Saturday, April 4, 2015
noodling on a grey morning
Territory and sex and come-play-with-me resound in their insistent chirps. Suddenly the world is off and running and for all I know, the birds are running it. "I am what is," they seem to say, "and what is is only me." They aren't arrogant about it. It's just a statement of fact.
Yesterday a willowy Mount Holyoke College freshman came by to pick my brain about Zen Buddhism. She is doing an "ethnography." I'm not entirely sure what such a sonorous word might mean, but I like company under whatever aegis. Willowy ... thin and quiet as a powerful, pale-green blade of springtime grass ... uncertain ... with a soupçon of "if I act polite, religion will open its doors to me."
"Without you, there is no Buddhism," I said at one point ... and was immediately embarrassed by the assertion, an assertion that happens to be true. But telling the truth is hardly the fodder of conversation or academic pursuit. Conversation is the process of telling good lies. The truth is experience and experience is what leaves all else in the dust. (How do you like that lie?)
Once I asked my Zen teacher some question like, "Who or what is Buddha?" He told me not to ask. And when I pressed him -- he was, after all, a Zen monk and if he couldn't define his chosen line of work, how good could he possibly be? -- he looked confused. "You know, it's really pretty hard. You ask from the intellectual point of view. I answer from the Dharma point of view (because that is as truthful as anyone can get)."
His answer annoyed me, as if he were keeping a secret under wraps ... spiritual life is rife with secret teachings and handshakes and rituals and telling such secrets to the unwashed is frowned upon. I thought he was putting me in my unwashed place.
But of course I was wrong... and was reminded of it yesterday. The young woman asked her ethnography questions and I did what I could to tell her the truth of my experience. I wasn't trying to heighten my status. I was just trying to tell what experience I had had ... and secretly hoped that that experience could be transmitted.
Not for the first time, life snickered, "Get real!" I was, in one sense, on the other end of the problem my teacher had expressed ... a problem that anyone, Buddhist or otherwise, confronts: Experience cannot be transmitted. There is something galling and lonely about it since my experience or yours is so clean and clear and obvious within.
Experience is convincing -- not necessarily true, perhaps, but convincing -- but there is no convincing anyone else with the same assuredness. The moth can fly close to the flame for warmth, but if it comes too close, well, that's all she wrote!
With all this mental mastication, I wonder: If experience cannot be transmitted to another and cannot thus form a bedrock for judgment and outlook, why then should I be so convinced by experience, even, or perhaps especially, my own. Of course this is me and me is dreadfully important to me, but really ...
I can hear the soothers and soothsayers in the wings: "It's just the best we've got, old son." But is that true. Is experience the best we've got? Is there some way in which it could possibly NOT be the best we've got?
I have been a fan of saying, "experience trumps belief." And in an ordinary sense, I think that's true. But is doesn't really address the issue of what, if anything, trumps experience. What happens when "me" takes a vacation?
But the intermittent rain plip-plopping in aluminum gutter is not.
Or, for all I know, maybe it is.
Sweet springtime blades of grass.