More on cause-and-effect

In the weeks since my last post, the world has continued to flow from event to event to event—you’ve probably noticed.  Our cat Cosmo has recovered well from his dangerous adventure, though he’s been treating the other cats in the neighborhood like kind of a jerk; I caught him snarling and clawing at one in the driveway yesterday.  The family of Rafael Garcia, the man who was murdered around the corner, has moved a bunch of belongings away in a truck.  I haven’t seen anyone there lately—I can’t tell if the apartment is still occupied or not.  And I’ve continued to think about causes and effects, the Buddhist tradition’s teachings on karma and time, the various ways I might hold and practice with the fact that one thing leads to another, inexorably, forever.

In particular, I’ve been thinking about the way that any event is both effect and cause, both end and beginning, and playing with the different practice-feeling of stressing one side or the other.

So on the one hand it’s possible to take an event, an experience, as a karmic resultant, to frame it as the end of an infinite series of causes.  Pure result.  I think the Diamond Sutra points to this in the bit about scorn and revilement—and the fact that the line is presented as a koan in both the Blue Cliff Record and the Book of Serenity seems to me to underscore its importance.  Here’s Cleary’s version, from case 58 of the Book of Serenity:

The Diamond-Cutter Scripture says, “If someone is reviled by others, this person has done wicked acts in previous ages and should fall into evil ways, but because of the scorn and revilement of people in the present age, the wicked deeds of past ages are dissolved.”

I might respond to this differently as a koan in the interview room, but as wise advice from the tradition, I find it a beautiful way to hold and transform difficulty.  It moves me towards gratitude, towards acceptance.  How lucky I am to experience this difficulty, I might think.  How lucky to have the opportunity to face this difficulty in the context of practice, and how clarifying to see that this difficulty is at the very end of a long and mysterious set of causes—those old wicked deeds from past ages.

On the other hand, it’s possible to take an event, an experience, as the beginning of a series—as a setting into motion, a knocking over of a first domino.  I think of the Dhammapada on this point:

All experience is preceded by mind,

Led by mind,

Made by mind.

Speak or act with a corrupted mind,

And suffering follows

As the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox.

All experience is preceded by mind,

Led by mind,

Made by mind.

Speak or act with a peaceful mind,

And happiness follows

Like a never-departing shadow.

As I say, I’ve been playing with this—considering the act of writing these words as the end result of a universe of causes, or considering the act of writing these words as the beginning cause of a universe of effects.  For me each has a very different feeling, a different resonance in my body and mind and it’s lovely and powerful to toggle between them, to play.  Finally, though, both of these stories about karma—past causes leading to present effects or present causes leading to future effects—are stories about time, and in some ways simple-minded stories about time, as if time only moved from past to future in a straightforward way, separate from events.

It’s here on the topic of time, after all, that Dogen’s teaching, for me, is most profound, most life-altering, most expressive.  Time doesn’t only move in one direction.  Time doesn’t separate out from being.  Events don’t unroll in time—events are time.  Unrolling is time.  Causes are time; effects are time.  From Uji:

The time-being has the quality of flowing.  So-called today flows into tomorrow, today flows into yesterday, yesterday flows into today.  And today flows into today, tomorrow flows into tomorrow.

More and more it seems to me that the study of karma, of cause and effect, is most basically the study of time—and this takes me back smack-dab into Uji, for which all I can feel is gratitude.

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Cause-and-effect

It’s been months since I’ve had the time to write up anything for the blog—the usual turmoil of life with an almost nine-month old—but in the past few weeks two separate occurrences have started me thinking about the mysterious and intricate way that cause leads endlessly to effect.  The machinery of karma, the river of events.

First, our beloved cat Cosmo disappeared for a few days and then came home.  We got Cosmo from the Providence Animal Rescue League in 2008 as a kitten—he’s a good-natured and affectionate guy, loves to crawl up onto my chest, or onto Devon’s, to purr.  A few years ago—the weekend before my ordination, actually—he somehow crawled inside the engine of a parked car on a chilly Rhode Island morning, to get warm, I guess, and was mangled pretty badly when the engine was started.  He crawled home bleeding, and needed all kinds of stitches and care.  For a while he had to wear a cast, which was hilarious and heart-breaking.  He’d try to run across the room, but this giant thumping casing on his leg would interfere and he’d tumble over it.  Finally he learned an awkward half-gallop, bringing the cast around in a huge step to thunk it down and push off.

