My teacher has a great joke; when someone new joins the breakfast table, he urges us to give him a warm zen welcome, in which we all let our faces drop, avoid eye contact, and stare vacantly. Recently, after leaving the Zendo, he made an announcement that it's okay to make eye contact, and he'd really like us to do so when we bow together after practice.
Nathan, over at Dangerous Harvests, had a great post about the overwhelming permeation of Buddhist personas we've all encountered in temples, in philosophy circles, and, gasp, in ourselves. First, let's look at those aforementioned assholes and see if you've met or been the same.
In one stint, I was roommates with a guy who thought he was enlightened. His "enlightenment" was very visible. He took to sitting in our room in our off hours, stared in the dining room until his eyes glazed over, did prostrations on fields during work practice, and would smile insanely at you and say something clever whenever you asked a mundane question, like what time is our tea meeting today, and he'd say it never began and will never end. Then, he'd miss it, which I wasn't sad about.
Recently, I was told all about my neo-cortex and how I don't really see form as emptiness and emptiness as form, and how straight lines aren't really straight and how if my mind was really open, I'd see the world like one big Monet picture.
And saving the best for last, there was me: I sat in full lotus for 7 years and popped Advil to make that happen, took Kyosaku every time it was offered and chanted in an impossibly low growl, despite the fact that it sounded like a garbage disposal and hurt my throat. I believed that the books should be burned and that Zen was a practice, nothing else, and Zazen would answer your questions, Zazen was Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and everyone else was a whiner, an arm chair Buddhist, or dilettante.
It's amazing that the people I met in the Suzuki lineage could put up with me at all. But that's what this post challenges- how do we put up with these phases?
I think that looking at the Brahma Viharas and their near enemies is a good way to put our altruistic mind in check. I came to practice with many notions of what peace, enlightenment, detachment, etc. looked like and life continues to tear away the smiling visage of what I thought these practices looked like.
There are some good talks out there about the Brahma Viharas and how to spot their near enemies. For example, pity being an impulse confused for compassion.
We're always feeling eager to do the right thing but we need guidance. Some of our great teachers in the west are still caught up in imitating their dead masters and I found it stifling for my practice (even painful!).
Of course, a good over dose of Zen culture is a sure cure to our "perfect-soul-Buddhist-persona." Get into one of those practice containers and you'll breaking rules with full awareness!
You'll also meet yourself and maybe someone you admire. Recently, my new favorite Zen buddy is a 6 foot prior service Marine who just finished his Shuso ceremony. His warm smile matches his strength and sincere effort and he told me it's okay to sit in half-lotus or whatever it takes. Coming from him meant a lot.
He's also never called me an asshole when I was acting like one and I think that's helpful. I think it also points to time as a teacher, that sticking around and making effort could go further than any sutra study.