Many Japanese are of the opinion that Germans can understand Zen only with great difficulty. In this regard it should be said that by its very nature zazen practice is concerned with being a person. Whether I practice as a Japanese or a German is secondary: being a person as such requires zazen practice.
The practice of zazen is always difficult, and is so for every person, no matter what his country of birth. The difficulties in zazen do not arise from the fact that someone is German and has a different mentality than that of a Japanese. Indeed, it is precisely in teaching zazen to Germans that I have come to realize the essence of zazen as a universal practice toward personhood. Differences of race or culture are irrelevant here. Yet among the Japanese is embedded the idea – I would say it is almost a prejudice – that Zen or zazen is something specifically Japanese and is therefore impossible to understand without immersing oneself deeply in the Japanese culture.
As far as Zen culture is concerned, this perception may be correct, for here it is a question of various arts which have been moulded by the Zen spirit: Chado (the Way of the Tea Ceremony), Ikebana (the Way of Flower Arranging), Shodo (the Way of Calligraphy) or Budo (the Way of the Martial Arts), to mention only the most important examples. These arts originated in medieval Japan or developed there in later times, and belong to a high spiritual culture which grew up under the influence of Zen monks or was created by these monks themselves.
Naturally, as this spiritual culture is Japanese, so are these various arts Japanese. Thanks to the efforts of many persons from Japan, today these various ways of practice are not only known but also taught and performed worldwide. It is obvious that in the course of such practice there exist great differences between Japanese practitioners and those persons who come from other cultures and have a different mentality.
These efforts are precisely aimed at making the highly developed original Japanese arts known worldwide. Because of their special quality, their unfathomable depth and their infinite refinement, these arts exercise an inexhaustible attraction for the foreigner (i.e. the non-Japanese) and thus are readily learned with pleasure again and again.
The essence of Zen Culture, of Zen Art, lies in the harmony that exists between the profound Buddhist worldview at the heart of Eastern thinking and the unique Japanese sensibility with regard to nature. A flower arrangement made according to the art of Ikebana, or a cup of tea offered in the course of the Tea Ceremony allow this essence to become visible immediately: through directness, simplicity, concreteness, high spirituality; through extraordinarily refined movements in standing, walking and sitting. Naturally we Japanese speak gladly and with great pride to foreigners concerning these highly developed arts – even when we ourselves have not learned any of them.
As part of my efforts here in Germany to introduce and teach the practice of zazen to Germans, I begin by making it clear that one must distinguish squarely between zazen as such and the so-called Zen arts. Next I trace the practice of zazen back to the origin of Zen itself, i.e. to the fundamental religious dimension of true personhood. This tracing back to the source means nothing other than making clear: the necessity of zazen practice for us today and with it the need to awaken to being a person.
As long as we are born into this world as human beings, no matter which culture we are born into we necessarily learn a language and develop concepts and the ability to think. We learn to see the world dualistically. Because this is necessarily so, it is also necessary to practice zazen, as we so easily deceive ourselves and lead ourselves astray through our dualistic worldview. Zazen is the practice of overcoming dualistic thinking, and at the same time zazen is the overcoming of the dualistic worldview. The mastering of a Zen art on the other hand – no matter which Zen art – in itself has nothing of this comprehensive character as a universal path of practice toward true personhood.
When Zen arts and the practice of zazen are differentiated from the beginning, the way of true practice arises completely of itself: to merge into the bare form of one’s own existence. Practicing in this way it is ultimately inevitable that the essence of zazen, i.e the Self as it is, will emerge completely of its own in the practitioner.
It is thus that we can experience Master Dogen’s sentence from the Shobogenzozuimonki, “Zazen is the true Self.”
It is important that Germans who wish to practice zazen with me understand my approach to zazen practice. They must be clear about their own attitude and be in agreement about the direction in which we want to proceed together. For Germans who wish to embark on the practice of zazen out of curiosity and interest about the Japanese arts, my way and manner of practice are definitely not attractive.
Two remarks should help to make clear my understanding of practice:
1.) Our great teacher Shakyamuni Buddha, who appeared in ancient India and taught the truth of pratitya-samutpada. (“conditioned origination” or “arising in dependency”) and anatman (“Not-Self”, called “Emptiness” in the Mahayana tradition), who expounded the “four noble truths” and the “noble eightfold path” and who practiced zazen with his disciples during his entire life, knew nothing whatsoever of any Japanese Zen art.
2.) Chinese Zen is the source of Japanese Zen. Chinese Zen masters, especially the most famous masters from the golden age of Zen during the Tang dynasty, had absolutely no idea about Zen arts such as Chado or Ikebana, as these arts were developed only much later in Japan. Of course with their practice of calligraphy and the art of poetry they did master what were the central spheres of Chinese culture at that time.
My conclusion is thereby even clearer: the practice of zazen must be brought back to the origin of Zen, to the coordinate origin of Buddhism, to the religious dimension of personal being. Practitioners of zazen must understand the universal validity of this practice beyond the boundaries of space and time.
From such a manner of practice will emerge the answer – both for the individual as well as for mankind as a whole – as to how we can progress in these confused and complicated times. I see the answer lying in the insistence on sincerity on the part of each individual and of mankind in its entirety.