Tuesday, June 24, 2008
Tonight, I was exhausted. Maybe it was that really good Yoga class I did last night, or maybe it was the fact that my job has become so stupefying I can barely make it through the days. And then on top of it all, my Buddhist practice, which is my point of reference when everything else become intolerable, is so infested with bullshit these days that I'm tempted to clear it all out and start over.
But I was exhausted, and whereas when I'm in that frame of mind, in the old days I would have probably got drunk, passed out and woke up about this time (1 a.m.) with a hangover, last night I had a salad and a barbequed chicken breast, read as much really good sci-fi as I could stand, and went to sleep about 7 p.m. Go figure.
When I did wake up, I found Brad Warner's latest Suicide Girls article. Go on, read it, it's free, especially if you're Buddhist. If I had stayed in California where I started sitting zazen about twenty-seven years ago, I might feel like he does about institutional Buddhism.
Bonnaroo, ten days ago (sob!) did for me what I hoped it'd do; it cleared some of the bullshit out of my head and let me reconnect with a part of my "self" that I was missing, the one that liked to stand in a field in Manchester, TN, and scream "Bullshit!" at the world, all done of course with a beer in my hand and some really good music. On the other hand, it made me want to call a spade a spade, and that makes it really hard to go to work and pretend to be someone I'm not (or more accurately, to refuse to admit who I really am), and on top of all that to deal with Buddhism®.
You've heard all this before, but for some reason, at the two times in my life I've really felt drawn back toward Buddhism, I've had trouble finding it. The first time was in Albuquerque, where now there is a big Albuquerque Zen Center apparently (Rinzai), but when I was there I had trouble finding anything authentic and instead wound up with Nichiren Shoshu for a few years. The second time was in Nashville in 2004, when I did find the Nashville Zen Center. When I discovered the NZC, I had hoped it was a source for connecting with real Zen. I was motivated to come back to Zen by Brad's first book, Hardcore Zen. I think the preface of that book -- Brad's basic "philosophical" questions, the "What is This?" which is the basis for all real philosophical, existential inquiry, was the same as mine. I just needed to find people of a like mind.
My frustrations with the Nashville Zen Center have been well-documented, and I won't reiterate them here. In the spring of 2006 I went to Atlanta to the Atlanta Soto Zen Center and found what I'd been looking for. I found a teacher who insisted on staying with what I feel to be the true essence of Zen, and of existence; the essential staring down the void which is the self. And he/they was/were still able to do that essential thing within the context of a semi-formal, mostly dignified Zen practice. I made that connection and it's the best thing I've done since my life changed when my mother died in 2003. I will not refute it.
This coming Saturday, Michael Elliston, Abbott of the ASZC, is coming to Nashville to conduct a Discipleship ceremony for my friend and NZC president Nat, and to initiate some really great people into formal Buddhism. These people are people I'm thrilled to share the experience with, people who were drawn to Zen of their own accord. Paul and Ana, you are two of my favorite people (you too, Michelle and Walter). The ceremony will take place after a half-day sit at the new 12South Dharma Center, which is a cooperative effort among several Nashville Buddhist groups and a kind of dream space (with problems, of course). So why am I not happy?
In my efforts to bring what I find to be real, essential Buddhist practice to Nashville, I have of necessity found myself among the purveyors of Buddhism®. To do what I had to do, I myself had to become visible and prominent in the Buddhist® community, which is something I never wanted to do, and now I'm paying for it.
See, I would never want to be a visible leader of any Buddhist group I'm a part of. I've got too much baggage, for one thing. For another, I have, of my own design, very little tolerance for bullshit, and that's not what you want in the occupant of a position which becomes, in some sense, political. I just want to sit on the sideline and throw these japes in. Unfortunately, in this case I had to help create the thing that was there to throw the japes at. Hence the dilemma.
Last year, I and representatives from four other Buddhist groups conducted the very successful Fourth Nashville Buddhist Festival. You've read all about it. It went well, and it made me a lot of friends, and I was happy with it. Unfortunately, this year I'm still on the Board of that, and I don't like it any more. Can't stand it, in fact. I got them incorporated, but I'm done with it. They want to do the same thing as last year, and I never do see the point in that. Introducing the Buddhist-curious in Nashville to some options. For some of the groups, it's a recruiting tool.
Yes, people can be recruited to Buddhism, just like any other religion, or any other -ism, for that matter. Because, see, people want that. That's what religion is all about, isn't it? The desire to find people of like-minded belief. To gain a purpose larger that oneself. To mutually reassure one another that, yes, despite, the vicissitudes of this life, Life has a bigger meaning, and everything will be OK in the end. God or the Buddha will take care of you. I'm OK, you're OK. Horseshit.
Because my Zen practice has nothing to do with that. Zen is about confronting reality. Michael Elliston and 90% of the ASZC members I've practiced with (of course, I only tend to meet the serious ones, at the retreats) understand that. Brad Warner certainly understand that. And I choose these people to be my teachers. Don't think I'm in any way refuting my authentic Zen practice here. I have found, in my sitting on my cushion, a lifetime practice. Something that always comes back to the real. Something I won't give up. And the only sincere Zen practitioners I've ever met came to Zen on their own. Wandered in off the street, as it were. You can't recruit people to the real question; they must have it, to start.
I've been told by my teachers and by people who've been sitting zazen for a long time, that once you've done it for a while, everything you do is Practice. It took me until now to understand that. Because now, not sitting zazen is also Zen practice. Bonnaroo was practice, definitely. Writing another vitriolic blog entry with a Red Bull® at 2 a.m. is also practice. Knowing I have another mind-numbing work day to follow, followed by a refreshing NZC meeting tonight, is also practice.
And sitting in a room with a bunch of delusional religiosos who happen to call themselves Buddhists instead of Christians is also practice. I'm talking about the Board of Directors of the Nashville Buddhist Festival, not the NZC (the latter being, in its present incarnation, made up of quite sincere people). And there are some NBF Board members whose practices I admire, and in fact consider teachers. But in a group setting, it all makes me puke. Because at this point I may as well be on the Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.
And now of course there's the informal committee set up for running the Dharma Center, which is made up mostly of the same people. Good people, good intentions, more bureaucracy. I'm not made for Bureaucracy. I'm made for sitting in a field at dawn with a beer in my hand. That's existential realization. That's Practice, too.
So for now I have to stay with the Bureaucracy for a little while longer. Pretty soon I'm gonna get off all these committees. Maybe someone else will take my place, now, maybe not. But for now it's the place in which I've put myself and I have to deal with it. I should be typing the minutes of the last Nashville Buddhist Festival Board meeting right now, instead of bitching about it. Hopefully I'll get that done, sometime.
Photo courtesy of Paul Felton, Shambhala Nashville®.