Saturday, January 28, 2012

the good stuff

Twice, I hitchhiked across the United States, each time from West to East. It took 3-5 days to travel approximately 3,500 miles and what I remember of each trip is ... the good stuff, the unusual stuff, the lucky stuff, the weird-without-frightening stuff. There was a fellow who had a cranky sheep dog that sat between us in his Jeep station wagon. And when, out over the prairie, we noticed a herd of elk, he asked me kindly if I had ever seen elk up close. When I said I hadn't, he immediately hung a sharp left off the highway -- no braking, at perhaps 60 mph -- out onto the prairie and we chased elk for 30 minutes or so. And there were other incidents that have taken up residence in memory.

The army was the same. Three years of training and travel and adventure, but I remember the good stuff, the unusual stuff, the lucky stuff, the weird-without-frightening stuff. I remember the time when Dean Spinanger, without any permission from anyone, checked out a military passenger bus and spent the better part of an entire night, driving his German girlfriend (later wife) around Berlin.

And I suppose the same is true for Zen Buddhism ... looking back, I pick out the good stuff, the extraordinary stuff, the drama stuff, the spotlighted stuff.

But I don't pick out the hours or days or weeks or years that were ordinary or boring or ... must have been there in order for the good stuff to arise. Hitchhiking, for example, involves a lot of waiting, waiting and then waiting some more. The army was painted with hours and hours of eating lunch or marching or hurry-up-and-waiting. Formal Zen Buddhism is largely a matter of sitting on a cushion ... being as quiet and still as possible. To remember such things in detail would be about as captivating as watching paint dry.

It occurs to me that our lives are that way in memory ... picking out the good stuff.

Somehow the entire thought process above arose out of wondering why it was that anyone would suppose or hope or insist that his or her teachers -- the people or events of note in their lives -- should somehow be "good." In spiritual life, there is some demand ... teachers should be nourishing and good and praise-worthy and wise. Of course, the spiritual adventure does not advertise itself as being nasty, mean, painful and conniving, but what is nasty, mean, painful and conniving is part of anyone's actual-factual life ... and without actual-factual life, spiritual life becomes as useless as a fart in a wind storm ... another bright, stylish, substance-free religion.

And of course the "bad" stuff is often remembered as well -- a bright light on memory's plateau. A bruise, a stumbling block, a yowl in the night ... remembered with the same importance as the "good" stuff ... only that stuff was "bad." And still, the inconsequential in-betweens that fill the landscape between high points and low ... where are they?

My Zen teacher's teacher, Soen Nakagawa Roshi, once remarked during a sesshin or Zen retreat, "There is birth and there is death. In between is enlightenment." He wasn't laughing when he said it and today I wonder mildly why he was not laughing.

"In between" is pretty silly when you think about it. Good stuff, bad stuff, in-between stuff ... as I've thought before, "If you're so serious, why aren't you laughing?"

Laughter is the good stuff.

Just like tears.

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