Useless Distractions
by Chuan Zhi Shakya

Distractions often pose the greatest obstacle to meditation. Perhaps it's because that, as a group, Zen practitioners tend to be scientifically oriented: the distractions which most affect us are those fascinating new theories that connect religion to science, particularly as regards creation. Counting the breath from one to ten and then starting again lacks a certain panache - compared to pondering the age of the universe!
Recently, Space Daily ran a news story about a group of cosmologists in England who proclaimed (gasp!) that the universe is not 13 billion years old as we had thought, but is likely 14 billion years old! The long engaging article is intended to convince the reader that this is indeed something of significance … something that needs to be considered and appreciated.
So we muse … 14 billion years and not 13 billion years as we had thought. That's a considerable difference, 13 to 14. The immensity of the numbers eludes us. If someone were to tell us the time and costs involved in making a planned drive from Anchorage, Alaska to San Diego, California, and then stopped to correct his destination, saying, "No…I'm all wrong. It's actually Chula Vista, California, a few miles south of San Diego," we'd think this a bit absurd.
There's a practicality involved, one that we can relate to in our own lives, a sense of judgment and discrimination as to significant and insignificant, a proportionate comparison. When we can't make such a comparative judgment, the numbers soar into a stratosphere of imagination.
We become caught in the samsaric net of phenomenology. Instead of shrugging off these engaging topics, and leaving them to cosmologists to worry about, some of us begin to wonder ... hmm, 14 billion years old… all those protons, electrons, positrons, gluons and intermediate vector bosons and all those pi-mesons in my body are14 billion years old, not 13 billion as I had thought as recently as yesterday. What are these cosmologists trying to do? Confuse me? A few years ago the universe was 15 billion years old … then 13 … and now 14. Frankly, I liked the 15 billion age better. It made more sense to me. And to a lot of others, too ...
And before we know it we're mired in samsaric thoughts, forgetting that the most important sensory organ from which we have to liberate ourselves is the egotistical mind. We can readily see how in practical terms the mind attaches itself to forms ­ our VCR player breaks and we get upset, our friend dies and we cry, our bodies get sick and we get depressed or angry - but it is not so easy to see how the mind attaches itself to ideas and other thought-forms. We create an elaborate array of beliefs and opinions which provide a storehouse of "assets" with which we can identify and define ourselves; and, should anyone question these valued opinions, we revert to argument, anger, and, sometimes, violence. The ego knows no bounds in defending its turf.
But while any object, mental or physical, can be used as a seed for contemplation and meditation, we know that we shouldn't form ill-considered and pointless opinions about the object of our musings. In meditation we form connections that give us insight. We see patterns and relationships - none of which requires an opinion. We don't have to defend our point of view, because we don't have one. In the same way, we read sutras to contemplate their wisdom ­ not to argue about their meaning or value. We understand that a line of scripture opens up many paths that may invite our contemplation. The line may lead a dozen people to a dozen different realizations, but the relative merits of those paths and destinations are not subjects for dispute.
As long as we continue to look toward science or toward any other exterior form as a vehicle for our salvation we stay mired in the realm of samsara. We foolishly continue mistaking things that are perpetually in a state of change as things that are fixed and final. We forget that, while change is, itself, real, those things that change cannot be real: However much they taunt us with their fluctuating light and form, they are perpetually vanishing. When we understand this on an intuitive level, we realize that there is nothing we can hold in our hand and legitimately say, "This is real."
Then what is real? In the material world, only when time stops does change stop, and when change stops there is zero entropy, a state we cannot survive to appreciate. It is only when we transcend the material world that we glimpse what is truly Real, outside of time (eternal) and always true. Only in this reality do we enter Zen's precincts.
Recently, after a scientific forum, a few of the attendees got together for coffee and I was asked what Zen's stand was on Creation. I stared at the man who asked the question with that blank expression that we call "a deer in the headlights." As if I hadn't heard it the first time, I was asked the question again. What is Zen's stand on Creation? "Well," I muttered, "there's Power and the Law power obeys. What else do we need?" This satisfied no one, so I said, "The Word is the coming into being of the edict." This still elicited zero response. I tried to be more specific. "In the beginning God said, 'Let there be light, and there was light.'" Everyone laughed. I said, "Look, does consensus about the Big Bang settle the problem of creation? And what would that have to do with religion? Religion ultimately concerns itself with the practical aspects of divine fiat - and those aspects commence with each individual man's view of his place in the universe. There are practical considerations that take precedence over sophomoric discussions." They wanted an example.
