synthetic zero


June 25, 2007

A Zen story.

At a Zen monastery the monks had become quite heated in their disputes about the correct way to do things. These disputes escalated and the peace of the monastery was quite disturbed. Finally, the abbot wrote the following calligraphy and posted it outside his door:
Those who argue about right and wrong
Are the very ones who are right and wrong.
The fighting ceased.


June 23, 2007

The second Steven Tainer quote which struck me today very strongly for a variety of reasons... at one of his first retreats he told some friends of mine the following: "I am going to tell you something now and you should never forget this: No matter how much your teachers might be right about many things, they can still be wrong about some things."

There's a certain confidence one can get when you break through to an insight about Being --- which some people call "enlightenment" though I think of that as an overly dramatic term which is quite misleading, because it makes people think in terms of some event in time. But, quite often there are breakthroughs one can have which do seem pretty dramatic, and they can give you a great deal of confidence, which is in fact based on something quite legitimate.

But the problem is ... this sort of breakthrough, which I believe has its basis in a sort of opening up to a larger context than we normally picture ourselves as inhabiting (by this I mean a sort of super-deconstruction of the world we think we live in, which opens up to an ungraspable vastness), can lead to a subtle problem: when you start to trust your own intuition, it's very difficult to distinguish between the feeling of "rightness" that somehow surrounds this opening (which, ironically, is all about going beyond the usual ideas of "right") and things that feel right which are mostly right but not necessarily quite grounded in the same sense. That is to say, it's critical to always retain a sense of skepticism about the things that feel right, because what feels right might not always be totally right --- even though I actually do think that there's a lot to be said for that feeling. Doubt is as crucial, if not more so, than intuition --- in order to fine tune it. I know I'm simply asserting these things without argument or evidence --- but I wanted to share this idea here. Just because you've stumbled upon something that is incredibly right doesn't mean that everything that feels right is right. This is a lesson I've had to remember and apply myself, over and over again. It's a crucial, critical thing to keep in mind the moment you stumble into this territory... I think a lot of what we call "religion" has been far more problematic than it needs to be, because of an insufficient care about this point.

June 20, 2007

A long time ago Steven Tainer once told us at a retreat (one of the first I'd attended with him) that we should keep five precepts during the retreat. They were as follows:

No Truth
No Action
No Waiting
No Self
I often come back to these and find them very useful, comforting, and helpful. But the one which I particularly find helpful is "No Waiting"... there is a sense in certain Buddhist schools, for example Soto Zen, that one shouldn't attempt to "achieve" something through meditation or spiritual practice, because it sets up a time logic, a logic of ordinary action, which is set against the actual principle that one is purportedly making a gesture towards via sitting meditation --- that principle is much more akin to Being than action in the ordinary sense. But Steven realized that this can easily be changed into "waiting" --- sitting there, waiting for something to happen --- which is, as he pointed out, also a subtle form of action. Waiting sets up a logic of separation and time as well --- one is hoping for something to happen, which isn't already present in your situation.

So, this morning I woke up feeling a bit out of it and my first impulse was to get up and start working on the various things I needed to do. Instead, though, I decided to lie there and feel this out a little more. What was really going on here? I didn't want to just get caught up in my day before I could really see what was up with this.

But, at the same time, I remembered Steven's precept: "No Waiting." So I didn't simply lie there, waiting for a revelation. Instead I tried to remember that what I was feeling was already connected to the truth, in some sense. I didn't need to try to get rid of that feeling or feel bad that it felt bad, but rather just allow the feeling to be what it was and in some sense expand into it. Instead of leaning away from it, just let it be what it was. It started to become lighter, larger, and ultimately it "opened up" in a way which I find difficult to write down. But, in brief: the bad feeling had been a gift --- I just needed to let myself accept it.

Of course, the above did take time, in a sense, ironically, despite the fact that I was trying to apply "No Waiting". In practical terms that's the way it works. But had I just approached it by either waiting for something to "change" passively or by jumping up and starting to busily do the tasks of my day, I would have missed it. Instead I held the seemingly contradictory precepts of "No Waiting" and "No Action" together --- along with perhaps the additional advice of "Never hurry". Funny how a lot of profound advice can be boiled down to two-word phrases!

June 15, 2007

For me, there is hardly anything more important than a certain existential reality, which the Zen people call "just this", Hindus call Brahman = Atman, etc. --- not just the reality, but the way in which it is relevant to human existence. There are so many ways of addressing this, but none of the traditional ways seem all that satisfactory. For a long time, many years, I've felt a desire to try to find another way to express it, to perhaps take a different angle on it, to try to demonstrate it or show it. I've felt there must be newer, perhaps innovative approaches that might succeed a little better than those used in the past.

Steven Tainer, whom I've studied with, who teaches from a primarily Buddhist and Taoist perspective, tends to be relatively clear-eyed and somewhat modest about what he thinks can be accomplished. Though he teaches relatively assiduously he himself has expressed doubt that it would be enough to be of much help --- perhaps it is too little too late to really help turn around the slide towards disaster which every civilization seems to want to engage in. For a long time, I've felt this attitude is overly pessimistic. Surely, I've thought, it may be possible to find a way to reconcile spirituality and modernity, as there ultimately is no conflict whatsoever between them -- in fact, science, rationality, etc., all utilize corollaries of principles that one can find in traditions like Zen or Dzogchen or Taoism --- that is to say, properly understood, the core of concrete spirituality is not belief but doubt, relinquishing our iron grip on beliefs. There is absolutely no need for recourse to dogma --- in fact, dogma of any kind is ultimately anathema to true understanding and investigation, which must be open, endlessly open to doubt, challenge, and evolution. Doubt is central to what I am speaking about here.

