One day, long after he became a teacher, the Buddha went to give his daily sermon to the monastic community. He climbed on the dais but didn’t speak. Instead, he held aloft a single flower. He waited in silence. The monks and nuns looked back at him as the minutes passed. Finally, a single monk, Kāśyapa, looked at the Buddha. Kāśyapa smiled. As ancient scripture records it, the Buddha said, “I possess the true Dharma eye, the marvelous mind of Nirvana, the true form of the formless, the subtle dharma gate that does not rest on words or letters but is a special transmission outside of the scriptures. This I entrust to Mahākāśyapa.”[i] In other words, “Great Kasyapa is enlightened.” The Buddha got offstage and called it a day.
This is the origin story of Zen.
Imagine you experience some idiosyncratic rebellion of the body, and it makes your inner ear fill with fluid. Your eardrum bows out, strains under its ballooning burden, and shudders awkwardly when sound waves strike it. Sound doesn’t pass gracefully across the ear’s tight coils and small bones anymore; instead, it ricochets. Strange thrums mix with ordinary noises. Words sound as though they are heard underwater, which, in a way, they are. Nerves crackle. The head pounds. The world tilts and spins.
As the sickness wears on, the inner ear degrades. The brain begins to misunderstand aural information. Noise becomes overwhelmingly loud, as though every sound in the whole world is a primal scream. Your fight-or-flight response rears up, causing a great and endless startled feeling. The red alert is 24/7.
Classic Meniere’s disease.
In the same era as the invention of Zen, traditional Buddhist philosophy evolved a list of five hindrances: laziness, resentment, gluttony, anxiety, and doubt. Each is said to slow progress towards enlightenment.
Of the five, doubt may be the biggest issue here and now. American Buddhists who are converts to a minority faith have little assurance on what meditation is or does. We are unusually ripe for doubt.
Defraying our qualms by bending to them, we may be the best-researched religion in the history of the world. There are few neuropsychological studies of other faiths, for example, compared to the whopping pile that has been generated about Buddhist meditative practices. We have whole conferences on research results of meditation and mindfulness. Today’s Buddhism is an evidence-based faith.
Robert Thurman, professor of Indo-Tibetan studies at Columbia University, once said, “Practice, practice, practice, Buddhists are always talking about practice. What I want to know is: When is the performance?”[ii]
There is a famous Buddhist cliché that says, “You must meditate like your hair is on fire.” When I got sick with Meniere’s disease in 2011, I altered it. I meditated like my ears were on fire. It was an accidental experiment, with the cliché as my hypothesis and my own body as the sole subject.
I had no choice: this was my performance. My pain set off anxiety, which made my pain feel worse. Then the increasing pain made more anxiety, which in turn made more pain. I was standing on a precipice, overlooking a spiraling descent into sensorial hell. With mindfulness, I could balance carefully there, watching the suffering without falling into it. If I let panic take over, I would plummet. It was simple.
Meditation is not necessarily about generating intense concentration. It can be about the exact opposite: a slow, steady gentleness that adds no intensity to what already exists. Meditation would help me if I just observed the pain and anxiety and the overwhelming loud sounds all around me, handling one moment at a time. I held onto my mind the same way I’d hold a newborn baby who is screaming at the top of her lungs: my brain was suffering, and it was mine, and I was caring for it. That was simple too.
Before I got sick, a priestess at a Zen Buddhist temple and I were once discussing a sign I had found on the Internet.
The priestess understood what I meant. We were both having a cynical moment. We were discussing how people can misunderstand Buddhism, misuse it, and occasionally damage it.
She mentioned Buddhist Practice on Western Ground, a book about people in the West trying to engage with Asian Buddhist practices. It describes how Buddhists can entangle themselves in psychological distortions, cultural misunderstandings, unrealistic demands, and basic incompetence. The book argues that our American interpretation is so pervasively different from Asian Buddhism that the two are nearly separate religions.
Much of classic Buddhist teaching must get lost in translation. Why wouldn’t it? The problem of translation goes far beyond Buddhism. Even transliteration (the practice of converting from one writing system to another) removes meaning from words.
For example, there’s Baidu—a search engine in China, the equivalent of Google. The word “baidu” translates as “hundreds of times,” which calls to mind a list of search results. But in the Chinese source for this word, there’s another layer of meaning. “Baidu” comes from an ancient poem about two lovers. It reads, in part, “…hundreds and thousands of times, for her I searched in chaos/ Suddenly, I turned by chance to where the lights were waning, and there she stood.”[iii] It’s more evocative and subtle than the straight translation.
It doesn’t stop there. Changing the Chinese ideogram into Latin letters confuses the word “baidu” with other ideograms that have the same sounds. One of them, for instance, is “a failed attempt to poison someone.” There are many ways to get the wrong idea, when words are changed from language to language. A simple name like baidu could be as meaningless as “Google,” without any harm done. But the point remains: there are secular, modern, banal translation problems all the time, everywhere.
Buddhism moves esoteric concepts, mysticism, metaphysics, and ethics between writing systems and across cultures, vast geographies, and centuries. We often rely on one or two translations of essential religious texts, which are not necessarily free of errors. Transmitting anything of Buddhism’s original essence is pretty amazing.
