I was talking with a friend on the phone. We were both of a certain age and both capable of allowing the other to segue into personal and sometimes upsetting thought trains ... just expressing aloud what seemed to be circling in the mind like some pesky mosquito at 3 a.m.
"Sometimes I think I am no longer a Buddhist," my friend said. "I mean ... what the fuck does that have to do with anything?!"
Since both of us had spent some time -- some pretty intensive time -- in practicing Zen Buddhism, the pesky mosquito was something of a surprise, something of an irritation ... like a driver who discovers that he has used up a lot of time heading East when he wanted to get to the West. And yet too, the direction was not without its uses: It was just that the whole "Buddhist" schtick, while possible and sometimes helpful, wasn't the point of Buddhism at all.
Such recognitions seem to balance precariously on a fulcrum between past and present. Once upon a time, I had a particular understanding of myself that allowed me to say, "I am a Buddhist" without any shame and perhaps with a bit of assurance. But the present -- that pesky mosquito -- would not shut up ... be a "Buddhist" or "don't be a Buddhist," was there really any difference? Does a "Buddhist" pound nails at a construction site or help a friend or take a leak first thing in the morning? Of course not. But the speculation or recognition was vaguely irritating and a bit frightening: What the hell did I waste all those years for if, at the end of the day, calling myself a Buddhist or elevating something called Buddhism just disappeared in a puff of smoke. It felt lonely, perhaps, declining the insistence on being a "Buddhist" ... or not. Being a "Buddhist" gave me a sense of place and purpose and definition ... now what? A sense of social structure and belonging and importance evaporated as gently and firmly as woodsmoke rising from a camp fire. What if I were not a "Buddhist" or a "mother" or a "father" or a "writer" or a "car mechanic" or ... or any of the other things I may or may not have "been" in the past? How would I fit? How would I be recognizable and accepted and warmed at the social hearth?
It's a pesky mosquito and my friend expressed it nicely -- "what the fuck has that got to do with anything?"
But it occurred to me that the vague sense of loss and fear might be just a hangover from old habits. What if this was precisely what years of Buddhism or motherhood or fatherhood or fixing cars taught and, in some sense, hoped you would learn? If you want to be a Buddhist, go ahead. If you want to be an atheist, go ahead. You can be anything you choose ... go ahead. It's like opening the sock drawer ... pick a color, any color. No big deal. You're as free as a zero to choose any number at all, to join up, and thereby bring meaning and explanation and importance to bear. Buddhist? Sure. Not Buddhist? Sure. Mother, father, tall or short, old or young, happy or sad ...? Sure. If you make a mistake, fix it as best you may. What works, works. What doesn't, doesn't.
But in the end, "what the fuck has that got to do with anything?" Zero has no meaning or explanation and yet its importance cannot be overstated. Growing anxious or irritated or fearful that old habits should drift gently towards the sky ... well, it's an old habit and "what the fuck does that have to do with anything?"
The pesky mosquito buzzes in the darkness. He has his rounds to do and his blood to suck. He's a mosquito ... what did you expect? He doesn't mind if it's Buddhist blood. He doesn't mind if it's not Buddhist blood.
Smack him if you can. It's important to get a little sleep at 3 a.m.