Ways Into Buddhism

The difficulties of a westerner’s journey into the Buddhist Faith

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Zen Garden at Ryōan-ji, Kyoto. Photo by Masayoshi Yanase on Unsplash

I was recently asked what decision has had the most positive impact on my life. And I was able to answer without much hesitation: learning about Buddhism.

And yet, as the words came out of my mouth, I experienced the same feeling I often do whenever I mention my interest in Buddhism. It’s a type of artificiality, as if my words ring with a hollowness that I don’t personally feel but which I suspect is heard by whoever is listening.

I’m not a ‘confirmed Buddhist, not a robe-wearing, dawn-meditating ascetic. I don’t mean to draw a caricature here; I only want to say that as a follower of Buddhist thought, I don’t possess many outward signs.

But why feel artificial about it, I asked myself? Are you embarrassed? Certainly not. Quite the opposite if anything.

What I worry about is sounding false.

I believe my entire outlook is shaped by Buddhism, but that is not entirely obvious from the outside. I have little aptitude for ritual, routine or even meditation, and I have only a basic understanding of the sacred texts.

Mostly, it’s because I’m a westerner who lives with many of the trappings, both good and bad, of a western lifestyle. I treat Buddhism as a philosophy on the nature of language and psychology, not as a rule-book for my life.

I began reading about Buddhism when I was in my early twenties. I came to understand Buddhism as a religion that teaches that all events are interdependent, that good and bad are intertwined, that pleasure and pain are inseparable, and that a paradox therefore lies at the heart of all experience. These ideas seemed to address a sensation that I kept finding in my life at the time, that moments of happiness were always somehow unsatisfactory, and that the more I tried to define what sort of person I was, the less clear I felt about my sense of direction.

My first readings were in the branch of Buddhism known as Zen. It was only later that I learnt the story of Prince Siddhārtha and his quest to end suffering through his transformation into the Enlightened One — Buddha.

The effect of those early efforts still resonate in me, and have left a sense of ongoing personal harmony — something like a permanent feeling of orientation — as well as an unfailing hopefulness about the future. There are times when I need to renew these insights, and so I go back to the books I first read.

My interest was helped by a small selection of western books on the topic— by the likes of Alan Watts, Christmas Humphreys and D. T. Suzuki — books that simultaneously prompted a new perspective on the world and also generated more questions than I had ever thought to ask.

One book that had particular effect was Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery (1948), which generated in me something of the excitement that I have always since associated with Buddhist insight.

Zen in the Art of Archery gives an impeccable narrative of spiritual development. It is a memoir, a true story of a 1920s western academic traveling east. The author takes up a Japanese art, and by exposing himself to the methods of the art, undergoes a profound insight into a deep, mysterious religion.

Herrigel paints an uncluttered picture. His tone is eloquent and frank. Above all, he keenly wants to understand the “Great Doctrine” but soon realizes that his eagerness will only be a hindrance. The lessons he learns about archery are all about patience, waiting, letting go, relaxing, and above all, about not aiming for the target — the very target he wrongly assumes is the whole point of the sport. Thus, the technique of archery, “to exercise perfect control of the various ways of concentration and self-effacement”, becomes a metaphor for the manner in which Zen should be approached.

Here’s an excerpt from Zen in the Art of Archery:

“Bow, arrow, goal and ego, all melt into one another, so that I can no longer separate them. And even the need to separate has gone. For as soon as I take the bow and shoot, everything becomes so clear and straight forward and so ridiculously simple…”

It is a very seductive text, beautifully written (English translation by R. F. C. Hull) and highly suggestive of the ineffable yet always near-at-hand nature of spirituality.

From Herrigel, I began to understand the gist of Zen poetry and its sayings, such as this excerpt from the ‘Six Precepts’ by Tilopa, translated by Alan Watts:

“No thought, no reflection, no analysis,
No cultivation, no intention;
Let it settle itself.”

Yet, in spite of its magical tone, Zen in the Art of Archery has suffered at the hands of later critics. Despite living and working in Japan for six years, Herrigel was never naturalized into Japanese culture and had to rely on an interpreter to communicate. The historian Yamada Shōji demotes Herrigel to a “credulous enthusiast who gloried Japanese culture.” As a westerner, he is accused of dwelling romantically on the mystical aspects of the Zen rather than on it’s more difficult, complex doctrines.

Further controversy surrounds this little text, partly because recent scholars have suggested that Herrigel’s tutor — “the celebrated Master Kenzo Awa” — was neither a teacher nor an adherent of Zen Buddhism, and also because Herrigel later joined the Nazi party on his return to Germany. In such ways, the sense of calm emanating from the text is inevitably disturbed.

It can be bothersome for a reader (such as myself) to hear these criticisms, especially when the text has chimed so harmoniously on first reading. One has to wonder: do I carry around immature expectations of the teachings of Buddhism? Is this book a true articulation of a deep idea, or is it an idealistic fiction which speaks without authority? Am I blinkered by the same romantic wistfulness?

These were my worries. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how I’d always been concerned about the idea of getting into Buddhism from a western perspective.

Some years ago I visited China, and a few years after that, Japan. On both occasions I was able to spend time in Buddhist monasteries, taking part in meditation and prayer sessions. Yet my travels seemed only to confound the issue. I never lost the feeling of being a tourist, nor could I fully consent to the rigors and realities of monastery life as I saw them.

The problem is perhaps a perennial one for westerners interested in Buddhism, or in any ‘eastern’ religion for that matter. Most sources of Buddhist instruction I’ve looked at repeat the same truism, that the western mindset — characterized as rational and empiricist — will likely find the Buddhist mindset an alien place to occupy. We are too rigid in our approach and may find the ideas more like riddles than truths.

Many writers on the subject treat this paradoxical aspect as both the locked-door of Buddhism and also the key that might open it. This very conundrum was indeed the method by which I was able to take my first steps towards an understanding of Zen’s potency.

It is also for this reason that I find it hard to say much about my experience of Buddhism or to represent myself as a champion of it. To pin it down, even to speak of it in any personal way, feels like trying to grasp water.

I happen to think that Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery is a very beautiful book. For me it’s very elegance opened a pathway, and I expect I am not alone in judging it so. It began a journey of profound change for me, and opening its pages was one of the best decisions I ever made. For the rest, I will let it settle itself.

Written by

Art historian and art critic, writer, artist. Author of “How to Read Paintings” https://books2read.com/u/bw7vNY

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