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Zen – what a kind of Buddhism is this: No temples, no relics of Buddha in golden shrines, no priests, no prayers, no flower sacrifices, no colourful processions, no sutra-singing, no holy books, no murmur of holy mantras ... Nothing is holy here.

Ask the Zen Masters: "Who is the Buddha?" – "Three pounds of flax"*, says Tung-Shan. "The wrung cloth"*, says Yün-Men. – And Buddha, free again and released from the congealment of mildly smiling golden statues, laughs at these mysterious words heartily.

Zen, this religion of sky-stormers, who don't know any God, and don't adore Buddha but become a Buddha themselves, who do not content themselves with this metaphysical haze of holiness where other religions hide their unsolved questions in, but struggle for clarity, for enlightenment, for the unclouded insight into the real essence of the world – this religion has fascinated me since I first had heard about it.

Of course, this fascination has its antecedents. For as long as I can think back, I have searched for God:

From all the Gods I have grown up with during my childhood in those times of the germanic cult of the Third Reich, I liked the guileless blustering Thor most; moreover, I was born on a thursday, and alone that meant I was 'Thor's child'. The gloomy Odin or the tricky Loki hardly were reliable friends. But Thor is by your side as soon as you pronounce his name, and gives you his daring courage and his enormous power, and soon I had a big amulet around my neck, made from a piece of slate, with Thor's name engraved on it in germanic rune letters, and so I had no longer to be afraid of any scramble. – But then, when puberty came, I had other needs and questions which probably would be cared for better by the 'dear God' about whom I heard at school.

At the age of twelve, I thought I could find him in the church. I was eager to become a protestant. I was not christened, nor were my parents married in church, but now I gave no rest until all that was made up for. And finally I was a christian: In Religion I had the mark 'very good', I prayed heart-movingly, on sunday mornings I got up earlier than everybody else and ran to church, and as a confirmand I learned half the songbook by heart – I know the verses until now. But I did not meet God in the church.

Then I read the Bible – the whole book, from the twofold genesis to the nightmares of St.John. I found hair-raising stories about a God, who drowns the whole world and "exterminated everything, that was on earth: men, cattle, worms, and the birds under the sky"*; who razes whole towns to the ground and lets "sulfur and fire rain down from the sky on Sodom und Gomorra"*; who with his own hand kills all first-born Egyptian children in one single night, "and there was much crying in Egypt; for there was not one house without a dead child"*; and to his people he gives the order to eliminate, to pillage, and to rape whoever may cross their way: "Do not spare them, but kill men and women, children and babies, oxen and sheep, camels and donkeys"*, "they shall die by the sword, and their young children shall be smashed, and their pregnant wives shall be ripped up"*, "but the girls who are untouched, those let alive for yourselves"*  ... that was not exactly the 'dear God' I was looking for, though I continued reading until the end, but God did not appear from the Bible, and neither from the Koran nor from the books of other religions which fell into my hands.

I came across Zen in the youth movement, in our group 'autonome jungenschaft dj.1.11', where they had opened their horizon worldwide, made far trips abroad, brought songs and instruments of foreign countries home and so also had discovered Zen. Sitting around our campfire, we read aloud the few books on Zen which were available at that time, exercised archery and other samurai arts, and learned karate, which was a still completely unknown Zen art in our country at that time.

That meditation was also a part of Zen, that was something which I learnt later when I had found a thick pocket-book, written by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, on Zen Buddhism and christian mysticism; it was hard to understand, so I read and re-read it, and this book became my steady companion for the next years. I learnt that meditation is the most important method in Zen Buddhism, for the Japanese word 'zen' means nothing but 'meditation'.

That is why everyone can practice Zen Buddhism in every part of the world without any circumstances: You don't need a temple or a priest or a special service, just read a book on Zen, sit down and meditate. "To achieve the Zen enlightenment," the Zen masters say, "you don't have to leave your family, or to give up your job, to become a vegetarian, or an ascetic, or an eremite"*, but only "to realize Zen directly there, where you are"*.

Now I began to meditate in my lonely student's digs nearly every day, often for several hours. But what is 'meditation'? I had to find it out by myself, because there were no instructions available at that time, even not in Suzuki's Zen book.

First I thought that would be something like Yoga. So I read Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, and books about Hatha Yoga and Kundalini Yoga, and learnt to control my body and my mind by techniques of relaxation and concentration. I had surprising and interesting new experiences, and some of the Yoga techniques are helpful to me still nowadays.

But meditation is not a matter of controlling your body and your mind by will, but of observing and exploring yourself without any special ambition. Our word 'meditation' is derived from the Latin language and means 'reflection, contemplation': By meditation, you observe your body and your thoughts, feelings, perception, and consciousness, get to the bottom of them and find inner peace and a new all-embracing harmony.

