Friday, September 21, 2012

hearing without listening

When someone asks, "What have you learned from Zen Buddhism? How have things changed?" I am always caught flat-footed, somehow. Usually I can make up some kind of answer, but the answer is always made-up and it doesn't sound true in my own ear. Sure, it's kinda true, but really it's just made-up -- something I come up with to be companionable.

But this morning, it crossed my mind that maybe there had been something I learned from Zen practice. I'm not sure I wouldn't have learned it anyway -- if, for example, I had spent as much time collecting kewpie dolls as I had pursuing Zen practice -- but there was a recollected shift in things that bubbled up this morning.

When I first went to the Zen center I attended for nine years, it took a while to get the format under my belt -- sitting, chanting, walking, eating, etc. And periodically, someone would give a talk. On Thursdays, which were public meeting nights, a student with more longevity might give the talk. During sesshins or retreats, usually it was the teacher himself who would delve into one encouragement or another.

You weren't allowed to take notes.

At first, I was irritated that note-taking was prohibited. My mindset was, if you learn enough or commit enough to memory or fill up enough notebooks ... well, then you would know something. And at the time, 'knowing' something was all I knew how to do. That's the way I had previously conducted my life -- learn enough and then you know and then you're not quite so stupid or inept any more.

I'm not entirely sure what it was I wanted to do with the notes I was not allowed to take during the talks in the zendo. Maybe I hoped to reread them later, as if preparing for a history exam. Maybe I wanted to husband them as an academic might husband books on a shelf ... a signature of learning and involvement and perhaps a little pride. Maybe I just was desperate "not to forget" one bright bit of wisdom or the other. Maybe I wanted to quote someone or something.

Whatever my hopes were, I was not allowed to take notes and as a result I listened with a gimlet attention, doing all I could to commit what was being said to a notebook in my mind. "Ego," "attachment," "emptiness," "compassion," etc. -- all these were important aspects of what I had chosen to practice. I wanted to know more, to see better, to understand more fully and these talks seemed to offer a way to do all of that and more. I listened cat-like and pounced on the various important mice that passed by.

But having done what I could to store up the substance of any given talk, having written it down on my mental notebook as neatly and firmly as possible, still, it was like writing on an Etch A Sketch: I could store the words on the tablet while listening, but the moment I stepped outside the zendo, the moment I began to walk home or ran into a friend, the tablet shook and the neatly stored words began to disappear.

At first I was both dismayed and pissed off: How would I ever know anything if I couldn't store it up, if what I needed to know kept slipping into half-baked and probably wrong recollections? This sucked! What a bad student I must be! I would never get anywhere if I couldn't remember the important stuff!

But no matter how hard I tried, no matter how I redoubled my listening effort, the Etch A Sketch effect continued unabated ... write it down, shake the toy, watch the words and the import disappear.

There was no overnight change in this activity. But one day, during a talk, I realized I was no longer really listening any more. I mean, I could hear the words and I wasn't day dreaming about something else, but I just wasn't all that concerned.

And the funny part was that I didn't need to listen with that old history-book intensity. It was like lying naked in the shallow white waters of a stream ... the water eddied and flowed over the body smoothly and every once in a while some stronger current would have its say against shoulder or hip and then pass along. Sure, there was stuff that still banged my chimes, but I didn't need to listen ... something would hear what was necessary or useful and if, by chance, it didn't hear, then it would become available at some time later ... or maybe not at all. The rippling waters would write and erase, write and erase, write and erase ... I was attentive, but not needy. Something like hearing without listening.

Maybe it was around this time, whenever it was, that I also began to feel my teeth itch when people would say, "I understand." I understand this about Zen or that about Zen ... and my teeth would itch the old Etch A Sketch itch.

I really don't know if any of this constitutes a change attributable to Zen Buddhism. Maybe it's just lazy. Maybe it's just human, with no need of a format called "Buddhism." I don't know.

I do know that skinny dipping is one of life's greatest pleasures.

1 comment:

  1. Lately I've come to tell people who ask me that question that I sleep a lot better now.