Monthly Archives: September 2009

So which is it: immediacy or a long journey? Both!… Only by opening your heart and beginning the “monk’s way” will you discover the resolution–an answer that is existential and real and not just words.

Immediacy and the Long Journey

Let us consider the following two Zen accounts that seem to point in quite different directions:

A young monk introduced himself to the Chinese Zen Master Hsuan-sha saying, “I have just entered this monastery. Please show me where to enter the Way.”
“Do you hear the sound of the valley stream,” asked Hsuan-sha?
“Yes,” said the monk.
“Enter there!”

Dogen, the great Japanese Zen master, was born into an aristocratic background. When he was in his teens, his mother died. It is related that when he was watching the clouds of incense billow over his mother’s ashes, he felt acutely and painfully the impermanence of all things. He resolved to become a monk in order to resolve this pain. Years later he was a fully enlightened Zen master.

These two stories seems to be making some kind of contradictory claim. On the one hand, the goal of the spiritual journey is right there, right at the outset–it is always right in front of one’s nose as it were. On the other, the account seems to imply that it takes a long time to “get there.”

Another account from very recent times as related by American Zen teacher John Daido Loori:
“Many of us are accustomed to fast-paced, quick-solution, immediate gratification lifestyles. One of my students had been practicing with a koan in his sitting meditation. He had been studying with me for about 3 years when he happened to go to California on a job assignment. While there, he decided to do an intensive meditation retreat with my own teacher. He began the retreat and went to his first face-to-face interview. He told my teacher that he was studying with me and working on his koan. My teacher asked, ‘How long have you been working on it?’ He said, ‘Three years.’ And my teacher immediately rang the bell, ending the interview. He didn’t even want to talk to him. Three years? You haven’t even started. Go away.”

Every spiritual tradition has similar accounts. And sometimes this can feel bewildering to people drawn to a spiritual tradition. St. Augustine tells Christians: “God is closer to you than you are to yourself.” The Sufis have a saying that is more concrete: “God is closer to you than your jugular.” And Zen Masters always point out that your Buddha nature, your original mind, is always there–not somewhere out there, no need to “go anywhere,” no need to do these 99 different things, etc. On the other hand, Milarepa had to build a tower and tear it down three times before his teacher would even begin with him. And there is more than one account of Zen monks being at the end of their rope when they finally break through to a realization, which was always at hand. Among the Christian Desert Fathers, the real ancestors of today’s Christian monks, one of them said: “I have spent 14 years asking God night and day to grant me the victory over anger.” And another grizzled veteran of the desert said, “I have not yet become a monk, but I have seen monks.” And another kept a stone in his mouth for a decade in order to learn how to be silent. All this implies an arduous process and a long journey. So which is it: immediacy or a long journey? Both! It is a kind of koan, if you will, which you will not resolve intellectually–you will not be able to think your way out of this dilemma. Only by opening your heart and beginning the “monk’s way” will you discover the resolution–an answer that is existential and real and not just words.

For those within the Christian tradition, it is faith which is the “steppingstone” to immediacy and which makes the “long journey” possible.
To the thief crucified next to him Jesus says, “This day you will be with me in Paradise.” Now it’s obvious that this person has not been taking up any spiritual methods, has not been following a spiritual path with numerous and various steps, he is not a member of any religious community anyone could identify–in fact the only thing we can say with certainty about him is that he certainly is “at the end of his rope.” Yet, THERE he is. He literally cannot take another step, yet he doesn’t need to anymore. It is here that we can begin to understand the meaning of faith in the Christian tradition. There are many counterfeits which we will not discuss, but it is real faith which brings one into “immediacy.” This faith will not bring anything to the ego self–nothing to take possession of, no sign of success, no feeling, nothing. Anything which the ego can get hold of and use as a credential is not IT. Yet with real faith one is always THERE, one is always at the “gateless gate,”–or as the Sufis say, “Whichever way you turn, there is the face of God.” And the last thing to point out is that it is real faith which is needed for the concomittant “long journey.” And it is only real faith which can resolve this paradox.

And we keep playing even when we realize, during some moments of semi-lucidity, that there is a deep dissatisfaction within us, that whatever fulfillment we achieve, it is so fragile and so temporary that it vanishes and leaves us feeling empty and in need of another “fix” right away.

A quote from Kurt Vonnegut: “A guy with the gambling sickness loses his shirt every night in a poker game. Somebody tells him that the game is crooked, rigged to send him to the poorhouse. And he says, haggardly, ‘I know, I know. But it is the only game in town.'”
Indeed. Thoreau’s famous remark–“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation”–points in the same direction. Except that the desperation is no longer so quiet. Our society, our culture (especially pop culture) persuades us that there is “only one game in town”–the game of consumption, the game of buying and selling, the game of being a consumer, the game of expansive desires, the game of self-centeredness, the game of a false self which pretends to be your real self. It is a wilderness of mirrors in which self-images bounce around seemingly endlessly. As long as we believe there is only this one game in town, we turn the wheel of our desires and we become less and less free even as we speak more and more about being free. We become ultimate losers, but we keep playing because it seems to be the “only game in town.”

Modern society makes one into an addict–we become addicted to the fulfillment of superficial desires. Marketing and advertising is all around us and fills our consciousness and our language and the way we look at the world. We take on the “Andy Warhol sickness”–dwelling within this advertising universe as if it were our home. Look at almost any magazine. Look at TV commercials. The pervasiveness of it all makes it seem like “the only game in town.”

