Friday, 30 March 2012

The Perfect Zen Student?

"When things are running smoothly, the refrigerator is very much like some people's idea of the perfect Zen student. It is calm, cool, and quiet, and it possesses its own inner light."
- Gary Thorp, "Infinite Winter"
Read the entire article in the Tricycle Wisdom Collection

This above excerpt was emailed to me by Tricycle Magazine, of which I am quite the fan. But stuff like this quote I think really gets people in a total muddle. I spent a few years trying to be the perfect Zen student, and trying to be all those things listed above. I failed, and the reason? Because the above quote is perfect only in one way: it is the perfect caricature of a Zen practitioner. As Brad Warner might say, even whatisname on the front of Tricycle or any other similar mag isn't always cool, calm and illuminated. Many of us may spend very little time being any of these things. That doesn't make us any "worse" than those who fit the above model. To be fair, Mr Thorp does say it's only some people's idea of Zen, but it is quite a prevalent one in my experience...
 Zen is wide enough to include sorrow, rage, annoyance, boredom, pettiness, jealousy and the whole messy gamut of human experience. There's a koan (which I can't source right now) where a Zen teacher is found to be distraught at the death of a friend. "Why are you weeping?" his surprised students ask, "Are you not a Zen master?" "I'm sad, so I'm crying" came his response. Similarly, Natalie Goldberg is equally surprised when she criticises one of Katagiri's Dharma talks, and he displays disappointment. She figured, incorrectly, that he was somehow "above" that. But Zen is to reflect, and to be in the middle of all situations burning cleanly. If you are stuck in the idea of Zen being cool, calm and quiet, sooner or later someone will tweak your nose and you will say "OW!" and then where are your ideas?
The book from which this excerpt comes, Sweeping Zen by Gary Thorp, is pretty good. Just not the section that Tricycle posted to me.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The Silliest Spiritual Game in Town

On occasion, Zen practice can give you what appears to be a real kick in the teeth. There are times when the whole game of it drops away and not only do you know it to be pointless, you feel that it is pointless. Absolutely pointless. This leaves you feeling like you are in freefall: one moment you had the Zen game with the sitting and the robes and whatnot, and then you realise that this patch of corporeality that you are pleased to call your body will one day cease operations and you will be dead, and there's absolutely nothing to be done about it. I was grumbling to myself that I don't have a teacher, and that I'd never be able to sew a raksusu in order to take the Bodhisattva Vow and on it went, a real outpouring of sorrow for myself. Then a thought occurred: what difference would a teacher, even the most famous, fierce and accomplished Zen type you could think of, what difference would they make? I'd still sit on my cushion. I'd still have to sew that f***ing rakusu. I'd still, to put it bluntly, have to die my own death. Ha.
Of course, we still like to play the game: I like the Zen game. I like the ritual, I like pretending that I'm connected with something venerable and deep. I like taking myself off to zazen and spending my evening sitting for nothing. I could do other, similar things: I could do vipassana, Insight or Shambhala, one of those modern Buddhisms which seems keen on meditation or Buddhism being a journey or a purification or something. But they don't seem to have the silliness, and I like silliness of the gravest, ancient and most serious sort.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Tasteless Scandal Rocks Zen Center

A scandal yesterday erupted which will strike at the very heart of American Zen, as it was revealed that one high-profile Zen teacher had forced his students into tasteless acts. A special investigative committee, headed up by  John Korogi McGinnigey Roshi, was dispatched to the Riverpinestone Bay Zen Center. "When we went in, we were shocked by what we found. The first hint was a brightly-coloured zafu just laying there in full view. It had a polka-dot pattern on it. Further in, and we found that someone had put up chintz curtains and one of those magic-eye posters. Later I heard if you stared long enough at it, you'd see 3D unicorns. I'm trained, but nothing I'd seen previously had prepared me for this." As the team continued, further horrors came to light: "Instead of raked sand, a barbecue pit", a sobbing investigator relived his experiences, "everywhere, those solar-powered garden lights with dragonflies on them." The main zendo had become a monument, an altar one might say, to tastelessness: statues of cheerful, human-looking dogs in a variety of sports outfits, little miniature houses that light up from inside, and a host of other items best described as "knickknacks" were found therein. Incense holders were replaced by cloying "plug-ins".
One of the students of the renegade Zen teacher spoke out, "It'll take me some time, and a good deal of counselling, to get the scent of "Ocean Coast Stroll" out of my nose. It had started innocently enough, I suppose, when Roshi said one day "You know guys, I've had it up to here with all these artfully arranged Japanese interiors, what say we go a bit cosy for a while?"  Another student spoke out: "You know, it seemed to make sense at the time. Everything was too tasteful. I suddenly felt like I wanted to kick back, pull on some polyester sports trousers and watch television. Roshi had such...a charisma about him, he could convince you of anything."
The Riverpinestone Bay Zen Center before the tragedy
Other students said that they had a bad feeling when posters featuring "spiritual" quotes and stock-image photos had started appearing on the walls. The Zen teacher himself was tracked to his home in nearby Cedar Bay, and taken in by the authorities. His tasteful neighbours had no idea who they'd been living next to all this time: "We knew he was a Zen teacher, so we never doubted his tastefulness. I mean, he had a real skill for it: the things he did with a simple throw, cushion and single-flower vase could bring a tear to the eye. But I guess, you don't really know people as well as you think."
Asked if he had any comment, the shamed teacher offered this, sporting handcuffs and a T-shirt with airbrush-style pictures of Native Americans on it: "I was living a lie. Polished wood and plain walls really get me down .  And does everything have to be brown, black and grey? I mean what about the rest of the spectrum? I'm fifty-five years old, and I've had enough of living in what looks like an Uptown Manhattan sushi joint. And if I have to look at one more piece of calligraphy I think I might just...." He was led away before he could finish the comment. The teacher will face up to three years of Interior Design Therapy, and be subject to a court order imposing a tonal colour scheme on him for the next eighteen months.