Sunday, April 29, 2012

grateful for zazen

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One of the practical aspects of Zen Buddhism that I am grateful to have become acquainted with is this: Zen practice -- the sit down, shut up and focus the mind practice of zazen -- offers the opportunity to address the matter of being alone ... alone among others.

I think it was Oscar Wilde who once observed more or less, "If you don't want to be lonely, then never get married." Besides the bon-mot witticism and apparent paradox the observation provides, I also think it touches on something very human -- the sometimes-whispering-sometimes-fierce sense that however 'connected' I may be in a social sense, still there is something missing and I am not truly as connected as I would like to feel.

In formal zazen practice, a person sometimes enters a roomful of other people -- each sitting on a cushion, often facing a wall, still and silent. Laced with occasional bouts of walking 'meditation,' this silent stillness can go on for hours or days or weeks. Alone together: There is no other option than to wrestle with or relax into the intimate sense of aloneness.

This is a useful exercise, an in-your-face confrontation with what I would guess everyone feels, Buddhist or otherwise: I fit and yet I am not content with the ways in which I fit; the definitions of closeness and love that ramble through my life seem to carry with them a screeching sense of distance and incompleteness.

The nub of the issue, I think, is the fact that human beings cannot share experience. The ooey-gooey, spiritual gimcrack about 'interconnectedness' may please the intellect and emotions, but it just doesn't fill the bill. The perfect connection, the perfect peace, remains just out of reach as I rush around trying to 'share experience' or assert my connections.

Zazen is practical in this regard: A roomful of people, silent and still ... alone together. And the practice works even when anyone practices alone in some corner of the living room or bedroom. Am I alone? Not really. Am I together? Not really. So what is it like when I am whatever I am really?

Naturally, because I am so important, I can paint zazen in some vast palette of important colors. I can concoct something called "Buddhism." It's OK as far as it goes, but of course it doesn't go far enough. Zazen is for the perfectly obvious stuff -- the part that exists and insists before anyone started making up Buddhism. It's the bedroom ceiling on sleepless nights. It's the sense of distance and disconnection and dissonance anyone might feel in a crowd. Zazen is just an exercise that addresses perfectly human uncertainties: It's as if someone handed you a hammer when you were trying unsuccessfully to pound a nail. Somehow this very-human edginess doesn't respond well to all the social Band-Aids I may attempt to apply. It's not that those Band-Aids are good or bad -- it's just that they don't work and the edginess remains unresolved. Zazen is a good tool for very human concerns.

Yesterday, on the peace picket line, a fellow I had known briefly when I worked at the newspaper stopped to say hi. Andrew is now working at Smith College, preparing students for Fulbright and other fellowships. He comes from South Africa and has that sort of distant, smiling assurance that comes with having money. Andrew asked if I were still doing Zen practice and, since I was standing along the peace picket in my robes, I said sure. He then took a conversational side-trip into koan study. It's a wonderful tease and perhaps a useful tool, but, as I stood along the peace picket line, all I could think was, "What the hell are you badgering the scene with koans for? Isn't this life enough? Aren't there enough so-called koans without adding these Tiddlywinks?" I'm not bad-mouthing koan study -- who knows what will bang whose chimes? -- but really, isn't this life enough without adding twists in your knickers?

And one of the perfectly ordinary koans is this sense of being alone -- alone together. How to crack that nut does not require anyone to cross the road to the local koan store. It's as easy as peanut butter -- homemade and compelling and tasty. Intimate. No outsiders necessary.

But some tool does seem to be necessary for those who consent to quit slapping on Band-Aids and really take a look. I am grateful to zazen for providing a format within which to serious up, set aside the usual Band-Aids, and take a look. Zazen may not be for everyone -- I certainly wouldn't recommend it -- but some tool, something that effectively addresses what is already intimate and obvious, does seem to be required.

I am grateful to have made the acquaintance of zazen.
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