Is Zen About Exerting Oneself To The Point Of Tears?

It is a common misunderstanding to think that Zen practice is so effortful that one must exert oneself to the point of tears. This is not so, yet it is is understandable.

Chan (Chinese Zen) masters have, especially in the work entitled The Chan Whip, impressed upon their students the need to remain vigilant at all times. For what could be more important, what more urgent than realizing, right here and now, one’s Buddha nature? The stories we read, the exchanges we come across, the antics we’ve heard about: are these not signs that Rinzai Zen is trying to get you to whip yourself until you “break through” and recognize your “primal face”?

Not exactly. To help us see this, let me distinguish between “life-urgency” and “resting into being.” A true Zen teacher is indeed seeking to tighten the screw on you until you vividly experience the life-urgency of the path of enlightenment: you need to feel, at each moment, the Great Matter of Birth and Death. Never forget it. Keep it within oneself when walking and while defecating.

So much for life-urgency.

While in a seated position and indeed while walking, however, the Zen student is invited to let himself sink, or rest, completely into being. The more the one seeks, the more one sees that one is going the wrong way. For what is the ground of being but precisely what is beneath one’s seat, one’s thighs, one’s feet? Can that ground ever move? Yes and no: wherever I go, it goes while itself going nowhere. And if I stop resisting it?

I think we can now see that Zen is not about manful, muscular determination. Rather, the sense of resolve, which flows out of life-urgency, won’t let you drop or let go of what has been most real yet also still elusive. You can’t escape what is here for you, within you, and this inescapability we call “the koan.” And yet, that resolve must be sweetened so that it can melt, more and more, into subtler and subtler manifestations of being. Effortless grace. Complete surrender. Seamless letting go. QED.

We’re Groundless

You can doubt pretty much everything today. There are Flat-earthers who doubt that the earth is a sphere. There are carnivore dieters who reject all food except for beef (or liver), salt, and water. There are anti-vacciners for whom the injection of COVID-19 vaccine, were such to exist, would be tantamount to poisoning one’s children. There are, in no apparent order, climate change deniers, anti-statists, polyamorists, and atheists.

In some cases, to doubt this is to be convicted of that, yet in others it is, more simply, to heap doubt on whatever it is that is at hand. It seems that we–there’s a doubt! who is this “we,” huh?–can’t agree on much of anything, not even on “agreeing to disagree.” Nor do we very often converge on shared understandings. The doubts, tossed into the air, remain, corroding any possibility of mutuality.

Any appeal to a common standard is also subject to doubt. As is clear in the cases above, you can’t very readily appeal to tradition, science, reason, or revelation to decide the matter unless you want to have the experience of someone questioning tradition, science, reason, or revelation, respectively. Many on the left think that “experience” or “lived experience” cannot be cast in doubt, but in time that too will be just as untenable a basis for claims as any other. The birth of the psychological term known as “gaslighting” suggests as much.

Here’s the truth (do you wish to doubt it?): we’re groundless. Yet we are like Wile E. Coyote who, running off a cliff, only falls once he realizes where he is. Until that time, he’s free-floating. But then, someone might interject, maybe gravity is a fiction, right?

It’s not just that we’re groundless; it’s also that we’re clueless, helpless, and lost. We don’t know how to live, we don’t know that we don’t know how to live, and if we did know that we don’t know how to live, then we’d come face to face with our meta-crisis. And were that to happen, we’d cease being merely groundless and start being clear about how clueless, helpless, and lost we really are. And that, in my book, would be a very good start.

There Are Two Unconformable Truths About The Aged In Modern Culture…

There are two unconformable truths about the aged in modern culture. One is that they are not wise, just old. The other is that they are not allowed to die nor do they want to.

It’s not, in fact, wise to assert that “with experience comes wisdom,” and it’s a shame that it’s not true today. Living a long life probably won’t teach you much about how to live that thing that Aristotle called “the good life,” especially as modern culture gallops along at breakneck speed. How can the old tutor the young when the young continue to face “creative destruction”? “Dear grandpa, can you advise me about how to rock at this side hustle, handle the meta-crisis, and avert the worst of climate change? Sincerely, Little Jimmy.” The aged, in our time, are simply those who, having passed their time pursuing “the goods life” (Brad Gregory, The Unintended Reformation), are passed by as history inexorably unfolds its hidden, tortuous logic.

