It is always stimulating for me to start discovering the meaning of zen in daily life with a new group. It makes it a renewed and flourishing experience. A famous zen master, Shunryu Suzuki, once wrote a book entitled ‘Zen Mind, Beginners Mind’, in which he argues that you can only practice zen right if you start every session as if it’s your first. Many of you will not need to pretend, as it would really be your first time. Therefore, you are the perfect practitioner. Of course, you will have many expectations and ideas about zen, yet I hope you can let go of most of them during the course. After all, we aim to enter the world free of prejudice (or judgment in general). How do we combine the open-mindedness of a child with the intelligence and social capability of an adult? How do we turn off our defence mechanisms when we don’t really need them? And how do we introduce peace and harmony in our lives without losing the passion and enthusiasm? These are all questions that I have been struggling for a long time, and which don’t have any straightforward answers. However, zen helps me to deal with these questions, and to keep them alive in my daily life.
According to Buddha, there are 84.000 ways that lead to a spiritual climax in human lives. Zen is one of these many ways, and I have discovered that it’s my way. Only time will tell whether it can also become your way. Zen can be practiced by anyone who can sit or lay down (so really anybody!), but that doesn’t mean it’s good for everybody. A Jesuit (who was also a zen master) once told me: “Zen is a slow road, but a very thorough one.” Thirty years later, I would have to agree. Zen is like walking through a very thin mist. At first, you don’t feel much, but after walking for hours, you’re completely soaked. By sitting on that pillow every day, something in your life starts changing very slowly. You have to be prepared though, it works for some, but for others there are different ways. Nobody really sits for the own pleasure. It requires an act of will to clear out the time to sit on that pillow or kneeler every day. Yet, this daily recurring act will eventually be the bridge that connects your daily spirit with that great silence locked away inside you. For some people (like me), this process takes very long, for others it goes faster. But whether it takes a long time or not, sitting in zazen is an expression of the spiritual path that you have set foot on. And whether it takes a long time or not, there will always be a positive change in your life.
The zen that I practice does not follow a strict tradition. Elements can be found of the two main schools in Japan, Soto-shyu and Rinzai-shyu. It also contains elements of the original Chinese Ch’an, as my current teacher follows the Chinese Lin Chi Ch’an tradition. My teacher, Ton Lathouwers, is one of the most liberal zen masters I have ever met. He knows a lot about zen, as well as Christianity, both its European and Russian orthodox forms. A former professor of slavic languages, he knows Russian writers like no other. He combines his erudition with his passionate compassion and is considered as an inspirator of a broad collective of zen practitioners in the Netherlands and Belgium who call themselves Maha Karuna (great compassion) Ch’an school. Every time I go on a retreat with him, my heart opens up, and I become more capable to cope with the world’s suffering, and to do something with it. I hope to transfer some of his inspiration and enthusiasm to you all, and I wish you a good course with many silent experiences.