After some time I had developed my own method; the Buddhists, who practice several different techniques of meditation, would probably call this a 'contemplating meditation':
 – Sit down, cross your legs, and put your hands together in your lap, close your eyes, and let your body breathe in its normal way. Observe your breathing and think: "I breathe in, I breathe out, breathe in, breathe out, in, out, in, out ...".
 – Observe your body, and you get aware that it is relaxing a bit more each time you breathe out; your mind also becomes relaxed, you feel quiet and peace spreading inside you.
 – Whenever you should notice that your breathing follows a certain rigid rhythm you have left the attitude of passive observation and turned to control your breathing by will. This will spoil your contemplation. Please, interrupt the rhythm by taking a long breath, then let your body return to its natural breathing, and just observe it.
 – After a while there will appear pictures in your mind, thoughts are coming up, emotions try to overcome you: Don't suppress them, don't interfere. Keep breathing quietly, and realize what you are doing: "i am breathing in, breathing out, in, out, in, out ...". Just observe your thoughts, and let them go their way – if they are not important they will fade away soon.
 – When the casual thoughts of everyday occurences have gone by, more serious questions will appear: Don't banish them, don't cling to them, just observe them how they will develop.
 – Imperceptibly one of these questions will capture you, you will become absorbed in it and work on it with all parts of your body and your mind, not only with your pure intellect. So don't expect that your brains could provide you with a reasoned answer at the end. Maybe your insight will grow, but it is much more important that during your meditation all components of your personality are activated: Body, thinking, feeling, perceptive faculty, and consciousness work together as a whole, they cooperate in their own way without being disturbed by your will, they find their common wavelength, their own harmony, and they bring you forward, step by step, on your way to recognize yourself.

I had questions enough, because I kept reading in Suzuki's book, which I always carried with me; when I finally chose 'Zen' to be my subject for my exams in Religious Pedagogics, that was one more challenge for me to try hard to understand the mysterious passages which my brains could not make head or tail of.

And then, during the term of my final examination, I had my Zen experience – it gave me feelings, never known before nor thereafter in my life: mighty feelings of happiness, of power, of calmness and kindness – and it revolutionized my view on this world completely.

This was a quite personal, a quite intimate experience, and I have kept it secret for nearly forty years – so long I did not dare to touch it, to think it over or even to talk about it. I knew I had this treasure, but I feared that every attempt of putting it in thoughts and words would be unable to describe it, and would inevitably make it appear smaller and less important than it was, perhaps even to myself. And who would ever understand what it means to me if I could not give him the full picture?

Now, four decades after the great event, I take this risk. I want to talk it over. I want to know if there is anyone who had a similar experience. Maybe my report will find a resonance anywhere in this wide world, and I would be happy to hear about it.

You know, I have never seen a report like this one before. The Buddhist literature is full of stories about enlightenment, and the scriptures of Zen Buddhism exactly hand down the words and acts of the old Zen Masters which brought enlightenment to their pupils a thousand years ago*. But they all describe the method, the way to enlightenment – what really happened to the enlightened person, how he felt, what he thought, saw, did ... about that I found only very few and poor hints.

That is why I believe that my story could be of common interest. So let me tell you what happened:

My Zen Experience

Well, it is saturday morning, and I am sitting in the mensa, for half an hour later, at ten o'clock, I will have to attend at a seminar – nobody else helds a seminar on saturdays, but Professor Dr. Dr. Adolphs is a hard-working, resolute, prudent woman, and everybody is afraid of her sharp tongue. No student can escape her, because in the final examinations she is the examiner on General Pedagogics – everyone has to go through that, me too. That is why I am sitting here. I never missed any of her lessons, am always punctual as clockwork and diligently prepared, but never dared to ask permission to speak in her seminar until now.

Now, after having looked through my homework once again, I want to relax still a moment and read in Suzuki's book. It is quiet in the mensa, the kiosk is closed, and besides me there are only three other students sitting a few desks away and talking in a low voice. I can concentrate my thoughts very well on the book. But stop, this passage is hard to understand, just let me read it again ...

 ... look, the darkness fades away, I recognize contours, first blurred, then sharper, and I realize that I am staring through the mensa window upwards at the gable-end of the next building – how long I am already sitting like this, I don't know. The gable is ca. 20 meters away, but now I see every detail very sharp and enlarged, like through a magnifying glass, I recognize every elevation of the roughcast on the gable wall light grey, every deepening deep black. I turn my eyes away from the gable wall and, to my surprise, I see everything quite clear, distinct, enlarged, and somehow very three-dimensional. This sharp sight still lasts for quite a while.

