Zen is not about being present. This is just Orientalism up to its old tricks of dressing up Western philosophy as if it were something foreign, and mysterious. Indo-Europeans are the only ones with Being in their languages. Being has four aspects Reality, Presence, Identity, and Presence. So Presence is an aspect of Being. So when people tell you that you should be present that means pay special attention to that aspect of Being. When they say that it comes from some other tradition then that is spiritual mumbo jumbo, the kind of new age nihilism that markets spiritual materialism that you get in the magazine “What is enlightenment?” So buyer beware. This is not to say that concentrating on the here and now is not good for you sometimes for a change. But being trapped in the present is hell on earth if that was for real, as in you don’t recognize your wife when she goes out of the room and comes back. There are actual neurological diseases that are like that, and they prove that Being present only is not a good thing. Also emptying the mind of all thought is not very good either. See Hui Neng and the Platform Sutra for better advice. He says just don’t hold on to thoughts, and do try to make them go away either. Both are nihilistic opposites and not good for you in the short of long run and nothing to do with Zen Enlightenment. By the way. Forget about Steve Jobs as well, he and most others who talk about Zen have no idea what it is about. That is because what we know about it here in the west for the most part came from people like Alan Watts who was just selling Western philosophy in a different bottle. Very few promoters of Zen in the USA know anything about it, except those who were actually trained overseas, or were trained by someone who was trained overseas. In other words if they don’t have a direct transmission from a known school and master I would not listen to anything they had to say. This has improved somewhat in that there are some very genuine practitioners these days in this country. But when it comes to talking about it, they also revert to Western concepts for the most part. Actual scholars who know both Western Philosophy and Eastern Philosophy are rare. But I was trained by one of them, named Alfonzo Verdu who was at the University of Kansas when I was doing East Asian Studies there. I had Seven or Eight courses on all aspects of Buddhist Philosophy, and I took over 60 hours of credits in Eastern Asian Studies besides my Sociology Major. He also taught me Phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger. And I went on to study Western Philosophy very deeply. But I have been reading Buddhist text translations ever since. I have been reading translations of Sutras all my life. However, I have not been a Buddhist practitioner for many years, having followed other paths. However my favorite Sutra is one that he taught me called the Awakening of Faith. All anyone needs to know about Buddhism is in the Awakening of Faith. It is the distillation of a whole tradition. And there is a commentary by Fa Tsang that has recently been translated which is excellent. Another good book about Hua Yen Buddhism is called Hua Yen: The Jeweled Net of Indra by Francis Cook. Basically Hua Yen is the height of Buddhist thought. It is based on the Avatamsaka Sutra which was translated by Cleary (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avatamsaka_Sutra). I recommend Verdu’s books on Buddhism. But there are many good authors who have contributed a lot to our understanding of Buddhist philosophy, and disentangled it from Western philosophy. Basically Buddhist Philosophy is about a million times more sophisticated than Western Philosophy. Western Philosophy is about the mundane world. Buddhist Philosophy is about trying to define meditative states that can actually be attained and which cause the world to appear differently than it does in mundane states of consciousness. Basically what Buddhist practitioners know is that our mundane consciousness is defiled by many types of subtle illusions. Buddhism has a history of cutting though those veils of illusion one at a time, and you can almost see the schools of Buddhism as a history of the various veils and how to cut through them into purer and purer states of consciousness that are not so defiled. It is like a reverse Phenomenology of Mind ala Hegel, because it is a stripping away of the illusions of consciousness rather than the building up of those illusions, as we see in Western Philosophy for the most part.
Western Philosophy is esoteric because it is really difficult to explain mundane experience. But the best explanations of it are phenomenological. And Buddhism itself is basically Phenomenological in its outlook. So though Phenomenology we can build a conceptual bridge between the two traditions without polluting either with the other.
Really when it comes down to it you cannot know what Zen is about unless you know what Western Philosophy is about, because Western Philosophy contains all we know about our own worldview, and if we don’t know about that then we will just like the Orientalists project it on everyone else. And in fact that is why I went on to study Western philosophy rather than going to Japan to study Zen Buddhism in Situ because I knew that if I did not understand my own tradition that mere practice was not going to get me where I wanted to be, which is actually understanding the difference between the Western worldview and the Worldview out of which Zen came out of which is basically the Chinese worldview. All you need to know about these two worldviews to know that they are polar opposites in so many ways is to understand that in Western art straight lines going toward the horizon converge, while in traditional Chinese art lines going toward the horizon diverge. How can that be? But it is true. And so what we can do is to leverage the fact that these two traditions are duals in so many ways. One is infinitely sophisticated, i.e., the Chinese tradition, but rather dull. The other is like fireworks going off all the time (which the Chinese invented by the way) but fairly mundane and particularly crude and barbaric (see the history of the Opium War). One wanted just to be left alone because it was better than everyone else and was thus destroyed yet again by barbarians this time from the West. The other is like a disease that destroys everything it comes into contact with, subsuming it into itself and exploiting it. The West believes that they own everything, even the things that others have on the other side of the world, and if you don’t believe it, they will just shoot you with their higher technology weapons based on cutting edge science, which is morally neutral, and thus gets used for many nefarious deeds. The best example of what the West is like is Winchester House in the middle of Silicon Valley. It was built by the crazy widow of Winchester who built a rapid fire rifle which was a great tool for killing Indians, and other foreigners in their own lands. When we look at the Winchester House we are seeing an embodiment of the Western worldview in miniature and embodied rather than as a collection of transcendentals, complete with a stairway to nowhere and windows looking out on blank walls, and parts of the house abandoned and just sealed up, like our unconscious that holds all the genocides and other evil deeds that we have ever perpetrated on the other side of the world from what we call “civilization”. If we take the Renaissance as a mark in our history, the Chinese had invented everything we knew about a thousand years earlier, sometimes several times and forgetting it, and then discovering it again. In other words our technological and scientific advantage is recent. And we used it to spread our corrupt civilization (child pornography, modern slavery, international drug trade to support our habits, corruption of the earth, corruption of the air, corruption of the seas, corruption and destruction of living things, etc.) Our great symbol as a civilization is the miles and miles of plastic junk floating out in the Pacific that we have thrown into the oceans.
