I was reading Koun Franz' thoughtful and generous take on the teacher-student relationship in Zen Buddhism just now and was swept gently back to another time. I wonder if I had read Franz' words "back then," whether I would have felt the same soft lapping of warm waves. Probably not. Aside from anything else, there wouldn't have been the 40 years of whatever 'experience' is.
I was hot for Zen, "back then." Having discovered a format of sitting and bowing and chanting and ... doing, well, I felt as if I had gotten some segment of whatever big brass ring I was after. But another aspect of this new friend called Zen Buddhism -- hell, sometimes it felt more like a lover ... tempestuous, delighted, scary, and scrubbed with endless novelty -- was the beauty.
I always have been a sucker for what I consider beautiful and the zendo I practiced in, like many others I would later visit, was knock-me-down beautiful. The statues, the calligraphy, the dull richness of the floor, the smell of good incense, the light enfolding the altar, the silence which was not precisely silence and yet was precisely silent ... it took me in its arms the way Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony can.
Truth to tell, I could never quite manage whatever there was to manage about the teacher-student relationship. I would like to say that it was as subtle and nourishing and frustrating as what Franz depicted, but it wasn't. I desperately wanted to believe in it, perhaps, but the bare-butt fact was, I could not do it within those beautiful confines. I do not fault the teacher of the time -- though he turned out to be an utter putz -- but rather look to my own life and doubts. I had an upbringing that would make anyone chary of authority so ... well ... them's the breaks.
But the beauty took me in ways that the teacher did not. And, as a result of my interest in Zen Buddhism, I found several teachers I was more than willing to place in my pantheon of beauty. Some were Buddhists, some were just good people. They never came into my beautiful space as teachers, per se, but they came with a beauty that fit and matched, even if that beauty went unnoticed until later.
Over time, of course, beauty has taken on softer edges. Sure, it can still make me cry and it can still fill me with wonder, but now it is less uncommon and hence more like a pair of very cozy slippers. I still love it, but now it loves me back and we are, rather than impassioned lovers, more like wondrous friends.
All of this blah-blah came to mind when reading Koun Franz' piece and I feel a bit ashamed to drag him into my written mess. But one of the things that occurred to me while reading his Zen Buddhist prism was this:
Everyone builds a beautiful house ... perhaps a spiritual one, perhaps a marital one, perhaps an employment one, perhaps a drinking-buddy one, perhaps an academic one ... always a beautiful house. And it SHOULD be beautiful. Thoroughly beautiful. It should be beautiful because it is beautiful ... but without the effort, the reality is likely to go begging.
Zen Buddhism can wax lyrical about attachment and ego and what a good idea it is to clear the decks ... but I say no ... I say build an utterly beautiful spiritual practice, if that's your style; hang beautiful intellectual pictures; collect beautiful emotional furniture ... collect and furnish with a devil-take-the-hindmost care. Build the additions as they are needed ... and make them beautiful as well.
Isn't that all anyone does anyway ... make things beautiful? choose a beautiful format that is beautiful; pick a partner who is beautiful ... on and on an on and on until, like the Hopis (or is it the Navajo?), the words arise unbidden and probably unspoken: "All around me is beauty."
And then, with luck, the dime may drop: All that effort on behalf of a very personal and very intimate beauty was worth it because ... well, because it really was, without any help whatsoever, beautiful from the get-go.
Don't mind me. I just enjoyed Franz' article and my mind went off on an associative, if incoherent, toot.