Smooth and uncaring as Vaseline on a thermometer, one thought wave overwhelms and replaces another ... asserting ascendancy where an ascendancy had been asserted. It makes you wonder whose ascendancy this is.
This morning, for example, I woke up thinking about garage mechanics and doctors. Several years ago, the state registry of motor vehicles raised the rates for getting an annual inspection for cars. One of the explanations given was that mechanics had been forced to buy expensive new equipment and that equipment expense was being passed on to the consumer. Mechanics had to pay their debts. But now that so many years have passed, the machinery that represented an out-of-pocket expense is presumably paid off ... but the rates have not come back down.
Doctors go to medical school and incur, in many cases, a terrific debt load as a result. They may have to pay off hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. This, we may imagine, is one reason they charge what they charge for their well-trained services. Wonderful services. Healing services. Services for which many might be grateful. And yet, as the years pass, that debt is paid off and what had been debt-payment becomes income ... the prize for having stuck it out. Everyone needs to make an income. And there is a tendency to forget.
College students and others have the same problem, the same scenario. Terrific debt, followed by paying off that debt, followed by an assumption that income is something deserved and rightful.
The punch line on all this early-morning munching was this: It really is better to work towards a time when you can, to the extent possible, give what you have to give for free. I know, I know ... there are reasons and explanations and concrete bits of righteousness and expostulations like, "We don't live in a perfect world." But I think, to the extent that it's possible, it is important to work towards a time when you demand nothing in return, when what you have is a blessing and that blessing belongs to no man or woman. It is just a gift. No need to talk about "sharing" or "caring." That's just another demand. Life becomes lighter and somehow more accurate when you give it away without a thought of giving or getting. It's happier and more peaceful.
So there was that thought, seeking some shape in my early-morning haze when an e-mail arrived asking about the importance of liturgy in Zen Buddhism and what did I think. And suddenly one wave replaced another.
The email got me to thinking about how, in Zen (and, I imagine other spiritual persuasions), instructors can use the phrase, "the most important thing." Anyone who has been involved for a while has probably noticed, as I have, that "the most important thing" varies from teacher to teacher, varies from day to day, and varies according a single teacher's preference on Tuesday. Maybe liturgy is the most important thing today, but compassion is the most important thing tomorrow. Maybe bowing is the most important thing today, but emptiness is the most important thing tomorrow.
The so-called ordinary mind is not about to sit still for a suggestion that everything is the most important thing. That's too vague, too amorphous, too illogical. If everything is the most important thing, then nothing is important. The ordinary mind demands some purchase, some hand-hold, some solid ground. So here it comes, "the most important thing."
The intellectual mind ingests this description and thinks, "a pox on all your houses!" The most important thing is a myth and a deception. And that would be accurate. But the problem is that the assessment is not useful. The ordinary mind seeks peace and without discipline (doing what you don't want to do; elevating one most important thing after another), there is only confusion. Something useful, something that works, something that nourishes peace is required.
Hence, the most important thing. Everyone gives him- or herself over to a most important thing -- something that requires intimate attention and investigation. Liturgy in Zen can be the most important thing. Meditation can be the most important thing. Compassion or clarity... the most important thing. Really ... seriously ... no holding back. Whatever it is ... go for it ... and don't look back.
Maybe it's the most important thing.
Until the next most-important-thing rears its head.
Trying to escape into belief or explanation or meaning or philosophy is bullshit. The most important thing is to die for ... literally.
This is important ... but it's not that important.
And now the breakfast wave has begun to assert ascendancy. Oatmeal and raisins and peanuts and a little cinnamon and a bit of brown sugar and a little milk.
The most important thing.
Give it away for free ... assuming you can get a handle on it.
Which you can't.