCE, the historical figure known as Shakyamuni Buddha sat in a dhyana posture (profound meditation) and found supreme awakening. It was then that he discovered the 4 Noble Truths: the truth of suffering, the origins of suffering, the truth of how to end suffering, and finally, the truth of the path to ending suffering. The practice and teaching, beginning with the Buddha, of course, was passed from teacher to disciple for many generations.
1,000 years later, the monk Bodhidharma brought the teaching from India to China. The teaching became known as Ch’an and was later brought to Japan and called Zen.
Zen practice sprang roots in the Western world beginning in the 20th century. In the 1960s, Taisen Deshimaru brought the practice to the West just how Bodhidharma had brought it to China many years ago.
How Can Zen Help Us Maintain Hope in Uncertain Times?
You may have heard the story about the student of Zen who was having great trouble with his practice. Every time he sat in meditation, he was distracted and interrupted by his aching legs and his unsteady mind. He brought his concerns to his master. He said: “My meditation practice has been torture. My legs hurt. My mind is turbulent. I’m restless. I can’t find peace.”
“It will pass” is all the student’s master said to him.
A few weeks later, the student went again to his master. This time he was feeling confident about his practice. He felt steady and at peace. He said: Master! My meditations feel incredible! My mind is calm, and my body strong.”
“It will pass” is all the student’s master said to him.
The “This too shall pass” adage expresses the only constant in the universe: mutability. This doesn’t go for the bad times only, but for the good times as well. Zen teaches us to be as indifferent and ready for change during the good times as we should during the bad times. What does this add up to amid the current global cataclysm? We ought to learn to find comfort in the discomfort. Whatever the situation is, no matter how painful or seemingly irreversible, we must hang on for the ride and trust that “this too shall pass.” Now for another story.
One day a young monk was walking home from meditation practice and came upon a wide river. There was no way across, and the boy shivered as the freezing night crept up onto his skin. Suddenly, he saw a master monk seated meditating on the other side. The young monk yelled out to the master: “Excuse me there! How do I get to the other side of the river?” The master only opened his eyes for a moment and said: “You are on the other side!”
We’re often looking to just get to the other side—to comfort, out of the cold, to a place where we imagine we’ll finally be happy. But like the master from the story, we can be calm, collected, and wise amid the turmoil of freezing night. In this crisis with COVID-19, let’s strive to be the master monk from the story, sitting, waiting, observing, and being ok with what’s coming (or not coming). This can help us maintain hope in uncertain times.
Using Zen to Harness Hope in Uncertain Times
So other than reading short Zen stories, how can we actually apply the practice to gain hope in uncertain times?
Most think of Zen and automatically picture someone in meditation—and for good reason. Meditation is the core of Zen practice. To pursue Zen is to pursue meditation. But what does meditation have to do with Coronavirus and hope in uncertain times?
Meditation is the vehicle that drives us to a state of letting go. In meditation, letting go feels like being easily able to focus all attention on the breath after having just worried about the prospect of getting laid off or an ill family member. Inevitably, the mind returns to these anxiety-inducing things. But as we keep returning to the breath, we train the mind to let go and live with ease among potential downfalls that could come as the result of an ever-shifting universe.
Overall, the key to finding our Zen and hope in uncertain times is through maintaining an accepting nature while aspiring to the state of mind of the Buddha. According to the Third Noble Truth, it is possible to end suffering. That doesn’t mean ending suffering only when everything is dandy with money in the bank, with perfect health, and so on. The Third Noble Truth describes the possibility of ending suffering throughout any state of mind or life, no matter how good or bad they may be.
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