One sunny spring day of 1998, while I was living in Berkeley, I received a petition from a friend in Spain that would change irreversibly my life.
Living in a small city of Asturias (north of Spain), it was very hard for my friend to satisfy her interest in Zen literature, and that is why she asked me to send her some books of an author called D. T. Suzuki.
I headed towards Telegraph Avenue –the only remains (quite light) of what was the hippie culture that made Berkeley notorious in the late sixties– and entered in a bookshop by the name of Shambala (non-extant anymore). I began to browse the section of used books under the “S” letter, while I was thinking about my earlier readings of Zen literature and how I always had ended up frustrated, particularly by those absurd dialogues between disciples and masters. I didn’t want to waste more time than the strictly necessary, so I picked up all the books I found written by any Suzuki, about eight or nine. When I got home and started to pack them, I was unpleasantly surprised to find out that, in my wish to end with the zen-thing as soon as possible, I purchased two volumes of the same title, “Zen Buddhism.” The incident caused my worry since I’m usually not so absentminded. Obviously, one of the books remained on my bed-table while the rest got ready to fly across the Atlantic Ocean.
Those three dollars and fifty cents I spent in the involuntary purchase of that little book were the best investment I have ever done. The day I reluctantly started to browse its pages, I couldn’t close it until I had finished it completely. My reading was only disturbed by the “ploc” of tears that, unaware of their shedding, fell from my eyes and hit the old pages, or moistened my lips. The next morning, with barely any sleeping time, I was standing again in front of the same bookstore, waiting for its doors to be open. This time I bought “The Three Pillars of Zen,” written by a Canadian author named Philip Kapleau.
The message contained in the bottle that a few weeks ago I had symbolically thrown to the bay asking for guidance had been read and now I received due answer through those books.
The horizon of my life got wider through an exciting new path that suggested that the answer to the mystery of existence was not reachable by searching in the world out there, but in the mind. The Zen books seemed to indicate that we have to investigate the tool with which we investigate, that is, our mind.
The functioning of the brain has been the topic of many scientific studies but there isn’t consensus about how it’s related to the mind or to that we call ambiguously as consciousness. Because of my good knowledge about the scientific world, I intuitively knew that the study of the brain couldn’t lead to grounded conclusions about the mind. However, the Zen message was direct: we must investigate the mind with the mind, but not by self-psychoanalysis but through meditation.
The perplexing answers of the Zen masters had the purpose of pushing the disciple’s mind beyond its discursive, ordinary mode of functioning, to a “non-logical reasoning,” more intuitive and beyond the constraints of Cartesian logic. The responses of Zen masters had to be, in consequence, inconsequential!
Those Zen dialogs began to lose their nonsensical flavor, either because I was beginning to grasp the gist of them or, more likely, because I was becoming nonsensical myself.