Now I feel how a brightening warm radiance begins to spread in my body, and slowly I am seized by a high feeling, a feeling of happiness, which is simply overflowing. I could laugh and sing and dance, but I do not need to move: I am sitting on my chair in the mensa, smiling, and feeling as if I would laugh and sing and dance ...

The three students have got up and are leaving; probably they also have to go to Adolphs' seminar. I remain sitting, enjoying this wonderful feeling still a bit longer, but then I also stand up. I am moving so easily and softly. Slowly I put my books together. When I open the heavy mensa door to get out, I instinctively stand still, and with astonished eyes I see a changed world. I suck it in with a deep breath: All things seem to be more three-dimensional, more plump, arched in my direction, and everything seems to have the same inner radiance as me.

In a strange way, I feel connected to everything I see. Slowly I start towards the seminar building, smile at the stones and flowers in the foregarden of the mensa, say hello to the grass growing along the pavement of my way, hello to the parked cars, to two hurrying students, and finally to the big elaborately made black iron handle of the door to the seminar building.

Without haste I take the stairs step by step. The door of the seminar room is already shut, I hear Adolphs' resolute voice from inside, I am too late. But that doesn't bother me at all. The radiance fills my whole body, bright and warm, I am big, strong, full of goodness and kindness. Without hesitation I enter, go through the whole lecture-hall to the front and find an empty seat in the third row. My thoughts are clear and airy, they seem to come from the back of my brain and to understand everything. Several times I ask permission to speak, and am allowed to speak twice, and at the end I ask permission to prepare a paper for the next lesson.

After the seminar I walk slowly, happily smiling and enjoying my new sight of the world, through the little town to my home. The flowers, the bushes, the trees along my way, the paving-stones I walk on, the people I meet – they all are me and I am them. Everything has the same pulsation. I am embedded in a friendly world.

In my bare student's digs I see the small pillow on the floor and the big golden OM symbol on the wall in my meditation corner, but I feel no liking for yoga or meditation now – since this day I meditated never again. Also, I cannot stay in this small room now, my feeling of happiness wants space. I put on my karate suit and go into the garden, celebrate the kata exercise a few times and enjoy the fluent harmony of my movements. Later I turn my small car on its side and begin to clean the motor ...

The high feeling lasts on still in the afternoon, then it is suddenly gone – I remember that I stopped and stood still for a moment when I realized it, and that I felt sobered and a bit sad about it: A great and overwhelming experience was gone. Never before I had experienced something like that, and never thereafter.

The Parable Of The Concave Mirror

Later I read in Suzuki's book something about Master Ekkehard, a christian mystic who lived a thousand years ago in southern germany. Suzuki writes quite a lot about him – I think he hopes that christian mysticism might serve as a bridge for the occidental reader to a better understanding of Zen. Indeed there are many amazing points of contact, and The Parable Of The Concave Mirror is an especially beautiful example: Master Ekkehard characterizes his own spiritual experience as 'going through the mirror'.

Do you remember how many tales and superstitious customs are connected to mirrors? Mirrors are regarded to be the door to another world, the world of ghosts, of wonders, of the unknown and weird: Alice enters the Wonderland through a mirror; the Phantom of the Opera emerges from his world of caves and appears in the mirror of Christine's wardrobe; the bad queen is told by her miracle mirror that Snow-White lives behind the seven mountains; mirrors can tell fortunes, in St.John's Night they show you your future spouse; who breaks a mirrors will have seven years of misfortune because the demons have free access to our world now and will persecute him; in the house of a deceased all mirrors are hidden, so the soul will find its way straight to heaven and cannot go astray into the world of ghosts behind the mirror ...

I believe that all these popular tales and customs are only the misunderstood vulgar versions of the old mystic secret of 'going through the mirror', revealed by Master Ekkehard in his Parable Of The Concave Mirror.

He surely did not mean to break through the mirror glass, but to pass through the focus – because that is the interesting point.

Do you, dear reader, have a concave mirror at hand, a cosmetic mirror or shaving mirror for example, which enlarges your face? Then, please, fetch it, and here we go:

  • When the mirror is several meters away from you, you can see yourself and the things around you in it, but everything is standing on their heads: Parabolically this could mean that your view of the world is wrong.

  • If you approach the mirror slowly, the things in it appear clearer and bigger, but they are still standing on their heads: Your attempt to recognize the world gives you new insights and a sharper perception – that may assure you to be on the right way though your understanding of the world is still wrong.

  • Now move very slowly, millimeter by millimeter, towards the mirror, and you'll see the things sharper ... Move a bit more, and they will appear still more distinct and even bigger than in reality: Though everything is still standing on their heads, and your conception of the world is still wrong, you are quite near to the solution.

