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?