“Do you approach the study of Zen with the idea that there is something to be gained by it?” is the cautionary question posed by Thomas Merton in an author’s note featured at the beginning of his book, Zen and the Birds of Appetite. The passage is a short and succinct warning, directed at readers and potential Zen students, about how to place oneself in relation to the study of Zen – which he describes not as the study of doctrines and polemics, but as the practice of pure, direct experience which underlies all thought and creative activity. It is useless to hover over, expecting nourishment, he says, as there was never any body there to begin with.
Where there is carrion lying, meat-eating birds circle and descend. Life and death are two. The living attack the dead, to their own profit. The dead lose nothing by it. They gain too, by being disposed of. Or they seem to, if you must think in terms of gain and loss. Do you then approach the study of Zen with the idea that there is something to be gained by it? This question is not intended as an implicit accusation. But it is, nevertheless, a serious question. Where there is a lot of fuss about “spirituality,” “enlightenment” or just “turning on,” it is often because there are buzzards hovering around a corpse. This hovering, this circling, this descending, this celebration of victory, are not what is meant by the Study of Zen— even though they may be a highly useful exercise in other contexts. And they enrich the birds of appetite.
Zen enriches no one. There is no body to be found. The birds may come and circle for a while in the place where it is thought to be. But they soon go elsewhere. When they are gone, the “nothing,” the “no-body” that was there, suddenly appears. That is Zen. It was there all the time but the scavengers missed it, because it was not their kind of prey.
Thomas Merton (1915-1968)