Friday, October 21, 2011
For several weeks after my first visit to Wind in Grass, I didn't like it (and not because of continuing death threats, which I did like). There was an older man who preached to us in a black bib adorned with what looked like a wooden curtain-ring. Was he a priest? The tall confident businessman kept talking during meditation, and rather than offering guided relaxation he usually provided an anecdote about a student's barely comprehensible question and a master's spectacularly unhelpful answer. ('Does a dog have buddha-nature?' 'No' - though in the other version of that one the master answered, 'Yes'). And when the older man spoke to us, he would sometimes inform us that we were all - including yours truly, who'd walked in the door three weeks previously and who was secretely still visualising balls of light - buddhas.
This post is for the people who ask me what Zen is. Since they are asking me, the answer they'll get isn't going to be learned, or even well-informed (after carefully avoiding studying it, I have so far succeeded in preserving a virtually unsullied ignorance). But it's an answer of sorts, and here it is. What I've found most distinctive about the approach of the Americans in party hats (that is, the Zen buddhas) are two things. The first are koans, riddles or anecdotes or poems or prayers that originated as scraps of conversations involving the old Chinese or Japanese masters that somebody somewhere found helpful (or unhelpful) and wrote down. The second is the emphasis of direct perception, the constant reminders that we may be on a path, but we're also already at our destination and just need to realize that by looking up.
Nobody really told me what to do with the koans the first few times I went to Wind in Grass, though I've since discovered there are two rules: (i) there is no wrong way of working with a koan, apart from thinking that you're doing it wrong; and (ii) there is no right way of working with koans. The first few koans I heard went into one ear and burned up in a ball of light. My first ever reaction to a koan was to laugh, which it turns out is the most respectful way of taking them. The one that made me laugh was the one about the student who goes to the master complaining of being anxious, unhappy, the lot. She tells him to spend the next year greeting everything that happens to him with the thought, 'Thank you very much; I have no regrets whatsoever'. He tries it and it fails miserably. He goes back to the teacher and tells her. She says, 'Thank you very much; I have no regrets whatsoever.'
There are lots of koans that get us to the second thing I've found characteristic of this approach, the affirmation that we're already here. In one, a student asks a master, 'What is right speech?' and he replies, 'Your question'. In another, the student asks what the way is (which seems like a good question); the answer is 'ordinary mind'. The student wants more guidance; 'How do you turn towards it?' he presses. And the response comes, 'If you turn towards it, you turn away from it.' (Thanks.) Sometimes the koan seems to be hinting that even when you're searching for something, you might already have found something in the searching. One student told his master about the brilliant, beautiful light that was on the margins of his conception, but that receded from his grasp whenever he reached for it. 'Forget about the light,' said the master; 'tell me about the reaching'.
When Chris told our group that we were all buddhas, he was working along these lines. But I admit that at the time I was scandalized. The arrogance! I suppose that somewhere inside I had been thinking of Siddhartha Gautama as unapproachably virtuous, almost divine, like Jesus (even though I stopped believing Jesus was divine when I was 15, and was attracted to Gautama because he wasn't like Jesus). But of course all 'buddha' means is 'awake'. There's a story that they asked Gautama if he was a god and he said, 'No, I'm human'; and then they asked, 'So what makes you different', and he said, 'I'm awake.' That's all. And it makes you wonder what makes your sleep so sound, and why you're apparently so convinced you're always dreaming.
Sometimes I worry whether this approach isn't slightly too empowering: if we're perfect already, and only have to wake up and realize it, why bother being honest or kind, or with any of the ethical precepts in the Eightfold Path? The response I've heard is that once we come to realize that nothing needs to be added to this moment (yes, this one), there won't be any desire to cheat or take. I'm still working with that answer, letting it be a koan. In the meantime, I think of the lines from the Japanese master Hakuin Ekaku that we sometimes speak together, that 'this very place is paradise/ this very body the buddha'. It's like what my Baptist grandmother used to say in New Brunswick, that whatever we did, God still loved us. And it's like the words I read in a book that some freak gave me one day on Oxford Street, by a Hindu guru: 'There will come a time when you realize that all you want or need is Krishna, and Krishna is already here'.