Sunday, February 11, 2007

Yes We Have No Buddhism

[3 February 2007]

It is Saturday morning, and in a little while it shall be time to load my collection of round, black cushions into my car and drive for an hour into Orange County to teach meditation.

Some of the students are actually pursuing certificates in yoga studies or Buddhist studies, and it takes some firm repetition to persuade them that this is not a Buddhism class. A few basics of what the historical Buddha taught are inescapable, but this is done with a lot of irreverence and humor. This is not a religious program.

Zen Buddhism makes an exotic wrapping paper, with its arresting asymmetric angles and whiffs of incense and ginger. People come in having read books full of ideas about emptiness and the void and "no mind" - proving that one can be full of emptiness.

No matter how much we crumple up the wrapping paper and toss it into the can, people have ways of retrieving and carefully un-crumpling it. Then they examine all the creases and the instructor thinks, "God, now it's even worse."

The 20th-century Korean master, Seung Sahn, used to talk to his western students about "subject religion" and "object religion." Object religion focuses on something objective: for instance, the Word of God, Allah and His Messenger, a personal Lord and Savior. It is something out there we can all talk about, so that we can live correctly. Subject religion focuses on how one experiences these things, on the listening and perceiving itself. Who is it that listens? Who is it that prays? To put it even more simply, one could say that in object religion, one must take heed; in subject religion, one must pay attention.

These are not really opposites. If one relies totally on subjective religion, one becomes a navel-gazer. If one relies too much on the other, they can become intellectual, doctrinal, even dogmatic. When the two are brought into balance, one can love Jesus with 100% of their being.

So instead of giving them an exotic new gewgaw that will soon be discarded, may this class encourage them to experience their own listening, the way their mind wanders away from the task of sitting with themselves and breathing, the way their imagination will exaggerate a physical sensation to the point that an itchy nose becomes evidence of a brain tumor.

In the midst of this confusion, there is a simple mechanism for coming back to a central point where the body and the mind are doing the same thing. (They were never two things to start with.) Anytime, anywhere. Like hitting the "C" button on the calculator.

The hope that somehow people are going to get "enlightened" and never be bad-tempered or obsessed with their weight or afraid of black people or want to eat steak is all false packaging. Buddhism, we are reminded again and again, is a story - a story that points to our need for that "C" button. I think of enlightened people as people who use their "C" button a whole heck of a lot. (There is not even any effort expended anymore.)

So go forth, you C-button bodhisattvas, and return to your church, your family, your office; kiss your mothers and go to your kid's play; listen to your doctor and your pastor and your CPA; sit for a few minutes every day, practice this C-button thing, and don't read books about Buddhism or Zen.

If you make Zen your refuge it will be your millstone.


Anonymous said...

wow. thank you.

Anonymous said...

My students, on the other hand, all get identity crises at some point when they're representing Buddhism on the multifaith council. Most tell me they don't feel right about it; before signing up. The new way is that they join multifaith council, *then* explain why they don't consider themselves Buddhist...

After which they arrive in my office with a sense of urgency, as if something is turned upside down.