Here in Oakland, we started letting him out of our apartment into the driveway and the patch of grass behind us.  He likes to sniff around, sleep in the sun, crawl under things.  He strolls into neighbor’s apartments, apparently, just to say hello. He’s usually back scratching at the door before too long.

A few weeks ago, then, when he wasn’t back by nightfall, we were pretty worried.  I called up and down the block.  Same thing the next morning, and then the whole long day—going downstairs every few hours to walk and call.  It was really sad.  He still limps from his old injury, and he’s a little chubby to begin with—not exactly an animal you’d think can take care of himself out in the violent and scary world.

I think he first went missing on Saturday, and that Monday Devon made up 100 flyers to put around the neighborhood.  I taped them to telephone poles and put them into mailboxes, but honestly it felt ceremonial more than anything—as if putting the flyers up were a way of marking Cosmo’s death, part of his funeral service.

Cause and effect.  A few years ago, Devon had heard a story from her brother about a friend of theirs who opened his garage one day and found a cat who had gotten trapped and died.  She remembered that as she was making the flyers, and so at the bottom, along with a description of Cosmo and our phone number, she asked that if someone had a garage or crawl space, they please look to make sure he wasn’t stuck inside.

Two days later, Cosmo came home.  He was dirty and exhausted, face swollen with dehydration.  For the next day or two, he was panicked, hiding at loud noises.  And we got a call, from someone who had seen our flyer, and went down to check in his basement, and said that Cosmo streaked out the second he opened the door.  He was already home before the guy got back to his phone to call us.  His message was, “I think your cat’s going to be home in about thirty seconds . . .”

If we hadn’t put up the flyers, Cosmo would’ve died in there.  Or if the neighbor hadn’t decided to check his basement.  Or if Devon’s brother hadn’t told the story about the cat in the garage.  Stories sometimes get a bad rap in Zen circles.  I’ve heard “Oh, that’s just my story”—or it’s more aggressive variation “that’s just your story”—used as a way to dismiss an experience.  And of course all stories are limited, conditional, incomplete.  But in this case, through the unknowable, intricate patterns of cause and effect, a story—a simple recounting of a particular lived experience from a particular Dharma-position in time, space, karma—led, years later, to demonstrable benefit for a living being.  That story—and the chain of events that led from it—saved Cosmo’s life.

Cause and effect.  Just a week or so before our adventure with Cosmo, a man named Rafael Garcia, who I never met but lived about a block and a half from us, was murdered in front of his house.  He was 41 years old.  Our East Oakland neighborhood is fairly violent—most people on our block pretty much stay in their apartments most of the time.  The network of conditions that led to his murder, like the network of conditions that led to Cosmo’s miraculous return, are too complex to fully understand.  Someone had to buy a gun, to decide to use it.  To be on that block on this particular summer evening.  On and on.

I’ve heard two different versions from the neighbors.  Someone said that he got robbed as he was coming home from work, and that he fought back and things escalated.  Someone else said that he was just hanging out in front of his porch when it happened.  The Oakland Police Department has put up a $10,000 reward for information, but I haven’t heard of anything coming of it.

For a while after Rafael Garcia’s murder, there was a makeshift altar on the steps of his house, flowers and photographs and candles, but now that’s been taken down.

This world is a devastating, glorious, inexorable place.  It contains murder and it contains furry cats coming home to lap water from a bowl.  It goes on forever, it never stops.  It’s more than I can understand.

I want to be clear.  I don’t mean for a moment that Rafael Garcia’s particular actions are somehow to blame for his murder.  There is a perverted way of using the teaching of karma—to blame the suffering for their suffering—and I think it’s a deeply mistaken view.  All I mean is that from the swirl of conditions a universe wide, the event of those gunshots arose.  From the vast net of actions, of particular causes and conditions—consequences.

In the Eight Verses for Training the Mind, the seventh verse reads “May I quietly take upon myself all hurts and pains of my mothers.”  Another way of saying that might be something like, May I not try to hold myself apart from the way things really are.  May I not try to avoid the river of unknowable cause-and-effect, of ceaseless change, and the pain that follows from change.

