I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian church, with a fundamentalist Christian mom. I was told from the day I was born that I believed in Jesus Christ as our Savior, and I didn't question it.
Until I saw the Kung Fu TV show around 1972. I started watching for the kung-fu fighting, but found myself drawn to the flashbacks -- the morality tales with the wonderful monks teaching Young Caine valuable lessons. The monks were Master Kan, played by the wonderful Philip Ahn, and the blind Master Po, played by Hollywood veteran Keye Luke (who played "Number One Son" in Charlie Chan movies in the 1930s).
The lessons were soothing and thought-provoking. When Caine questioned his own bravery, Master Kan said, "The deer runs from the lion. It is not cowardice. It is the love of life."
When Young Caine and another young monk-to-be were robbed by a con man on the way to town, Master Kan asked the other young man what he learned from the ordeal. "Never trust anyone," the young man said angrily. Master Kan turned to Young Caine and asked what he had learned. "Always expect the unexpected," Young Caine replied. Master Kan kicked the cynical young student out of the Temple and accepted Caine's reply.
No one had ever told me about this stuff before. I found it much more peaceful, and a more loving way to look at the world and at other people, than the anger and bigotry that sometimes sprang from the people I had grown up regarding as authority figures. They were good folks, but full of the Threat of Christianity -- believe this or be tortured for eternity (oh, and by the way, it's a message of hope and love). And oh yes, anyone who doesn't believe what we do -- they're going to be tortured for eternity because they're guided by Satan. What an ugly concept.
I began hungering for more information about this strange Eastern philosophy, and when I was around 21 or 22, right after I began studying Kung-Fu, I found this book -- Zen Buddhism, by Christmas Humphries. He was a stuffy looking British prosecuting attorney and judge, but he had found Zen and became a leading authority. He died in 1983, but his home is now a Buddhist temple.
Have you ever experienced something you previously knew nothing about, and you "clicked" with it instantly? The book changed my life, and was a finger pointing the Way to a new way of thinking.
It isn't a religious book. It's more philosophy than theology. In fact, no invisible beings are mentioned because there's no way of knowing if God exists, so in Zen, that concept isn't something you spend mental energy on. No one can know, so you walk on.
As Humphries puts it, "Zen...climbs, with empty hands, from the level of 'usual life' to the heights of spiritual awareness."
A week ago, I discovered the book, still in my library with the $1.99 sticker on it from the 1970s. I started studying it again. Last night, I was telling my wife Nancy about the book. She looked puzzled. "What is Zen?" she asked. I found it difficult to explain and finally laughed. "He who knows does not speak, he who speaks does not know," I said.
Zen requires intuition to achieve enlightenment. You can't "think" your way to it. You have to set aside what you think you know, your labels and beliefs. Only then can you get a glimmer of enlightenment.
Zen uses humor, abstract concepts, and sometimes irrational statements to trigger enlightenment. One of my favorite stories from the book:
A man approaches the Buddha with a gift in each hand.
"Drop it!" says the Buddha.
The man drops the gift from his right hand and steps forward.
"Drop it!" says the Buddha.
The man drops the gift from his left hand and steps foward.
"Drop it!" says the Buddha and the man is enlightened.
Another good quote from the book - "Zen is a matter of experience. This statement, simple to express, is all that can usefully be said. The rest is silence, and a finger pointing the way."
Although some disagree, I see Zen and Taoist philosophy as being related -- maybe second cousins. I find Chi Kung (Qigong) a very good time to achieve silence, and open yourself to the Way. You can't feel the connection or the enlightenment by thinking about it.
There have been moments in the past few decades where I have had short flashes of some sort of enlightenment. It has been brief, like that of a camera flash, and it's gone just as quickly because when it flashes, you begin to think about it, and it lies beyond the intellect. Once you think about it, it's gone.
In those brief flashes, however, I feel that I have glimpsed the Truth. Despite the short duration of these insights, it is enough to let me know that when I found this book as part of my spiritual search as a young man, I took a fork in the road that most people I had grown up with didn't take, and I traveled a path very different from the path I was told to follow or else suffer eternal torture.
How ironic that this insight was helped along by a man named Christmas. I've never looked back.