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Zen- an Alternative Set of Norms




Zen- an Alternative Set of Norms


A thick lair of mystery clouds over the beauty and simplicity that are at the core of Zen Buddhism. Our natural reaction as part of a western society involves a mixture of suspicion and disbelief. Many aspects of the Zen, such as solitude,
minimalism, or modesty collide with our common definition of happiness. That is why an understanding of the culture that practices it is so important; so we could
see how beautiful this religion is and not disqualify it just because it does not fit some of us.

    The Zen idea is hard to explain in conventional western terms. It is being one with nature, it is understanding how things work without giving it any thought, it is the flight of the bird. The final goal is to reach a stage of enlightenment that can only be understood by those who experience it first-hand. Having said that, further exploration can provide a basic structure of the Zen belief.

    Unlike Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, Zen does not share the basic correlations that can be easily translated from the original languages and then be accepted and understood as similar norms. It does not involve divine guidance and a specific almighty God, rather it emphasizes the acceptance of nature and a self-centered way of reaching Zen enlightenment. This is the highest point of Zen practice, the absolute peace of mind.

    The first step towards enlightenment is the absolute acceptance of nature. Leroy Quintana wrote a poem, titled Zen- Where Im From (632), that concisely illuminates the notion of acceptance and appreciation of our reality:

    You simply have to admire how, immediately after
the twelve-foot-high chain link fence
crowned with coils of wicked barbed wire was
erected, the fence the City Council voted on
unanimously to guard anyone ever again,
again breaking into one of the towns
storage sheds, how immediately after, the
thieves drove up with their welding torches and
stole it!

    Once total acceptance is reached, beauty can be found in anything that happens. Instead of leaving it to God, Zen simply embraces nature (including human-nature) and no longer regards misfortunate events as tragedies, rather it sees each happening as a natural occurrence.

    Reaching Zen enlightenment is usually obtained through the repeated practice of paradoxical statements or questions called Koans. Those tasks are literally unsolvable by western logic: clap your hands, but listen only to the sound that comes out of your left palm. The intense practice of those Koans is said to suddenly strike the practicing Buddhist with an undefined understanding of the universe. That is the essence of Buddha, the example he set-forth sixteen hundred years ago. The state of enlightenment is said to be the natural state of mind for all human beings, as Thomas Cleary, author of Kensho-The Heart of Zen, puts it: The complete discourses of all Buddhas . are inherent in the essence of the human being(7). For those that never felt the essence of Buddha within themselves, Cleary would recommend a teacher.

    All that has just been said about Zen probably makes no practical sense whatsoever to western readers. What is being one with nature? how can I listen to my left palm? How can there be an experience that cannot be explained? The key word here is practical critique. Western mentality developed from a Judeo-Christian set of moral rules and ideals, through democracy and capitalism, into a pro-active, achievement-orientated society. Steve Odin tackles the issue of western practicality in his article The Social Self in Zen and American Pragmatism. Western culture grants a major importance to pragmatism (practicality) as a guiding principle(244) . Questions such as: What is it good for?, what will I get out of it?, or why should I?, govern the lives of many practical western people.

    The idea of absolute acceptance is sometimes unconceivable by western mentality. A poem such as Quintanas probably annoys most western people for the celebration of what is basically perceived as an immoral crime.

    The idea of happiness that comes out of solitude and aimlessness sounds intolerable. Happiness as we know it comes from success. What is success? By the western view success is often measured by fame and fortune: the best job, the best car, the best reputation. Are those measurements real? Could the achievement of those factors count for true happiness? When confronted with this question in such a blunt manner, most will hesitate to answer a straight yes (for we have heard about something called spirituality), yet those goals are widely held and highly respected.

    How then, can there be happiness without possessions? Without power?
In criticizing Zen we fail to notice the most important fact: our own normal
norms do not apply! Aimlessness, for instance, is perceived as such only because the aim is not familiar! Try as hard as you can to imagine how an alien might look like. Even the most creative mind would most likely remain under the barriers of what is believed to be vital: you might mix and match in a novel way, yet you would probably end-up giving this creature a face, a mouth, a brain and an eye, for it to make sense as a being.

    Those same boundaries restrict us from grasping the basic fulfillment that can be found in the Zen way of life. The next logical step in our inquiry must only be to dare and take a look at those aliens, those creatures that do not require neither air to breath nor food to eat, namely, fame and fortune, or practicality.

    Soshin emphasizes the eternal presence of the answer to all our questions as standing right in front of us. He recommends stopping all activity that has to do with I should,and I shouldnt as restraining ways of dealing with problems, while the simple solution is always present and leaves us no options to ponder about (39). Most western people would admit that in the most difficult choice they ever had to make there was always one path which they knew was the right one (even if only through retrospective). That path is the true answer, and therefore no choice should be made. There are complex situations which we consider as difficult dilemmas because we learn to measure action as related to consequence. That is a realistic idea that is not in contrast with Zen belief. In Zen actions are known to carry outcomes, it is merely the dilemma that does not exist; the true answer lies within us.

    By Zen belief happiness can only be found within ones self. The idea of
understanding our surrounding universe accounts for total peacefulness. Zen does not approve crimes (as some readers might interpret Quintanas poem) but it finds
beauty in every action, it appreciates perfection in all its forms.

    Zen does not impose upon its believer the role of a creator; man does not face the task of changing and shaping the world, rather he accepts the role of a spectator, a content one. By the understanding that nature and human-nature have their own means and ends, a believer finds true peace of mind and tranquility.

    Measurements of success are also different; modern eastern society has evolved in capitalistic terms in some sections, yet in traditional Zen craftsmanship, duty and perfection of ones trade are of higher importance then the economic outcome of success. The merits of a person are not measured by external characteristics. A person is strictly appreciated or condemned according to the level of excellence to which he holds his trade.

    A true Zen Buddhist can literally sit on a mountain top, have no earthly
possessions, be completely anonymous, and yet be happy in a way that sounds so
unconventional when judged by our norms. Unlike modern western culture, Zen offers the ultimate happiness as available to all. Thomas Cleary chooses to open his book by stating that the essence of Buddha lies within us as an innate quality. Self-fulfillment by Zen requires no external symbols, no competition for desired positions. There is no limit on the amount of bliss in the world and therefore no reason to fight over it.

    Observing a capitalistic society in a cynical manner would reveal a limited fountain of joy, a monetary pond that is the sole restricted source of convenience for all. Having limited resources inevitably promotes shortage and is followed by misery. In an account regarding morality, philosopher David Hume makes a sad comment : the slight gratification of a frivolous vanity, in one individual, frequently costs more than bread to many families (27). The Zen way of life does not allow people to trade happiness, it bestows its blessing by unlimited amounts and with the utmost availability to all.

Zen belief embodies a set of ideas that offer each individual happiness and peace of mind regardless of his origin and background. It often requires the highest devotion in the process of reaching Zen enlightenment, yet the potential and capability are always

    We are not in a position (nor should anyone ever) to compare and contrast Zen versus Western views in the intention of declaring any as superior. Our examination of both cannot allow any of the two to emerge victorious over the other for they are intrinsically diverse and both essentially right. By understanding the soul of Zen belief we take the ideal statement live and let live far beyond the boundaries of a clich, and into a true appreciative understanding that when different norms apply, Zen might very well be the natural choice.

Ohad Maiman