by Ari Pliskin

A long time ago in a land called India, there was an upper-caste elite who liked to party and indulge in material decadence, philosophers who preached high-falutin’ metaphysics and spiritual seekers who thought partying was shallow and instead starved themselves to transcend the material world altogether and free themselves from suffering once and for all.

Along came Siddhartha Gautama, an upper-caste drop-out who wasn’t into partying, didn’t have much patience for high-falutin’ philosophy and didn’t get anywhere starving himself.  After sitting and doing nothing for a long time, he concluded that the path to freedom can be summed up in 4 easy-to-remember principles, which could be followed by anyone, regardless of their caste.  To achieve this path, you don’t have to starve yourself, he said.  You just have to leave your family, shave your head and trade your clothes for robes and your possessions for a begging bowl.

Years later, the prince’s Indian successors reintroduced high-falutin’ philosophy and preserved the community of monks as the holders of the tradition.  The monks role in society was to teach the tradition and dole out merit to the generous lay people who filled their begging bowls.

Eventually the meditation part of the tradition reached China, brought from India by Bodhidharma.  In India, they decided that you didn’t need high-falutin’ philosophy, but just the opportunities to awaken that happen in everyday life- working, for example, or talking to other people or eating meals.  They also said that lineage between teacher and student was very important, so they looked back through history and filled characters into spaces to link themselves back to the long-dead upper-caste drop-out prince.

Next, the practice reached Japan, where they took the stories of the Chinese monks’ everyday awakenings and turned them into the rigid koan system.  Also, with some encouragement from the Imperial government, they decided that you don’t need to leave your family to be a Zen leader, but you do still need to shave your head.  Also, instead of taking your begging bowl all over town, you could set up a temple so that townspeople come to you for rituals.

And this finally brings us from Japan to the United States.  In the U.S. today, some Zen Buddhist teachers shave their heads and some don’t and they hold conferences to argue about which side is right.

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