Thursday, October 27, 2011

the universal solvent

Water is sometimes inappropriately called "the universal solvent." It is capable of washing away a vast array of things ... but not quite everything. Some things (fats for example) simply defeat water's 'universal' claims.

But sometimes I think there is a yearning in the human heart to find the universal solvent that will put everything to rest -- something that brings peace in all situations. Spiritually-inclined books, for example, line what remain of bookstore shelves, promising a universal solvent, so to speak -- something that solves or dissolves everything and brings peace. And even without the spiritually-oriented salesmanship, you can hear voices singing the praises of "love" or "freedom" or "money" or "matrimony" or ... well, pick a touchstone, any touchstone.

Find the joker in the deck of cards and everything will improve. The joker or wild card immediately enhances the meaning of any other card -- any other circumstance in life. The joker goes with anything and has the power to solve an otherwise weak or depressing or doubt-riddled hand of cards.

Find the joker.

Find the universal solvent.

Find the god.

I took up spiritual life to find the universal solvent ... or anyway, that's one way to put it. I was doubtful enough and on-edge enough and greedy enough and idealistic enough and determined enough to see the universal solvent, the joker, as a worthwhile effort. What was it that could promise an unwavering sense of certainty and relief and clarity and peace? There were hints that came and went -- experiences that seemed to wash away all concerns for two seconds or two minutes or even two days. But they came and went and I wanted some steady-state understanding, some joker that didn't just dissolve back into the deck of cards that seemed to be my life.

I chose spiritual life and, eventually, Zen Buddhism, as a means of searching out the universal solvent. My own preference liked the fact that Zen did not roll around in the mud with intellectual or emotional constructs. It acknowledged them, but did not say the universal solvent could be wrung from them. There was a joker that smiled gently at intellect and emotion, but declined the invitation to be swallowed whole by them. That made some kind of sense to me, so I pursued the format that Zen practice provided. Zen waved around words like "satori" and "enlightenment," words that seemed to leap over or precede or outstrip the 'ordinary' way of things. Ahh... a universal solvent, a joker ... gimme some of that.

OK, I made a choice and set out to get beyond my own lip service to the various universal solvents of "love" or "freedom," intellect or emotion. I never was a very good Zen student. I was too intellectual or too emotional or too unwilling to surrender or too much of a fuck-up at every turn. But, like a kid dying to ride a bike, I was willing to fall off and get bruised and keep going because I was sick of my own lip-service compromises. It was as if some challenging voice whispered, "You want the joker? You want a universal solvent? Well, stop talking and start walking! Put up or shut up! Dig in and get to the bottom of something for once! Put your ass on the line!"

So I did. Despite repeated failures, I did. I wasn't a good Zen student ... I was just a Zen student. It was just the format I chose, much as anyone might choose a format to do anything. Relying on the judgments of others simply was not enough. What was reliable? What was the joker? What was the universal solvent? I didn't want to believe. I wanted to know.

I did the prescribed zazen or seated meditation ... poorly. I did the chanting and walking ... poorly. I followed the prescriptions as I understood them ... poorly. I didn't want to be lazy and make another lip-service mistake. So I made a lot of other mistakes ... poorly. I was serious, sort of.

And after 35-40 years, it occurs to me that the universal solvent will never be the universal solvent until I simply put on the shoes I own and walk in them. Sometimes on the peace picket line I stand with on Saturday mornings, someone will stop and ask, because of the robes I wear, if I am some kind of a Buddhist. It's a simple question, of course, but it always confounds me. Am I a Buddhist? And the answer comes back, "Sure, when the occasion arises." When Buddhism comes up, be a Buddhist, but otherwise, what's the fuss?

I used to think that Buddhism would create a lot of cookie-cutter good guys, radiating the message of some universal solvent. If you were a good Buddhist, you would be serene and smiling ... just like all the other serene and smiling Buddhists. But nowadays, I find myself trusting that the joker is more interesting than that. It is more interesting than Buddhists and Buddhism. The universal solvent is real, but no one in their right mind would lay claim to it or search for it or praise it. "Real" means it can't be helped.

It's a joker, after all. Jokers fit anywhere. They aren't in business to solve anything ... or dissolve anything either. Just because jokers laugh doesn't mean crying is out of the question.

It's just laughing, right? You laugh, I laugh ... everyone laughs.


  1. Speaking of universal solvents, have you ever considered that some schools of American Zen Buddhism have lost a good deal if not some of the most important of the teachings of the original Buddha in it's 2,500 year passage from India, through China, then Japan and onto the West? Perhaps it lost so many of those teachings that it has lost a great deal of it's power as a "universal solvent" -- an aide to good daily living -- which seemed to me that was one of the Buddha's original goals.

    Over the years when others often pointed that out to me, I pooh-poohed them, thinking that zazen was all that was needed. I now pretty much agree that zazen is just one component. How it is that meditation, dhyana, za-zen, went from being number eight on the Eightfold Path to being virtually the only component taught?

    I have heard from more than one so called "roshi," senipr teacher, that ethics are even not part of "Real Zen." Two that I am aware of seem to take that as meaning they can behave unethically with impunity and manage to weasel out of serious consequences. Others seem to have spent fair amounts of time visiting the arenas of arrogant self promotion, sexual impropriety, and financial impropriety, etc. Yet the original teaching of Buddha made ethics central to his teaching i. e. right speech, right action, and right livelihood.

    I say this as it seems to me that if Zen Buddhists embraced more of the original teachings they might be more like the serene, compassionate good guys you imagined they'd be long ago. Also they'd behave a lot less like self-absorbed fools, selfish jerks, and self-promoting idiosyncratic jokers.

  2. Go for it, Natty! The ball is in your court.

  3. Personally, I don't find self-promoting idiosyncratic jokers very funny.

  4. I too came to practice with some expectation that buddhists would be somehow better than the average human. But when e-sangha imploded with sectarian infighting and fundamentalist parochialisms, my teacher made sure i owned that expectation and was properly chastised. A path is not a cure, someone will always try to detour things to suit their dearly held beliefs. Life is ultimately a sitcom, not that there isn't some suffering available. But it's still good for a chuckle now and then.