Sooner or later, every Zen student begins wondering “Just what is preventing me from awakening right now?” This is a valid question. Most of us Westerners came to Zen because we “got curious”. We read a lot of books of Zen poetry or philosophy, maybe heard Alan Watts on the radio, watched movies about Shaolin gong fu monks, or even meet someone who makes a deep impression. Then we hook up with some organization and the message becomes–variously–study the sutras, or “just sit”. Zen becomes, eventually, a sort of deep psychoanalysis for many of us, without benefit of professional help. The counselor’s solution for basically any problem is “be flexible and mirror-like and see things from a different perspective”. If you’re involved with Chinese Mahayana, it’s similar to joining a big church: lots of volunteer opportunities to push you out there, combined with the pop psychology method of working out one’s difficulties at home and on the job, while emphasizing that the real work goes on “inside, not outside”. But this is rollerskating around the edges…as the patriarchs would have told you. The primary job of the Zen practitioner is sudden enlightenment some time before death. That’s seen as the escape from suffering. And since chasing enlightenment just never works, or works only after years of effort and finally giving up…we all need to examine just what is getting between us and the non-experience of non-achievement of realizing Emptiness and truly understanding, on a visceral level, Cause and Effect.
In my own case, it’s two factors–and for you, it will be different. I went through a number of religious conversions, just attempting to find something that made sense, and only getting embarrassed when I discovered the roots of the religions I was involved with. I was looking for “seriousness”. And I was looking for mysticism divorced from emotionalism or the esoteric. In other words, I needed a religion that had some relationship with art and literature. At the same time I felt very cynical about the “facts and truths” of religions, and I do to this day, even about Buddhism, which seems like an offshoot of Hinduism with the many gods conveniently morphed into bodhisattvas and buddhas. The sutras bear no relationship to Western logic or history, and they read like fantasy fiction. So ultimately, I just threw up my hands, so to speak, and I decided to start peeling off anything that embarrassed me to admit to believing in. And let me quickly say, Atheism is certainly one of the most hidebound orthodoxies of all. I finally got down to a very practical level, where I could say, with absolute confidence “I am not anti-religious but I hold with science.” The reason science didn’t put me off was that ultimately, you really discovered things, and the reason this could take place was that science is ultimately self-correcting. It’s evidence based. And no matter how long an incorrect theory drifts around the thought sphere, if a more correct theory comes around–one that actually fits the facts well or “works”–it will eventually be replaced. Religion strikes me as inherently dishonest. It pretends to be orthodox; to be based on unassailable facts. And then the culture just changes and changes it and everyone pretends that that didn’t happen. In other words, in Buddhist terms, religions are just one more variety of phenomena. (Only they call ’em carts or vehicles.)
One thing about me is, it takes me a long time to figure out what to do and to leave. So I dawdled along for maybe 12 years in a church, and got so bored with the sermons that I ended up helping out in the handicapped kids’ class. And then, after a while, there were no handicapped kids except 1) a handful of autistics who sat around sucking the corner of a blanket or making intermittent commando-like attempts at escape into the parking lot, and 2) a couple of kids with basically non-functioning brains. The idea of teaching them Christianity or anything else seemed kind of silly, so I opted out of that as well.
During all that time, as I generally do, I enjoyed the classes, and I participated in them, but the beliefs were just too conservative. I kept telling people “I am not an Evangelical Christian” but no one believed me. It was something they simply didn’t hear. I had been baptised in their church and had been there for years and years…so there was the proof for them! That baby had been fed & put to bed. They might have asked me, and I could have said I was “some other kind of Christian”, but no one would have believed me since to them there was only one kind. Also, there were very funny ideas going about a literal world-wide Flood, literal interpretation of the Adam and Eve story and Young Earth Creationist beliefs, all of which I rejected.
So that brings me to the present, because I don’t want this story to go on too long. “No group identification” didn’t work either. I became almost entirely isolated. I worked…I read…I thought. But no one was there to share my thoughts with or to give me theirs. So eventually I went through our Zen books and found a favorite and ended up in a modern California version of Rinzai Zen with a bunch of Asian people. And you may be thinking “Oh joy. She finally came to her senses.” Nope. I retain a bunch of residual beliefs and ended up stuck in between belief and disbelief. Now I’m a monotheistic Buddhist…or a Christian who doesn’t believe in Original Sin…or someone sees the Adam and Eve story as some sort of ancient evolutionary memory about the formation of ego that followed the emergence of consciousness that was eventually turned into a myth. So that’s problem #1.
Problem #2 is my husband. He supposedly has “cosmic consciousness” (from a very early age) enlightenment, or both, and I don’t want to be like him. I’ve seen what Zen does to people: they dress drably, cut off almost all of their hair and let it go gray, stop wearing makeup and wear ugly shoes. And all they do is work, work, work. And give tons of money. (This is a rich area of the country.) I’ve never liked the systematic desexualization of women, no matter where it comes from. True, I’m too old for anyone to be interested in in that way, but I still want to look nice. And I’d prefer to look like a female. I do volunteer work & pay for my classes and meals, but I don’t have unlimited funds. My husband, now retired, sits around the house reading about world disasters, taking pictures, cooking fish stews, playing his keyboard and writing stream-of-consciousness blog posts, and claims to be “happy”. Is this due to “enlightenment”? Well, maybe. And maybe, in spite of what the Buddha said, happiness isn’t the goal of life. Oh, right, discovering the solution to suffering through monk-hood and elimination of desire is. So we should maybe all become monks and in a hundred years or so the human race will be wiped from the face of the earth? How’s that for the solution for suffering?
So those are my two impediments to awakening. As I said initially, yours will be different.