Monday, January 11, 2010

wrestling with "Buddhism"

Because I 'teach'(sort of) or 'facilitate' (ick!) a memoir writing class at the senior center here, and because the center has a small newspaper, and because I was asked, I submitted a small piece (below) for consideration today.

It was no big deal and I have no idea if it will dovetail with the newspaper's needs, but what I found interesting in the process was how difficult it was for me to keep something that might be called "Buddhism" out of the equation. I squirmed and fidgeted and rewrote and finally gave up.

I would have preferred to keep "Buddhism" out of it because I wanted the ideas to be easier to swallow. I didn't want to leave the reader choking on some "-ism" they might know something about but then were slowed down by ... maybe someone who hated all but their chosen 'religion,' or maybe someone unsure of the implications of crediting a message that came from this particular ("Buddhist") sender.

I did get my daughter to read it to get some sense if things had gone off the airy-fairy tracks. "It's fine, pop," she said. But she's my daughter and I don't know if she'd tell me the gagging truth ... and still I was not at ease.

With so many years of having an interest in Buddhism, I suppose it is natural that it should tint and taint my scenery, but somehow it was important to me not to let it get in anyone else's way. And I just plain couldn't help it. I was stuck with the farm, just as anyone else might be stuck with some habit farm.

There was a small, bright jet of irritation that came up with the recognition: "Don't try to pin that crap on me!" the irritation snorted. But of course it was too late: The crap was already pinned on me. By trying to escape or write around or dodge the facts, the facts simply took a firmer grip.

So finally I had to give up and give in. I pasted the short piece into an email and shipped it off. And as soon as it was gone, I felt a lot better. No more "Buddhist" shenanigans for the moment.

Nothing like expending extra energy trying to sidestep the plain facts!

Since I can't figure out how to make a link out of it and save some space, this is what I wrote:

Buses that Run Over Us

One summer day in 1959, I was talking to an old-timer at a lumbering camp in Oregon. The day before, a young Caterpillar operator had been killed when the Cat he was driving up a steep incline rolled over and crushed him.

The old timer had seen it all before. Logging camps were full of dangers – from falling trees to dynamite to the light-speed hiss of a braided steel drag line that separated while pulling an enormous log and was capable of cutting a man in two. This death was sad, but it was also nothing new in his eyes.

“Beginners,” the old timer said evenly, “are wise enough to be careful. It’s the ones who think they know something who get careless and get killed. Old timers like me are too lazy to do anything but be careful.”

Even at 19, I could recognize that he was saying something true, something that hit the nail on the head. Who hasn’t met the know-it-alls, the ones who can say with conviction, “I understand” and yet whose actions advertise little more than ignorance? This was a statement with experience and practice behind it.

In Zen Buddhism, there is a saying: “Understanding is knowing to get out of the way of an on-coming bus. Practice is for the bus you didn’t see coming.”

And life is full of buses we didn’t see coming.

So the question becomes, whether there is any interest in Buddhism or not, what practice is appropriate and useful when facing a tomorrow that cannot be known … and sometimes serves up some nasty – or even delicious – surprises. Saying we understand, believing we understand and pretending we understand is not really enough. Talking the talk is easy. But how about walking the walk? Is there a mind that is at ease with the buses we didn’t see coming, with the Caterpillars that roll over on us? Is there a way (as the Boy Scouts might say) to “be prepared” for what no one can be fully prepared for – the future?

A mind that lives in the present is a mind at ease. And one way to be at ease, one exercise that helps to train a mind wandering in the past or future, is to take a little time each day to be quiet. In Zen practice (my preferred exercise), many students sit down, erect the spine, shut up and focus the mind on their exhalations, counting each exhalation from one to ten and then begin again. For maybe for ten or fifteen minutes. Every day. Such an exercise encourages the mind to stop wandering and start living in the present.

Such a practice takes patience and persistence, but the advantage is that a mind that lives in the present is a mind that cannot be shaken. Buses come and buses go, but the present cannot be escaped. Being at ease in the present is a nice gift to give yourself.


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