Ok. Now that we know who we are, and who the Chinese used to be until we totally corrupted them by our worldview as well (under the name of communism), we can begin to see what I mean about our mundane consciousness being defiled. The Chinese had their own indigenous religion called Taoism which believed it was better to be in harmony with nature. Chinese culture produced landscapes where you can hardly see the people because the landscape itself is so overwhelming. In other words humans are just a very small part of nature, and it is better to flow with that ocean than to try to fight against it as we do. It is better not to corrupt nature, because we are just corrupting ourselves when we do so. It is better to be humble, and bow down to greater forces than oneself, rather than standing up with hubris and pride as we do when we claim to be rulers of the earth, or claim to have a global empire that will last forever. Seems like everyone who have claimed to have global empires that will last forever are now buried forgotten under the debris of history after their empire failed (nb. Rome). Now the basic idea behind Taoism is called Wu Ji, which means without the ridgepole, which is the pointer that indicates nondual Void, which is actually all of Spacetime as a singular in which atoms are no more than slight disturbances. This Void which is the Singular which overwhelms all matter within it is without end that we know. But it did have a beginning, which was called the Gateway of the Myriad Things. Today we call that the Big Bang. And there is something called the Tao, which is the way things flow, which we call entropy, but also we know it is fueled by dark energy, which is pushing all the dark matter so that it is accelerating in the expansion of the universe. This was always called in China the Great Dark, and it is the fundamental basis of the I Ching according to Wang Bi counter balancing the Yin and Yang complementarity of all things. Anyway the Chinese had this idea that by merging with the Singular of the Void one would become in harmony with the Way, and develop Te or Virtue though Non-Action (Wu Wei). Non-Action means going with the flow of the Way, and not creating interferences, and residences, and counter currents unnecessarily. For instance, we cannot do anything about the fact that the Universe is accelerating in its expansion and is a far from equilibrium (meta-)system (environment) as a whole. We will go with that flow, no matter what we do to destroy our planet which is the only livable place in the vicinity. That power of the universe expanding, or the power of a large asteroid hitting the earth like the one that just recently zoomed past, is not something we can resist. And if we were wise, which we are not, we would apply the same logic in our daily lives and the totality of our existence, and not destroy our planet, making it like Venus though releasing Greenhouse gasses. The Chinese despite all the despicable things about their society and culture knew that and were wiser than we. They pulled back from risky ventures on many occasions in their history, thinking that their actions might cause an unbalance in the cosmos.
There was a basic complementarity between the Dualistic Confucianism (father-son, husband-wife, older brother-younger brother, etc.) and the Nondualistic viewpoint of Taoism. The Void was not one thing, nor was it many things, it was something else. It was not a thing, but a lack of things. It contained many things but without giving up its continuity. It defined the separation between things and filled the gaps without actually being anything itself. And as we know now it is both space and time together as spacetime, so it has a dynamic dimension, not just in the constant creation and destruction of virtual particles, but also in the fact that time is relativistically fused to space in relation to the speed of light. Photons themselves do not move, and so everything in space time is warped away from light. Light instantaneously traverses the whole of spacetime from its point of view, but from ours it takes billions of years to traverse spacetime. Something about that makes me think that the statements that the Taoists made about our experience being an illusion might be correct, especially if we take into account recent theories that what we see of three dimensional space is really two dimensional and we are living in a kind of flat land on a brane in higher dimensional space.
