Friday, January 18, 2008

Dharma Drama (or, The Miracle of the Unbendable Arm)

In teaching the dharma, there are undeniably theatrical elements.

The meditation room looks a certain way, there might be an altar decked with iconic images, there may incense, perhaps some chanting of Buddhist things accompanied by a bell. Usually there are robes to wear, something to go over our street clothes. Anecdotes are used to illustrate Buddhist teachings or dramatize our observations about meditation and how it applies to life. Dharma teachers develop a storehouse of (1) Zen and Buddhist stories, (2) personal anecdotes, and (3) anecdotes about a contemporary Zen Master such as Seung Sahn.

These theatrics are not there to tell lies or mislead people. Like good theatre, the elements are there to bring attention to certain truths, and certain techniques for living effective lives. Paradoxically, it becomes necessary to aspire to perfect enlightenment without conceptualizing it or believing in it too much.

Teaching people that their experience of the world is created entirely by thinking is one of the most liberating things you can offer another person. That's why the Diamond Sutra makes such a huge deal about offering even a single word of clear teaching, declaring that it is greater than the merit of millions of lifetimes. And yet, to mistake this point and tell people that we can make decisions about what is true and what is not, that cause and effect is something for which we can buy a waiver, based on our self-obsessed desires, is to beckon people toward the dungeon of suffering.

When Theatre Dojo was active last year, Andrew used to do a wonderful demonstration with people. He called it the miracle of the unbendable arm. He would invite a volunteer to hold their arm out straight and prevent anyone from bending their arm upwards, at the elbow. They would try this by clenching their arm tightly and mustering brute force, and would always lose. Andrew would have them try again, and this time he invited them to keep the arm relaxed, to plant their feet and put their focus down into their center of gravity, breathing deeply, and visualizing their arm extending outwards, through the wall, across the street, some huge distance.

This, essentially, is meditation. The notion of relaxing, "dropping down," "extending" our "energy" across great distances, are useful stories we give the mind to access natural physical abilities. They are, in a way, theatrics - but again, the theatrics are not there to tell a lie.

This is demonstrated when someone tries to bend that volunteer's arm a second time, and often finds himself unable to bend the "relaxed" arm even with the help of another person. Andrew, with tongue in cheek, would call this a "miracle," and in a theatrical sense it is. And yet, it is a natural ability belonging to everyone, whether they know it or not. Using such visualizations helps us to relax and access aspects of our bodies that may elude conscious control. Obviously, we are not literally "dropping into the earth" or "sending chi out across the universe." The image of an "unbendable arm" is itself a visualization.

So is "dharma." So is "enlightenment." So is "fulfillment." So is "self-actualization." They are all constructs, yet they do not tell lies. You cannot literally reach across an entire city, but using that image as a direction can help us achieve wonderful things. The same applies for other images that seem impossible to fulfill literally, like "peace" and "justice" and "happiness." Walk in these directions fearlessly, and see what happens. The buddhas do not deceive - that is, not until we start to believe literally that "enlightenment" is something out there we need to find. Once we get attached to these concepts they become no better than food, money, sex, sleep - mental objects that keep us running on a treadmill.

Good dharma teachers are honest showmen, like my friend Rory. Rory calls himself a "mentalist." He is a showman giving demonstrations of magical and psychic tricks. He openly declares himself a fraud and a humbug, and yet he is very good at what he does. Most people don't really, literally believe he has access to another dimension of reality, and yet when we watch him, our mouths drop.

His tricks do not lie. They help us access another important part of ourselves that often eludes our wordly consciousness: genuine wonder.

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As always, there are people who say this more succinctly and effectively than I have. Here is a very good talk by Seung Sahn.

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