After hearing a lot of use of the word “zen” in Gödel, Escher, Bach, I decided to read a little bit about it. I started with Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, which I found pretty delightful and completely opaque. Once of the stories goes,
When Banzan was walking through a market he overheard a conversation between a butcher and his customer.
“Give me the best piece of meat you have,” said the customer.
“Everything in my shop is the best,” replied the butcher. “You cannot find here any piece of meat that is not the best.”At these words Banzan became enlightened. (101 Zen Stories, #31)
With no understanding of the principles of Zen, this story of course sounds absurd. But it was so compelling that I kept reading.
Zen is part of the Mahayana branch of Buddhism. Omori Sogen says in his Introduction to Zen Training, “[…] the basic principle of Mahayana Zen Buddhism: [is] ‘To save others first before saving ourselves.’” But then he goes on to say:
Such a thing as the salvation of all human beings is a useless effort which resembles counting grains of sand on the beach. However, the exclusion of such unavailing efforts as piling up stones on the bank of the River Sai, and such foolish accumulation of karma (cause and effect) will prevent even universal scientific truth from illuminating the earth in its totality.
I had been confused about the mechanics of how achieving enlightenment would save all sentient beings. And here I think Sogen says that, even though it’s impossible, we need to aim for universal salvation, because if we don’t aim for universal salvation, we’ll never see things for how they truly are. “What we need most in our world today”, Sogen concludes, “is such compassion for others as felt by Priest Joshu, who insisted on voluntarily descending to Hell ahead of others in order to save them […]”