Saturday, October 30, 2010

the fine print of spiritual life

This morning I was reading a contemporary description of monastic life in Japan. It depicted a very-strict atmosphere, a very-strict discipline. It was almost inconceivable ... the longing for kindness and release coming head-to-head with the fine-print of practice. Why did the situation seem so filled with unkindness and rigor and lack of smiles? Couldn't anyone get where they hoped to go in an atmosphere that was more 'compassionate?' As someone who had flunked out of an American monastery, I read with interest the description that included the following:

I couldn’t believe my ears. The man had broken his leg! Was it necessary to go so far? That was when it finally sank in. This was indeed Eiheiji -- the premier Zen training center in Japan, famed down the centuries for the rigor of its discipline. Nothing here, including meditation, bore the least resemblance to the fanciful pictures my mind had painted before coming. I was forcibly reminded that once a man sets foot in this holy place, he must devote himself to the discipline truly as if his life depends on it. At the thought my blood buzzed, and sweat trickled down my back.
From: Eat Sleep Sit: My Year at Japan's Most Rigorous Zen Temple
 The book's descriptions aroused all sorts of feelings of rebellion and denial and horror. It was all so unkind. Spiritual endeavor wasn't unkind, right? Weren't all of the monks and nuns and talks and books filled with an utterly magnetic aura of living a smiling, compassionate lifestyle. Wasn't it that aura that drew people in and set them on a path to a revised life and a more clear-eyed way of seeing? In general, the mind fills this arena with hugs and kisses ... a kind of firm and unflinching joy. There were a hundred arguments as to why what the book described was masochistic bullshit: This isn't spiritual life or, if it is, it's a crock. I think a lot of people who take up spiritual endeavor would like to be nice guys ... and the book's description etched a world that was filled with unkind martinets.

But what occurred to me this morning was that no matter how unkind the training ground may be -- no matter how the psychobabble-mind dissects and reproves it -- still there is an unkindness and uncertainty and confusion within that is tougher and more resilient than any boot camp. With or without a trip to a monastery or some distant and dank cave, there comes a point where each individual has to put up or shut up. This is w-o-r-k and it is work that some understanding within acknowledges. A top-sergeant from the outside is nothing compared to the top-sergeant within ... the one who feels the unhappiness or uncertainty and is determined to overcome it. And trying to fend off our own uncertainties with powder-puff charities ... hell, that doesn't work either.

I'm not trying to excuse or elevate or even deride the hard-ass monastic approach. What I am trying to say is that each person will have to confront the fine-print of his or her own aspirations. It may feel good to read about or describe or dissect the directions required by those aspirations, but the hardest part is to actually do something ... whether monastic or lay ... that will assure some actualization.

Serious students are, in one sense, screwed. Entering a spiritual endeavor from the kindness side invariably leads to a need for razor-sharp clarity; entering a spiritual life from the clarity side invariably leads to the need for kindness. Of course all of this depends on determination -- the willingness not to stop, the willingness to keep going, the willingness not to nest in the precincts of kindness or clarity.

And where does that determination come from? It certainly doesn't come from the hard-ass top-sergeants or warmly-avuncular saints of spiritual endeavor. It comes from within and it is unremitting. The toughest, kindest guy in the neighborhood is not some crack-the-whip instructor or some Dalai Lama. The toughest, kindest guy resides within ... and is worth investigating and worth taking instruction from.

No is not enough.

But then, neither is yes.


  1. Thanks for the pointer to the book, Eat. Sleep. Sit.

    You made some good points.

    One commenter on Amazon who gave the book a poor review had this to say "Mr. Nonomura is a quiet, reserved individual, and he offers no particular clues or insights as to why he decides to go to the monastery in the first place. "

    Underneath it all, I think, are the Huge Problems.

    The What, the Why and the How; assuming the Who is you | me | the potential aspirant and the When is as soon as possible or in this lifetime.

    Saying the What is "Enlightenment" or "Realization" is very vague and seemingly subjective. Objectified formulations also seem problematic as in "To end suffering."

    The Why is at best extremely personal but will be a function of one's answer to the What.

    The How almost seems trivial after the What and the Why are fully understood, but on reflection still needs very careful consideration: Does one need to break bones? Throw out one's back? Tear ligaments in one knees? Endure slaps in the face? Beatings with a stick? Verbal abuse? What austere measures are really needed? Are any really needed? (And this isn't even asking the question about the skill and insight of those demanding and slapping and beating and otherwise "abusing".)

    In one Tibetan Buddhist tradition there is the concept of "Bodhicitta." As shown on Wikipedia it is a very rich concept.

    One short, practical definition of Bodhicitta is the practice of cultivating the desire or intent to become "Enlightened." That will result in the desire and willingness to learn and practice the How: Meditation, to be Compassionate, Virtuous, Diligent, etc.

    So, it seems the biggest question, the biggest problem for us all is "What is it?"

    Since it can not be explained or described where does one go; what does one do? Hence the practice of Bodhicitta. In more Zen like terms it's the Three Pillars: Great Faith. Great Doubt. Great Resolve.

    One of Eihei-ji abbots wrote on the main gate: "The tradition here is strict: no one however wealthy, important or wise may enter through this gate who is not wholehearted in the pursuit of truth."

    Very, very tricky stuff!