Wednesday, October 10, 2012

after the tragedy

The other day, I got one of those out-of-the-blue emails that occasionally arrive in my in-box:

I'm looking for a Zen sangha in the Pioneer Valley, and came across your information on the internet. I'd like to know more -
With a deep bow,
I keep thinking I really ought to take my "information" off the Internet since it's old and sparkly and a bit credulous, but ... well, maybe someone would actually like to practice and the zendo is there and I sit in it and I don't mind sharing the space. But still, when I get such open-ended notes, I'm not sure what to say.

Since the writer doesn't indicate the basis for the interest -- is it a homework assignment, a wicked divorce, the loss of a loved one, an epiphany of some sort ... -- any response I make is likely to seem distant, serene and authoritative ... which may be what the person wants or may not be. Whatever ... I told the writer in a brief reply that she was welcome to come and that it would probably be easier to answer her concerns if she just gave me a call. I gave her the number, but I seriously doubt I'll get a phone call. When it comes to spiritual curiosity, the distances of the written word are a comfort and a safety.

Here in town, there is another Zen center I know of -- a place run by, if I'm not mistaken, a psychologist or social worker -- and I have pointed people in her direction in the past. My own encounters with the woman who runs the place, while few, have left me with the impression of someone willing to be authoritative about Zen and its precincts ... a thin-lipped seriousness that dee-double-dares you to get your shit together and join her on some high plateau. It's strict-but-compassionate, dontcha know... a comfortable and comforting realm in what may be hard times. And who knows, maybe such salesmanship is precisely what is needed -- an ostensibly safe haven against the buffeting winds of uncertainty or tragedy the newcomer may be experiencing. OK.

But I am too old and fat and lazy for this stuff. I prefer the story of Gotami, the woman whose baby died. Heart-broken, she went to Gautama (the Buddha) and begged him to bring her baby back to life. Imagine her sorrow. A woman, I suspect, has a connection with her offspring that a man can never know. A baby is literally flesh-of-my-flesh and, assuming the woman likes her baby, the tragedy of death would be beyond screaming.

Anyway, Gotami begged Gautama. Over and over again, Gautama said there was nothing he could do. Over and over again Gotami begged. But finally, Gautama relented: He told Gotami to bring him mustard seed from the first house she came to in which no one had died.

Thinking she had struck a satisfactory quid pro quo, Gotami set off, begging mustard seed from one house after another. The people who lived in those houses were more than willing to give her a few mustard seeds, but when she asked if anyone had died in the house, they looked at her as if she were an idiot: Of course someone had died here ... what did she expect? Still Gotami did not give up. On an on she went, begging and begging and always getting the same answer... until finally, she gave up and returned to Gautama: "Enough with the mustard seed," she said: "Give me the teachings."

As a cautionary or informational tale, Gotami's is sharply etched. Death is a biggie and no one would look down their nose at it. But the tragedies that others suffer -- doubt, uncertainty, loss or just a vague sense that something is missing or unsatisfactory -- are not always so etched. It would be nice to ameliorate the pain and perhaps a little Buddhism or a little Zen could do the trick, offer a haven from vaguely or vastly buffeting winds. It's not so much "give me the teachings" as it is "give me relief." The teachings means that the one who suffered the tragedy is willing to do the work. "Relief" means going to the pharmacy and getting a pain-eradicating prescription... just swallow and voila!

Pharmacological spiritual endeavor always has a chance of leading to something more serious. But it also runs the risk of substituting one bad habit for another. There will always be those willing to hand out the scrips that depict "compassion" as a kind of super-duper altruism or the "unconditioned realm" as some bright resting place: Believers may flock to those who offer such relief. And maybe it's all OK, but I am old and fat and lazy.

Once, after I asked my teacher why he didn't take more steps to encourage a bigger throng in the zendo, he upbraided me for such a suggestion. "No, no no!" he said. "Let them come if they want to and not if they don't. If they come, then I instruct them for zazen." And that was the end of it. Zen practice was not some holy pharmacy ... it was just what any sufferer of tragedy might seek after the endless, wracking pain had become a serious matter for revision: The teachings.


  1. The woman who runs the other Zen center is a chiropractor. Your description of her is very gracious. She grew up a in a very strict protestant minister's household, and brings a lot of that experience into her teaching. I think that is as nice as I can put it.

  2. Dear "Anonymous" -- Thanks for the correction.

  3. "ameliorate the pain and perhaps a little Buddhism or a little Zen could do the trick". If only.