Ideal & actual – Theory & practice


From time-to-time, or maybe most of the time, we find ourselves hankering after something other than what is here and now. We hanker after a past that we miss or desire to return to, or a future that we’d like to happen. In both cases we often construct an imaginary past and future, we re-write or write a script for ourselves – what might have been or what yet might be. We construct an abstract idea of what we yearn for – turning away, as we do, from the concrete actuality of our here-and-now existence.

Along with this yearning for a different time, we hanker after an answer to the question, as we see it, of how are we to live our lives? Again, we construct an abstract notion to shield us, or divert us, from the living of our lives in this moment. We imagine a time when we have solved the problem and can settle into a wholly transformed mode of existence – maybe we even call this nirvana or enlightenment.

The difficulty, in Buddhist terms, with this way of thinking and being, is that it conflicts with the endlessly changing flow of experience, and the complex interactions with others and the world, which constitutes our being alive. The hankering, may itself be the problem.

To use the over-used metaphor of life as a journey, there is no terminus while on the journey, no stopping of the process, no ending or final resolution – the ending can only occur at the end – when the journey is over! There is no answer that can be ‘the answer’ – no once-and-for-all solution – there is only the journeying, the process of going-on – with all its surprises, changing conditions and circumstances. If we cling to the abstraction of an ending, a resolution, an answer, we cling to a mirage, an unattainable goal. This creates dissatisfaction, tension, conflict, suffering. We replace being here with wanting to be elsewhere; we replace the actual with the ideal. The searching, the wanting, for an ending or a final solution, is a search for something that does not exist, or that can only come after we cease to exist, after we cease to be the changeful, contingent, creative beings that we are.

We often thinking of wanting and acquiring, as being largely about material things – about a new mobile phone, or car, or house, or the money that might bring these treasures. But this is only one aspect of our desire and consumption. We also want new sensations, aesthetic pleasures, new experiences, different places to visit, new things to think about and imagine. Many of us also want intellectual acquisitions and consumables: theories, ideas, new ways of thinking, analytical tools we haven’t previously tried, philosophies and religious practices we hope might ease our burden or satisfy our longing for an answer. Of course, it could be, that these acquisitions and consumables only add to our burden and only intensify our longing – as if we routinely drink salty water to quench our thirst.

Chasing after theoretical abstract solutions often leaves us feeling frustrated, dissatisfied and despairing of ever finding a way of handling the concrete challenges of life, of living. Somehow the theory never quite comes to grips with the actuality and the abstraction always remains abstract. And so, we look for another theory, and another – each one offering temporary hope, only to be found wanting and reinforcing our sense of helplessness and inadequacy. Why do these ideas or possible solutions not work for me? Perhaps, the next one will be the one that works, the one that solves the problem?

From the Buddhist perspective we might say that experience precedes theory – actuality precedes abstraction. Theory as a way of framing, commenting on, or making sense of experiential practice, may be useful and enjoyable, but theory as something to chase after, or as a substitute for, or as a precedent for, practice, may be another unhelpful and unnecessary attachment that leads to confusion and yet more dissatisfaction.

Erich Fromm, the eminent 20th century psychologist and philosopher wrote a book entitled, To Have and To Be. He argued that these are fundamentally different modes of existing, very different ways of living and relating to each other and to the world. Many Zen teachers would agree with Fromm’s view, and with his argument that the two modes manifest themselves as two very different forms of self-expression: acquisitive and non-acquisitive, unskilful and skilful, or, we might say, unmindful and mindful.

In Zen meditation (zazen) our desire to acquire a solution to the conundrum of life is set aside, let go of, in favour of just being here, just living – with no thought of gaining, or acquiring or solving. We sit with, or we are, the puzzle that is life (a koan) and let it be. This does not mean that we don’t work at solving immediate problems that arise from moment-to-moment – we do, we tackle these one by one as they occur – but in resolving the endless stream of problems that living presents us with, we are not hankering for an unattainable time when all problems are solved.

In sitting meditation, we sit just to sit. This is not a catchy phrase, to be taken with a pinch of salt. It is a challenge to us to do just that, to sit, to be here, to be. In other words, to let go of that acquisitive wanting and wishing that brings us so much dissatisfaction and abstraction. We shed the skin of our acquisitive self and allow our ever-changing beginner’s mind to open and grow. When we sit just to sit, we’re not trying to attain some state, to be elsewhere, or to be someone else. We are no longer chasing abstractions, ideals and acquisitions – illusory solutions to endlessly changing ghostly problems. Thomas Merton once said: ‘Zen seeks not to explain but to pay attention.’

In sitting meditation, we practice purposeless purpose, doing by not-doing, neither thinking nor not-thinking. Mindful meditation offers an alternative, or complement, to analysis, theory and linguistic exploration. It is important, in zazen or mindful meditation, that we don’t get tangled up in words, ideas and rumination. Being mindful, is to be awake, to attend, to be here – without commentary, judgment or attachment.

When we do zazen, we set aside everything we have ever learnt and everything we’ve read or remembered – we put our baggage in left luggage and only collect it later – or sometimes we forget all about our bags and find we don’t need them as we once thought we did.

The late Robert Aitken, an influential Zen teacher, used to say: ‘Zen is not dedicated to clearing up the mystery, but to making the mystery clear!’

To paraphrase another Zen teacher, Kodo Sawaki: ‘All Buddhist writings and theory are a footnote to the practice of zazen’.