Wednesday, February 23, 2011

paying for what's free

In Zen practice, it is sometimes said and less-frequently acknowledged: The hard stuff is easy; it's the easy stuff that's hard. Greed, anger and ignorance are really very hard. Suffering is hard. Old age, sickness and death are hard. Dualism is hard. Anyone who has practiced Zen even a little finds rich and sometimes horrendous meaning in the myth of Sisyphus -- the king who was compelled to roll a boulder up a hill, only to see it roll down again and again.

Over and over again -- the hard stuff.

And what is the easy stuff? Well, laughter is easy. Love is easy. Breathing is easy. Hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting and touching are easy. All the stuff about which the mind, like some bored teenager, says "d'oh!" is pretty easy. What the hell, it's all free and what's free is not as interesting as what costs.

I once heard it said that when Yasutani Roshi, a pretty well-known Zen teacher, heard complaints about the price tag placed on sesshins, or Zen retreats, he laughed: "Oh yes!" he was said to have said. "Charge them a lot. That way they will think the Dharma is worth something."

More recently, Genpo, a Zen teacher who disrobed after several sexual indiscretions, carried Yasutani's observation to what may strike many as breath-taking heights. In disrobing, Genpo said he would no longer teach Zen. He would however continue with his business-model teaching of quickie enlightenment under the umbrella of something called "Big Mind." And a recent announcement invited a "select" 20 people to a four-day retreat in November aimed at turning their lives around...clearing up the hard stuff that anyone might feel. For $15,000. Assuming they had it, who wouldn't pay $15,000 to stop rolling this boulder up the hillside? But the figure does seem greedy.

Greed is part of the hard stuff that any Sisyphus might recognize in a heartbeat.

My nearby neighbor, Giles, has studied and teaches martial arts. Serious martial arts. And he once told me that it took him a while to recognize that by charging little or nothing for his teaching, the students stayed away in droves. Other, less serious but more money-minded teachers were up to their elbows in students. What is free is easy ... which is to say, it's the hard stuff.

No one likes getting taken to the cleaners by charlatans who are laughing all the way to the bank. It is important to recognize the buzz saws that life offers up and not keep walking into them. It is important to call the charlatans out ... not to imagine there will ever be any fewer of them, but to call them out as we roll our boulders up the hill.

But I also think it is important, a little at a time, to come to terms with our own greed -- the greed to find meaning and explanation, the greed to find wholeness in a life that may feel fragmented. I'm not criticizing this greed. I am saying it is worth noticing and coming to terms with. If I pay a lot of money or put my ass on the line for some practice or situation or hoped-for healing -- if I amass meanings and explanations and soothing beliefs -- then what precisely defines this important effort? It's just me, isn't it? Me, the boulder. Me, the hard stuff. Me, the $15,000.

Slick Willy statements like, "the me is a myth" are not really enough to bring peace to a life that is currently hip-deep in myth. But there is attention and responsibility. Just attention and responsibility -- not judgment and criticism. Watch and watch and watch some more. Be as greedy as you like, but watch and see what actually happens. Where does it come from? Where does it go? Nothing happens overnight, so a little patience and determination are required ... rolling the stone, rolling the stone, rolling the stone. In this way, the hard stuff becomes easy ... at which point things tend to get really hard.

How can you pay for what is free?

Hard to say.

But I just wasted a lot of words saying it.



  1. Look at the contact person, this makes me doubt this is a recent announcement. But then again in the world of Zen strange things do happen.

  2. You may well be right. But recent or old, the impact remains the same, I imagine.

  3. genkaku - you think meaning just equals me?

    And without carving out meaning in this life, what type of life is that, don't you, we, all devote most to that which we find most meaningful?

  4. FA -- You mean it doesn't mean me?

  5. Hello genkaku over there - Yes OK even it does, don't we STILL choose to carve it with what we devote our energy to?