Friday, October 21, 2011

Ordinary writing

Whenever I join a new meditation group, the first thing on my mind is resistance.  I didn't like the way the group in Oxford shackled my mind to counting individual breaths, instead of letting it roam off in search of the place it started from (as had been my private practice).  I didn't like the way my first teacher at Stanford invited us to visualize a ball of light at the centre of the body - what about the breath?  The doubts I had about the various styles of meditation extended to the guiding philosophies of these different communities.  The temple in London was too ornate and decorated, too distracted by liturgy and ceremony.  The neuroscientist who led my second group at Stanford sometimes seemed a shade too secular for my tastes.  Where was the religion?

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'.


  1. Is there anything like an 'Apostolic Succession' (mutatis mutandis) for Zen Buddhist instructors, or is it possible to read about it (for example) to learn about/improve technique? On reflection, I discover that roughly 75% of what I think about Buddhism (when not taking the piss) comes from fading, scrambled memories of the old man in Kipling's 'Kim'. The rest is a combination of television and prejudice.

  2. I don't know a lot about many Buddhist traditions, but I know that reincarnation is taken quite seriously in Tibet - I just found out the other day that the Dalai Lama, for example, is supposed to be the latest version of this chap Guanyin we keep chanting about. All that seems like horeseshit to me.

    In Zen you become a teacher (roshi) by being chosen by another teacher and given 'dharma transmission' (which also seems like horseshit to me at this point in time). So my teacher David was made a teacher by John Tarrant, who was a 'dharma heir' of Robert Aitken who learned Zen in Japanese prison camps in World War II. His Japanese master traces his lineage back to China, and the Chinese masters to the Boddhidarma, who brought Buddhism from India to China. Ultimately the links are meant to bring you right back to Siddartha Gautama himself, just as bishops are supposed to draw their sanctity from Peter, who was best mates with JC himself. Horseshit.