From the limited amount we have, we naturally pull out the elements that matter to us and that we can understand most easily. Then we reinterpret in our own lives. We take what little we know and distort it.
Meditating as though my life depended on it, I felt doubt nonetheless.
When you hold a screaming baby, it can help to sing to her.
A car alarm helped me realize that human sense organs are designed to perceive contrasts. If there was silence, then any abrupt loud noise could hurt me terribly. We humans perceive unpredictable pains as feeling much worse, too. A patterned, predictable, familiar sound is always less painful than a sudden sound.
When a sick eardrum is overwhelmed with sound, another answer is to turn on the radio. One day I was listening to soft music, and all of a sudden it occurred on me that music is good. It’s really, really good.
This was the stupidest insight ever. Everyone loves music. In This is Your Brain on Music, musician-neuroscientist Daniel Levitin wrote, “Americans spend more money on music than on sex or on prescription drugs.”[iv] I did that too, but not with any particular emotional investment—until Meniere’s disease hit me.
Being hypersensitive to sound means all the nuances in a song pressed against my malfunctioning eardrum with enormous intensity. One day, out of the blue, my emotional mind grasped the clear beauty in the sounds. “Suddenly, I turned by chance… and there she stood.” Before my illness, the music of Miles Davis bored me. After, its beauty made me weep. Sound caused me profound pain, but when sound was beautiful, pain was bearable.
Mahākāśyapa knew a flower is beautiful. I know music is beautiful. A special transmission, outside the scriptures.
One day I realized music was answering my doubts about Buddhism.
“Amen Brother” is by a band called the Winstons. It’s an old B-side from 1969, mostly forgotten now. There are, however, six very well-known seconds in the middle.
Even if you don’t know it, you’ve certainly heard this break beat before. It’s called the Amen Break. Sampling (the practice of storing a short recorded sound in a synthesizer to use as part of another, new song) is ubiquitous in our musical culture. The Amen Break is one of the most sampled sounds in history.
Websites curate enormous lists of songs with the break. It’s in Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good.” It’s in a song by Gilberto Gil, the legendary Brazilian musician who was once the head of the Brazilian Ministry of Culture. It’s in the “Futurama” opening credits. It’s in a song called “Zen” by someone called Ice Minus. One website mentions, “Hoo boy, it’d be easier to list songs that don’t have this break in some form.”[v]
There’s an entire musical genre, Drum and Bass, almost entirely built around deconstructions of the Amen Break. Of course there’s also hip-hop, a genre that has used the Amen Break nearly as long as either as existed, in songs like NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton.”
The “clean” version of “Straight Outta Compton” has a surprisingly large portion of the words changed, by the way. This relates to the point. The Buddha was straight outta Kapilavastu, of course, not straight outta Compton. But setting aside the aesthetic differences, classical Buddhist thought is like “Amen Brother.” Buddhist thought, as it is understood in America, is sampled like the Amen Break.
“Amen Brother” became a foundation of thousands of things that never existed in the original song. The Winstons, who wrote it, never intended to found a couple unrelated musical genres.
Mahākāśyapa never intended to found Zen. The Buddha himself would likely be enormously surprised that over 2500 years later, we would maintain his tradition—and subject it to neurological research, too.
We are musicians, sampling his breaks, writing our own songs hundreds of times.
There is another meaning to “Baidu,” the Chinese search engine name, by the way. It can also be transliterated to mean “making a religion of gambling.”
That’s North American Zen Buddhism, too: an alternative translation, and a religion built on risk-taking. Unintended meanings are our foundation—and the future, too.
The Buddha’s last words before he died were instructions to repurpose his teachings in our own lives. The Buddha wasn’t saying “Home Taping Is Killing Music.” He was saying this.
He was saying, “If you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him.”
“Practice, practice, practice, Buddhists are always talking about practice. But I want to know: when is the performance?” I think I do know: it’s whenever we put old practices into our new context.
Rigorous, precise meditation can pay off, even if it’s improvised. Doubt is unnecessary, in the end, because we can judge meditation the way we often judge music—in a sensory way, by how it soothes a burning ear, by how close it is to Mahākāśyapa seeing a flower.
In the words of Zen Master Miles Davis, who still makes me cry: “Do not fear mistakes. There are none.”
[i] Dumoulin, Heinrich (2005). Zen Buddhism: A History (India & China). Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, Inc. p. 9.
[ii] Thurman, Robert A. F. (2006), Inquiring Mind 13, Fall. Cover; quoted in Aronson, Harvey. Buddhist Practice on Western Ground: Reconciling Eastern Ideals and Western Psychology (2004). Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, Inc., p. 199.
[iii] —. “The Baidu Story,” Baidu, Internet: http://ir.baidu.com/phoenix.zhtml?c=188488&p=irol-homeprofile. Retrieved September 2012.
[iv] Levitin, Daniel (2006). This is Your Brain on Music: the Science of a Human Obsession. East Rutherford, NJ: Penguin Putnam. p.7
[v] —. “Amen Break.” TVTropes.org, Internet: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AmenBreak. Retrieved April 2012.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.