Stephen Hodge, a former Shingon monk, studied the Japanese and Tibetan languages and Buddhism at London University, where he now teaches. His latest book, "Zen Master Class" (read an excerpt) offers a hands-on approach to Zen practice while providing an historical context for each lesson in the book. He spoke with Beliefnet about the basics of Zen practice.

We see the word "Zen" everywhere these days. There seems to be a book on "The Zen of --" just about everything. Are people in the West generally misusing the word?
Oh yes, of course. I suppose what they're referring to is the state of mind that one achieves with Zen -- a kind of spontaneity, openness, the ability to act freely and precisely. The original meaning of the word Zen has nothing to do with the way it's used in popular Western culture.

If you go to bookshops you might see a section on Buddhism and next to it there'll be a section on Zen as though they're two separate things. Not the case at all. Zen Buddhists have had their own mystique or their own legends or mythology. But basically Zen is just another form of Buddhism and different forms of Buddhism will emphasize different kinds of practice.

The original Sanskrit word is dhyana which refers to states of meditative concentration. When the first patriarch of Chinese Zen, an Indian monk called Bodhidharma, came to China, there was a great deal of Buddhism flourishing. But the way they were doing it was through scholastic learning and good works -- like building temples, having the scriptures copied out, and charitable things. The view of the people who developed Zen was that you need actually to do the meditation practice, to break through the surface of conventional thinking, emotions, defilements, and obscurations -- break through in order to get to the underlying, the original mind.

The example often given is the sun behind clouds. The sun is always there, you can dimly see the light from the sun but you can't actually see the sun. Then when the wind blows, the clouds clear away, there it is -- but there's no direct connection between the clouds and the sun. The clouds do obscure it but they're not intrinsic to the sun. This was the idea of the Zen people and this is why they emphasized meditation because it was the best way to break through in order to achieve this state.

Can anyone be a student of Zen? For example, can you be a Zen Jew, or a Zen Muslim, etc.?
Yes and no. Strictly speaking, probably no, you can't. You could probably use the technique, but a lot of the specific teachings are incompatible with most other religions. You must remember of course basically Buddhism is non-theistic. It also doesn't believe in any kind of permanent soul or self. A lot of the main Western forms of Christianity on the contrary do teach those things so there's incompatibility there.

Having said that, there is a lot of interest among some Christians. More liberal Christians have tried to adopt and adapt Zen techniques. Basically what they're doing is adopting meditation as a form of practice. As we know, many churches are not comfortable with this because they consider it an Eastern form of mysticism which is not compatible with Christian doctrine.

The Zen approach can be very rigorous and perhaps a lot of people would not find it to their taste. You're dealing with certain kinds of meditation which are very powerful and the danger is that you're going to stir up things from deep within your psyche that you won't be able to cope with. A lot of very strange things can happen when you meditate and you need somebody who's been there who knows what's going on.

I gave a story once about the mountain the Eiger, in Switzerland. You've got the famous north face of the Eiger, which is sheer; and then you've got the rear side of it, the south side of it I think it is, which is a nice, easy slope. If you think of spiritual paths as like climbing a mountain, you can take the easy walk up the back -- it's going to take you a very long time but you'll get there; or you can climb the mountain, climb the north face of the Eiger. And to me, Zen often seems like climbing the north face of the Eiger. You're literally relying on your own efforts. You have somebody who's telling you "Put your hand there" but it's your efforts, you've got to do it, and it's hard work getting to the top. But it's a very quick way of getting to the top if you can take the heat as they say.

For someone just getting started what would you recommend? Should they read books, should they go out and find a teacher?
In the earliest Buddhist scriptures the Buddha advises people about how they should go about following the spiritual path. And he says when somebody offers you a spiritual path, don't adopt this path because I say so, or because you respect me; don't do it because everybody else is doing it, don't do it because the scriptures say you should do it. What he says is that you must try it yourself and see if it works for you. If it brings you improvement, happiness, if it uplifts you, then it's valid for you, which is a very open-minded approach. So Western people probably need to read a number of basic books on Buddhism and think about it. Having read and thought about it then they can perhaps move on to other kinds of things.

The next thing one probably needs to do is develop something that the Dalai Lama particularly emphasizes. There's the four practices, they're called the Four Immeasurables -- they're said to be immeasurable because they bring immeasurable benefit. You can do them as kind of personal cultivation, spiritual exercises.