As I worked on this post, Cosmo napped on a pile of laundry.  There used to be some brightly colored plastic playground equipment on Rafael Garcia’s porch, but now that’s gone.   Devon says that when she went by yesterday there was nothing left out there but a mattress against the gate.

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Serving the Dharma?

I was explaining recently to a friend in the Dharma – the inmate shuso of our San Quentin practice period, as it happens – how I think of my study of Japanese language as an act of devotion to the Dharma.  This was something that needed explaining because the Japanese study that’s consuming me this summer (much to the detriment or perhaps the improvement of this blog) doesn’t in any kind of day-to-day way tie into the reason I’m studying it.  I’ve entered this process of academic study in order to read Dogen and Kumarajiva and the Buddhist scholars of 20th century Japan.  But this week, in class, I’m reading about the inventor of instant ramen noodles.  I’m working on a skit about joining the sumo team.  The semester project is a paper about robots.  It’s not uninteresting – I mean, gee, what robot would I build if I could? – but it doesn’t have anything to do with the Dharma.  Ok, there’s the occasional resonance that comes from any kind of exposure to Japan – a teacher today casually referred to “en” (karmic affinity), and a section about Japanese sports was all about polishing baseball bats – but it’s pretty thin.

So I was explaining to our shuso that, as my language study is pretty far removed from the Dharma, I was trying to keep this “real” motivation in the back of my mind.  When my eyes are exhausted and my fingers are shaky from writing characters over and over, or my mind grinds over how exactly one stick  figure should be asking another about noodles, I try to recall that I’m doing this to open up some Dharma gates that I can’t quite see past at present.

The shuso wasn’t pleased.  “How about you just do what you’re doing?”

Hmm… Oh yeah.

You mean, why don’t I enter the Dharma gate I can see now – the one my feet are just now touching – instead of dedicating myself to the Dharma gates that I don’t?  Why don’t I unburden this moment from my idea of my motivation?  My idea of my path?  My “goal”?

How about I forget about the Dharma gates I can’t see, and about how maybe I’ll get to peek in eventually, and just plunge into the one that today looks like a stick figure talking about noodles; the one that looks like a verb conjugation, that looks like a pencil, or another student, or the sound of chalk?  How about I devote myself to that Dharma, and let the Dharma I’m dreaming fall back to its status as dream?

Of course it’s more complicated than that.

Is it more complicated than that?

Is it good to think about the Dharma?  Is a student of the Way “supposed” to bring the Dharma to mind?  I’ve long wanted to write a post about whether we should check how we’re doing or not, and while this may not be that post, it feels closely related.  Do I really want to check how I’m doing, assess if it’s in accord with the Dharma, or do I just want to do what I’m doing?  Should I ask myself – or some teacher – how I’m doing, or just be how I’m doing?

“Should’s” notwithstanding, the question is a real and an old one for me.

Last fall at Tassajara I was struck by SFZC Abbot Steve Stucky’s practice period advice that before we start something we should identify whether it’s wholesome or not.  But then, if it is wholesome, we should just do it without wondering if it’s the right thing to do, without hesitating while we do it.  Eventually we check again – I don’t know, monthly? quarterly? – whether we can still see our involvements as wholesome.  But if they still check out, then we forget about it again.  The point is, to me at least, that once we’re doing something, it’s really the thing to do.  We can ask if we’re doing the right thing, but we shouldn’t ask very often.  Step back from the “what” we’re doing and put our life energy into the “how” we do it.

I can check if I’m practicing, I can check if I’m serving the Dharma, if I’m inspired by the Dharma, or I can just completely meet, completely be the single moment before me.  I can wonder if this or that is the Dharma, if this or that is moving toward the Dharma – and maybe I should wonder that, honestly ask that of myself and my friends – but I want to be careful to not wonder too much.  I can ask if I’m living for the Dharma, but ultimately how can I even approach that question?  What self am I assuming?  What Dharma am I fabricating?

No question.  Just this.  Just this stick figure, and the faint line of my own nose, and the sound of some words that I can’t quite make out…

Is that rigor or complacency?  Is that practice or laziness, “settling in” or “settling for”?

