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The Zen Way in France
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I discovered Zen a few years ago. I had never encountered anything quite like it. I had been possessed by the frenetic, over-stimulated nature of life today, which we are all familiar with, particularly in the age of the Internet and social media. I was both restless and aimless, and consumed by the petty anxieties about professional life, where ultimately very little is really at stake.

And then I found Zen, where one is invited to sit down and . . . nothing. How shocking to be told that one should stare at the wall for an hour. And yet, I was not ‘bored,’ and I often came back to the meditation hall.

During zazen, seated meditation, one sits down in a particular posture (legs cross in half or full lotus, back upright, chin tucked in), one follows the breath, and one learns to let go of thoughts – not to suppress – but simply to be detached from them, to watch them go by, like clouds drifting across the sky.

If you ever meditate, you’ll soon find that you cannot repress your thoughts even if you try, that you have little control over your thoughts. The mind is ever-buzzing with our daily plans, daily worries, daily duties, daily frustrations, past memories, and future fantasies. In fact, one can be rather embarrassed at the obsessions which return again and again, surging forth from our subconscious, like strange fish regularly jumping out of the troubled waters of a pitch black lake.

‘Doing nothing’ in zazen actually then entails quite a few activities, quite a few exercises for the mind. One trains oneself in:

  1. Patience
  2. Self-control
  3. Steadiness of will (maintaining posture, returning to the breath)
  4. Detachment from our thoughts (and thereby, from all things)
  5. Self-awareness (observation of our own consciousness and glimpses of our subconscious)
  6. And, finally, the quieting of the mind

Actually, to speak of ‘training’ is in one sense improper, for zazen is practiced without any goal at all. It is a gratuitous waste of time. This is an exercise in self-lessness. The ego is not suppressed, but seen in a different light, as inseparable from the cosmos, which itself, in one sense, exists only through our particular subjective consciousness. Perfect interdependence.

There are many scientific studies claiming that meditation has beneficial effects on mental health and even certain cognitive abilities. I cannot say whether these are credible or not. Perhaps Zen meditation is a mere placebo – a ritual and exercise which can still appeal to and convince the secularized European – but then there are also plenty of studies showing that placebos, in many cases, can help people overcome pain and even depression. I have no doubt that the communal rituals and chanting of religions also can have powerful psychological effects.

All I can say for sure is that the effects for me have indeed been powerful. With regular practice, your way of being during zazen redounds on your way of being in daily life. One is more detached, more tolerant, more sovereign in the face of circumstances. One is less dispersed and has greater self-control. After one meditative retreat, I must say I felt genuinely transformed: I was no longer at war with the world, my contempt for certain colleagues subsided and I was even genuinely happy to see them, I was no longer offended by ‘wrong opinion,’ I was able to genuinely dialogue with others. When you really are happy to see someone, they will be similarly happy to see you. If you work from their starting point – rather than expecting to impose your own – you can actually converge and build something together. In short, you become again a member of your community, while keeping your individuality. You become, at your humble level, a node of positivity and power in this often senseless world.

This feeling faded after a couple weeks. Had I achieved genuine insight? Had I really been more open-minded and altruistic? Or was this a kind of mystical blindness, an indeed altered mental state which, like some drug, led to a merely superficial bliss? I cannot say.

Pythagoreans celebrating the rising sun
Pythagoreans celebrating the rising sun

I can say however that I have faith in Tradition and in the accumulated experience of our ancestors. Spiritual practice is by no means an Oriental monopoly. From the ancient Pythagoreans and Stoics to the medieval Christians, Europeans have worked to alter and train their minds to better reflect the order of the cosmos, the divine. It is only we Moderns who have faltered in this respect. Spiritual exercises gave our ancestors strength to survive and thrive, to persevere in their actions and their principles, in a world which was much more brutal than that of today.

Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy – which has invariably resonated much stronger with me than the Modern – is deeply concerned about the cultivation of the soul. As perfectible beings with a degree of agency, our mind is what we should improve, our actions (which are the only things we might otherwise control) will then necessarily improve. The rest is of no concern to us. For the Ancients, there were not ten thousand ways of producing a good human being: one needed to be well-born, to have a good education, to be socialized with the right people, and train every day. Modern science has added nothing to these insights. As Pierre Hadot has shown, ancient philosophy was deeply concerned, from Pythagoras to Julian, with self-perfection through “spiritual exercises.”

