Monday, November 14, 2011

among friends

Back in 1997 and 1998, when I was building the backyard zendo here, I began construction in a state of ignorance. I had done carpentry in the past and my hands were familiar with hammer and measuring tape, circular saw and screw drivers, but I had never built what amounted to a small house ... a whole house, from the ground up. There were things I simply did not know.

And so, for example, when it came to putting in the pilings that would serve as a foundation for the house itself, I went next door to my neighbor Mike's house. He had built a shed that was likewise balanced on stone footings at each of the four corners. What I needed to know was how I was to make sure the footings provided a square and, beyond that, how to makes sure they were level, one with the next. Mike gave me the information in the bite-sized morsels that were easy to understand ... I was ignorant, after all... a complete virgin whose hand needed to be held. Mike held my hand without any showing off. The transaction was simple: He knew, I didn't; I asked; he provided ... we were friends, after all, and friends do that sort of thing for each other.

Later in construction, I ran into the same blinding ignorance when it came to getting the angles right on the roof rafters and joists. Tom, another neighbor, was in construction and he took the time to tell me patiently how to measure and cut and get things right. My math skills and comprehension were not up to speed and I had to make a lot of mistakes, despite all of Tom's patient and clear information. It didn't matter ... Tom gave what he had freely, as a friend. And that's what friends do for each other ... or perhaps what anyone might do for anyone else ... give what is available, receive what is given ... that's what friends, or maybe just plain people, do. You don't put a price on it, you just give it.

Last Saturday, I received a copy of Merry White Benezra's new book, "Special Karma: A Zen Novel of Love and Folly." On Sunday, I read it. Merry and I had been to some of the same Zen places at different times and, although we were never close, still we were part of the same family and had lived through some of the same events, not the least of which was what I had dubbed the Fuck Follies -- the sexual meandering and marauding of the Zen teacher, Eido Tai Shimano. So I read the book with an eye to writing some sort of encomium for it.

A part of me was prepared to dislike the book: It was billed as a novel and novels stand at an imaginative remove from events that may be or have been compellingly factual. I was prepared to dislike the implicit unwillingness to say things from a non-fiction standpoint. But I was not prepared to be won over to the fact that sometimes things become clearer when they are blurred by 'creativity.' In brief, I thought Merry's book was as tasty as a warm apple pie -- subtle, understated, modest. Its distances were an enhancement rather than a detraction in my mind. I would recommend it to anyone who might be curious about one point of view -- just one, quite human point of view -- about what it is like to put into action the dreams that nudge and swirl and insist in spiritual life.

But besides the kinship I felt with Merry and leaving aside my own biased experiences when it came to appreciating the wryly-named "Special Karma," one thing struck me like a flood of unbidden tears...

Mike had told me what I needed to know as a friend. Tom had done his best to help me ... as a friend. Friends recognize no boundaries. They are friends. One may know more than the other, but that is secondary ... a descriptive situation that plays second fiddle to friendship... the easy and ordinary connections of love. To call the interaction "love" is almost silly. This is just how friends are, one with the other: You need? I give. I need? You give. It's all as easy and unrestricted as warm apple pie.

What left me sad when I finished Merry's book was the hardly-new sense that so much of spiritual life is premised on what might be called inequality and separation ... the teacher up there, the student down here; the 'wisdom' up there, the 'ignorance' down here ... etc. As in the transference of psychology, differences have a fruitful role to play in inspiring the hopes and the willingness to act in spiritual endeavor. But as a lifelong descriptive of one organized religion or another, one charlatan-based spiritual discipline or another ... well, it's enough to make me rage and weep. Awe and elevation are things to work through ... patiently and courageously perhaps. But something in me rages and weeps ... "Get a clue! We are friends!" This is not some pamphleteer's railing for 'equality.' This is just how things are. And without that recognition, without that actualization, the whole of spiritual life is just plain fucked four ways to Sunday. It is a disgusting fiction to create a spiritual underpinning in which God and man are kept at arm's length, the one from the next; in which the teacher and the student retain subservient and lordly distances.

We are friends, that's all. Sometimes you know about joists and pilings. Sometimes I do. Who gives a rat fuck who knows what, who does what, who is stately and who is inept? All those things are secondary to our friendship, our kinship, our deepest family. Do we have moments in which I stand in awe of your wisdom and knowledge? Sure, it's just a passing phase ... with an emphasis on 'passing.'

To make the relationship between wisdom and ignorance an institutionalized hobby is revolting both in the organized-religion sense and in the up-close-and-personal realm. Ick, ick and more ick! Do it as long as necessary, but know that to the extent you cannot put it in the rear-view mirror, there is a vast mistake being perpetrated. We all make mistakes, but mistakes are what any of us might also hope to correct. So, get to work and correct them. Never mind who's a virtuoso and who's a putz, never mind who sits on your mind throne and who flounders in the midden ... get over your self- and other-aggrandizing self. It makes me want to scream ...

We are friends ... that's all. We are kin ... that's all.

Like an outrigger, you bring balance and smooth sailing to my life. Like an outrigger, I bring balance and smooth sailing to yours. We are different but the same... just part of the smooth sailing. We may be named differently from time to time -- have our ups and downs -- but we are a package deal, not two, not one.

Like warm apple pie ... yummy!

1 comment:

  1. Nice article.

    Makes me want a cup of coffee to go with the apple pie.

    * * * * * * *

    I do want to put a different view out regarding the relationship people can have with a teacher and the sangha gathering around that teacher. It is primarily based on the research of those partial to a "learning styles" approach to education as well as the practices based on learning styles approaches. It is also based on the anecdotal observation of the array of spiritual paths and practices within Buddhism and also within other meditative and non-meditative spiritual traditions.

    In learning style research and as a matter of fact we see that different students function better in different environments and with different approaches. Relevant here is the wide group of people who function best in a collegial, informal environment -- they need to be treated as equals even though the knowledge is far from equal. Also relevant is the need for some students to be in classrooms with strictness, clear lines of authority, clear rules and sets of consequences.

    There are many other factors and details that make up learning style including lighting level, temperature, degrees of neatness, self-initiated study of a large curriculum vs. proscribed study of the curriculum, etc., etc.

    Zen practice in my experience is subject to the same factors relevant to learning style theory.

    So you and, to a degree, I believe we would thrive better in a collegial sangha where the teacher(s) behave in a certain way.

    But others will thrive, or believe they will thrive in a seemingly strict top down sangha.

    What is less well studied, at least as far as I know, is teaching style. For example, can a teacher who personally prefers an informal collegial approach really be effective with a group that prefers strictness and well defined organization, likewise the numerous other combinations.

    So I wish you well in your quest for Zen friends. I wish others well in their quest for Zen military academy, etc., etc.

    For more information regarding Learning Styles See
    A fair attempt at an introduction
    I studied learning styles with Dr. Rita Dunn. Her ideas were popular for several years in the school district were I taught.
    Note: The article seems categorically against learning styles!

    The late Dr. Rita Dunn used to point out that many opposed Learning Style theory despite the fact that numerous articles and reviewed studies were done. The organization that took over some of her work now says that over 850 articles based on quantitative and experiential research conclude that theory is valid. Most likely problem is that most learn style advocates turned their ideas into money making operations which interfer with other money making operations. The same can be true of virtually every other idea in education.