Sunday, February 5, 2012

steely, gossamer threads of goodness

A Zen Buddhist friend of mine recently told me this story. I cannot vouch for its gnat's-ass accuracy ... only for the resonances it set up in my mind.

My friend once applied for a Buddhist prison chaplaincy position at Sing Sing or some other high-profile place of incarceration. The chaplain who was interviewing him and was in the position to bestow the job finally got down to brass tacks: He urged my friend not to take the job. The chaplain was willing to give him the job, but urged him not to take it because by not taking it, my friend would be in a better position to do some good, to actually help people. Were he to take the job, the institution would bar him from speaking and acting freely. The rules would hamstring him in ways that speaking and acting freely would not. My friend didn't take the job.

Several years ago, I ran into a similar situation when a Zen teacher suggested to me that I should join some Zen organization and "get your ticket punched." It was a well-intentioned suggestion (go get inka and you'll be in a better position to be heard and do some good) that made me wonder why I didn't do exactly that. I really couldn't say, but I can say the suggestion made me itch, on the one hand, and feel somehow guilty on the other (how could I claim to like Zen practice and yet not go all-in with the institution?)

Spoiler alert: This train of thought is not about "better" and "worse," more or less "virtuous" or "true," praising one thing and blaming another. It's just about things that actually seem to happen.

Have you ever seen a spider catch some hapless prey in its web? The spider zips over to the struggling fly or bee or bug and proceeds to wrap its prey in gossamer strands ... around and around and around until nothing but a capsule remains ... a capsule to which the spider can later return and, at its leisure, suck the nourishing juices from the packet.

There is nothing deliberate about the institutional ability to suck patrons dry. In spiritual life, the doors are flung open to all and sundry, promising improvement, safety, guidance. And some rise within the organization, higher and higher, helping more and more people under the best of circumstances. But always the institution remains ... gossamer strands that hold tight-tighter-tightest. And as often as not, the greatest expositors are most tightly bound -- contenting themselves with the do-good philosophy the brought them to the fold. And the fold really does do good.

But in time, the fact that what does good flees what is bad tightens the noose around the neck. Tighter and tighter until, in one sense, the spider is enveloped in its own wondrous, gossamer threads. It can and does happen. Not that it must happen ... but the risks are huge ... to subvert goodness in an effort to 'do good.'

Meanwhile, like my friend, some remain outside the inviting fold. Is this better? As I said, "better" is not the point, at least to me. It is a choice and remaining at a distance carries heavy requirements. Loneliness, pride and a host of other difficulties may bind the chooser as tightly as the walls of the institution may bind its most ardent adherents.

It's a choice ... living inside or outside the walls of goodness or academia or money-making ... the gossamer threads are there to greet you.

As your mother used to say, "you made your bed, now sleep in it."

Inside, outside, getting your institutional ticket punched or not ... it's just a choice.

And it's incomparable.


  1. Inka is a celebration of mediocrity that makes you forever someone else's bitch!

  2. That's great, many merci's, Adam...Hmph I have thought of the same too - albeit perhaps not as explicitly.. Nevertheless it was there..I don't know, many assumptions either way I guess, but one direct - thankyou. Again.