Zen: Is it bullshit?

I have been a serious lay practioner of Zen for not quite two years — not very long, I grant you. I originally got into it around the time of other profound changes — moving out of an unsatisfactory marriage after 13 years, quitting the habit of abusing alcohol, feeling absolutely marvelous for the first time in years. I had long had the vague idea that some sort of meditation practice would be beneficial, so I visited a zendo of the Soto/Rinzai lineage, and adhered to it immediately. I attend the zendo regularly, and meet with my teacher privately every week — daisan, as it’s called. I study koans. I sit every day, and participate in extended sittings several times a year — i.e., doing little other than meditating all day, all weekend, or all week. This is what serious practitioners do.
Why do this? I don’t know. There is much that I find appealing in Buddhist thought generally, and in Zen Buddhism in particular. The basic ideas — such as impermanence, the ubiquity of human suffering and its causes — make sense to my rational mind. And I am convinced — as it is well established — that meditation itself provides meaningful benefits to mental and physical health.
On a more intuitive, visceral level, I am powerfully drawn to the idea that all the wisdom you will ever need is already within you. You have only to still what Master Lin-chi calls the ceaselessly seeking mind — methodically, patiently, relentlessly — to come to an understanding of nothing less than the essential nature of reality. If you think about it — no, if you contemplate it — you have to say, of course! How can it be otherwise?
Wait — says who? Mister Buddha, the dude credited with launching the whole program? A multi-thousand year succession of masters and disciples and adherents? So? What if they are nuts? What if they are full of shit? Can anyone prove this stuff to be true in any credible, objective way? No, I think not. This is where the F-word comes into play: faith. Some call it trust. Whatever you call it, I sometimes have a big problem with it
This is an example of what they call Great Doubt and it is very much part of the program, according to what I have been taught. Doubt is encouraged. Doubt is your friend. The Buddha said, don’t take my word for it. See for yourself. But it’s still doubt and can be disconcerting, disquieting, distressing — all kinds of dis-words.
Do you say, you are crashing and burning because you trying to approach rationally something that works below the level of rational mind? Maybe so. But rational mind is something we need to carry around with us to function and survive, and for the most part it’s a good and helpful thing. Common sense — prudence, if you will — urges caution before investing decades of your life and incalculable amounts of energy and sacrifice in something this weird. Sometimes when I listen to one of the teachers speaking about such things as Zen and Reality and the One Absolute Truth, my inner voice tells me I might as well be listening to the demented ramblings of a lunatic. One of these teachers has said that Zen is and always will be a minority practice because it is such hard work. Gee, could it be that it’s a minority practice because it’s crazy, and most ordinary unenlightened dumbass people are too sensible for it?
In my great arrogance and psychospiritual immaturity, I have other problems with this Zen stuff. I am about as unspiritual as a person can be. You might even say anti-spiritual. For this devout atheist, the very word spiritual often sounds uncomfortably like agnostic code for religious. I’m all for bowing to people, but I think bowing to statues is silly, and do it only to go along with the crowd.
At a weekend sesshin just the other day my samu task was to clean the bathroom. As I was dilligently wiping the mirror my unmindful mind suddenly noticed something absurd. Here we are, a group of some 40 more or less privileged, educated white people from New York City, and we are paying to sweep floors, wash dishes and take out the garbage. What do you suppose people who actually clean bathrooms for a living would think? It is a ridiculously pretentious and comical affectation.
Sometimes I wonder what the hell I am doing here, and entertain fantasies of rising from the mat in the middle of a sitting period and walking out of the zendo, never to return.
But I don’t. Instead I sit when it’s time to sit, walk when it’s time to walk, chant when it’s time to chant, eat when it’s time to eat. And when Sensei gave a talk this past weekend about how we were at sesshin to realize Nothing, the tears started coming out of my eyes and would not stop. Go figure.