Nothing Ugly in Our Practice?

It’s been with real interest and appreciation that I’ve followed the comments to the last two posts—“No Ads on No Zen?” and “No Livelihood in Zen.”  This is tricky and important stuff, and I’m really pleased by the dialogue.  Thank you to everyone who has weighed in.  I have a whole ongoing set of responses, some more fully articulated than others, but there’s definitely a tangent in all of this for me that has to do with thinking through the relationship between my aesthetics and my Zen practice.

At first glance, that might seem like a strange juxtaposition—I’m not sure that I’ve heard a lot of explicit discussions of beauty in my time at various Zen centers.  The more I’ve thought about this issue of accepting advertisements on this blog, though, and tried to understand the various viewpoints that have been expressed by commenters, the more I’ve been struck by the realization that some of what’s happening in the discussion (not all, certainly, but some) is crucially aesthetic.

My own response, for example, comes at least partly out of a general aesthetic preference for a website without ads.  Ads are ugly, in my view.  This doesn’t mean I’m not willing to experiment with them, but it’s one key part of my response.  This in turn is part of an aesthetic response to the relentlessly commodifying nature of post-everything corporate capitalism—the reduction of so many aspects of our lives to commodities is ugly, in my view.  This doesn’t mean there aren’t other considerations for me as I make my way through my culture, but it’s one key part of what’s going on. 

It’s clarifying for me to consider this issue through the lens of beauty—rather than through the equally relevant lenses of ethics, say, or of economics—because I think that a lot of Zen practice is actually about beauty, even though I don’t think we talk about it that way very much.  I, at least, was drawn to Zen practice in part because of the overwhelming beauty of some of my first experiences of Zen temples.  Oryoki, to take just one example, has a deeply aesthetic component—it is graceful, fluid, efficient.  The care for physical objects in and around a temple has an aesthetic component.  Doan training, I’m coming to think, might actually be training in a particular aesthetic—paying close attention to rhythm, movement, sound.  Aren’t those the things that dancers attend to?  When the doshi straightens from a bow at the altar and the jisha’s hand holding the lit stick of incense meets her at precisely the right moment, both bodies moving at the same speed to pass the incense from hand to hand seamlessly, that’s beautiful, isn’t it?

In fact, isn’t part of the appeal of Zen practice in general an aspiration for a sort of beautiful life—an aspiration for a graceful, flexible, relaxed, concentrated way of meeting the various difficulties of being human?  It sure seems that way to me.

I bring all this up, of course, to point out the obvious problem with making aesthetics the center of our practice and our vow.  Aesthetics are about preferences, about dualism, about separation—this is beautiful, this is not.  A preference for certain things over others is at the root of the ways we suffer in the first place, and simply developing a more and more highly refined and subtle set of preferences doesn’t seem like much of a practice.

Our practice is beautiful, actually, but if it’s to have any life, it can’t be a beauty that excludes ugliness, a beauty at the expense of ugliness.  Our practice is beautiful in its active leap beyond beauty and ugliness, moment after moment.

So how does any of this help in making a decision about where to host this blog, or in the larger discussion of how to navigate the sometimes ugly—and sometimes beautiful—realities of our consumer culture?  I don’t know.  I think the bodhisattva path is powerful at least in part because of its beautiful, beautiful willingness to engage deeply and freely with both beauty and ugliness, and I’ve found this whole discussion in the comments section and in private messages—I admit it!—sort of beautiful.  I guess I want to be sure that the conversation isn’t merely about aesthetics, if that makes sense.  Does it?


6 thoughts on “Nothing Ugly in Our Practice?

  1. great post. lot’s to think about. I’ve been studying, in school, the concepts of the beautiful, the sublime and the picturesque. I need to go back and read the last couple posts though.

  2. I left a long and detailed comment that just got lost because I clicked on the wrong button – I wrote it and nobody has to read it.
    To add briefly to the Patheos/ad discussion – Patheos is the wrong way to go – check Alexa and you will see that a Zen page will not get a lot of traffic so it would not help with any economic goals either. Ads that you can fully endorse and that fit the topic will actually enrich the blog – but you need to act with the diligence of an advertising director of a magazine and carefully select the ads rather than getting some remnants from an ad feed that badly pays.
    Try a sponsor button for a month and allow all of your readers to spread the word for the benefit of the content and the people who receive the Dharma – that’s what social media are for. Leverage that “Zen” has a positive connotation, which “Religion” has not. Did you see the new Zendesk billboard on 101 driving N to the City?

  3. Hondo:
    Aesthetics and beauty are not just about preferences, it’s about being human.

    There is a lot of beauty and aesthetics in Zen rituals, even dokusan has a beauty in it. In some ways it’s easy to argue that learning to see beauty and learning to give and receive love freely is the heart of Zen practice. As has been mentioned it’s a gift culture at heart.

    Preferences are unavoidable. Treating them seriously is optional. Crushing them may just crush ourselves. Fighting over them is silly. Maybe first you learn to let them go then you learn to not need to let them go. Having a preference over how to handle preferences has disguised not removed the issue!

    The doorstop to my office is an 8″ weighted ball knot of hemp rope. It’s an expensive replacement for a wedge stop. But the rope one is beautiful to me and tactile, it’s pleasing to pick up – with an inviting rope-loop handle and is rough and tactile. Each time you pick it up the experience will be subtly different perhaps.

    Of course We paint the world with our minds with beauty and ugly. For a few days I’ve been dealing with some heavy emotional stuff and I’ve struggled to find beauty in the world. I missed it. At the same time it seemed like random people tried harder to help me see the beauty – like a barrista who was upbeat and chatty and remembered that I always drink in, never take out.

    Beauty and ugly are part of being human. They are of course our projections onto the world but they also can guide us in healthy behaviours. I’m reminded of the koan “Do you see anything that is not the best meat?” Right livelihood is as least as much about how as what. “Intrinsically” is the flag that hides our preferences.

    When I see only beauty around me I know I’m out of balance. When I see only ugliness around me I know I’m out of balance. When I see both and am not captivated by them things seem about right.


  4. I would like to practice with this diligence: “but you need to act with the diligence of an advertising director of a magazine” . It´s amazing.

    I have the feeling that the conversation is not just about aesthetics, and at least for me was mainly about the moral intention, and something like “The fragility of goodness” (Like Professor Nussbaum book). However, it seems that in Greek Tragedy there was a combination of both. And was not an specifically structured Moral intention, but an inner transformation provoked by beauty. Beauty was the cause of astonishment, of a deep reflection on ones own self and sense. Kind of what I feel with Oryoki, or with the confrontation with myself in front of the wall, in hurting knees. There´s a beautiful feeling of: “look how clumsy I am with this Oryoki, or look, I have kind of nice thoughts during Zazen”.

    Maybe advertisement can be a detonator of astonishment, in many mysterious ways. What if the 21th century Satori Stories are something like: Monk Hui-Neng crash with another car in the highway. Once he look up, he saw an advertisement and understood everything”. Jajaja, just kidding.

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