In Japanese design there is a principle called kanso, a concept influenced by Zen philosophy that refers to simplicity, the grace and beauty of keeping it simple.
On the surface kanso would seem to be an apt description of Zen. I ran across an article the other day extolling this very concept, the idea that Zen is not complicated. I’m not going to link to it because I suspect that it’s part of some money-making blog thing, but the author, one Jeremiah Bourque expresses something I’ve heard many times before, that “Zen is a renunciation of enlightenment found via the trappings of organized religion, such as mass prayer, ritualistic chants, and large structures. Zen has no institutions, no bishops, no popes, and no dogma.”
If it were only that simple. Personally, I find traditional Japanese Zen to be extremely formalistic, and ritualistic. No popes or bishops, instead there’s the Zen teacher, the master, and the whole lineage and transmission system, all of which feels just very institutional at times, and Zen has its fair share of dogma. I’m not attacking Japanese Zen, just saying that’s the way I find it.
So, to me kanso in Zen is an aesthetic, pertaining to the sense of simplicity, but not the real thing. It’s the Zen attitude. Where I see it expressed most concretely is in the literature, art, and design, or for instance, in simple beauty of a rock garden. When it comes to the interaction between people part, the sad truth is that nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Once we human beings get a hold of something, we just have to make it more complicated. Google is a good example. It started out as sort of the Zen search engine. Simple, not ornate, straightforward. Now it’s a complicated matrix with big brother overtones.
That too, is just how it is. The idea that you can really keep it simple, for very long, is just a pipe dream.
The Buddha started simple. He said: want to overcome your problems? Then, calm your mind. Of course, I’m simplifying it, yet, that was the message in a nutshell. Originally, Zen was an attempt to reclaim that simplicity.
The Buddha’s meditation was very simple, too. He called it Mindfulness. Just focus on your breath and be in the present moment. Thich Nhat Hanh once wrote, “We do not need to search for anything more. We only need to practice the simple exercises proposed by the Buddha . . .” Keep it simple.
Being a Buddhist is not about being anything special, nor is it especially or complicated. It’s just being an ordinary person. Doing ordinary things. Like the old Zen story: someone asked the Zen master, What is Buddha? What is Dharma? What is Sangha? And each time, the master replied “Go and drink tea.” In other words, you practice, you do your daily life, eat, sleep, breath. That’s true Buddhism.
You certainly do not need a lot of ceremonial forms. Bowing and knowing how to sit just right and so on, are helpful, and downright ego busting sometimes, but not absolutely necessary. In meditation, what’s going on in your head (or not going on) is far more important than your head’s position.
I am just using Zen here as an example, not singling it out for any reason; an example of how things start out simple and become complicated. And as an ideal, because the ideal of kanso, simplicity, appeals to me. Every day should be Zen starting all over again from scratch. Just going back to the flower between the Buddha’s fingers.
Zen was supposed to be a special transmission outside of the sutras, and some Zen critics have interpreted that to mean that the sutras should be disregarded. That wasn’t it. The Lankavatara, Diamond, and Lotus sutras, among others, were studied and commented on extensively by the most of the great Zen teachers.
So when we talk about keeping it simple, it doesn’t mean to dismiss the doctrinal aspect of Buddhism. Practice sans study is a bad idea. In Chih-kuan for Beginners, Chih-i wrote:
“The practice of meditation alone, while wisdom [study] is disregarded causes stupidity, and the practice of wisdom alone, while meditation is disregarded, causes infatuation . . .Thus, if meditation and wisdom are not in equal proportion, the practice is deficient . . .”
Chih-i compared practice and study to two wings a bird and two wheels of a cart.
You might think you do not need to know anything to be a Buddhist, but it’s not really true. To be an “ordinary person” means to also have knowledge, seek and discover wisdom, and you can’t do that without some help. Studying with teachers and with other ordinary practitioners, or if you must, studying on your own, is indispensible.
Without a basic grasp of Buddhist doctrine, a person is vulnerable to manipulation. In fact, I think anyone interested in Buddhism should first do some study on their own before they commit to joining a group. Get a foundation of understanding. How else can you determine if what’s presented to you conforms to the basic principles of Buddhism?
Sufferings are caused by ignorance, and it is not possible to dispel ignorance without knowledge. It is crucial that one understands the causes that produce ignorance, and that knowledge can empower your practice.
So while the most transformative moments are in the present moment, the experience of meditation, of just being in the present moment and then doing one’s daily life is not enough. The key lies in the chudo, the Middle Way, the art of finding the balance between practice and study.
Embrace the everyday, meditate, eat and drink, sleep, but don’t neglect study. It’s still kanso, keeping it simple.