I hasten to add that, unlike many meditators, I personally have no need for any supernatural explanations for spiritual practice’s positive effects. (Which, conversely, does not mean I deny the possibility of the supernatural.)

In this I follow the ancient Stoics, whose practice did not depend on the gods existing or not. Stoic philosophers such as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius simply observed: almost everything in this world is outside of my control, I should then focus on what is in my control, namely my own state of mind, and focus on entirely detaching myself from the rest and perfecting my own will. (The doctrine of samurai, as most powerfully expressed in the Hagakure, is by the way quite similar in this respect.) Thus, the Stoics developed spiritual exercises (usefully summarized by Massimo Piggliucci), such as premeditating on the ordeals you will face, contemplating the impermanence of things and the vastness of the cosmos, and being ever aware of our inevitable impending death.

Stoicism however always remained the private practice of a part of the Roman elite, never systematically followed, nor spread to the masses. Stoicism could not survive the emotional power and mass appeal of Christianity. Buddhism by contrast offers the strange sight of a movement, in fact a variety of different schools, which can appear either religious or philosophical. Beyond exceptional individuals, a spiritual practice cannot be systematic if it does not take on a religious form. Where the Stoic exercises remain very ‘cognitive’ and ‘cerebral,’ too diverse and wordy in a sense, in zazen there is the purest philosophical exercise: the unflinching contemplation of the void.

The pious Muslim solemnly takes time five times a day to think about his community and his fundamental values. What do you do?

In material terms, spiritual practice is about working on the subconscious, about internalizing certain truths. One can easily know, abstractly and verbally, that man is a social, perfectible, psychological (or spiritual), limited, and mortal being. But does one really know this? Does one live in consequence? It seems to me that this is what all the traditional religious practices deeply express, each in their particular way, with their own particular (often significantly different) inflections.

Personally, I can say that zazen has helped me preserve my sanity in this world of lies. Hear the words of Lord Gautama said in India twenty-five centuries ago:

Just as a lotus,
Sweet-scented, ravishing,
Grows on a heap of refuse
Flung on the high road,
So a disciple of the Awakened One,
Shines out through wisdom
Among the blind multitude,
The refuse of beings.

Taisen Deshimaru with Dutch meditators
Taisen Deshimaru with Dutch meditators

Zen was first brought to France by the Japanese monk Taisen Deshimaru. France, and Europe in general, were then enjoying unprecedented economic growth and a profound social revolution breaking down traditional religious and familial hierarchies. The newly freed, equalized, and comfortable individual did not find satisfaction however, but remained enervated and restless, and continued to crave even more freedom (understood purely as ‘freedom of choice’), equality, and comfort. It was in this spiritual morass which Deshimaru arrived in 1967, rapidly gathering a large following through his remarkable personality and single-minded focus on zazen seated meditation.

I did not meet Deshimaru myself so I cannot say much of him. His achievement was remarkable however, initiating tens of thousands of Europeans to the practice of Zen and attracting an incredibly devoted circle of, mostly French, followers. These followers built a Zen temple on the beautiful grounds of the Gendronnière (southwest of Paris in the Loire Valley) and established some 200 Zen dojos[1]“Dojo” in Japanese means “place of the way,” the way in question not necessarily being a martial art. across Europe. Today one can find a community of meditators in most medium to large European cities. These followers have also produced an extensive literature on Zen tradition and experience. Deshimaru’s achievement is all the more striking in that . . . he did not speak French and barely spoke English! (On which, see an interview of his uncertain English peppered with French and Japanese.) A Zen saying reported by Deshimaru: What is eloquence? Stuttering.

Deshimaru thought that France, with its sophisticated tradition of philosophical introspection, was well-suited to receive the teachings of Zen. Zen was presented to the skeptical and ‘rational’ French as something “not a religion” but a kind of spiritual/philosophical UFO. There may be a secret kinship between French and Japanese culture in this respect, the embrace of impermanence. As the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran wrote:

France’s divinity: Taste. Good taste.

According to which the world – to exist – must please; must be well-made; consolidate itself aesthetically; have limits; be a graspable enchantment; a sweet flowering of finitude.

