Wednesday, December 8, 2010

unremitting goodness

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When it came to inspiration, I'm not sure but what the fuck-ups in spiritual endeavor encouraged me more than the goodness of it all. True, I wanted to be good better or more peaceful or whatever, but the unremitting goodness of a Jesus never really made me feel that I was part of an honorable family. Goodness of that sort pointed out the disparities between me and the lauded one (another sort of inspiration), but it never made me feel at home in a warm, messy kitchen ... the kind of thing that really opened me up, offered me kinship and goaded me forward.

I used to love reading the tales of other Zen students who went about their lives, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing, and yet expressing a constancy and determination in their practice. There was money and lust and anger and righteousness and kindness and passion and ... well, blood -- the same blood that flowed in my uncertain veins. Jesus never picked his nose and it was not enough for me that he might forgive me for picking mine. I wanted to be among those who knew the delights and disgust of their own nostril-invading adventure.

Milarepa really inspired me. The Tibetan sage was not always a sage. When he was a kid, his father died and his uncle snatched up the farm lands that more reasonably might have passed to Milarepa and his mother. They were left destitute ... and Milarepa was pissed. Mother and son eked out a living and as they did so, Milarepa saved a nickel here and a nickel there until he had enough money to go off an learn black magic. After his studies, he was returning home when he stopped at a farmhouse where a woman offered him warm milk and a bite to eat. Her kindness touched him -- touched him but not deter him. On his return home, he used his newly-acquired skills to create a horrific hail storm that blanketed all of the fields his uncle depended on for his wealth. The crops were killed. But in the midst of that hail storm, the small farm where Milarepa had been treated kindly remained unscathed. It was a delicious ego trip in my mind, something I could see in myself and relate to the joy of doing something, uhhh, naughty.

When circumstances sent Milarepa to study with Marpa, the elder Marpa recognized the ego-tripping Milarepa was capable of and put him through some very difficult hoops -- hoops designed to mitigate what had once been so delicious. I could get on board with the discipline not just because it might lead to a wider, more compassionate view but precisely because there was an acknowledgment of Milarepa's (and my) nose-picking capacities... and it wasn't just some beyond-it-all, down-the-nose smarmy forgiveness.

And perhaps, in Zen Buddhism, this is part of why a man like the monk Ikkyu was and remains attractive. Not much attention is paid to the severe training Ikkyu went through. What is remembered with delight is what appears to be his outside-the-law activities ... hanging out in whore houses and so forth. This, to onlookers, was a man capable of being more than just good. He was a mensch and a fellow worth traveling with.

Unremitting goodness has a kind of juvenile, plasticized appeal. But as Ta Hui once observed more or less, "too much virtue makes people crazy." Nobody wants to go insane when engaging in spiritual endeavor. What they hope for is to go sane. And an honest sanity requires an investigation of the boogers any of us might need to dig out. Yes, we can all be guilty of too much goodness -- and then hit the brick walls of reality, assuming we're lucky -- but unremitting goodness is just another booger, something worth picking out as a means of breathing freely.
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