Zen involves not carrying things around—no-dwelling. That said, Zen carries a lot with it.
Dhyana, Chan, Zen, Seon, Thien, these are more than the same word translated into different languages. They’re places. Zen carries the heaviest thing of all with it: the land.
There’s a simple explanation for this that every writer can understand. Where we’re from is part of who we are. Nothing’s isolated. Our surroundings are part of our personalities because they affect our habits, and they provide us with experiences.
Of course not everyone who’s spent a lot of time in a certain habitat is identical—we all have our inborn temperaments and acquired views—but there are common threads between people who’ve shared the same scenery.
I’ve never liked where I live all that much, but it’s not the land’s fault: it’s all the fucking country music. I started off in the city, a crime-laden suburb of Chicago before my parents and I migrated to the sticks when I was 10. I’ve lived in the same small village for 20 years. There are only 150 people here, and most of us keep to ourselves.
In less than a 20 minute walk, you can cross a stream, a few ponds, and be in the woods. In less than a 5 minute walk, you can be on a gravel back road with nothing but fields for miles. In the winter, it feels like you can see forever.
A half an hour drive from here, and you’re in Starved Rock National Park with its waterfalls and steep overlooking the river.
Each year, the summer sets the field behind my haze on golden fire. There are ambling creeks on both sides of town passing through pasture lands. If you head to the park, you can hop the fence and roam practically untouched gently rolling grasslands.
This place is part of me, so it’s part of my practice. It informs the way I explain things, and even the methods I use. My path has been as unpredictable as the land and weather here; moving through extremes, and always in touch with a rugged foundation.
This area has something in common with New Mexico, though I can’t say what it is. It’s a feeling, an ordinary, unforgiving beauty. Of course there, the stakes are even higher. There aren’t any scorpions here or rattlers here—just a random coyote and cotton mouth. Most of the fauna harmless: deer, raccoons, rabbits, squirrels, possums, skunks, and cats—cats everywhere.
If you ever feel lost in life, I recommend looking at where you are, your place.
Look at the environment and weather that serves as a kind of foundation for your sense of self. Zen doesn’t take away this sense—that’d be annihilationism—it exposes it so that there’s nothing artificial involved.
There’s nothing more authentic than place. So when we’re mindful or meditating, we’re not just sitting as a body and mind. We’re sitting as a whole environment. When I sit, these fields, creeks, woods, and pastures are sitting too. In the winter, the Buddha statue I have in back is covered in snow.
For our practice to really live, we can’t just devour other people’s places and histories. There’s no separation between us and meditation, so there’s no separation between the land and meditation.
We can call it whatever we like depending on what tradition we’re in, whether it be Chan or Zen, but no matter what, it isn’t China and Japan that are practicing. It’s here, this place, and this time.
I just lucked out because the feeling I get from Chan is the same feeling I get from these open plains. Maybe it’s the Native American vibe around here, that resilient earthiness. Illini Zen.