Deshimaru was deeply inspired and invigorated by what he found in Europe. While the practice of Zen had become sclerotic and conventional in Japan – the ossified monastic orders cut off from society, the temples passed on from father to son as a lucrative funeral business – Deshimaru was deeply impressed by the earnest and dedicated practice of young Westerners. He even charged them with an awesome and flattering mission: that these Europeans might be the spark for a global spiritual renewal.

This is not the first time the harsh truths of Buddhism have resonated with Europeans. T very first representations of the Buddha are in fact Hellenic statues, crafted by Greek or Greek-influenced artisans, after Alexander the Great’s armies conquered northwest India. European traditionalists, whether Dominique Venner or Julius Evola, have typically had a high opinion of Zen and of Japanese culture in general. I’d even argue George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy owes a great deal to Zen and the samurai, in particular the notion of detachment from both emotion and conscious reason, so as to tap into a more spontaneous primordial intuition . . .

Zen promises no miracles, no salvation. There is a Tradition, passed on from master to student, but there is no submission to hierarchy or dogma (an old Zen saying: “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him”). There is only the embrace of existence in the here and now, the active observation of the mind-universe, the chaotic ungraspable flux of consciousness from moment to moment. From this, a cultural and even biological fecundity might arise, but that is incidental. Zen and Japanese culture are intimately interrelated. It is not hard to see how the same culture which produced Zen, with its spiritual discipline and frank acknowledgment of impermanence, also produced the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, the samurai, and . . . the kamikaze.

I do not know what all this will lead to. Zen remains a marginal phenomenon in Europe, but is participating in a wider spiritual renewal. As Christianity decayed in the 1960s, already Westerners were craving some kind of spiritual sustenance. This demand was met by Jon Kabat-Zinn’s ‘mindfulness,’ essentially a medicalized and secularized repackaging of traditional Eastern meditative practices (Kabat-Zinn is a marketing genius in this respect). I have the hope that genuine spiritual practice might heal the European soul. That it might allow for dialogue between the dominant mentality and suppressed one. Time will tell.

The European is a wretched creature today. He or she is dedicated either to nothing or to the lowest ideals, wracked by bitterness and ressentiment. And yet, I have seen these Europeans – perfectly godless and lucid – bow their heads three times to Gautama, thus reverencing a great teacher, the cosmic reality, and indeed the shard of divinity within themselves . . .

And for that I say:

Hail Buddha!


[1] “Dojo” in Japanese means “place of the way,” the way in question not necessarily being a martial art.

• Category: Ideology • Tags: Buddhism, Philosophy, Stoicism 
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  1. David says:

    The term for this is navel-gazing.

    The opinion and practice of the monasteries of Mount Athos will be best represented in the words of an abbot, who flourished in the eleventh century. “When thou art alone in thy cell,” says the ascetic teacher, “shut thy door, and seat thyself in a corner: raise thy mind above all things vain and transitory; recline thy beard and chin on thy breast; turn thy eyes and thy thoughts toward the middle of thy belly, the region of the navel; and search the place of the heart, the seat of the soul. At first, all will be dark and comfortless; but if you persevere day and night, you will feel an ineffable joy; and no sooner has the soul discovered the place of the heart, than it is involved in a mystic and ethereal light.”

  2. anon[770] • Disclaimer says:

    👌 👌

  3. G. Poulin says:

    This is a great Truth : if you stare at your navel long enough, you will discover…. your navel.

  4. alexander says:

    Dear Monsieur Durocher,

    I am glad you have discovered a path to self enlightenment.

    Speaking of discoveries, has the French Government (under Macron) not yet launched a full forensic fire investigation to discover the cause of the Notre Dame fire ?

    It has been months now, already….What are they waiting for ?.

    Has there been any timetable announced by the French authorities as to when they will commence a full forensic fire investigation of the Notre Dame Fire ?

  5. AaronB says:

    A fine piece.

    My favourite Zen figure used to be Bankei.

    Also, the poetry surrounding Zen can be very moving, and Chinese nature poetry surrounding Chan as well.

    Ultimately, as even japanese learned, one cannot dispense with God. Suzuki towards the end of his life moved away from Zen and toward Shin Buddhism.