And we keep playing even when we realize, during some moments of semi-lucidity, that there is a deep dissatisfaction within us, that whatever fulfillment we achieve, it is so fragile and so temporary that it vanishes and leaves us feeling empty and in need of another “fix” right away. The modern economy depends on this and exploits this to an incredible degree. We are induced to keep playing because it seems to be “the only game in town.” And if this is the only thing we can see, then such human facts as sickness, old age and death become almost unbearable facts–because they end our participation in “the only game in town” and beyond that there is nothing.

The Romans invented this notion of “bread and circuses”–provide entertainment for the masses to keep them distracted from reflecting on either their personal truth or their social truth. It would be unsettling to the empire if people began to think and reflect on their own deep- seated unease with their situation, if they had to face their own pain. Today the entertainment has been “enhanced” by all kinds of gadgetry. It is now at one’s fingertips wherever one goes. But even the natural beauty and wonder of the world is only there to be exploited as entertainment and diversion. Or if one puts on the Sony Walkman one can shut out the given world and the ego self can dwell within the illusion of its own self-made world. And the whole “raison d’etre” of this condition is that there seems to be only this game in town.

But every major spiritual tradition says there is something else besides this game. Once you get an inkling of this, you can begin the journey to break that addiction; you can begin to see the world and yourself in different terms. You can begin the journey to ultimate freedom, compassion and bliss.

“Monk”–a person who focuses his/her whole life on relating to the ultimate reality in whatever way their tradition understands it and articulates it.

Monk’s Way.  Two words.  “Monk”–a person who focuses his/her whole life on relating to the ultimate reality in whatever way their tradition understands it and articulates it.  Perhaps the word “monk” isn’t even used, but some other term takes its place.  But he/she truly does focus–often scaring or putting off folk who see life simply as a gathering of different experiences, as a myriad of things to do, as collecting stuff, as accumulating relationships, etc.  As it says so succinctly in the Christian Gospel: Only one thing is necessary.  And then comes the time when even that “one thing” vanishes….but more about that at another time..

Now nothing said here should mean or imply that all people should be monks in the formal and obvious sense.  But the fact is that everyone does have this “monk within”–an archtype deep within themselves.  It may be asleep, inactive, drowned out by all the “noise” of a busy life in modern society, but it is still there. (Actually a monk in a big monastery could possibly be very far from the monastic path, but a  person living in society may very well be following the “monk’s way.”)   To be fully human, to be really alive, is not to give in to the push and pull of our consumer culture, but to allow that inner monk to emerge and guide one.  And this may contain some very unique elements for each person.  Now this blog will be for and about both kinds of presence in the world.

The other word: “Way”.  Kind of obvious, isn’t  it?  If not, lets see what we can do about that.

So, what do you see? What do you want to see?

What do you see?

This story is related in a recent issue of Adbusters–one of the very few magazines worth reading these days. An economics professor at Oxford walks into his packed classroom carrying a cup of coffee. When he walks in he asks, “Do you see the cup of coffee?” The students are puzzled because he obviously is holding a cup of coffee! Well, what the professor is getting at is the tangle of economic and government policies that lie behind that cup of coffee–most of them bad for the people who brought you that cup of coffee. So let us follow that professor’s lead and expand on the point he was trying to make to his class.

Exactly what do you see when you are having your cup of coffee at Starbuck’s (or wherever)? Do you see the sun drenched land that was taken over by a big corporation from a small landowner who himself inherited it from people who drove out natives who had lived there for maybe a thousand years? Do you see the deforestation that took place and all the insecticide and pesticide that was put into the earth to bring you that cup of coffee? Do you see the bean pickers working in the hot sun, or the guy carrying the heavy bags of beans to a shipping point–all for barely liveable wages? Do you see all the fossil fuel that was burned to bring you that cup of coffee? Do you see the 140 liters of water that were used to produce the coffee for that one cup? Etc, etc, etc. All this and more comes to you in that one cup of coffee.

The negative stuff is being emphasized here because that is the stuff we don’t want to see. A list of positive connections could also be made. But the real point here is to have an awareness of the incredible connectedness and interrelatedness of everything we do or touch–no matter how trivial–and to have a very concrete awareness of that and not just in the abstract. Buddhism, at least in theory, is very good in pointing that out. Christianity and others, perhaps not so. First of all, at the metaphysical/ontological level, simply because we “are,” we are a pure relationality, a nexus of connectedness. Modern Western man has developed this peculiar notion of an atomized, isolated individual, “Robinson Crusoe,” each person on his own island–the self-made man, etc. There is a profound uniqueness to each person, but it is not of that character. In any case when that gets translated into economics and politics, there are some really bad consequences. Note today’s attitudes about “my money,” “my property,” — the cup of coffee is simply there for me to enjoy–afterall I paid for it with my hard-earned money! And another example: “don’t help that person with healthcare because he/she is an undocumented alien.” In the Bible it tells us to “take care of the stranger in your midst.” But with this prevailing attitude some artificial, external thing like a piece of paper makes me lose sight of my fundamental human connection to the person in need.

But let us be on the monk’s way–with an awareness of the connections and embracing the consequences of that connectedness. And that awareness can lead one into a state of heart perhaps best articulated by Father Zossima in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov: Take responsibility for everything! So do your monastic practice out of compassion for all sentient beings. Your very mode of being is relationality and connectedness; you are not an isolated atomized reality. Or if you are of one of the theistic traditions, walk in the presence of God forgiving all, bow humbly before even the greatest of sinners, see your connection to even the person who is most repugnant to you, and bear the mercy of God on all there is. In either case, having even a cup of coffee you will dwell within the awareness of being connected to the sin and the grace of this world.
So, what do you see?
What do you want to see?
And when you do see, what are you going to do?
These questions–really one question–are the monk’s way.