No Experience Outside of Culture?

Thank you for the comments posted in response to my last entry.  I’m touched by their depth and thoughtfulness.  Tempted as I am to try to get in some clumsy last word on each point, it feels best to resist that and keep the conversation open. 

I do want to take up a fundamental issue that has been raised in these first comments, though.  I appreciate in many of them being pointed back to the Zen that is actualized in this very moment, this very breath.  Not the Zen of East or West, not the Zen of Buddhism or the Zen of anything at all – but just this presence here now.  How wonderful to be reminded, and to remind each other of this single moment of life!  Nowhere to go, nothing to do, everything released into just as it is. 

This immediacy seems like a Zen that is beyond conditions – right here now there is no East, no West, no Zen, no breath, no sitter.  This presence is vital.  It is our awakening, our inspiration, and the bedrock of our vows.  But what then?

My moments of presence certainly trump my ideas of Zen.  It’s good to be reminded of that, and all of Zen discourse does – the old teachers redirect each exchange back to a presence that can’t get crammed into language and theories and views.  But we shouldn’t forget that Zen discourse also always does the opposite – it demands a return into language, into theories and views, into the mud of ideas and the mud of action.

So I know that I can drop all of my ideas, and that is my basic practice, but what happens when I pick them back up?  Should I just never pick them back up?  Maybe a good idea – but it turns out in my experience that “never pick back up” is also a pretty violent idea, and amounts to holding fast to a fixed view.  So I have been working a lot lately with the dimension of letting go that is a letting go into whatever is flowing from the moment, rather than a letting go away from the natural flow of things.  That is, letting go as letting go in the midst of participation in what is happening, as opposed to a letting go that blocks what might happen next.  Stillness as readiness, not stillness as stuckness.  Purity not as crystal clear water, but as the freedom to get muddy.  This seems like the real skill of Zen. 

When our experience goes beyond culture – unconditioned experience if such a thing could be spoken of – how quickly and under what motivation do we make it conditioned, cultured experience again?  The next morning, or the next breath (or at the very same moment, if we’re skilful enough) we put it into the language of Zen or some other language.  We identify with it and we look for ways to communicate and transmit it.  That effort has its problems (totally untenable, for one, and the cause of all suffering), but is basically wholesome and natural and necessary.  It is an expression of our vow, that comes from our appreciating that the spiritual depth we’ve found in our own lives we owe at least in part to the generosity of others who have descended into the mud to cram what’s beyond words into words.  To squeeze what can’t be practiced into a practice we can try to do.

It may well be (logically and doctrinally) that there is no such thing as an unconditioned experience, that it is a mistake to think that we are ever outside of conditions, ever outside of culture or language.  If so, to speak of departing from and returning to the conditioned world is just a conditioned fantasy.  Painted rice cakes everywhere we turn. 

Whether we ultimately decide that our “spiritual moments” are truly unconditioned or just really really nicely conditioned, the question for me now is how they meet conditions.  Can this experience be carried into conditions, or is it obliterated immediately by them?

We grasp hold of this presence that we feel and touch through our meditation practice and we claim that it is beyond Zen or beyond culture, but is it really?  And even if we say it is, what do we want to transmit?  What will help others to touch it too?  What will help us to remember, again and again, to return?  Throw away all tools, or pick them carefully up?

So I’m inspired by direct pointing back to my present momentary experience, as the beginning and end, the alpha and the omega of the spiritual path.  I trust that deeply, and my faith in that continues to grow.  But how does it take shape, and how do I honor what has shaped it?

Returning to this conventional world to play and to help, what do we pick up and what do we put down?  Here the whole field is open to our full creativity.  But pure creativity can’t essentially teach, anymore than pure tradition can.  So how do we want to step forward?  What is real letting go, and what culture remains when we do?


One thought on “No Experience Outside of Culture?

  1. Whether we ultimately decide that our “spiritual moments” are truly unconditioned or just really really nicely conditioned, the question for me now is how they meet conditions. Can this experience be carried into conditions, or is it obliterated immediately by them?
    Jiryu, I think this is the relevant question, at least for me. I might rephrase it as, “Can this experience be realized within conditions, or is it nullified immediately by them?” Forms of formal Zen practice are well and good, and then when we exit the meditation hall, monastery, or temple, we encounter other forms, like what to do when a kid falls off a swing and is screaming, or your relative standing in the security check line at the airport refuses to stop talking loudly about how one might smuggle a gun through the checkpoint, or the neighbor’s huge cat sneaks into your house and then takes a suicide dive out of a second floor window. I personally think the ultimate acid test would be to stick someone who claimed to have experienced “the unconditioned” into a preschool with around 30 three to five year olds, and say, “OK, now you’re in charge and you’re responsible for them for the next three months.” In such a situation, it’s possible that one might forget the word “Zen” and discover a way of practice that saves the many beings — or run away, screaming. Or both.

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