Saturday, May 9, 2009

the wee troll

This morning there is a wee troll in my mind growling, "Spiritual life -- what the fuck does that mean?!" The cuss word is meant to emphasize a sense of ludicrousness ... followed immediately by a sense of the pure humanity of it all: Of course we're fools: What else is new?

Sometimes I think everyone who has a vast vision, an intricate philosophy or religion, a somewhat serious and certainly solemn hope ... sometimes I think such people (like me) should be locked in an empty room for a week or more to think things over. What is this philosophy like when the ceiling stares back at you implacably? What happens to this grand scheme where the walls seem to chuckle? How 'important' are you in a place with no importance? What happens when there is neither agreement nor disagreement? What happens when, like Jesus or any other serious person, you walk into the desert and every shred -- every shred -- of evidence points out that the 'important' things really are not enough?

"Oh, it is so lonely!" a voice cries out. It's too much. It's too hard. It's just too damned much! Give me some company! Give me a "spiritual life!" Give me some comfort and solace and ... belief. I'm human and frail and lack the courage and conviction. I am a hypocrite and an ego-tripper. Give ... me ... importance.

Maybe longer than a week is necessary for anyone interested in "spiritual life." Maybe much longer. But if "spiritual life" doesn't call out for verification in an empty room or a searing desert, what is it good for other than prattling and self-aggrandizement and yet another blood-letting? Whining about masochism only reaches so far. Playing the glittering Boy Scout only reaches so far. Goodness only reaches so far. Tea and cookies after the morning sermon only reaches so far.

Importance only reaches so far.

The humanity of it all is very touching: We only do what we can and we stroke and console ourselves within that framework ... maybe with something called "spiritual life." But, as the wee troll insists, "what the fuck is that?!"

What does the ceiling in an empty room say?

What does the desert say?

What do you say?

What do you say when importance becomes so unimportant that importance has the opportunity to assert itself?

What happens when you unlock the door only to find there was no door to unlock in the first place?

Yes, lock 'em up and throw away the key! Hypocrisy is such a cruel task master.

In spiritual life, there is the encouragement: "Do good. Refrain from evil. And purify this mind." I'm not entirely sure what this means, but my guess is that it's as close as anyone is likely to come to the facts of the matter.

It's Saturday after all ... a time to receive the blessings of our wee trolls.


  1. Adam (do you have a preferred salutation?),

    I remember a few months ago I read one of your posts that in which you were referring to your zen practice and you said something like, " the older I get...I am getting lazier by the minute."

    As I read that comment, it really struck me. It made me want to follow your posts to see where this "lazier by the minute" came from, where it is going, and why it came.

    You have practiced with diligence for many years I take it, and met with world-renowned teachers, so I believe there is something I can learn from " lazier by the minute."

    I think you are still sort of dealing with this theme in a lot of your blog posts. Perhaps as you have practiced more and more you see the futility in changing oneself? Maybe the futility in accomplishing whatever goal we hope strict practice will accomplish? Or that those who practice strictly themselves often have more baggage than those who don't if practice is bad for them? I don't know. But I'm interested in the idea.

    I think maybe your " getting lazier by the minute" is really " practicing for 30 years and realizing transformation comes about some other way - maybe simpler....I don't know. I definitely think it has something to do with what Katagiri-roshi refers to as removing ornamentation from practice.

    What is it we are trying to do in practicing zen? How come so many zen practictioners look so much more completely lost than the simple man who packs groceries at the store. Does strict practice hint at a sort of endless desire that actually moves one farther away from any insight into what living a spiritual life mean. The Prophet Muhammed said, " God has made religion is easy for you." How come in zen we make it so incredibly difficult that a good lot of us turn our miserable - and less nice.

    I know alot of generalizations. But, I am intrigued by your "getting lazier by the minute." It has stuck with me for a few months.

    Do you have any reflections on where you are at with your practice. You have been practicing for a very long time and so I would be grateful to hear from the man who is coming back from the road I am trekking down.

    Sorry if this was long and thank you for your time.


  2. Hi Raymond -- Sorry to be late reading your post. I'm not used to people commenting, so sometimes I miss what is in front of my nose. Very kind. Thank you.

    Did you ever buy a new pair of shoes and notice how pleasing they were? I think everyone has done that. Spanking new, fashionable, comfortable and pretty neat. And I don't think we should put away such delights. There they are ... might as well admit it and enjoy it.

    But then of course, new shoes become old and we just lace them up when it's time to do so. As you say, the ornamentation of delight drops away without any effort at all. It's just what happens, isn't it? No need to pretend there's no delight when there is delight. No need to pretend there is delight when there is no longer delight.

    But after all the effort expended to feel delight, the dwindling of delight can sometimes whisper that something has been lost ... that something is out of synch, that things have gotten somehow lazy and inappropriate. It's just another mistake. Ornamented or not-ornamented amount to the same question ... what Christmas tree is this?

    I feel lazy to the extent that the Christmas tree seems to be in need of ornamentation or lack of ornamentation ... that the shoes should provide delight or somehow be devoid of delight.

    Hope this is somehow responsive to your thoughts. Please keep up your good practice.

  3. Adam,

    Thank you for your response. I apologize for my e-mail. I was not sure whether you wanted to keep this blog as sort of a private vehicle for your reflection or whether you were open to inquiry and dialogue. I enjoy your posts.

    Regarding practice, I cannot escape the realization that the more I "practiced" the farther removed I became from my everyday life. I actually became more selfish and less available to others. So, I am trying to find the right tension. I appreciate your perspective because it is based on your steady, longtime practice.

    Thanks again for responding to my post.


  4. Raymond -- I don't think of this place as a private stomping grounds. True, I don't welcome trolls and flamers, but open discussion makes the world go round.

    As to feeling that your practice made or makes you less accessible to others, well, relax: I think that is absolutely par for the course. Isn't it about like any other thing you or I might be deeply interested in ... enthusiasms and attentions run high and perhaps the whole world can just piss up a rope while I indulge in my particular interest. Something like that?

    The nifty thing about Buddhism is that you can be as enthusiastic as you like about whatever you like -- my worries, my loves, my life, my Buddhism, etc. -- and the practice comes to our aid. Some will stop short with their criticisms or doubt ... screw that! there is important stuff going on in the world! I don't want to be some navel-gazing nitwit sitting on top of some cold and lonely mountain! But this just compounds the worries and uncertainties.

    Look what practice did for you: Didn't it help you to recognize you didn't want to be some navel-gazing nitwit? So ... if not a nitwit, then what? Just because you screwed the pooch in one sense, didn't that error inform you in pretty important ways? And now, informed by this less rigid perspective, isn't your practice improved, more rich, less confining, more real?

    OK ... we all try to grasp something called "Buddhism" because grasping is what we have learned in the past and know how to do. We have the skills! :) But a little at a time, with practice, the usefulness of those skills is questioned: It's like trying to dig a hole in the earth with a spoon -- you can give it a shot if you like, but wouldn't a shovel be easier?

    Practice is our shovel, however much we may resent or praise it. It just works better ... so why not try it ... gently, firmly ... with patience and courage and doubt ... just try it?