Thursday, October 6, 2011

the 'good stuff' in spiritual endeavor

What, if anything, constitutes an honest goodness in spiritual persuasion? In what does it consist and can it be described? I'm not interested in the organization-man ballyhoo and cozy invitations that those within the effort can adduce. Although I generally think in terms of Buddhism, since that was the effort I picked, I guess I also think of a poll I read somewhere that said a smaller and smaller percentage of Americans (who live in a predominantly Christian country) thought of themselves as affiliated with a religion ... but a larger number did, in fact, consider themselves spiritual.

These questions came to mind during an email exchange with Stuart Lachs, a chum who has done some very good work (Coming Down from the Zen Clouds; The Aitken Shimano Letters among others) in bringing perspective to the world of Zen Buddhism. With quiet force, Stuart has pointed out the flaws in such straw men as "lineage" and has been helpful, together with people like Kobutsu Malone (The Shimano Archive), in underlining the depredations and evasions of a variety of teachers.

I agree with Stuart.

I agree with Kobutsu.

If we cannot air the dirty laundry, how can anyone hope to find a pair of clean socks? The whimpering and whining of those hoping to preserve their jobs or make lemonade out of lemons leaves me more irritated than informed. The squishy and ersatz-compassionate defense mechanisms and diversions ... well, let me just say without cuss words they are not my cup of tea. Honesty counts.

OK ... for those with a sense of curiosity, the lemons are slowly but surely laid on the table. Teachers who aggrandize or camouflage their power...and who may have a sexually-abusive field day along the way. Students who play into the aggrandizement games because ... well because they hurt among other things.

But once having exhausted the fruit metaphors (lemons, bad apples, etc.) my own feeling is that those willing to use those (utterly appropriate) metaphors have a further question ... or anyway it is a question I am willing to concede I have no answer for: Where's the good stuff, the positive position, the description that asserts what is useful and fruitful in spiritual endeavor? Shall I just set aside the whole spiritual junket in favor of crocheting or collecting stamps? That doesn't quite work for me. It's too facile. Shall I rest easy on my own description of my own practice experience? -- "I am grateful beyond naming for my training and I wouldn't wish that training on my worst enemy." While being pretty close to the truth and having the advantage of brevity, that too doesn't quite touch all the bases. Or shall I rely on an email exchange I once had with an American Zen monk in Japan about the nature of compassion. We batted several emails back and forth until finally he had the last word: "Maybe it's like pornography: I may not know what it is, but I know it when I see it."

Or, more dangerously, shall I suggest that there is no winkling out the truth without entering the arena of lies? That too is pretty close to what I think, but its danger lies in the fact that by enunciating it, it adds fuel to the fires that self-important liars can tend.

And all of this may seem pretty amorphous, pretty airy-fairy until I consider that human beings actually ache and weep and long for a creditable peace. To offer them something is bound to grow sharp and painful thorns. To offer them nothing is every bit as thorny.

When I asked my teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa, what his role was in running the now-defunct Soho Zendo in New York, he replied, referring to those who came to practice, "I encourage them. I encourage them for zazen." Zazen, the seated meditation on which Zen practice lays some emphasis. Zazen, the very concrete act of parking the ass on a cushion and focusing the mind. Zazen, the activity that no one can do for another. Do zazen and see for yourself what actually happens. Never mind if the books and teachers say there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Find out if there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Your life, your choice. When have eye candy or religion candy or any other sort of candy ever proved as nourishing as a decent bowl of soup?

Is zazen my answer? Is zazen 'the good stuff?' Maybe. I'm not really sure. But I do know that encouraging people to be themselves is more admirable in my book than encouraging them to be something else. Pay attention. Take responsibility. Be yourself even if you never find out who 'yourself' may be. Why? Well, what other choice is there?

I don't know.

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