Monday, January 31, 2011

Compassion and Fool's Gold

One of the stumbling blocks in communicating my personal feelings about this world is that, from the perspective of the dharma, the very language I would use -- the concepts, the dichotomies, the emotions that arise -- are to some degree the cause of my suffering. They arise from my conditioning, my sense of an isolated self, making likes and dislikes which I then treat as real. Therefore, my best ideas are all fool's gold: an attempt to snatch something for myself out of the churning, formless void. By acting on these ideas, I'm just being greedy and causing more confusion. That's the hard line and the wisdom in this teaching is hard to face, yet impossible to ignore once it is noticed.

The downside is, it can inhibit conversation, even though many of the senior teachers in my Zen school are psychotherapists or counselors. I was present once when Zen Master Bon Soeng, a teacher in Berkeley, asked my friend Rebecca a question. To answer, she had to express a personal opinion and she suddenly felt shy about that. She prefaced her answer by saying, "Well, of course, this is all just my 'making', but --"

And he cut in: "Well, tell me what you're making. That's what I want to know." He was genuinely interested, as a person; but first they had to sidestep this inhibition about sharing a feeling or an opinion. It's not very "Zen" to do that, one supposes.

Along with personal disclosure, attaching to dharma can also inhibit a social view of our world. However fleeting and transient our world is, human suffering is a reliable phenomenon. And no, not all human suffering arises from one's egotistical thinking. Human suffering is transmitted socially by how we treat one another. We treat each other badly in our families and in our larger societies as well. This is well worth addressing while we're in this world. It has to do with taking responsibility for what appears in front of us.

Compassion is a concept. Is it fool's gold like all the rest? It may well be. Does it matter?

Deming is a windy place, and the wind frequently blows trash into the yard -- most of it is plastic shopping bags. I go out and pick up the bags. More come the next day. Should I not bother? What happens if I "let it go" and allow the trash to accumulate? Am I worried about what people will think of us? Or do I do it so my family has a nice place to live, my son a place to play? Is that greed? Do I do it in an angry frame of mind?

If I sat around asking all these questions, however valuable they may seem, not much would be done. There is a certain spiritual greed in the line of questioning itself: do my actions reflect enlightenment? Am I being Zen enough? Beware of the imaginary inner Zen Master checking your life. Sometimes people have said, "I don't care about enlightenment." This is slightly off the mark. Enlightenment is not the problem. Checking our own enlightenment is the problem. That's the problem of greed.

Drop that, and your job with respect to the "plastic bags" in your life is perfectly simple.

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