In our Western civilization, "JUST THIS" as the Zen masters refer to it is described in terms such as "God", etc., and couched in terms such as "belief in God" which is in some very real sense a kind of blasphemy. It is belief itself which obscures what people call God; belief in their idea of God, belief in their concepts about the world. In the place of true insight is placed an idol, the idea of God, the idea that God supports their view of the way things are. Of course, not everyone who participates in these religions views things this way, but even most of them would use the word "faith" --- which to most people is the same as belief. But what is needed is not belief, but the opposite of belief. It is skepticism that is needed, not more belief.

But the problem is this: in our civilization, the repository, the official holder of this precious knowledge, are religions which use the language of belief in the place of openness to the vast unknown, the vastness which cannot be grasped conceptually or intellectually. How could this have occurred? It is easier for people to turn that which is larger than themselves into a concept; turn the ultimate non-object into an object; identify the word "God" as an object of one's attention, even though "God" can only refer to something which is beyond subject and object, beyond dividing the world. There are those who understand the word "God" to mean something else --- but that's not how the word is typically understood.

So, even if one were to awaken to a larger reality, to the dropping of belief, it becomes coopted for most people in this society by a set of structures and traditions which promote the language of belief, the language of turning the un-objectifiable into the ultimate object. To truly see the implications of this language is to look at the suffering of the world. And I realize now that it is so pervasive and embedded that even if one were to see something very true and direct, as the Zen masters might say, to penetrate innumberable koans in one breath, it may not be enough, because all we have in this civilization are terribly misleading metaphors and a tired debate between "religion" and "science" which entirely misses the point --- yet this is the language we have. This is not to say these people who have seen past the metaphors actually are confused --- there are great Christian contemplatives such as Thomas Merton who were exceptionally clear-sighted. But they are, because of the nature of the choices we have in this civilization, embedded within traditions that use words whose conventional meanings are in fact completely off base when it comes to these contemplative insights. Therefore, I think that for me to have imagined that it will be possible to find a new way forward --- I am beginning to think it is not possible, except in tiny fragmentary ways. Of course, I always suspected I was overconfident in thinking that there might be more hope than Steven suggests. The cultural matrix in which we reside is very strong indeed, and even many of the brightest people who have a sudden insight into these matters are drawn towards these old structures, even though these structures have proven themselves divisive and inadequate over the centuries. Ha! To think we might have been able to do better than all these others in the past ... I always knew it was relatively unlikely, and I suppose I ought to be satisfied with the possible rather than what I had hoped to be the case. If this is all that is possible, however: it's not enough.

June 11, 2007

Just a reminder: be sure to add to Ruthie's Double's readership of two. (I happen to know it's more than two... but, you know). Well worth the click (and the reload, as she seems to enjoy rewriting past entries rather frequently; usually for the better.)

June 10, 2007

To say the critically acclaimed La Vie En Rose was overrated is an understatement. Excellent performances by Marion Cotillard and the rest of the cast couldn't overcome a cliché script which made Edith Piaf seem merely a helpless, overwhelmed, and out of control woman, divorced from her own power. It was a formula picture, well-made, but playing into stereotypes and half-considered surface impressions. It's strange to think that I went to see this film on the advice of warm reviews --- it appears that the film reviewing community can't tell the difference between truly great French film and fluff pieces like this. More disturbing than the utter failure of film critics to warn me, however, is the fact that this film seems to demonstrate a peculiar subtle misogyny which seems embedded in the subconscious attitudes of the writer/director Olivier Dahan. For example, in one scene, a petulant Piaf demands to be driven hundreds of kilometers in the middle of the night by her American lover; he reluctantly agrees, only to have her change her mind capriciously in the middle of the trip, which the film portrays as the cause of a terrible car accident. Later in the film, she is portrayed as begging her lover to take a plane to see her instead of a boat, because she's desperate to see him --- a flight which crashes, making her lover's death her fault. On the other hand, the film completely passes over her extensive involvement with the French Resistance, which she did at great personal risk. I'm sure Edith Piaf was capricious, difficult, emotional, a prima donna --- but the film depicts her as little more than a tragic Lucy (a la I Love Lucy), constantly getting herself and the people she loves into trouble (and/or getting them killed) due to her own set of weaknesses --- without ever suggesting there was any hint of strength there which didn't come either from pure stubbornness or from the efforts of her long-suffering, mostly male companions. Is this sort of attitude still prevalent in some circles in France? However sophisticated the French may be, relative to our often crude and boorish culture, whatever element of French attitudes that have lodged in the mind of M. Dahan seem to have come from a strangely archaic set of stereotypes about women which have been, at least it seems to me, largely supplanted in educated circles in the United States. It's not so much that I find this politically incorrect as simply ignorant and simplistic -- women have never fit this stereotype, in any era or culture. Certainly, the early American feminist notion that men and women are interchangeable we now understand requires updating --- but this treatment of Piaf infantilizes her and seems to be based on a trivial, collapsed mythology of gender. This sort of attitude traps both men and women: even when a woman attempts to escape such a stereotype, if she still believes it is true of "most other" women, nothing has been gained. This is a destructive and problematic delusion.

June 6, 2007

Buddhism is one of the few religions with the courage to tell people that they should not rely on the traditional words alone: in fact, to say that one ought to doubt the words and one ought to verify everything oneself --- even to say that one ought to reject traditional teachings if they turn out to be contradicted by later investigations. This seems like such basic sense, yet most religions seem to be afraid of this idea.