When I grow weary with the world, I find myself going to the bookshelf that holds my volumes of Alan Watts, Henry Miller, and Thomas Merton, three seekers who would have surely enjoyed each other's company. I find comfort in the mere titles of their books, e.g., Behold the Spirit and Still the Mind by Watts; The Wisdom of the Heart and Stand Still Like a Hummingbird by Miller; Seeds of Contemplation and Mystics and Zen Masters by Merton. When I pull down any one of these volumes and open its covers, I find myself at peace instantly, knowing that I will soon be transported back to my center, the still place that is my ground of being.
Recently, I returned to Merton's Zen and the Birds of Appetite, a fascinating book that explores the author's study of Zen and its relationship with various structural systems, especially religion. The title itself raises a variety of questions. What does Merton have in mind when he refers to "Zen," a word that is extremely difficult to define and is often misused? Who are the "birds of appetite"? And what do the birds of appetite have to do with the world with Zen? These questions are answered by Merton, of course, but the reader must first spend a few moments reflecting on the author's brief opening note, from which the title of the book is drawn:
Where there is carrion lying, meat-eating birds circle and descend. Life and death are two. The living attack the dead, to their own profit. The dead lose nothing by it. They gain too, by being disposed of. Or they seem so, if you must think in terms of gain and loss. Do you then approach the study of Zen with the idea that there is something to be gained by it? This question is not intended as an implicit accusation. But it is, nevertheless, a serious question. Where there is a lot of fuss about "spirituality," "enlightenment" or just "turning on," it is often because there are buzzards hovering around the corpse. This hovering, this circling, this descending, this celebration of victory, are not what is meant by the Study of Zen -- even though they may be a highly useful exercise in other contexts. And they enrich the birds of appetite.
Zen enriches no one. There is no body to be found. The birds may come and circle for a while in the place where it is thought to be. But they soon go elsewhere. When they are gone, the "nothing," the "no-body" that was there, suddenly appears. That is Zen. It was there all the time but the scavengers missed it, because it was not their kind of prey.At first glance, this opening note always appears cryptic and vexing. Reading it slowly, however, I begin to see where Merton is going with this. He is essentially stating that most of us are "birds of appetite," who are circling the skies constantly in search of a visible form that appears to offer the spiritual nutrition we require. Sometimes it's a religion or some other belief system; sometimes it's a defined philosophy; sometimes it's a new kind of spirituality or a new "ism." In almost every case, however, we appear to be seeking sustenance from something that has form and structure -- something that can be easily understood, measured, defined, and labeled by the analytical machinery of our conditioned minds. And whatever that something is, our egos expect to be enriched by it, to gain something from it, just like the birds of prey that hover around the corpse of a dead animal.
Merton is not calling upon us to abandon all forms and structures; he recognizes that words, rituals, traditions, and other cultural systems are appropriate in certain contexts. He fears, however, that our increasing obsession with forms is blinding us to the ultimate reality that lies beyond those forms -- the mystical experience of life itself, the formless, nameless, mysterious wonder that underpins everything.
This is where Zen can be useful. In its purest sense, Zen is simply a heightened state of consciousness that is not dependent upon any kind of form or structure -- religious, cultural, or otherwise. Since it is neither a form, a structure, nor a system, it does not stand in opposition to any form, structure, or system. It is not contrary to any religious or cultural traditions; nor is it contrary to the forms through which those traditions are practiced. As Merton says, it is "trans-religious, trans-cultural, and trans-formed." In short, Zen permits one to see and experience the ultimate reality that lies beyond the forms and structures.
If this sounds esoteric -- and I think that it does -- it is probably because Zen, by it very nature, does not lend itself to either systematic thinking or verbal expression. It can only be experienced, personally and directly. Paradoxically, one must be both mindful and mindless -- mindful in the sense of paying attention to what is actually happening in the present moment, and mindless in the sense of not judging and labeling what is happening. As an old Zen saying goes, "better to see the face than to hear the name."
Zen can be practiced anywhere, anytime, under any circumstances. "Everyday Zen," say the masters, is the best. At a minimum, Zen returns us to a place where the ultimate reality of life, in all of its complexity, can be fully experienced and accepted, with neither judgment nor resistance. Under the best of circumstances, one might even experience occasional moments of transcendence. "To attain this experience," writes Merton, " is to penetrate the reality of all that is, to grasp the meaning of one's own existence, to find one's true place in the scheme of things, to relate perfectly to all that is in a relation of identity and love."