Humanism and Zen

Humanism and Zen

Authentic humanism, in Pierre Furter’s words, “consists in permitting the emergence of the awareness of our full humanity, as a condition and as an obligation, as a situation and as a project.” – Paolo Feire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed


These days my Buddhist practice life spins around, tumbles through, and is, ultimately, anchored by a weekly two-hour long period of Zen practice. Much else happens during the week. I sit, here and there. I teach a weekly class on Buddhism for a nearby Unitarian Universalist Church. I work on a mindfulness app that I am co-developing with a friend. I ponder the ins and outs of contemporary Buddhism, especially in the Western world. Is it taking root? Are we killing those roots? Is it all just for show? Is it just being used to cover up our deeper social ills?

Those questions are both social and personal. What is my relationship to the Dharma? Do I have too many relationships with the Dharma? Might I benefit from a clearer, more focused practice and approach?

For me, practice (Zen, these days), consists precisely of permitting the emergence of an awareness of my full humanity, however partial as that awareness might be. Deep practice, which requires time, offers deeper awareness. I know I’ve glimpsed things in long periods of retreat; the sorts of things that keep me coming back to the cushion even when little happens, little is seen. These are the sorts of things that beckon for explanation, beckon for a map laid out by wise practitioners before me.

As I have seen such things, and have found truth in the Buddhist explanations of them, I have at the same time felt the compulsion to both understand them more deeply and to offer them to others as a teacher.

But before I can leap forth from my cushion each time a moment of wisdom arises, I know the practice tells me to: Just. Sit. Be with the situation. Be with what is. Even the desire to help is itself a desire; it is an aspect of ignorance if followed at the wrong time.

This is humanism for some, Zen for others. Perhaps it goes by other names, more than you or I could ever know.

Whatever it is, it points to the project that is life. It points away from fixed views of self, fixed views of other, and the dichotomy between them. Is this “authentic,” a word much overused and thus deluded? In a sense, yes. It is the state sought after by those of various religions and those from no particular religion. It is the flow of becoming. Or it is true “Being.” Or it is humanism. Or it is Zen.

What are your thoughts?