The first one is lovingkindness. You're developing kindness and love toward other people and all beings and the planets and everything -- you extend it to there. Then the next one is compassion, which is slightly different than lovingkindness, although they sound the same. Lovingkindness is being nice to the people you encounter in everyday terms, being nice to them, being friendly and kind, whereas compassion is for people who are suffering who are in need, showing them compassion. This means not just saying "Poor thing" and so on, but also doing something about it. Generosity, charity, and so on are greatly emphasized in most schools of Buddhism.

Then the next thing you would develop is something called sympathetic joy. Sympathetic joy counters jealousy and envy -- which people seem to have a lot of these days -- so sympathetic joy means taking delight in other people's good fortune, wishing them well and being happy for them.

Then finally what one cultivates is equanimity, mental balance where you don't treat some people more favorably than others, you don't discriminate against some but you eventually view all people and things with equanimity. Some days are good days, some days are bad days. With equanimity you just take them all in stride, you don't get overattached to the good days and you don't get too upset by the bad days.

So you would cultivate those four as kind of preliminary practice to begin to remold your approach to the world. And then you would get into the meditation at the end, but also in a meditation session you can go through those. I mean you can just spend five minutes, cultivating the idea of lovingkindness, then compassion, and sympathetic joy, then equanimity, then from the equanimity then you start meditating. And you would start with the tranquility meditation.

Some people say "Well why do you have to do the calming meditation first before you do the insight meditation? Can't I just get on and start doing insight meditation, mindfulness and so forth?" Well, obviously to be mindful of things, to be aware of things you must have the power of concentration or focusing.

The example I give is: people's minds are leaking all over the place, their attention is distracted, many thoughts are running through their heads and are never even completed. You go through a chain of thoughts and then switch to something else. So this is rather like a hose pipe you use for watering your garden, if you've got a bunch of holes in it, nothing much is going to come out of the working end. You need to patch the holes up to build up the pressure. This is what you're doing with tranquility meditation, you're reducing the amount of mental distraction and that kind of thing, and then by doing that you then concentrate the power of the mind.

Your book introduces readers to a variety of different teachings. Should students practice, as you talked about earlier, what works for them?
Yes, that's right. If you sit quietly and think about things people will know perhaps instinctively what is the best thing for them to do. Some people get drawn to particular things. If they trust themselves to know what they need to do and if it doesn't work, then they can try something else, move on to the next one.

These [teachings] don't give instant results. I know we live in an age where everybody expects things to happen instantly and if it doesn't they get fed up. Zen is a fairly fast path, if you're doing it in the right environment with somebody over you, keeping you going. But if you do it by yourself you need to be patient and perhaps it's not a good idea to do something too intensively.

If you're starting meditating probably it's safer for most people to do half an hour -- half an hour in the morning, half an hour in the evening. You can build up to an hour but I think most people just start with a half an hour, you know, test the waters, see what happens. One of the things that happens when you start calming meditation, yes, you do get calm and so on, but also you start getting a lot of memories coming back. Perhaps as your mind becomes calmer there's room for your memories to come forward. And for a lot of people, not all memories are pleasant. You get bad memories that suddenly start surfacing, things that you'd long forgotten and wanted to forget. And there they are, they're back again. What do you do with them? If you've got somebody to ask advice about then of course you'd be told what to do and how to cope with them. But if you're on your own, it can cause a lot of problems.

Is there a "new" Buddhism evolving in the West?
Yes, Western people are definitely bringing into Buddhism their own stuff. There are some traits which actually are disturbing. Some people tend to be a lot less tolerant than people in the East. Looking at some of the Internet and in the chat rooms there's almost a sort of Buddhism fundamentalism, which I think is mirroring general Western attitudes which likes to see things as very black and white, you know: "We're right, you're wrong, there's absolutely no way you could be right..." And I think that's disturbing because you don't find that in the East at all, from what I would call native Buddhists -- people in Japan, Southeast Asia, Tibetans and so on -- are much more tolerant of viewpoints.

In general there are more Westernized forms of Buddhism developing here, but it's really rather early to say. Buddhism, as a religion that people were converting to or adopting, has a very short history in the West -- it probably dates from about the late 1870s, the 1890s -- and even then it was very very rare to find someone who was interested in Buddhism before the 1950s. It's estimated now that there are about 200,000 Buddhists in Britain right now, there's a lot more obviously in the States, and it's beginning to flourish in Europe.

But all this very new, probably in the last 25 years. You have to bear in mind it probably took the Chinese about 500-600 years to really understand it, it took the Tibetans about 200 years, so where are we? [Laughs] Like I said before, Western people want instant results. I mean Buddhism also has a wider influence outside just the numerical number of people who follow the Buddhist path. It's influential in a lot of ways -- it sort of unconsciously seeps into people's minds. So yeah, it looks hopeful.

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