A confluence of events, somehow:
Yesterday, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, I went to WalMart and bought a picture frame in which I put a diploma I had earned at the Army Language School (now called the Defense Language Institute) where I had once studied German for six months. It is the only diploma I ever took seriously or was particularly proud of.
I tacked the old diploma in its new frame up on the wall and then, for reasons equally unclear, also tacked up a first-prize plaque from the Newspaper Editors of New England I had won for a five-part series on alcoholism.
Both wall decorations were awarded in the distant past (1962 and 1972 respectively), so I was curious that I should hang them up at this late date. Somehow, it was a challenge from me to me.
I grew up keenly aware of my mistakes and still maintain a fair measure of that stale habit. Seldom did I allow myself to relish the praise of others. I was more accustomed to seeing and feeling the failure to measure up or achieve anything that might imply excellence. My upbringing was the mirror image of those who relish and are convinced by their accomplishments: Where they may feel the "deserve" the accolades, I tended to feel I did not deserve them and more, that any accolades were more a failure to see things clearly (meaning my way) than reflecting an accurate appreciation.
In short, I found my failures convincing. If asked, I would still be hard put to see or name the positive accomplishments of my life. It's quite a habit.
Besides the two wall hangings, I got a couple of emails from an old Zen friend who has been going through a rough patch. I have been encouraging him via email. In one email he expressed his gratitude:
When I think of you and the past, no one more embodies the old adage “he’d give the shirt off his back”. When I hear that expression, I think of you (maybe you don’t like your shirts?). So thanks, buddy, for all the concern which really did help me get through an emotional crisis.
In another email, after I had mentioned that my interest in Buddhism seemed to be drip-dripping away, he wrote:
I have no problem with letting go of Buddhism, though I do wish I could make myself sit more. I keep thinking that will happen “one day in the future”. Maybe…Sounds to me like you’ve just gotten enlightened. I dub thee Adam Roshi.Of the first observation, what struck me was "maybe you don't like your shirts?" And that seems pretty close to the old-habit bone. Shirts are just shirts, after all, but giving them an enhanced or disdained quality ... what nonsense is that? Giving things away or clinging to them, both strike me as missing the mark.
Of the second observation ... well, I hesitate. Whether tongue-in-cheek or serious or some combination of the two, I feel forced to review whatever appreciations I have of "enlightenment" or "roshis." I know a lot of people who bring up such topics as a means of subtly asserting their understanding and connection/achievement ... if you can talk about it, then, by subtle implication, you can do it and know what you're talking about. It's part of the game.
When I started training, "enlightenment" was a bright light -- very, very bright. I might not have known what the hell it was, but I could wave it around in my mind or off my tongue as if ... as if ... as if it were as fershur as a halo on an angel. Enlightenment would be shiny and serene and wise as a hoot owl. Yessir! Enlightenment or bust! And I practiced with a fervor that matched my vision ... the kind of vision that others can use to assert their ascendancy or accomplishment. And as bright as "enlightenment" was, so too was "roshi" -- a person who had received confirmation that s/he was on solid, experiential ground. A roshi, like enlightenment, really was pretty wowsers. Roshis were expositors and examples of the Dharma and I wanted to do that too ... all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Naturally, with practice, the bright lights faded, in one sense.
The emails and the wall hangings both seem to bring on some challenge: What makes me think that what others see or think is necessarily right or necessarily wrong. Why should their appreciations, whether silly or sane, be any less the truth than whatever failure-prone truth I can concoct? And why should either approach be anything less than a passing enjoyment ... as easy as biting down on a green grape, feeling its delicious explosion in the mouth, chewing it a bit, swallowing and then getting on with things?
It's good, it's bad, it's true, it's false, it's elevating, it's demeaning, it's compassionate, it's unkind ... what long-standing habits. Really, these things do serve to paint a picture, but does anyone in their right mind live a sane life according to pictures? I guess I think habits are OK as long as I don't get habituated and dependent. Habits R Us, in one sense. But that doesn't mean anyone has to believe them.
Just working on a challenge/koan around here. I don't imagine anyone hands out gold medals for this sort of exercise. :)