    Anyways, good luck. Any religious practice at this point is absolutely essential for Europeans.

  6. Tusk says:

    Here is one of my favourite parts from the Brahmajala Sutra.

    Now, I, Vairocana Buddha

    Am sitting atop a lotus pedestal.

    On a thousand flowers surrounding me

    Are a thousand Shakyamuni Buddhas.

    Each flower supports a hundred million worlds.

    In each world a Shakyamuni Buddha appears.

    All are seated beneath a Bodhi-tree,

    All simultaneously attain Buddhahood.

    All these innumerable Buddhas

    Have Vairocana as their original body.

    These countless Shakyamuni Buddhas

    All bring followers along — as numerous as

    Motes of dust.

    They all proceed to my lotus pedestal

    To listen to the Buddha’s precepts.

    I now preach the Dharma, this exquisite nectar.

    Afterward, the countless Buddhas return to

    their respective worlds

    And, under a Bodhi-tree, proclaim these

    Major and minor precepts

    Of Vairocana, the Original Buddha.

  7. I stare at my Chateau walls on weekends. I ponder which to knock down to create en-suite WC facilities for the chambres, or where I might channel into the stone to run updated electrics and other cabling, and how I’m going to refinish it all and what colours to paint them when I’m done. I find this meditation and contemplation by staring at the walls very tiring. I think I’ll go chat with the Gilets Jaune girls down at the rond-point.

  8. Miro23 says:

    An interesting article. I came across Allan Watts’s book, “The Way of Zen” in the 1980’s. I don’t know if it’s a true representation of Zen, or even if there is a true representation of Zen, but I found it useful .

    First let’s say that the basics need to be looked after (food and shelter) because Watts style Zen disconnection isn’t about appointments, timetables and earning a living.

    Watt’s version is a cosmic dustbin for the past (good and bad) leaving the basics: eat when you’re hungry, sleep when you’re tired, go to the beach when you want to go to the beach and talk to the people you want to talk to. A few years of this has a good chance of restoring the original operating system for a fresh start (providing you don’t become an alcoholic).

    Maybe by accident, and about the same time, I came across Eric Berne’s “What Do You Say After You Say Hello?” which usefully stops the bad stuff being reloaded. Berne’s interesting line is that children are psychologically formed by their parents and this can be lifetime good or bad programming. He then introduces the “adult” option of winding back the tape and examining that parent/child conditioning to first understand it, and finally accept or reject it as necessary.

    Now you have an anti-virus on your new operating system and are ready to go.

    The only other point is that the machine is actually biological, and designed to work properly with a high level of physical activity (relative to modern life), so you also need to go out jogging every day.

    • Replies: @utu
  9. Anonymous [AKA "Narendra Modi"] says:

    Advaita Vedānta is superior to all forms of Buddhism, read the works of René Guénon and you’ll see that I’m right, Guillaume. The Ashtavakra Gita, the Yoga-Vāsistha and the Tripurā Rahasya are on a level far above that of any Zen text.

    • Replies: @utu
    , @Anonymoose
  10. utu says:

    you’ll see that I’m right

    A rabbi was called upon to settle a dispute between two of his followers. The first man poured out his complaints to the rabbi, and when he finished, the rabbi said, “You’re right.” Then it was the second one’s turn. When he finished, the rabbi said, “You’re also right.” The rabbi’s wife, who had been listening to the conversation, said incredulously to her husband, “What do you mean, ‘You’re also right’? They can’t both be right!” The rabbi thought for a few moments, and then replied, “You know, my dear, you’re also right.”

    • Replies: @utu
    , @tomv
  11. It’s good to have some (mental) space between oneself and – – – the social, political, scientific & aesthetic aspects of reality. And it’s important to acknowledge, that it is a task (and worth the sweat of the nobleman) to keep this (mental) space in a good (=working= beneficial) condition.

    Peter Sloterdijk wrote one of his interesting books about this topic:

    Tu doit changer ta Vie!

    You Must Change Your Life
    (both 2o11)

    Du musst Dein Leben ändern!

  12. For quite a different, and critical, perspective on Zen, you might try “Zen: A Rational Critique,” by Ernest Becker.

  13. utu says:

    When Banzan was walking through a market he overheard a conversation between a butcher and his customer.

