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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Spirituality 101 and the Darkness

Tuesday night I went to the second meeting of the Nashville Buddhist Festival "Board of Directors" (for the currently non-existent corporation) in furtherance of the Fifth Nashville Buddhist Festival, to be held in October, 2008. As you will recall, the Fourth NBF this last September was a huge success, and as a result many participant groups swelled, particularly those geared to new participants. It seems there is in fact a hunger for Buddhism in Nashville, or more likely for any alternative to a Christianity many associate with negatives in their own pasts or with repression or whatever, or with which they are just bored.

But I had been reluctant to do it all over again. It seems that I've been lured in, simply because there is an element of the Board that isn't ready to deal with the reality of organizing the organization or with any of the hard realities underlying the puffy white clouds of their own conceptual Buddhism. Plus the damned website has to be rebuilt because the Host screwed up, with which particular reality I am none too pleased (spending at least a solid day re-doing my own work). Ah, well.

As to my reluctance, ahem, well. Let me explain.

I started out on the part of my life that led to my current Zen practice at least by the age of 18 or so. I'd realized by at least the age of 10 that the brand of Christianity to which I'd been half-heartedly exposed was pure bullshit. Although I was a voracious reader in junior high and high school and got deep into history and politics, it was college time before I really discovered philosophy. I graduated as a philosophy major in 1979, by which point I'd pretty much realized that Western philosophy was 99% bullshit, too, and moved on to Eastern religions. I think it was George Harrison, not the real teachers, that got me hooked. Anyway, my voyage through Buddhism was been thoroughly recounted herein and won't be repeated here.

The point is, by at least age 20 and I'd pretty much realized that the mind was useless as a tool for determining meaning. It's just at this point that one becomes vulnerable to a good deal of navel-gazing philosophies and the practices of gurus, and luckily by the time I got to California and became exposed to actual alternative spiritual practices, as opposed to my readings, I had the armor to avoid the real scams (and my tenure with Nichiren Shoshu was more of a willful suspension of disbelief). Getting to where I am today (involved with a sincere Zazen practice with a worthy teacher in a lineage worth pursuing) was a matter of skill, luck and experience.

Of course, some things about where I am today could reasonably be said to suck. There was a cost for all that dithering about with philosophical questions that ultimately proved to be untenable or meaningless, which nevertheless had to be worked through. I never developed the drive for money or success that my peers at Stanford or even at UT had, and my absolute lack of material success, position or security is the result. It's nice to think that the perspective I have now was worth the cost. It's hard to resist at times wishing I'd had the drive to pursue that mansion in the country or security for old age. But then I guess no one really does.

And that came home to me the other night after the NBF meeting, after once again being sucked in by all the blathering about our mission to encourage Buddhism in Nashville. Because see, after you sit for a while, there is a compassion which naturally arises when you see people poking their little heads up out of the nest to see if there might be something more to life than McDonald's and American Idol. Me, I tend to have done things backwards a lot; I developed an interest in physical fitness about the age of 28, when all the high school jocks were losing theirs. And when I see people in their twenties and thirties who have already established their lives in the Material World (thanks, George) and are just now beginning to search for Deeper Meaning, that baby-bird compassion is evoked. Although the cynical portion of myself sees them as somehow spiritually retarded, I realize that is to some extent sour grapes on my part, and is at best petty. And for the most part I really do like these people and want to help.

But, anyway, the NBF meeting took place during a storm. When I got home, the lights had been off and I had to reset the clocks, etc. Just as I got my noodles, cooked, the lights went off, and this pattern went on til finally about 8 p.m. I said the hell with it and just lay on the couch for a while. And then it struck me: this is reality. This is the future, and just the benign beginning of it. Soon there won't be any power. But next time there will be people with guns at the door wanting my food, and I won't have any. Then I won't have a door. Then we'll all be living in Resident Evil: Extinction.

And that's what my zazen is about: the ability to deal with anything, every stark moment of reality as it arises, without judging if it's good or bad. Yeah, if you're a New Age victim, you heard it here first: There is no higher plane. There is no exalted state. There is no promised land, and no enlightenment. Nothing will ever be any different than it is right now, in terms of who you are. You're stuck with you. Deal with it. This is the real and final message of my lifetime of philosophical inquiry. Deal with it.

Because when the cannibals come to the door, your chanting and your bells and your visualizations, your Secret and your gods and your mumbo-jumbo, your politics or your philosophy and ethics, all that will be gone. Just you looking down the barrel of a gun (Mao had that right) or at the razor-sharp teeth of a predator with your name on 'em.

The point? Buddhism 101 or the Secret or whatever won't help. You have to get beyond all the -isms, and you can't get there by following glad-handing teachers who just want to suck your wallet or build you a fairy castle. You have to look at the wall and let the wall look back at you. And there you can find reality in all it's ugliness, and that's just you. And then things get bigger and better in a way I can't explain to you. Just encourage you.

To that end, I encourage anyone in the Nashville area to come sit with Nat and I at the Nashville Zen Center's new Tuesday night meetings, starting next week, January 15, 7 p.m. at the Barn. Get directions off the NBF site or the NZC site; it's all the same place. If you've already been to a Nashville Buddhist Festival, you probably don't need to go to another one. Please understand, almost none of the teachers you'll meet there are charlatans. It's just that the teachings you'll get there or from some of the groups are geared for beginners, and you may not have that kind of time.

If you've been wrestling with philosophical questions for a while and are about to have done with it, at some point it's time to go to work. If you're not ready to do that, there's plenty of gurus out there to soak you in incense and out of your money. They'll make you smile, for a while. Just don't forget about those teeth.


Anonymous said...

I have a friend who is a former Buddhist Monk. I used to write him paragraph upon paragraph of questions, explanation, etc. He always responded with one or two words. This taught me how to cut out a lot of unnecessary drivel.

So, with my inspiration for my response here going completely to Michael, I say "Good."

I enjoyed this one very much and smiled when I read about the George Harrison inspiration. That occurred for me as well. Now everyone knows our age! It made me think of a lyric set that spoke to me way back when -- early 70s, before this songwriter got into all the schlockey stuff of the 80s - back when he was really good:

"I have these moments all steady and strong [when] I’m feeling so holy and humble. The next thing I know I’m all worried and weak and I feel myself starting to crumble. The meanings get lost and the teachings get tossed and you don’t know what you’re going to do next. You wait for the sun but it never quite comes, [and] some kind of message comes through to you. And it says to you … Love when you can, cry when you have to... Be who you must that’s a part of the plan. Await your arrival with simple survival and one day we’ll all understand ... One day we'll all understand … There is no Eden or heavenly gates that you’re gonna make it to one day, but all of the answers you seek can be found in the dreams that you dream on the way."
~Dan Fogelberg~


teri said...

So back to an issue I pointed out that you never really addressed: Doesn't making specific predictions & expectations for the future kind of go against the Zen philosophy?

Kozan Bob said...

Teri, the idea is not to live in the future, not that you can't prepare for it! Please remember that zazen is a practice first, and the the extent that Zen has a philosophy, it will always be secondary to the practice. My experience of the practice is that it helps me see things more clearly, including the past and future. You just learn that they are included in the present.

A philosophy that left one unable to analyze and prepare for the future according to a realistic experience of the present wouldn't be very productive! That would be closer probably to the Secret or some of these magical-thinking pop culture things that are so popular these days among the less perceptive 101 students. No, Zen is harvesting in the fall to eat in the winter, definitely.