Apes and Apostles

Kusen 8/31/17

Richard Collins

It’s often said that Zen is “nothing special.” It’s amazing, though, how many people who come to Zen—maybe all of us—want to find out how special “nothing special” is. Even after years of sitting we still expect some sort of dramatic magic, some sort of magical transformation. As much as we deny sitting with that kind of intention, we may still fall into it.

Many people come to the dojo for a while, and when they don’t have a great satori, when they don’t experience some miraculous transformation of their consciousness—some kind of gaudy bliss when they gaze into the abyss—and instead see how “not special” Zen practice is, they go away, seek some other more amenable, more predictable spiritual stimulation.

It’s very difficult to sit without intention, without the expectation of a certain outcome. But that’s exactly what pollutes zazen, the pollution of good intentions. (Bad intentions may drive us, too, selfish ones, but most of us think our intentions for coming to zazen are pure, unselfish, or at least not harmful which sometimes passes for good.)

Best to sit purely, with transparency. You should be invisible when you sit zazen. You should disappear. That’s what we mean by purity in practice, not some sort of moral cleanliness. Zazen is not an ethical scrub—you’re not sitting in a morality bathtub, soaking your sins away.
Transparency implies no good or ill intentions, no ulterior motives. We drop those outside the door with our shoes and our cell phones.

So: if you experience “nothing special” during zazen, don’t worry about it.

Zazen is a mirror. The writer Georg Christoph Lichtenberg wrote: “A book is a mirror: when an ape looks into it, it’s unlikely that an apostle will look out.”

Same with zazen. You’re only going to see in the mirror what’s there, what’s looking into it. If all you see is yourself and your faults, your own not-specialness, that’s okay. You should also see, though, the specialness, the unique ape-apostle that only you are. This is the true self that Kodo Sawaki said you haven’t thought up, that you can’t predict. Remember: this special self won’t just reveal itself in the form of some Zen cliché about kensho or satori. The subtle satori of “nothing special” is likely to surprise you with its banality. That’s the specialness of nothing special.

The Zen story that expresses this, I suppose, is the one about the disciple who is trying to become a Buddha by doing zazen. His master tells him, “You can’t turn a tile into a mirror by polishing it.” You can’t polish an ape into an apostle by doing zazen.


  1. Why does experiencing "nothing special" seem so special?

  2. Because your focus in on the wrong half of the phrase.


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