Tuesday, August 09, 2011

"I" is the problem, not the project


An interesting Zen-related blog I had not known about before this week recently remarked,

A distinguished Buddhist scholar told me that the burden of Zen teachers he knows is the need to act/be “enlightened”. How heavy! “I’m a Zen teacher, great! Now I have to somehow embody the premise that this way of life and practice makes people better, enlightens people.”

David Chadwick, after decades in Zen circles, hasn’t noticed that Zen practice works, which means that Zen teachers and Zen students everywhere could be off of the hook. If it’s not making us better than other people, it’s not because we’re not doing it right!

The late Rev. John King said that he loved so much going into our San Quentin Sangha because in prison – perhaps only there – “you don’t have to pretend that your life is working”. You don’t have to pretend to be a success, because it’s clear that everyone’s life is a failure. So you can just relax.

I’m feeling something like that about David’s observation. Great! Zen doesn’t work. I don’t need to pretend it does, or convince anyone else it does. I can just do it for the love of doing it, if I happen to love doing it, and forget that any good might come of it in the least. Forget the idea that I’ve gotten any better from it.


It bears reminding. Contrived ideas and object worship are not expressions of freedom.

And no, practicing Zen does not make "you" a "better person." Zen is not about "you." Your "you" is the problem, not the project.

To the first point, that many people in the role of Zen teacher feel pressured to act "enlightened" or embody some ideal of the outcome of Zen practice: Where does that pressure really come from? It's not in the teaching. The teachings contradict this idea going all the way back to Bodhidharma (see Red Pine's translation of Bodhidharma's "Bloodstream Sermon" -- if we assume Bodhidharma in fact existed, otherwise this dharma talk came from an ancient Chinese teacher -- the point being, this business is oooooooolllllllllld).

Sometimes I think books full of beautiful anecdotes about Zen teachers like Suzuki roshi and Zen Master Seung Sahn distract as much as they help. True, one can catch something in these real-life encounters -- even as anecdotes -- that might help. On the other hand, it is so easy to get caught up in the idea "this is how an enlightened person behaves" and start checking and pressuring oneself to be as "wonderful" as the roshi. This is desire: 100% bullshit celebrity worship.

Zen Master Soeng Hyang sometimes tells a story about watching her teacher cook a meal and seeing him kick onion skins under the stove instead of sweeping them up. She described a sense that her idea of what a Zen Master should be like got punched in the gut.

In 18 years practicing here and there, I have met one teacher who put that kind of pressure on himself, the need to resemble "a great Zen Master." Sadder still, I met two who got ensnared in ideas of "wild" enlightenment and gave themselves license to misuse their penises.

Observation: if you are acting out ideas about freedom, you're not really being "wild." True wildness is not contrived.

If my "mind" or my "personality" or my "soul" existed as solid things, they would likely smell like garbage because "I" am full of it. To the extent that I believe these things are real, I am crazy, and so I trip and fall into the garbage on a daily basis. Thus I have created my life. Maybe I'm getting a little bit better at getting back up quickly, maybe not. But my garbage isn't any better than yours, and neither is my practice.

So the conclusion isn't really that "Zen doesn't work." Making a better you -- a holier you, a calmer you, a new and improved you -- is not, and never has been, the point. Zen doesn't do that. That whole project is garbage.

1 comment:

Rev. Yuánzhì Dàoqīng said...

Bravo!
Thanks for your hard practice.