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
The fighting ceased.
Are the very ones who are right and wrong.
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:
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
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.