Worse than the aged’s lack of wisdom is the white-knuckled fact that we can’t let them die nor can they let us let them go. Strangely, we have so little use for them; oddly, we don’t care much for their presence, or their smells, anyway; yet, perversely, we can’t let them die.

Long ago–or was it yesterday?–secularism rolled over all rites and rituals associated with dying while gripping onto bare life, with the result that death, though it continues to occur, is quite an embarrassment, isn’t it? What an awkward fact, so awkward that we can’t talk about it before it sneaks up on them (never on us), as it’s “kindly stopping by” (Emily Dickinson), or after it appears to have happened.

The key to this sleight-of-hand is to forget the dead as quickly as they disappear. I’m not even sure, in fact, that they die; more likely they just stop showing up. Anyway, here today, gone…

But come now: isn’t that strange–and so very sad–also? All this time devoted to maintaining the life of this bare waning being, only to–oops–forget about him some days after that thing once referred to as a funeral.

Well, but we might as well forgo funerals anyway. All that pomp and circumstance. Just cremate the darn thing, hop on a 25-minute Zoom call, and then toss the ashes in some hidden corner in the local park. Let’s not make a fuss, ya know?

And herein lies the rub: we never see fit to make a fuss. About anything. We suffer on quietly, desperately and expect the same of the aged. Sure, we don’t care much about the latter because we know they have nothing to teach us, with the notable exception that we cling to their unsouled body for dear–what? But then, well, come on: let’s not get bent out of shape. Ashes to whatever, dust to whatever.

Our cluelessness, knowing no bounds, is stunning. The hidden magic in the whole secular ensemble? Ensuring that we don’t think about anything that was written here today. Don’t bury the dead; bury thought and feeling. If we don’t think about it or feel our way into it, maybe it’ll just go away. In a way, it does. Just revert to our defaults in the belief that our defaults, never our loves, can’t possibly discomfit us, can they? Not if they keep sinking, as we do, into oblivion.

Wrong Ways And The Other Way

Everything we have done so far to end our dis-ease, our suffering, our discontent (dukkha) hasn’t worked. Hasn’t worked because it cannot work.

See this clearly. Doing the same thing over and over again isn’t insanity or stupidity. It’s ineffectuality.

Could it be that every approach is bound to do nothing but heighten dukkha or temporarily relieve it?

Understand that the agent is at once clueless and helpless. Do you see?

See also that the dukkha is still here. Still. Right. Here. Or if it has temporarily subsided, observe how it comes back two weeks or two months from now. Or two minutes from now.

Out of compassion, the Buddha offered us a life raft. If we stop struggling and resisting, then the life raft will naturally float to us. Otherwise, we may not yet drown but we certainly won’t make our way to the other shore.

The truth, pure and simple, is that everything we do involves going the wrong way. When we see a Wrong Way Sign, it urges us to turn around and go the other way. Not the opposite way but the other way.

What is this other way???

One Wrong Way Sign: trying to force our way through dukkha or, using our intellect, attempting to think through it. Nope. Another Wrong Way Sign: running away and hiding from dukkha. Nope to this also.

Meditation is actually very simple. We need to stop doing everything that we’re doing. Need to stop searching by letting the searching-wandering wind itself down. Need–just–to stop. Meditation is directly seeing craving fading away without remainder.

No fight. No struggle.

Wisdom Is Not Always Pretty

It often comes as a surprise to learn that your pen pal, upon his moving close to you, is not a close friend of yours. Only in retrospect does it now dawn on you that writing or speaking by phone was the glue that held the friendship, as it was, together. You only knew so much about him and, it turns out, the better. Much of his life, you now see, and indeed much of yours had not been subject to observation and thus to quiet judgment and, in fine, to the fading away that inevitably comes with dissonance.

We might exclaim: “How strange it is that when we were far away we were so close and yet when we are so close we are far away!” We might exclaim thus, but is it really a mystery?

Not, to repeat, in hindsight.

Face to face, the differences between you and him appear grosser and courser than what you had hitherto shared. Maybe it was a mutual love of Rilke or perhaps a certain sense of humor that held fast your attention and your amity. Never visiting him or he you, you were none the wiser about his other proclivities, his habits, above all, about the way he lives. Nor, again, he you.

Sad to say, there is no going back now. You can’t live within walking or driving distance and pretend that you can go back to the epistolary form or to the monthly phone call. Wouldn’t that be a farce? And you can’t unsee or unexperience what you have seen or experienced. Nor is there any fudging the fact that the sheen has worn off. Undeniably, the magic is gone.

Wisdom is not always pretty.