When I was a kid, I went to a boarding school that had its own farm operation. Students from the fourth through the eighth grade would be assigned on a rotating basis to take care of horses or pigs or chickens or cows. The school dining room purely resonated with the smell of horse shit ... a smell I came to love, but parental visitors were sometimes appalled at.
A farm operation meant just that. It did not mean Walt Disney. Farm animals were for work and play and eating. And it was in this last category that periodically there would be a school-wide effort to kill and gut and pluck the chickens that would later appear on the dining room table.
Squeamish students could opt out of chopping off the chicken's head (a teacher would do it in their stead), but no one escaped the gutting and plucking. Inside the chicken were liver and stomach and gizzard and heart and we all learned how to set aside the edible parts when cleaning out the cavity. It was a slippery business.
But by comparison to gutting, it was plucking the chicken that was a real pain in the ass. Each feathered carcass would be dipped in a vat of boiling paraffin and water and then the student would retire to some stool or overturned pail and sit pluck-pluck-plucking the feathers, a slow and meticulous business. Chickens have a lot of feathers and...Jeee-sus! Would it never end?!
This morning, I had an email from a friend who wrote in part, "I am so sickened by "institutional Zen" here in America... " My friend knows that I and others who received the same email will understand his disgust. There is more than enough evidence to be found ... mountains of wrong-headed and sometimes harmful bullshit.
And not for the first time, I thought how lucky I was to have found the bullshit in the much-beloved... the down-and-dirty pluck-pluck-plucking of what will end up on the supper table and nourish a hungry (wo)man.
How greedily I had once gobbled the honey cakes of Zen Buddhism. How I sweated and laughed and swore and cried in an effort to bring to life the happy and golden outlines of an eased and improved life. Bit by bit I became "a Buddhist," whatever that meant. The format of the institution and its rituals lured and wooed me and was beautiful and inspiring. The honey cakes were so delicious and "right" and pure and, from time to time, fulfilling. I could praise it to any and all who might listen, most especially myself. This practice took courage and patience and doubt and was ... well, it was good.
And then, like an audience at a sing-along concert that applauds wildly when the song is done, I realized that may applause was basically applause for myself ... and the "myself" were the very "self" that Buddhism describes as lacking an abiding nature.
And suddenly I was eating honey cakes that tasted like sawdust in the mouth. The institution that had nurtured my early delights and efforts now hung like an albatross around the neck. Where once there were golden lights around every corner, now the sheer fantasy of it all produced a leaden darkness. I listened with new ears to the instructors and book writers who would sell their wares in a world of "we" and "us" and "one" as if they had some handle on the "compassion" or "emptiness" of the realm. Some of them were old and grey and you might think they would know better ... but the fact was that they knew what they knew and sold what they sold and no doubt they could somehow bend their minds to believe that institutional exercises were "true."
For some time I was dismayed by my own gullibility. How could I have been such an asshole? This was unmitigated bullshit being spread around by unmitigated bullshitters. As I once choked and sputtered on the wonders before me, now I choked and sputtered on the self-same bullshit... people running around in robes and spouting "compassion" and doing little more than leaving belief-strewn wreckage in their wake. Believers can always find believers who will believe them ... what an utter CROCK! I entered the world of bullshit kicking and screaming.
But as time passed, my own particular dime started to drop. A mistake is only as good as the person who is unwilling to commit that mistake. Does a mistake deserve to be called out? Sure. But calling it out and imagining it might be arm-wrestled into correctness are not the same thing. Any institutionalized format contains -- ipso facto -- its own bullshit. It is, in the end, nothing but bullshit. And it is important to enter this world or bullshit, be it spiritual or any other. Failing to do so relegates those who might benefit from spiritual endeavor (or any other) to a world of cozy, warming, bullshit belief. Of course bullshit makes the flowers grow, but is that any excuse for hunkering down in a temple of bullshit?
So .... what's the punch line?
I can't speak for anyone else. I can't say "we are" or "we think" or "we believe" or "we should." That's too full of shit for me... too much the institutionalized Zen about which my friend was sickened and I find sickening too.
The punch line for me seems to be something along the lines of: If you don't want to be smothered in bullshit, stop bullshitting. Or, as Rinzai put it, "grasp and use, but never name."
Pluck that chicken.
Enjoy your dinner.