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Whose Faults to Discuss?

In Suzuki Roshi’s lineage, there are a variety of translations we use for the Sixth Major Precept.  I’ve mainly heard it stated as some variation on “Do not speak of the faults of others” or “Do not slander.”  When I received the precepts as a layperson, I’m pretty sure that we used “Do not speak of the faults of others,” and in my ordination as a priest (I just looked back at the ceremony to be sure) I chanted “A disciple of the Buddha does not slander.”

It was with some surprise, then, that I recently came across a translation with a very different feeling—“Not to discuss the faults of other home-leaver bodhisattvas” (my emphasis.)  I read that in Kaz Tanahashi’s translation of Dogen’s short fascicle “Jukai.”  I know I’ve read that fascicle before, and in Kaz’s translation, but somehow my eyeballs had just run right past those extra words.  Now that I’m looking, though, I see this all over the place.  Nishijima and Cross have “not to discuss the transgressions of other bodhisattvas, be they lay people or those who have left family life.”  And in the Brahma Net Sutra, which is the original basis for the 16 bodhisattva precepts in the Zen school, I find:

Sixth Major Precept:
On Broadcasting the Faults of the Assembly

A disciple of the Buddha must not himself broadcast the misdeeds or infractions of Bodhisattva-clerics or Bodhisattva-laypersons, or of [ordinary] monks and nuns — nor encourage others to do so. He must not create the causes, conditions, methods, or karma of discussing the offenses of the assembly. 
As a Buddha’s disciple, whenever he hears evil persons, externalists or followers of the Two Vehicles speak of practices contrary to the Dharma or contrary to the precepts within the Buddhist community, he should instruct them with a compassionate mind and lead them to develop wholesome faith in the Mahayana. 
If instead, he discusses the faults and misdeeds that occur within the assembly, he commits a Parajika offense.

Whoa!  To my ear, not slandering and not broadcasting the faults of the assembly have an entirely different—even contradictory—feeling.  The version I’m more familiar with, not discussing the faults of others, has a certain wonderful humility to it, an acceptance of other people just as they are.  Pine cones are pine cones, sparrows are sparrows, this person manifests this person perfectly in all her intricate and unrepeatable specificity—what could there be to criticize?  This other version, though, feels more like: don’t speak of our faults.  Other people’s faults are cool, but make sure not to criticize anyone in our sect.  You know.  Might make us look bad.

This is a familiar attitude, to be sure—in families, in political parties, in corporations, in the institutional Catholic Church, in cults—but I’m not sure that it offers much guidance in terms of living an awakened life.  It’s worth noting, too, that a Parajika offense is the most serious class of transgressions, up there with killing and stealing, and more serious than such secondary offenses as storing deadly weapons or starting wildfires.  Seriously.

There’s a generous and a less-generous interpretation of all of this, I suppose.  One could make the case that these precepts were developed in community, and that in that context, not criticizing other followers of the Mahayana basically equals not criticizing anybody.  If you live in sangha and only interact with other sangha members, not criticizing the sangha means not criticizing anyone.  I see how we could try that line of thought, but I don’t really buy it.  It feels feeble, excuse-making.  It feels like trying to read a more universal and tolerant sensibility back into a pretty straight-forward us and them commandment.

In the SFZC version of the full-moon ceremony, after the assembly recites the Sixth Major Precept (usually “I vow not to slander”) the doshi recites:

In the Buddha-dharma, go together, appreciate together, realize together and actualize together.  Do not permit fault-finding.  Do not permit haphazard talk.  Do not corrupt the Way.

Go together, appreciate together, realize together and actualize together.  That’s so beautiful.  But who’s the we there?  Me and my friends?  Me and the others of my school?  Me and people like me?  Me and all beings?  Where’s the line between those whose faults I won’t broadcast, and those whose faults I will?

In other news, the Spurs are carving their way through the NBA playoffs.  I haven’t seen Tim Duncan this spry in years.  The Spurs are my team, so I would never criticize them or speak of their faults—but man do the Lakers look terrible against Oklahoma City.

