The place where even a needle cannot enter, I leave aside for now. But tell me, what’s it like when the foamy waves are flooding the skies?

~ Blue Cliff Record, Introduction, Case 17

What is Zen? One might think after decades of practice, study and teaching , and then some more, I would stop asking that question. Perhaps asking is my karma. At any rate, for me, the several lines above moved me, and tried to point me toward the answer.

Who am I? Comparison is one way to measure. I recently met a new friend who ministers to a Pure Land (Jodo Shinshu) community tucked into a neighborhood on the San Francisco peninsula. He was kind enough to give me a tour of their temple, the ornate altar of which came from a founding temple in San Francisco and is perhaps a century old. His family-based Buddhist community seems to be thriving even in a changing world. The Pure Land School was founded in Japan at about the time as both Soto and Rinzai Zen were introduced, in the 13th century. And some Zen ancestors, like Hakuin Ekaku, felt a deep kinship with the nembutsu practice of expressing gratitude to Amida Buddha. Though a close and kind cousin, the Pure Land is different from Zen.

What am I? By parsing we often seek to measure and know. I was recently drawn, and even seduced, by the above introductory lines from Case 17 of the BCR: Emptiness and form, form and emptiness. How severe, alone and sweet is the place where not even a needle can enter. It is the world of light, of not one thing, of vastness. And the next line brings the world where the foamy waves are flooding to the skies ~ what a wonderful image of form! Riders on the storm! But form and emptiness, in the end, are just ideas, low-fat explanations, and can’t really touch what Zen is, in my experience.

Which brings us back to the main case in BCR 17. A monk asks a silly, softball question of the teacher: ‘Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?’ The teacher replied, ‘Meditating a long time makes one weary.’ Where is the comparison in that? Where is the parsing in that? Where, even, is the meaning in that? My butt is sore and my legs are stiff. For one night, at least, I will refrain from asking, What is Zen?

Somehow relevent: The Doors Riders on the Storm ,