A Thought Experiment for X-Buddhists
You are behind a veil of ignorance regarding Buddhism. You know nothing of its history, beliefs, principles or practices. But you find yourself part of a secular group which meets regularly for meditation under the instruction of a teacher. You are told to sit straight, still and silently while following the movements of your breath. The group does this for specified periods alternating with shorter periods of walking meditation. Once you have gained some familiarity with this practice on a regular basis, what would your experience be like? Would you arrive at any of the “insights” that Buddhist meditation is said to produce? For what follows I will imaginatively project myself into the original position of our hypothetical meditator.
I may find deep and slow abdominal breathing to be pleasurable and for that reason will want to continue the practice.
I will experience muscular aches, itches and other physical discomfort, but the injunction to remain still will compel me to devise various strategies for dealing with discomfort. I will become distracted by various kinds of thoughts, memories, fantasies, and so on. but have been told to return to my breathing. The same with drowsiness. I may well experience feelings of sadness, anxiety, discontent etc., but rather than distracting myself with little avoidance strategies, the teacher has instructed me to allow myself to experience and ride them out. Also, I might have pleasurable feeling and thoughts, but must also return to my breath. Over the course of weeks or months my ability to concentrate on breathing improves. I take some satisfaction in my ability to enjoy breathing without carried away much by my usual preoccupations.
I find no real connection between my meditation practice and my everyday life other than sometimes being able to calm myself during moments of mild stress with deep breathing. Perhaps a bit more patience, tolerance of frustration and such, but I don’t know. After about six months or so, the teacher asks me what (if any) conclusions I can draw or benefits I get from the practice. What do you think you might say if after meditating behind the veil of ignorance? Would they have anything to do with suffering and its relief? Or with attachment, impermanence, interdependence, emptiness or any other Buddhist concept? Perhaps my concentration would become so strong that I would become so fully absorbed in my breathing that I would have something akin to a mystical experience. But how would I interpret that?
Like many, I came to zazen after reading a fair amount of Buddhist literature and so interpreted my experiences along those lines. But now, Soto Zen is a religious practice for me and while sitting meditation is central, it is part of a constellation which as with any religion involves a specific tradition, liturgy, rituals, canonical texts, and so on. And faith. By religious I mean that it allows me to feel in-synch with “the way things are,” contingent, ever-changing and interdependent. These are elements of faith and my faith is that performing Zen allows me not to escape from life’s vicissitudes, but leap into them with awareness and empathy for others. This is my radical leap.
Henry Blanke is a Soto Zen Buddhist and Marxian socialist. He had a nearly 30 year career as a Bataille inspired academic librarian and now counsels those struggling with substance abuse. He has written on Herbert Marcuse, the politics of information and most recently on the possible intersections between Zen practice and socialism. He lives in New York City and fancies himself a bohemian cosmopolite, a flaneur and a passionate jazz lover, poet, and home cook.