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Enclothed cognition and the Robe of Buddha

With a lot of bustling around, cardboard boxes, packing tape, cat carriers, excitement, trepidation, pouring rain, a rental truck, and incredible help from extended family, Devon, Gabriel and I got ourselves moved up to Oakland last month, and are slowly settling into the new rhythms of our life here.  Among the joys of the new situation is the fact that we’re living near our local Zen temple, so for the first time in many months I’m able to sit morning zazen one or two times a week, with others, in robes.

I’ve been struck by what a different experience that is than sitting mostly by myself, mostly in Western clothes, in my living room.  Part of it, I think, is the importance of the group, of the other breathing bodies nearby.  In the few moments I can grab these days in between the baby, unpacking, and work, I’ve been taking a look at David Abram’s book, Becoming Animal:  An Earthly Cosmology, and that’s helped me think about all of this in terms of animality, in terms of my embodied, sensory experience.  Not just zazen, but a mammal’s zazen, with other mammals, in the zendo’s half-dark.  Very different than a mammal by himself in an apartment somewhere.  I’m really taken by Abram’s writings, and by his call to make our bodily experience central to our thinking about ourselves and our place in the world.  Here’s a long passage from the introduction:

For too long we’ve closed ourselves to the participatory life of our senses, inured ourselves to the felt intelligence of our muscled flesh and its manifold solidarities.  We’ve taken our primary truths from technologies that hold the world at a distance.  Such tools can be mighty useful, and beneficial as well, as long as the insights that they yield are carried carefully back to the lived world, and placed in service to the more-than-human matrix of corporeal encounter and experience.  But technology can also, and easily, be used as a way to avoid direct encounter, as a shield—etched with lines of code or cryptic jargon—to ward off whatever frightens, as a synthetic heaven or haven in which to hide out from the ambiguity of the real.

Only by welcoming uncertainty from the get-go can we acclimate ourselves to the shattering wonder that enfolds us.  This animal body, for all its susceptibility and vertigo, remains the primary instrument of all our knowing, as the capricious earth remains our primary cosmos.

His first book The Spell of the Sensuous, which I read a few years ago, explores a lot of the same terrain, in equally vivid and interesting ways.  I highly, highly recommend them both.

So, as I say, I’ve been reflecting on my experience of morning zazen in terms of animality, corporeality, the relationship of my living body to the living world.  All wonderful and valid and rich.  But then a few weeks ago, I saw this article in the New York Times and since then I’ve also been thinking of the importance of the robes, of what the body is draped in.  Here are the article’s opening sentences:

If you wear a white coat that you believe belongs to a doctor, your ability to pay attention increases sharply. But if you wear the same white coat believing it belongs to a painter, you will show no such improvement.

So scientists report after studying a phenomenon they call enclothed cognition: the effects of clothing on cognitive processes.

It is not enough to see a doctor’s coat hanging in your doorway, said Adam D. Galinsky, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, who led the study. The effect occurs only if you actually wear the coat and know its symbolic meaning — that physicians tend to be careful, rigorous and good at paying attention.

Isn’t that wild?  And doesn’t it follow that something similar must happen when we put our hands in gassho and put on something we know is called “the great robe of liberation?”  If putting on a doctor’s coat makes us act like we think doctors do, does putting on the robe of Buddha make us act like we think Buddhas do?  Does unfolding the rakusu and slipping it over our heads, or fumbling in the dark for the ties of the okesa, serve in some way to help us enter our practice in a different way?  Experience differently?  Act differently?

At the first shuso ceremony I ever attended, a friend told a story about a little kid dressed up as Batman.  “Great Batman costume,” someone says.

“I’m not in a costume,” the kid says, puzzled.  “I’m Batman.”

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Studying Practice & Practicing Study

Many of you know that I’m soon to begin formal graduate studies at UC Berkeley in East Asian Buddhist Studies.  (The program I’ll start in is technically an MA in Asian Studies, as a Buddhist MA isn’t offered, but my emphasis will be the language requisites for Buddhist Studies and from the start I’ll be relating mostly with the Buddhist Studies folks.)  I’m exceedingly privileged to be able to take up this study while remaining in residence at Green Gulch Farm.