So, if we start from the premise that Chinese Society already had a balance between dualism and nonduals at the core of their society, which we Westerners destroyed by the way before we could understand what we were destroying, and we add to that Buddhism from India flowing into China and being adopted to such an extent that traditional ways were being abandoned for this new nondual way. Then we see that in China nondual ways were vying with each other. At first the Chinese thought this was another form of Taoism, and translated Buddhist texts with Taoist words. But eventually they became sophisticated enough to see that Void and Emptiness though both nondual are really very different. All the forms of Buddhism flowed into China at once and they thought that all the Sutras really did come from the Buddha directly. And so they had this horrendous job of trying to synthesize the whole thing into something comprehensible. But eventually they got a handle on it and could distinguish Emptiness from Void. Emptiness is the light of consciousness, and Buddhists basically do not believe that the physical world is there, unlike Taoists that believe that the physical world of nature is all that exists, and that consciousness, and social life is just the same as all other natural phenomena. So once the Chinese understood the difference between Emptiness and Void and had synthesized Buddhism into a whole that they could understand, and then they set about understanding the difference between these two nonduals and how they work together. And we get glimmers of that in Tien Tai and a full flowering in Hua Yen Buddhism with the idea that Emptiness is the interpenetration of things in the world which is called the Jeweled Net of Indra, because the various jewels reflect each other within the net.
Zen came to China in a very radical form of idealism, and the practice was as you said live in the moment and get rid of thoughts, and this is called the Northern School of Chan that believes in the slow progression of enlightenment. The Southern School of Chan was started by Hui Neng who rebalanced Zen and also combined in it an understanding of Taoism as inherently the same as the emptiness of the Buddhist Dharma. It was not as if they were being randomly synchronistic, but they actually cultivated like Stone house a separate understanding of each which they used together as a way to get at a deeper kind of enlightenment. And this tradition is Zen as we know it today. My favorite person in this tradition after Fa Tsang and Hui Neng, is Dogen Kigen, a brilliant Soto master whose philosophy rivals that of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty for its sophistication. Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty are the high point in Continental Philosophy, and Dogen Kigen is I think the high point in Buddhist Philosophy after Fa Tsang. Soto Zen had some very sophisticated dialectical schemes and was more theoretical than Renzai which concentrated on Koans. In Soto Zen they stare at walls instead.
My formulation is that Emptiness and Void are two interpretations of Existence, which is what is left when you get rid of the illusions of Being. The aspects apply to both Being and Existence. Existence is when the state of affairs is neither present nor absent, identical or different, real nor illusory, true or fictitious. Being is when one or the other of the aspects are positively present, and dynamically linked with the appearance of its opposite. And there is a special state talked about in Alchemy which is both absent and present, different and identical, illusory and real, fictitious and true called the Quintessence. Sometimes it is called the Philosophers Stone. Other times it is called Glory. It has many names in our tradition but it is the exact opposite of existence. Taken together Being, Existence and Quintessence is the Tetralemma (A, ~A, both, neither). However, the nondual interpretation of Existence goes beyond existence itself into the nondual region beyond the logical possibilities supported by the logical operators (and, or, nand, nor).
So unless someone tells you to be Present, Absent, Both, Neither at the same time they are not pointing toward emptiness inwardly, or void outwardly. They are in fact pointing at themselves, saying follow me but have nowhere to lead you because they do not know themselves. Same is true of the other aspects. First you have to get out of the illusions of Being, then you can try to deal with the illusions in existence which are healed by the nondual. But if you do not get outside of the intensified nihilistic illusions of Being, there is no way to get an understanding of oneself, either in relation to the Dharma or the Tao (Dao), (not to mention the Daorma [joke]).
So the program is as follows. Exit the Winchester house with its stairway to nowhere, its windows that look onto walls, secret spy holes into the kitchen, and abandoned boarded up parts of the house by the nearest exit. Once out of that labyrinth, maze, gordian knot, rabbit patch (er what up doc?) go directly toward a nondual interpretation of existence either as empty or void. Then once one understands one you can strive to understand the other. So for instance if you go for emptiness then the second exit is called DzogChen, if you go toward Void the second exit is called Chan. They are the same thing, yet radically different with a necessity based on your starting point. You are trying either to get out of nondual consciousness into an actual world, or you are trying to get out of a physical nature of the Void of spacetime, into the nature of consciousness or the social as emergent aspects of existence. The first guide in all this is Nagarjuna, and the second guide is Manjushrimitra. The first guide in all this is Lao Tzu and the second guide is Chang Tzu. Between them stand Fa Tsang, Chih I, Hui Neng, Stonehouse and other exalted masters of what it is to be enlightened humans.
Upon exit from the second gate there is one more gate which is the nondual which has no dual, i.e. manifestation that is being indicated by the great masters of the deepest enlightenment. Take that Gate as the great straight upward path that appears in the Book of the Dead in Tibet.
In the heart sutra it says:
Therefore the mantra of transcendent knowledge, the mantra of deep insight, the unsurpassed mantra, the incomparable mantra, the mantra which calms all suffering should be known as truth, for there is no deception. In transcendent knowledge the mantra is proclaimed:
GATE GATE PARAGATE PARASAMGATE BODHI SVAHA
Japanese rendering of the mantra:
GYATEI GYATEI HARA GYATEI HARASO GYATEI BOJI SOWAKA
English rendering of the mantra:
GONE, GONE, GONE BEYOND, COMPLETELY GONE BEYOND,ENLIGHTENMENT, HAIL
See also http://www.theartofcalligraphy.com/mantra.html
This is the Gateless Gate.
the gateless gate is no gate.
[nb. gate = gone in sanscrit; gate = means of being gone in english]