Off-Beat Zen: How I Found My Way Out of Depression, Thanks to the Writings of the English Priest Who Brought Buddhism to the Wes
What exactly defines Buddhism? Is it the supposedly magical properties which can transform the individual or is something far more subtle- the ability to transcend a shallow reality into a more substantive and profound one?
When Buddhists talk a world in harmony, what does that really mean? What is meant to be accepted on faith alone and what is meant to be intellectually dissected? Finally, is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy?
What follows is the story of an English priest who absorbed every incarnation of Buddhism and came to understand the manifestations as a way of life which could and did transform lives- not to a predetermined or predestined molds but rather, into an individuality and ever changing masterpiece of the human experience which is unique to each of us, changing as life goes on.
Think of Buddhism and Zen as the ultimate guide to self awareness.
Ever since I was a child, I have been acutely sensitive to the idea — in the way that other people seem to feel only after bereavement or some shocking unexpected event — that the human intellect is unable, finally, to make sense of the world: everything is contradiction and paradox, and no one really knows much for sure, however loudly they profess to the contrary.
It is an uncomfortable mindset, and as a result I have always felt the need to build a conceptual box in my mind big enough to fit the world into. Most people seem to have a talent for denying or ignoring life’s contradictions, as the demands of work and life take them over. Or they fall for an ideology, perhaps religious or political, that appears to render the world a comprehensible place.
I have never been able to support either strategy. A sense of encroaching mental chaos was always skulking at the edges of my life. Which is perhaps why I fell into an acute depression at the age of 27, and didn’t recover for several years.
The consequence of this was my first book, a memoir called The Scent of Dried Roses (1996). While I was researching it, I read the work of the psychologist Dorothy Rowe, a quiet, almost secret, follower of Buddhist philosophy. Secret, because Rowe knew what the term ‘Buddhist’ implied to the popular imagination (as it did to me) — magical thinking, Tibetan bell-ringing, and sticking gold flakes on statues of the Buddha.
Truth is not to be found by picking everything to pieces like a spoilt child
It was through Rowe’s writing that I first came across Alan Watts, and he sounded like an unlikely philosopher. His name evoked the image of a paper goods sales rep on a small regional industrial estate. But through Watts and his writing, I was exposed directly to the ideas of Zen Buddhism. I was suspicious at first, perceiving Zen Buddhism to be a religion rather than a philosophy. I wasn’t interested in the Four Noble Truths, or the Eightfold Path, and I certainly didn’t believe in karma or reincarnation.