Wednesday, December 29, 2010

the joker

I was just reading an implication on an internet Zen Buddhist bulletin board that culture accounts for the views and actions of a student or teacher. I find the suggestion both obvious and ludicrous.

All spiritual persuasions morphed as they moved from one culture to another. D'oh. An African is unlikely to see Christianity through the eyes of an Italian. An American is unlikely to see Zen through the eyes of a person living in Japan.

Culture is how we grew up and how we live. Richer, poorer, dumber, smarter, democratic, authoritarian ... and on and on through the hallways of culture. It is with culture on board that anyone approaches the spiritual adventure. In the same way that we dress according to the season, culture is the clothing we wear when assessing or implementing a spiritual persuasion.

Everyone starts out with his or her culture, his or her bias, his or her goodness or evil, his or her beliefs or disbeliefs, his or her hopes. What other choice is there?

But the fact is that the results of all that cultural background has not yet provided the profound clarity or peace that spiritual life suggests might be possible. Why did any of us test the waters of spiritual life in the first place? Wasn't it in part because culture simply didn't have the answers to the questions and doubts and uncertainties and sorrows that nattered and nagged?

We all began with our cultural baggage. D'oh. And then we got on board with a spiritual persuasion of one kind or another. We might not have known the truth of that persuasion, but we got on board because others (in text or temple or in person) offered descriptions we were willing to explore ... or even believe.

So we practiced. Out of the culture we were born to, we practice. And a little at a time, with luck, the cultural aspects we had so loved become less conclusive. They are simply too limited. In short "me" no longer made much sense in any enduring way. Relying on culture for our 'meaning' is not exactly wrong -- it's just that relying on anything whatsoever doesn't make much sense. This is not something to be understood intellectually or emotionally ... it's just an experience that lacks the doubt -- the limits -- that culture implies.

You are the joker in a deck of cards -- the one that brings meaning a force to any other card in the pack. You are the culture you claim to be part of. Just like anyone else in your culture, you can laugh ... but your laughter reaches to the end of the universe.

Culture? Ludicrous!


  1. I also read that posting and my first thought was: dude, do yourself a favour and just shut up, because you're going to end up looking really bad when the book by Stuart Lachs comes out. :)

  2. Culture can really get in the way , I had a dream once after I had finished my million mantras on compassion that Avalokiteshvara came and offered me his bowl . I never drank out of it because I was raised with the cultural perspective that it is very impolite and rude to drink from another's cup or eat off there plate . As well I thought he was just showing it to me because I had been wondering what lapis Lazuli was . Oh well , hope he comes back , Anita

  3. Ah so! I've always enjoyed a good joke and a good joker.

    Culture certainly factors into the what and the how of things we think, say and do. Culture certainly is certainly part of pratītyasamutpāda or "dependent arising." I imagine that there are going to be ideas and feelings that each of us have that are so bound to our "culture" and so influence our "identity" that we may never be fully aware of their nature or thire extent. The varied expression of attachment to "morality" as seen on other parts of this blog are examples of how a culture may or may not influence an individual. Another example is that one would think that being a Buddhist monk might mean being intimately influenced by a certain subculture and that that subculture should produce certain moral behaviors. Not necessarily!

    From the tone of your article you seem to think that the original author feels total determined by his culture. May be he feels that way, may be he is, in some sense correct.

    May be your cultural influences (highly academic and of a certain range of political views, if I recall your writing elsewhere on this blog correctly) permits you some great leeway in thinking, speaking and acting, but, that doesn't mean your behavior is not large culturally determined. Actually, it is quite probably (i. e. nearly certain) that your attraction to Zen practice was culturally determined but probably unpredictable so that you think you were "free."

    It is also quite likely that your belief that you can throw off at least some of the shackles of your cultural condition through Zen training derives from the culture of Zen as much as it does from its practice. Zazen seems to lead to a certain type of mental clarity and freedom. But then Zen teachings and your Zen training have been integrated into your culture. :-)

    "How much of this rambling on is of extreme importance? How much of it is just mental exercise" says the jester / drill sargeant.

    PS It is going to be in the 80's this week in Sao Paolo.

  4. Anonymous #3 sounds pretty hoity toity to me. I've actually been pondering this a bit myself lately. It's hard to determine where nurture meets nature in ourselves. I tend to think that if I were born (even to the same parents) in---lets say Peru---I would be completely different. I mean, completely different. I'd have had different friends that influenced my upbringing, a different education, and Mom & Dad would have acted differently according to our environment. I wonder just how much of me would still exist.
    If I think about dependent arising, I tend to think that perhaps nothing would remain. Am I not at the apex of all time and conditions right here in my shoes? If only the smallest change were made in my history, a different book was read or a friendship was never created with someone, wouldn't that possibly change who I am? "I" am just a collection. I don't think that we are 100% a product of culture. I do think that we are 100% a product of our conditions. There are just certain conditions that are not considered culture. However, aren't those very conditions effected by culture as well?

  5. Thanks to all for the intelligent comments... which are probably far more sensible than my own sound-bite approach to culture and/or spiritual endeavor, to wit:

    As a means of sorting things out, of finding some sort of peace in this life, we all begin with the fabrications/biases/opinions/posturings and other lies and then consent to investigate them until we discover an actualized/realized truth ... a truth in experience. In short, we begin where we are to get where we are.

    I don't mean the word "lie" in any pejorative sense. A lie is not necessarily naughty. I simply mean that the tools we begin with -- and which are crucial -- simply cannot hold a candle to who/what/when/how we actually are.

    This, of course, is just more lying. :)

    Thanks all.

  6. "You are the joker in a deck of cards -- the one that brings meaning a force to any other card in the pack."

    Nice metaphor.