Zen has been called “the religion before religion”, which is to say that anyone can practice, including those committed to another faith. And the phrase evokes the natural religion of our early childhood, where heaven and a splendorous earth were one. But soon the child’s eye is clouded over by ideas and opinions, preconceptions and abstractions. Simple free being becomes encrusted with the burdensome armour of the ego. Not until years later does an instinct come that a vital sense of mystery has been withdrawn. The sun glints through the pines, and the heart is pierced in a moment of beauty and strange pain, like a memory of paradise.
After that day, at the bottom of each breath, there is a hollow place that is filled with longing. We become seekers without knowing what we seek, and at first, we long for something ‘greater’ than ourselves, something apart and far away. It is not a return to childhood, for childhood is not a truly enlightened state. Yet to seek one’s own true nature is, as one Zen master has said, “a way to lead you to your long lost home.”
To practice Zen means to realise one’s existence moment after moment, rather than letting life unravel in regret of the past and daydreaming of the future. To ‘rest in the present’ is a state of magical simplicity, although attainment of this state is not as simple as it sounds. At the very least, sitting Zen practice, called zazen, will bring about a strong sense of well-being, as the clutter of ideas and emotions falls away and body and mind return to natural harmony with all creation. Out of this emptiness can come a true insight into the nature of existence, which is no different from one’s Buddha nature. To travel this path, one need not be a ‘Zen Buddhist’ which is only another idea to discard like ‘enlightenment’ and like ‘the Buddha’ and like ‘God’.
Peter Muryo Matthiessen wrote The Snow Leopard along with many other books of both fiction and non-fiction. Nine-Headed Dragon River is a collection of his Zen journals. Muryo Roshi passed away on 5 April 2014.