Thursday, May 30, 2013

where agreements falter

In Zen Buddhism among other formats, the enlightened being Jizo (Ksitigarbha) is very popular, not least because his mythology/activities take place in realms that are quite human and mundane: Life sometimes sucks and this bodhisattva lends a hand -- this enlightened being of the hell realms. Human beings know quite a lot about hell in one way or another, and it's nice to think that someone's on our side.

On Wikipedia Jizo has taken a "vow not to achieve Buddhahood until all hells are emptied." He's fighting the good fight and I, for one, am grateful.

Jizo, like other so-called bodhisattvas, can have a magical-mystery-tour attractiveness. One way of approaching him is to envision some wispy, other-worldly sylph or god who is out there somewhere ... sort of like God or the Tooth Fairy or Santa ... you know, someone else, some other force that can lighten my load and get me out of hellish predicaments. And if worship floats your boat, a little worship never hurt anybody.

But Buddhism as a practice is largely the study of hell -- the quite mundane, get-out-of-bed-in-the-morning hells that can gnaw and clutch and shred ... death, disease, drugs, divorce and a hundred other hells, little and large. You know -- the stuff that sucks.

Patiently and firmly, the practicing student is attentive. Worship is OK, but a solution would be better. So the practicing Buddhist is attentive... kinda like Jizo, except that attentiveness is tooth-ache personal and does not admit secondary figures like "Jizo." How could anyone escape from hell without first addressing its fires in very personal terms?

So, OK ... any sensible person might seek out the parameters of hell. And at first, hell is the bad stuff, the sucky stuff, the ouch stuff. Raw as a rug burn. Get me out of here! Attention, attention, attention. Working through intellectually- or emotionally-delicious touchstones of "attachment" or "ego" or "compassion" or "enlightenment," "you are none other than Jizo" -- the stuff that beckons but cannot blow out the fires of hell. Attention, attention, attention.

Last night, as the sky lit up like some Wagnerian opera and the rain rushed down from on high -- my son and I sat on the porch to enjoy and be awed by it all. And we talked. Or more aptly, he talked -- gushing out with his attempts to straighten things out in his mind. He had finished military basic training, an accomplishment he was rightly proud of. When he was in basic, he thought he wanted to be home, but now that he was home, well, "no one understands" and he felt "lonely" where once he thought he might be fulfilled.

He was in some measure angry that others did not see things his way. He spoke warmly of sergeants and other instructors who had guided his training -- credible people whose world outlook he had in some measure assumed as a part of his belonging to the military group. There were opinions and prejudices he held because those he had come close to likewise held them. He had been at home during training, but now he was at home and the hand-holds of the recent months, the ones of which he had been so assured, had taken on a fragile and unsustaining quality. He had been sure then, but he was not sure now. He desperately (I'm guessing as someone who was likewise 19 once) wanted to be sure. Wasn't there some way to be sure, for Christ's sake?! I know people who are 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 who ask the same question, so looking down with an 'adult' perspective on a 19-year-old strikes me as self-aggrandizing at best.

Welcome to hell. Welcome to life. Not "Buddhist" life or "deluded life" or "confounding life" or "serene life" ... just life. Just hell.

And as I listened to my son's stream-of-consciousness reflections -- the uncertainties often cloaked in mantles of certainty -- I wanted to make things easier, I wanted to play the wand-waving Jizo ... I ached for him and in so doing, entered a hell realm I could not escape: I love my son and will not feign otherwise. Hell is not so bad.

But one of the things I desperately wanted to tell him and simultaneously realized would be utterly useless was this:

Within the parameters of hell, one of the most egregious errors is to seek escape through agreement with others. Or disagreement either. True, a little worship, a little imagining that Jizo will still the waves, and a little mortaring of a sure-thing home is a place to begin. Man is a social creature. No one likes hanging out with assholes. And in Buddhism, "sangha" (or the group) is designated as one of the reliable supports. It may all be true-true-true, but finding out whether it is indeed true can be a hellish business.

Hell is a realm of delicacies and, when hell is not busy knocking anyone's block off with horror or despair, one of its most subtle delicacies is the matter of agreement/disagreement that serves as a comforting, sure-thing home. The group-hug of agreement about philosophy or religion or politics or psychology or which soccer team is best can inspire wonderful actions and a terrific sense of belonging. What a relief -- I am not alone. And more than that, I am raised up, as a 19-year-old might be raised up in a loving household. This is the authentic way ... that sort of thing.

The hellishness begins to singe the toes when it crosses the mind that agreement with others is not the point -- that such agreements, while warming and pleasant, cannot build a reliable understanding. It is not whether I agree with you or you agree with me that holds water ... it is whether I agree with myself or you agree with yourself. Do I like Buddhism or despise war or vote Democrat because others do the same and because I admire those people? Do I credit Jizo or cheer for the Red Sox because others do? I may claim to stand on my own two feet but whose feet am I standing on? To what extent do I rely on others for my own peace of mind, my own home, my own peace?

It's a delicate matter, worthy of the delicacies of hell. It is not something one person can tell another in any other than a conversational bit of fluff. I choose ... and it's not really so important what I choose ... it is that I choose ... and that choice is not so all-fired important. This, to my mind, is the escape route that beats the socks off the coziness of agreements and disagreements. It may seem a fearful and lonely route to follow -- too lonely and dangerous by half -- but it is the fires of hell that inspire Jizo and might inspire anyone else ... and lead to a place where being a Buddhist or a Red Sox fan or a soldier is OK because hell is just another name for heaven... the place where everyone finds themselves in good company.

You can tell from the length of this lumpy disquisition that I probably don't know what the fuck I am talking about.

So it goes.

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