Photo credit: mrmac04 from morguefile.com
I don't often find myself in agreement with The Zennist, but his current post strikes a chord for me. In particular, the first paragraph:
One of the dangers of over humanizing Zen, which is an attempt to locate truth in our human experiences, is that we may end up identifying our human experiences with truth. This may further lead us to the inescapable truth (a human truth) that our human life, at its most fundamental level, is meaningless (i.e., there is no ultimate reality). This means also that our human experience can have relative meaning but not final meaning. Stated otherwise, this is Protagorian relativism, that is, “Man is the measure of all things.”
Over the years, I have noticed how the non-human world is diminished in modern Zen. It often seems like merely a backdrop for human awakening, or reduced to a "place" - "nature" - where we humans "go" to let go of our worries and perhaps find some inspiration. Exploring the commonplace narratives of the human mind around the non-human world, including "nature as a resource" or nature as "brutish, nasty realm," just isn't on the plate. Beyond this, though, there's the duality at the core that seems almost threatening to consider. Namely, the human/non-human divide.
What if Zen Master Joshu's response in the old koan was mainly about pointing away from human-centric thinking? Let's go further than that. What if Joshu was demonstrating being so wide open that he and the tree could speak with each other, communicate their respective wisdoms across the relative body divide?
Many of us moderns balk at such irrational stuff. listening to trees. Talking with trees. Learning from trees not what we think they teach us, but something else entirely, something our minds can't conjure up. That kind of thing seems to be nothing more than "magical thinking," the stuff of our "ignorant" ancestors.
Well, I'll be honest. I think much of modern religion, including Zen and other Buddhist schools, is dependent upon a suppression of our direct kinship with the planet. No matter if we're speaking of gaining the keys to God's kingdom or those who can become enlightened, it's always humans on the top with everything else below - usually far, far below.
Now, on the one hand, given that we are humans, it's understandable that we would think we are the top dog. The smartest and most awakened. On the other hand, there are numerous examples throughout history, and even today, of cultures that reject such notions, cultures with spiritualities built fully on dynamic kinship, where something like having regular conversations with trees or bees is quite normal. And where a recognition of wisdom cuts across the human/non-human body divide.
The fact is that plants were here on earth before us. And many insect and animals were also here before us in some form or another. We're in so many ways the new kids on the block, and it shows. Who else would poison and destroy its own nest in order to acquire power, fame, and/or material items? Who else would be so foolish as to think they can outwit the entire planet, and even beyond?
What if the Zen koans are so "tough" for most of us precisely because they speak to experience beyond the human-centric trappings we've built around them?