I’m happy to see a piece of mine in the current issue of Buddhadharma magazine, but, as is always the case with anything published anywhere, I also wonder who it was who wrote it and whether I’ll be confused for him. Certainly the artist’s rendition of me accompanying the piece would mitigate against my being confused for the author – clearly a much stockier and even stranger looking individual than myself – but there remains nonetheless the risk.
The piece, in the “Journeys” back page section of the magazine and titled It’s Okay. Really., was written about a year or so ago. (You can find the piece here.) At the time, I’d been advised that my family story was something worth sharing, and I was also finding myself very inspired by the ideas that Zen can be completely realized in ordinary life – no recourse to “formal practice” necessary – and that things, in their inconceivably non-thingness, are indeed “ok.”
I still think so. I still insist that it’s a total copout to say even once that the circumstances of your life don’t allow you to practice (ok – maybe once is alright, but no more!), and I still hold that fundamentally everything is even more okay than “okay”. But as I spoke and wrote along these lines, I eventually started to feel uncomfortable. I wasn’t uncomfortable because people’s objection that “fundamentally things are NOT okay if you look at the suffering of the world!” convinced me – a lifelong reflection on that view is precisely what brought me to the points I was making. It was because I felt that for all of my attempts to round out what I was saying, to show the other side (as Zen people are legally bound by the Platform Sutra to do of any issue), I was close to if not already falling into a one-sided view.
That’s the other thing about saying anything, I suppose, that whatever you say is just one thing, and just one thing is never complete.
After one talk I gave drawing from the Buddhadharma piece I was drafting on “it’s okay,” my friend Liz helped me to clarify that the spirit of our practice is really less about “okay” or “not okay” so much as about not sticking. It isn’t that we say and hear “it’s okay” and then stick to that as the real truth, or that we hear or say “no need to do sesshin” and make that the next thing to stick to. The point is that we hold it all without sticking to any of it.
I’d still say that most of us, most of the time, stick to a “not okay” view of the world. The Buddhist teachings even affirm that view: the world really is a place marked by suffering and dissatisfaction. But when we stick to that view, really hold to a “broken world,” we’re missing another kind of opportunity, another kind of seeing that we equally need.
“It’s okay,” then, is offered not as the authentic final truth so much as medicine, a truth that unsticks us from the unhelpful despair of our deep-seated feeling that in fact it’s not okay. Stick to the “okay” medicine and it becomes a kind of kool aid, becomes complacency. But if we revert to our sense of despair and powerlessness about the world, we cut off the fullness and vastness and inconceivability our shared being – we obscure the impossible beauty of being alive at all.
That’s how I see it now, anyway, and I think it’s what my stocky and strange-looking “last year’s man” was trying express in his own way.