(Who wrote this post? See A New Voice on No Zen. Thanks, Hondo, for this first, introductory post! -Jiryu)
I’m a convert to Zen, and so my religious/spiritual experience is fundamentally a convert’s experience. I came to this tradition as an adult, as a seeker, and that’s very different from having been raised within it. This is on my mind because I’ve been thinking about commitment, and what commitment means. What in the world does it mean to commit to a tradition, especially a tradition that isn’t my parents’ or my grandparents’? What is it exactly that any of us commit to when we first come to meditation instruction, or sit a sesshin, or receive the precepts as laypeople or priests? What is a commitment to a lineage, a school, a teacher? “Come, Bhikkhu,” the Buddha said when followers asked to become disciples. They were converts, too. What did they think they were signing up for?
In the last two years, I’ve made two lifelong commitments, the two central commitments of my life—marriage in 2009, ordination in 2010. Leaving aside the fact that for much of Buddhist history those two ceremonies would have been thoroughly incompatible (subject for another post, I’m sure . . .) I’ve been considering the way the feeling of each of them is similar. The way the feeling of each informs the other.
I’m happy in my commitment to Zen in a way that closely parallels how I’m happy in my marriage, and it’s this very precise, particular kind of happiness. It absolutely isn’t the feeling that this is the only place I could be. I can imagine being happy elsewhere, in some other tradition, married to some other person. Really, I see how accidental the encounters of my life (of any life) are. If Jiryu had started hanging out with the Tibetans who knows where I’d be? If Devon had moved to Rhode Island before she and I met in California? But I don’t find myself spending much time or energy considering these other possibilities. They aren’t very interesting—not because I think I have the world’s best religion or the world’s best marriage (although some days I secretly think I do, of course) but because the commitments have already been made, and my job for the rest of my life is to deepen into them.
Some of this has to do with my particular stage in life, I’m certain. I’m 36 years old. Let’s say for the sake of the argument that I’m halfway through, give or take. (Oh, my!) The first half of a life you search for what to commit to, and the second half you deepen and explore and struggle with that commitment, let it stew, get richer. That’s a pretty cool story of a human life, isn’t it? In these last years I’m right at the point where the first half is over—I’ve made my lifetime vows and now I understand in some way my life’s work, which is to resist, wrestle with, live up to, live into them.
But here’s the key part, and I’m pretty sure I’ve been misunderstood before when I try to articulate this: I don’t think that a lifetime commitment to my marriage means that my wife and I will never get divorced. I know that many marriages end, and it seems sentimental or naïve to assume that could never happen. Of course it could happen. I really, really don’t want it to happen but lots of things I don’t want to happen happen (see Noble Truth, First.)
The commitment, then, isn’t that I’ll stay married to Devon forever, although I hope I will and I’m willing to put in a lot of effort, time, sacrifice, etc. to help that happen. At the end of the day, though, how on earth could I know what’s going to happen? My future-predicting skills are pretty awful. The deepest and most honest commitment I can make is that married or not my life unfolds in relationship to Devon. Any decision I ever make—even a decision to get divorced—is one that will be made in relationship to her, in dialogue with her, based on the person that she is and that she is helping me become in that moment.
This seems so important to me, right at the heart of this. Otherwise any kind of lifetime-commitment talk just seems sentimental or naïve or thoughtless—as if any of us could ever know the shape of our lives. The commitment isn’t to being married or not, although I sure hope we stay married. It’s a commitment to work out the rest of my life in relationship to Devon.
The same is true of Zen practice. I have no idea what kind of priest I’ll be in ten years, or twenty, or forty. I can imagine taking my robes off. I can imagine taking up some other practice, or leaving practice entirely. But the way my practice unfolds—even the practice of leaving my practice—will happen in relationship with my teacher, my sangha, my breath, my zazen cushion. That’s the commitment, and maybe that’s the key. I’m committed to these relationships, not to the fact that these relationships need to turn out any particular way. Actually, if I knew how they were going to turn out, that would be stifling—where would the energy, the play, the life be?
This point is so tricky, so hard to get exactly right. If I tip too far one way, it sounds overly passive, as if I don’t really care about Zen, don’t really care about Devon. Oh, it’s good enough, it’s what I have, I’ll make the best of it. That’s not what I mean at all—I mean something a million times more joyful, more active, more engaged. This is my life, after all! On the other hand, to tip too far the other way slides into a kind of big empty talk, as if I could control how the universe would unroll—a kind of sentimentality that’s the near-enemy of real compassion, real devotion, real love.
One last wrinkle here. I’m committed to Zen for myself, but I have a lot of sympathy for those who would point out Zen’s weaknesses and limitations. There’s a lot we’re not very good at. Our relationship to and teachings about sexuality, for example, are sorely lacking. In Dogen’s entire corpus of writing, in all his subtle, beautiful, mindblowing dynamic exploration of endlessly subtle points of enlightenment and practice, sexuality almost never comes up. That’s bizarre, and a huge vacuum for a contemporary culture as relentlessly sexualized as ours.
Also Zen’s emphasis on monastic life and training gives short shrift to family life. Zen temples occasionally have family days, where people bring their kids, and there’s almost always something a little forced about them. We really aren’t very good at it—every Methodist church in town does a better job with their young people than we do with ours.
So I don’t necessarily think that Zen is the best tradition for everybody. (As I’ve said, I don’t even know that it’s necessarily the best tradition for me—it’s just that I don’t care anymore about best or not-best. Now I just care about exploring what I have.) But I do have a pretty deep commitment to the larger Mahayana Buddhist tradition. I think it would be a rare seeker on the path who couldn’t find some rich nourishment in the larger Mahayana world.
And finally, the largest commitment is to the values of the Mahayana themselves—the values that the Mahayana imperfectly embodies. I have absolute faith that wisdom and compassion are trustworthy guideposts for all of us.
I have a Mahayana commitment that’s deeper than my Zen commitment and a wisdom-and-compassion commitment that’s deeper than my Mahayana commitment. I feel very lucky that I’ve found forms of expressing all of these commitments—the Mahayana expresses the wisdom-and-compassion, the Zen expresses the Mahayana, the Zen expresses the marriage, the marriage expresses the Zen, the marriage expresses the aspiration for wisdom-and-compassion. All of it tangles together. And finally, actually, even that whole tangle is probably just an expression of something else, something I don’t know, something without a name or form—that cold, cold wind that blows through us when everything else withers and falls away.
Let’s commit with our whole hearts.