  • Now move again a tiny bit – and suddenly the image in the mirror becomes totally distorted and blurred, your face and all the things around loose their form and get mixed up in a muddle of lights and colours: You see how all things dissolve and disintegrate, melt into one another, and become one single entity.

  • Go a tiny step farther towards the mirror, and see how the one entity flows into soft forms again, and suddenly you recognize yourself, no longer standing on your head but in the right position. If you approach the mirror still a bit more now, you see everything bigger and clearer than ever before: You have 'gone through the mirror', and now your view of the world is right ...

All this could be a nice invention of Master Ekkehard: A handsome parable which everyone can perform with his own shaving mirror and thereby understand the cryptic thoughts of the master.

But the amazing thing is that my Zen experience went exactly like Master Ekkehard's Parable:

  • I sat reading in the mensa, relaxed but, of course, eager to learn more about Zen: According to the Parable, I was far away from the mirror, I tried to recognize something, though my whole view of the world was wrong.

  • While reading a certain text passage, I began to understand a bit of it, but the rest remained a riddle to me. Spontaneously I tried to understand it all – this is the last thing i remember before my blackout – by reading the same passage again. I had assembled all my attention on this passage: In the speech of the Parable, I came nearer and nearer to the mirror, in order to see clearer.

  • There my recollection is interrupted ... I don't know what happened until I emerged from my immersion, I even don't know how long it lasted. It is pure speculation, when I assume that I must have re-read the passage, and then, thinking it over, must have raised my eyes through the window up to the gable-end, because this is what I often do: Thinking something over, I instinctively fix my eyes to the highest point which I can see through the window, let my eyes rest there, and let my brain work ... and so I must have reached the focus of the mirror.

  • In this moment probably the very same happened to my thoughts what happens in the concave mirror when the images suddenly blur and distort: My thoughts blur and overflow the contours of the conceptions which were formed by sensual perception; intellectual contents get loose from the pictures and conceptions they were originally connected with, the contents get independent, spread out, get mixed and unite in new and novel combinations, install new connections of thoughts, assemble sources of new knowledge ...

  • When this spontaneous movement comes to rest, my blackout is over: I emerge from my immersion and am astonished to see the world suddenly with new eyes and to feel the certainty deep in my heart, that I and the things around me are all the same, one entity in many kinds of different forms. To refer to the Parable one last time: I have 'gone through the mirror', and this is the right view of the world now.

This insight could not develop from sensual perception, but only from an exclusively mental process which started spontaneously – maybe as soon as a last missing link was added, or in a kind of chain reaction, as soon as a certain critical mass was assembled – and kept my brain intensely busy to that extent that it switched me off for a moment – what I experienced as a total blackout.

During my blackout the data complexes in my brain obviously re-organized themselves according to their own mental rules, and so found a new mental harmony which gives me a quite new fundament for my orientation in this world.

What results

I have not become better or wiser. But I have become more calm and composed. When you know that you don't stand alone against this whole world but are at one with it – what ever could threaten you? You can feel well preserved, and can confidently live in the present and let the incertainties of the future not frighten you, you can meet your fellow-men without fear, open-minded and friendly, you can laugh at your own mistakes, and handle the peculiarities of others with more tolerance, understanding, and indulgence.

And my search for God has ceased. You might say, I found him: It is me, and you, and the wind, the stone, the sound, the evening star ... we all together. Deep in my heart I feel the certainty – not so much like a new cognition, but more like a dug out primary knowledge deep inside – to be at one with all these things around me, to be a part, a reflex of the great unity, nothing in special, and not to separate from the whole.

If you now want to know my religion, I am almost tempted to say: Zen-Buddhist – in order to meet Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki with gratitude for the fifteen hundred years of Zen tradition he disclosed to me; also to give tribute to the Zen method which is also known as 'school of suddenness' because it often lets its pupils stumble into enlightment in one unexpected moment; and finally, of course, on account of the buddhist view of the world which, without a God or a promised Beyond, gives my life security, peace, friendliness, and calmness.

But I'd better say: I have no religion. I don't need any, don't practice any, I don't pray, don't meditate, don't confess and don't atone, I am no sinner and no saint, no eremite and no philosopher – I just live, amidst this colorful world, again and again enjoying the experience of the immediate nearness and the deep community with every thing existing, and based on the insight that everything belongs to one all-embracing totality which becomes manifest in me like in all other things, and so gives me the security to live in the present, to enjoy day by day whatever they may bring – for*

Every day is a good day!


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© Kai Kracht 2001
Original text in German language: Zen-Buddhismus

* Quotations are translated from German into English language. So, if you click on the little star at each quotation's end, you will see the source where the German version was published.