    “Give me the best piece of meat you have,” said the customer.
    “Everything in my shop is the best,” replied the butcher. “You cannot find here any piece of meat that is not the best.”

    At these words Banzan became enlightened

  14. utu says:

    Watt’s version is a cosmic dustbin for the past (good and bad) leaving the basics: eat when you’re hungry, sleep when you’re tired…

    An Interview with Gia-fu Feng

    Q: You’ve mentioned Alan Watts several times and I know that you’ve been with him when he was teaching. What was he like to be with?

    A: You see Alan Watts was very creative. When he drinks he’s very clever. He was in a class, you know, at night time, he was all drunk. But his lectures were never boring. He was a tremendous entertainer. He said, “I’m an entertainer, I’m no Buddhist philosopher.”

    Q: Alan Watts actually died from alcohol, didn’t he?

    A: Oh yeah. At that time he drank whisky by the bottle.

    Q: But how could that tie in with the Tao?

    A: That’s from the Tao! The fact that he drank is totally in tune with the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove-his utter disregard for convention. One of the sages, a famous poet called Liu Ling, had a servant who followed him carrying a jug of wine and a spade. In this way he always had some wine to drink and his servant would be ready to bury him if he dropped dead during a drinking bout! It’s in the Tao. So Alan Watts’ drinking is quite Taoistic.

    Watts died in his sleep in 1973 at the age of fifty-seven. He had been a heavy smoker all his life, and an increasingly heavy drinker. Gary Snyder said that toward the end of his life Watts was putting away a bottle of vodka per day.

    • Replies: @Miro23
    , @AaronB
  15. Miro23 says:

    I didn’t know anything about this, but I’m not surprised. Wiping the hard drive and reinstalling the operating system is best done a quickly as possible. While it’s underway, you don’t have a computer.

    Conclusion that Zen is a useful but dangerous tool.

  16. AaronB says:

    The cause of Watts death is not known. People say its alcohol but there is no evidence of that. Alcoholics who die from liver failure usually do so after a long stay in the hospital.

    Plus, by the standards of the day a bottle of vodka is not that much. Churchill drank way more.

    Watts was a great man, either way.

  17. tomv says:

    Ironically, the first time I read that story, it was presented as a Zen koan, with a zen master in place of a rabbi. The dispute is specifically about whether the path to enlightenment should be arduous or effortless. That version makes a lot more sense to me.

  18. Sean says:

    When I think of France I think of sensuality and pretentious art critic Catherine Millet achieving Nirvana in intense sexual experiences such as being banged by dozens of men in a car park.

    Nonetheless, this yearning for intensity negates itself: the more we pursue intense experiences, the more blunted our senses and the more novelty and stimulation we demand, right up until the moment when we’ve reached total burnout. There are some people who change their ways only to be tempted by a return toward an absolute kind of wisdom, transcendence, or religious salvation.

    Between all-encompassing intensity and total wisdom, is there another possible path? Tristan Garcia explores the foundations of a society that has become obsessed with pleasure and performance, which can prove draining for both ecosystems and individuals. He rejects the choice that pits the sensation of living against abstract thought, advocating instead a balance between radiance and reflection. He invites each of us to define our own way forward, but leaves us hanging, just a little bit, when it comes to how to do so.

    Kelly McGonigal used to push mindfulness, but she has really switched feet. Gerd Gigerenzer says something similar about mental wellbeing depending on having a core certainty about what matters most to you, rather than staking everything on the uncertain attempt to gain the approval or admiration of others for popularity, wealth or perceived attractiveness

    Internal goals include becoming a mature person by strengthening one’s skills, competences, and moral values, and living a meaningful life. … that recent generations judged “being well off financially” as more important than “developing a meaningful philosophy of life,

    I suppose McGonagle would say if your mindset is that you can rise to and cope with the stress of the rat race/ beauty contest then you can, and flourish in it.

  19. @Anonymous

    Are you really Narendra Modi? As in the real deal?

  20. Good writing on this subject.

  21. Noman says:

    Thank you for the explanation of clear thinking.

    I would try to clear my mind thinking that meant having no thoughts at all. My mind would then race.

    I would try to think of “nothing” and my mind would think of the vacuum of space or “zero”.

