Friday, December 17, 2010

Perfect Souls, Buddhist Answers, and The Great Pains in the Ass

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.


  1. Great criticism. Many Zen folks are just imitating Japanese culture and thinking instead that they are imitating the Buddha -- it is such a laugh. (I wrote a little of my experience of it here)

  2. Hilariously true, and great post. So glad you are blogging again.

  3. Hello - Nice to see you back, and a photo of you! The way I tolerate rabid Zenners and the religious of all persuasions is to remember when I did something like that, or was in that phase. An AA friend says that at first she "was dangerous" - always giving people books. Another tactic is to put the person who bothers me into my lovingkindness meditation in the spot called "enemy" or "difficult person," depending. Memory, prayer. But thinking has its limitations.

  4. I just started going back to temple again after a many-year hiatus and was thinking this same sort of thing. Actually, I was wondering if Zen Buddhists are shy or something or I am just socially obtuse? Me with my mugging and smiling and plastic face.


  5. My experience is with Japanese-style Zen in two sanghas. I have found people overly prideful and very interested in wearing rakasus and studying ancient texts and talking about what they read. Not interested in welcoming newcomers or bringing chicken soup to the sick, or knowing each other. I figure a certain kind of neurotic (Chogyam Trungpa's term) is attracted to this paramilitary kickass thing. Can't complain, because I too liked it at one time,though mine is getting less Japanese all the time.

  6. Great points "Great Ocean Grandma", thanx

  7. Sabio - my response to your comment was Oh gosh, wow. I never thought of myself that way. More like small pond. Or monkey dipping paw in small pond, trying to catch the moon.