"Look at it like this: let's say that a group of monks dwell in a pleasant mountain monastery. They have everything they need but from their windows they can see a field of berries in the distance. A chasm separates them physically from this field, but not emotionally. They desire the berries. Especially when the berries are in season, they are all the monks can talk about. The Abbot says, "What shall we do about those berries?'
"Some monks sit around for hours discussing the ways they could build a bridge across the chasm - for them an engineering impossibility. Still they discuss the impossible and the improbable. They speculate endlessly about a subject that cannot deliver them to the berries. Discussion disintegrates into argument. Three monks, however, are oblivious to the bridge controversy and concentrate on their daily chores and meditation routine. Soon these three are the only monks in the monastery who are truly happy. The Abbot summons them to an assembly and says, 'Tell everyone your secret for remaining happy in all this fractiousness.' One monk says, 'I admire the berries as I admire the moon. I don't need to touch or to consume either.' The second monk says, 'I obliterate the berries from my vision. They are a momentary, shifting form of matter. There is nothing permanent about them so why should I concern myself with what is conditional and impermanent.' And the third monk says, 'When I went into town last week, I saw some of the berries in the marketplace. I bought a few. They were ok… nothing special.' These three monks were Zen monks. The others were wasting their time." I ended the creation discussion there with the three happy monks.
Zen begins with the simple discovery that we are not the individuals we think we are. We are not our bodies; we are not our mind; we are not our mental images of ourselves. We are not related in any way with sensual experiences. This is not something to believe, but something to experience.
Entry into Buddhism always begins with the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path which is contained in the last Noble Truth. To follow in the Buddha's path is to internalize each of the Noble Truths. Rather than hold them as beliefs, we consider them as givens… or as absolute knowledge. Just as we would not say, "It is my opinion that the earth revolves around the sun," neither do we say "I believe that life is bitter and painful." We simply know it is because we've realized it, we've figured it out or else we know that nothing else makes sense. The Second Noble Truth tells us that the cause of this bitterness and pain is desire ­ that persistent quest for ego-gratifications - and we accept this, too, because we've realized it. The Third Noble Truth tells us that we can find a way not only to survive the suffering, but to prevail over it, to triumph over life's adversity. And that Way, says the Fourth Noble Truth, is to follow the Eightfold Path. The Buddha is telling us, 'Deal intelligently with your problems. Use common sense. Know what it is that you are seeking - Liberation from suffering! - and then employ the means to secure it. Some desires you must banish from your mind; some desires you must destroy by dismantling them and seeing them for the evanescent things they are; and some desires you must demote until they become mere curiosities that you may, if you wish, satisfy without emotion.'
Science appeals to our sense of knowledge of the material world but Buddhism does not. Science engages the material world in every aspect; but Buddhism is content to transcend material considerations. Our goal is the inward goal. As the great spiritual Alchemists used to say, "Our gold is not the common gold."
Just as we can't swim and drown simultaneously, we can't be looking in the material realm for a salvation that can only come from the spiritual one.
There is no gap to fill between science and mysticism, as many writers want us to believe. Nor are science and mysticism at opposite ends of any spectrum. The two simply have no relation to each other. When we learn how to meditate, we discover that the process of concentration stops time, and, stopping time, the phenomenal realm ceases to exist for us. We become enveloped in a Universal Consciousness which is, by its nature, outside of time and space.
In meditation, the span of fourteen minutes holds no more meaning than the span of 14 billion years.
While we pride ourselves on our scientific accomplishments, it's important not to let the novelty and excitement distract us from looking deeply into ourselves. We are not prohibited from thinking about cosmology. We are prohibited from using theories to gain ego-status or to distract us from spiritual goals.
In Zen, we forget about impossible bridges to ephemeral berries, and strive always to maintain a practical approach: To us, how the world was created is not so important as that the world was created. It is all a dream from which we must awaken.