    The mind is a thought machine. Always thinking of something. Cannot stop that behavior. Death may not stop that process.

    Trying to think of a problem and a solution can often be fruitless, then clearing that problem from the mind, allows the mind to creatively find a solution, while your conscious mind focuses some where else.

    • Replies: @Montefrío
  22. Sean says:

    Mindfulness, via the Vagus nerve., can damp down inflamation and the depressed withdrawn state that comes with it, but even minor social failures or the prospect of them in and of itself seem to cause immune system activation, see Bulmore’sThe Inflamed Mind). Being a respected part of tight social group seems to be the healthiest thing. It also gives you more energy for care for others and courage to fight for them if necessary. McGonigle calls that the Tend and Defend response and attributes it to the action of the hormone oxytocin. For Robert Lustig in his Hacking of the American Mind various overlapping hormones boil down to a difference between reward pleasure as from food, sex ect which can be burnt out especially by recreational drugs, and the contentment from social support (or magic mushrooms). Lustig and McGonigle are both quite keen on mindfulness.

    • Replies: @Dieter Kief
  23. @Sean

    Gigerenzer and Peterson – and Fromm and – – – Goethe and Molière and Vauvenargues, Diderot and Montesquieu, Sloterdijk = reason and discipline and playfulness – none of them a pure rationalist. I guess that none of them woulfd have opposed Seneca.

    Catherine Millet: Anti-Senecan. Radical libertarian – at least up until her fifties. Now? – Near Seneca, a far as I could see. I’m not quite sure though, but I – seem to – remember, that she now says that her radical way of sexual liberation made her deeply unhappy.

    Zen is a bit of all of the three: Rational, disciplined and – – playful too, if in a very sophisticated way. And it is bodily.

  24. @Tono Bungay

    Slavoj Zizek criticized Dariez T. Suzuki, the co-author with Erich Fromm of: Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis. (1960)
    Zizek talked for quite a while about the aggressive side of Zen in his debate with Jordan Peterson and he especially mentioned Darietz Suzuki.

    • Replies: @Guillaume Durocher
  25. @Dieter Kief

    What was the context/relationship to Peterson?

    • Replies: @Dieter Kief
  26. @Guillaume Durocher

    Zizek talked about (his) atheism and then said, that he found out, that even Zen was a (kind of a) religion that’s linked to the harsh side of our existence: War, power, aggression. He thinks, if I remember right, that the basic emptiness/nihilism of Zen makes it prone to cruelty.

    This discussion is basically about purity. The idea brought forward being: The world could be a paradise, if only there were no misleading ideas/ideals (ideologies/religions…).

    Peterson I think has understood this problem better: Suffering is part of the human existence and not induced by religion – not necessarily so, at least. I think that’s right. Religion is just a way for humans to get along – by acknowledging our basic ignorance (by acknowledging, that we don’t know much at all about – – being.

    I did practice Zen too, for some years. – Just two remarks: 1) Zen in the east is a collective experience, whereas for me it was – mostly – an individual experience (big difference, I think). 2) I studied/read medieval texts – by Eckart, Seuse, Tauler, Der Pfaffe Konrad, Wolfram, Heinrich von der Vogelweide, Occam, Nikolaus Cusanus … and found lots of direct connections to Zen-writings and thinking. Seuse (=Suso, the most eloquent (=best writer) of the pupils of Eckhart) even wrote about meditation – how he discovered it, how he did it – and how he experienced it!

    2b) Jonathan Franzen remarks this: There is a ritual side to writing if one takes it seriously, which I think is directly related to Zen (sit down, be disciplined) and – the life of the rather sophisticated monks – such as Seuse and Hermanus Contractus.

  27. @Noman

    It’s Daisetz T. Suzuki. I read his 1960 Manual of Zen Buddhism (still have it) in 1962 and took up Zen, first as an intellectual pursuit ad then and since as a practice. I highly recommend both the book and the practice.

    The inner voice stops without effort if one is patient and persistent in practice. Perceptions subtly change after the experience, particularly after repeated experiences. As is well known, the experience cannot be verbally described because it is not an abstraction but rather something “living” and all-encompassing without the participation of a dualistic and individuated ego. One simply IS, undifferentiated and beyond intermediation.

    There is much that can be said and written about Zen, but only experience permits understanding.

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