Saturday, May 19, 2012

God save me from my friends ....

In the practice of Zen Buddhism, there is some emphasis on zazen or seated meditation. For those who have not tried it, this practice can understandably be seen by turns as awe-inspiring, bizarre, self-centered, weird, masochistic, incomprehensible and a lot of other stuff. For those who have tried it, zazen can be hard ... a tsunami of effort and slogging uphill ... squaring off against a whole life of habit and desire and failure and accomplishment. Looking in the mirror, to use one metaphor, is no goddamned joke. It's hard. A life of unexamined altruism and enmity is much more consoling and companionable. Zazen is hard, and physical and emotional pain are the least of it.

Once upon a time (which is my way of saying I have a terrible memory), there was a Zen teacher who observed that in Zen practice, "the hard stuff is easy. It's the easy stuff that's hard." It is ever so much easier to be surrounded by enemies and to battle valiantly than it is to be confronted by the blessing of friends.

Hearing such an observation, knee-jerk, control-freak Zen Buddhists may run for the hills, nodding a sage and self-deprecating agreement: Yes, attachment to friends, family, chocolate, sexual delight, social activism, or whatever all else is truly difficult. How much kooler it would be to model themselves on the monks and nuns of old ... the ones who "with one robe and one bowl" entered a life of imagined simplicity and clarity, a life unstuck from all the delicious sticky stuff. And, having made that observation, they content themselves with a cozy self-flagellation and doubt, holding attachment at bay as if it were some new-found friend ... another enemy. But the convenience of this point of view, the comfort of a friendly and agreeable point of view ... far from being a restful solution, this point of view is just another friend, another bit of easy-ness that is so hard.

Claude Louis Hector de Villars (1653-1734), one of France's greatest military commanders, was once quoted as saying, "God save me from my friends. I can protect myself from my enemies."

In their efforts, Zen students may pounce on such a witticism with a keen wit of their own. "Ah-ha ... there's the nut of the problem ... protecting the self" when any good Zen student knows enough to mouth one of the key platform planks of his or her persuasion: "There is no abiding self." Another easy friend who proves so inimically difficult.

The Zen teacher Dogen (1200-1253) is sometimes deliciously known for saying
To study Buddhism is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things. To he enlightened by all things is to be free from attachment to the body and mind of one's self and others. It means wiping out even attachment to Satori. Wiping out attachment to Satori, we must enter into actual society.
 Usually, it's only the first four sentences that catch the attention of attentive Zen Buddhists. Forgetting the self ... being enlightened ... ahhhhh ... what delicious friends. Gimme some of that! But Dogen adds a kicker ... "we must enter into actual society." And Zen Buddhists may tug their forelocks and assent ... yes, yes ... get into the world of woe that may have been the very impetus for giving a Zen Buddhist practice a place in this life.

But God save me from such friends!

Snake River canyon
How can anyone escape from what is inescapable? No one in their right mind sits around mewling about this inhalation or that exhalation. Breathing is inescapable. So ... breathe. When Evel Knievel failed to jump his motorcycle across the Snake River canyon in 1974, was he troubled about success or failure? In the moment before he went airborne, did he fret about friends or enemies? That would have been a sure sign of failure, wouldn't it? Pure failure. Pure success. The inescapable is just the inescapable. Life is just inescapable. It's not a big deal and it's not not a big deal.

Friends or enemies, ego or bliss ....

God save me from my friends.

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