With this shift in my life approaching, I’ve been feeling acutely the (real and false) tension between “study” and “practice.”  Teaching a recent six-week class here on Buddha Nature doctrine also brought the issue home for me, as teaching classes here has before.  Green Gulch is a Zen Center, after all – a practice place – and it seems unfitting to bring up even the most wonderful of Buddhist doctrines and systems without consciously tying them to our Zen meditation practice.  Tying the teachings to practice is one thing, but it can go even further than that for me:  I can feel I need to apologize, to justify the teachings in terms of people’s ideas about practice.

“I’m so sorry to bring up this beautiful, perfect, brilliant teaching on the dynamics of spiritual reality, it’s just I think it may be of some little help to our meditation practice, that’s all…”

At the main temple I practiced at in Japan, Bukkokuji, our teacher Tangen Roshi was said to insist that Buddhist study diminished a person’s affinity with the Dharma.  That is, to study the Buddhadharma, the rich field of teachings uttered by the revered ancestors in the lineage of fulfilled Buddhas, makes it less likely that you will actually for yourself realize the heart of meditation.  The idea is that studying the words of others – “slurping the dregs” of the ancients, as a Zen ancient himself put it – distracts us from finding in our own heart, here and now, the very source of those words.

With this kind of baggage it can be hard to just be unambivalent in the affirmation of Buddhist study, but actually that’s what I want to do.  My primary Zen teacher, Mel Weitsman, has urged me not to apologize for the doctrines when I teach them – not to apologize for abstraction even, but to just share the teachings on their own terms.  That feels right to me.  The Buddhist teachings aren’t something to apologize for!  Loving these teachings, and loving the turning of these teachings, and loving the mind of engagement with the teachings, is not something to be ashamed of or some kind of accidental problem.

“Welcome to the Zen Center, sorry the rooms are moldy and the people can be rude and we have all these Buddhist teachings around – we hope you enjoy your time here anyway.”

What kind of religion rejects its own teachings?!  What kind of priests apologize for their study?!

But that’s exactly where I can find myself, justifying rather than celebrating the Dharma.  And in this next step for me, this conscious, careful diving into the historical, philosophical, philological mess of Buddhism, I feel a turn towards simple celebration.  Towards valuing the mind.  Towards using and sharpening intellect, and integrating it with the “spiritual person” I imagine as somehow apart from that.  Towards just doing what interests and excites me – in this case Buddhist study – without thinking too much about what Zen people are supposed to do or what Buddhism is “really” supposed to be about.

The great Chinese Buddhist ancestor Zhiyi taught four kinds of balance between Dharma study and meditation practice.  First, there’s the person who has little study and little meditation.  Second, there’s little study along with much meditation.  Third, much study with little meditation.  And fourth (tell me if you saw this coming), is much study with much meditation.  Sweet number four is, of course, where Zhiyi wants to see us.

Depending how crazy or lazy our standard is, we’ll understand “little” and “much” in our own way, but I’d bet that by Zhiyi’s standards at least most of us are likely solidly in the first kind.  That is, ours is the balance of not much with not much!  But even if you feel that you don’t sit or study much, a relationship might be apparent – not much meditation, maybe, but even less study!  Or not too much sincere thinking about Dharma teachings, but even less practice of them.  Or maybe – just maybe – real balance?  Or even perfect integration?

Whatever you think of the amount of meditation practiced at San Francisco Zen Center’s temples, it is clear that there is much more of it than there is of Buddhist study.  And this is appropriate – I really have no beef with it.  In this we’re somewhat in alignment with the modern Japanese Zen tradition:  there, the standard course is to get the meditation and ceremonial training in one place (the monastery) and to get the doctrinal training in another (the university).  Just as no one expects that the university will emphasize zazen or ritual practice, no one expects that the monastery will provide any kind of basis in Buddhist doctrine.  The difference between here and there, though, is that most monks there are expected to do both – they do get the academic doctrinal training – whereas here most Zen students are just offered the sitting.

So my going forward now into the secular academic approach is for me very much a continuation of and filling out of my training as a Zen priest.  It’s a new lens on the Dharma and a new lens on my life.  I’m sure that my posts in the next months and years will reflect this influence.  I hope they also will get more deeply into the tangle of “practice” and “study” – there’s much of my own “practice” experience that bears on it and much in the “study” of Buddhist doctrine that addresses it explicitly.

How do you see it?

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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?

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