Tuesday, October 12, 2010

You're Either In or You're Out

“In the world but not of it” is a paraphrase of something Jesus was reputed to have said before he was crucified. It has become an oft-repeated tagline not only for Christians and other religious-minded folk, but also for those who identify themselves as “spiritual.”

You know the people I’m talking about. We’ve all had a conversation with that guy who’s obviously learned to act all calm and wise, like Steven Seagal in any number of shitty movies. He nods sagely in all the right places, his long hair gently swaying from the leather cord that binds it. He mentions his yoga training and how much he loves futurist percussive poetry. And he has a long-practiced wry grin ready when the topic of religion comes up. When you notice this inherently douchbaggy expression, you might be tempted to make a polite inquiry. “Are you not very religious?” is a perfect example of what you might say. Now, while this question is a bit silly, it is nothing compared to the idiocy that generally follows.

“No,” he says, the righteous scorn obvious in his voice, “I’m NOT religious. I’m a SPIRITUAL person.”

Whenever you hear this response, you can rest assured that this person has absolutely nothing, either religious or spiritual, in his life that makes any goddamn sense. You’re likely to be treated to a monologue on the “spiritual practice” he’s cobbled together from Eastern philosophy, Native American thought and ancient Icelandic shamanistic traditions. Whatever it is, it’ll center around the notion that organized religion is bad and a personal, spiritual approach to life is the only way to live it fully. It’s also a safe bet that when you (most likely in self-defense) mention you’re a Buddhist, the scorn will be dialed down a notch but still present.

“Yeah, the Buddha was cool, man, but he didn’t take it far enough. What his philosophy needed was ________.” And he’ll go ahead and fill in this blank for you with some ridiculous tenet of Taoism or Hinduism or fucking Zoroastrianism that he’s decided fits.

This is a common approach to “spirituality” in this country. We took the riff and the raff from Europe, mashed em together and called em citizens, why not take the drips and dregs from world philosophy, swirl em around, and call it personal religion?

“In the world but not of it” is central to both this mismatched patchwork of “spirituality” as well as the plain old “religion” you can get on any corner when Sunday rolls around. Both of them seem to think that this existence is not reality, that it’s something to be transcended. REAL reality, REAL salvation, REAL happiness exists somewhere else. It’s OUT THERE but never IN HERE. “In the world but not of it” means you have to live here, but you strive not to be tainted by it. You live in the world of flesh and blood and sex and pro football and Jon Bon Jovi but you can’t let it soil you. You have to rise above. This world is just one side of the veil, and the disgusting, filthy, unenlightened side at that. The white light and love is on the OTHER side.

Zen says all that is bullshit. It’s worth noting that Europe was plunged into the Dark Ages because this particular worldview was dominant. The ignorance, superstition and outright horror that plagued an entire continent stemmed directly from religion and spirituality. And it was a vicious cycle that kept perpetuating itself. As Europe became a stagnant cesspool, people imagined there was no hope for earthly salvation. Life was so foul and rotten that the only chance to escape it was a better life that occurred only after death.

My Zen teachers call this viewpoint “idealism.” It’s the rejection of the material world and the sensual pleasures that it offers. Idealism is concerned with what COULD be, not what actually IS. It’s focused on getting through this awful life as best we can so that we can reap our rewards later. Life only matters in that it’s used to set up an infinite, invisible paradise. These teachings usually maintain that our souls are perfect, but trapped in an unworthy vessel whose desires and urges must be denied. Earthly pleasure is ignominious and sinful; heavenly pleasures are eternal and pure.

The other side of this coin is “materialism.” This view is what pulled Europe’s scabrous ass out of the Dark Ages and launched the Renaissance. This time period was characterized by a resurgence of art and science and saw religion fade into the background. Sensuality was glorified and logic and reason began to supplant the faith-based way of life. This period was brilliant only because it contrasted so vividly against the Dark Ages. Materialism is arguably a better view than idealism because it’s a bit more realistic. It can cure diseases, create the Mona Lisa and vastly improve the quality of life. The problem is that it can’t tell us what life is FOR. It does nothing to alleviate the suffering most of us feel when we wonder why we exist. And knowing the “how” without the “why” is pointless.

Now, centuries after the Dark Ages, people are starting to return to the “spiritual” or “idealist” view. They hope to find something beyond the realm of science, something that can soothe the pain of living in this vast, seemingly cold and random place. The problem is, we’ve already tried it and it fucking sucked. Trying to transcend this earthly sphere, with all its pain and misery will never work. Whether you believe there is something beyond this or not, right now, you’re stuck here. You don’t live on the “ideal” earth, in the “ideal” galaxy, surrounded by “ideal” beings. You live here, where it’s smelly and boring, in a galaxy that’s indifferent to your happiness, surrounded by assholes like me.

According to Zen, that’s perfect. What you have is perfect because it is real. It doesn’t get any more real than flat tires, diarrhea and flu shots. Trying to live “in the world” while at the same time not being “of the world” is stupid. You are obviously “of the world.” You are nothing BUT “of the world.” When we force ourselves away from the true grit of our daily existence in favor of something heavenly beyond our current reach, we rob ourselves of our actual existence.

Buddha discovered the Middle Way. It’s in between all extremes, including idealism and materialism. It’s a little of both but not too much of either. It recognizes the value of sense experiences, and doesn’t demand we mortify our bodies to purify our spirits. But it also counsels against overindulgence, so we don’t become addicted to fleshy, sexy goodness. It puts a premium on rational thought, but doesn’t expect it to explain the mysteries of the universe. Buddhism is not religion, but it’s also not atheism. It’s not materialism but it’s most definitely not spirituality. Anyone who says they’re not religious but “spiritual” is destined to end up back in the Dark Ages. There’s no way out of this world, so it’s time to embrace it. We are all in this, and of this, together.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


About a year and a half ago I was running a Buddhist meditation group here in town. I was discouraged that only one person kept showing up so I decided to make some fliers to post around. It was kind of a struggle to find the right words for the flier. When I first started this group, someone said that because I identified it with "Buddhist" meditation I might scare some folks away. He pointed out that while some people may be interested in "meditation" in a generic sort of way, a lot of them have no interest whatsoever in actual Buddhism.

I understand. This is a prevalent viewpoint in America and one that has helped turn Buddhism into the wishy-washy, spiritual feel-good-a-thon it’s become. But I practice zazen, which is Buddhist meditation, which is different from Hindu or Christian or Jain or Taoist meditation. It’s a specific method that the Buddha used which he based his entire teachings upon. This form of meditation is the most practical path to personal liberation. It has nothing to do with gods and goddesses or holy and unholy. It has to do with one thing and one thing only: suffering and the way to end it.

I get that there are people that would like to learn about and practice meditation without having to become Buddhist. That’s perfectly fine. Many Buddhists don’t even self-identify as Buddhist. Meditation can be used for many things, from simple de-stressing to getting totally blissed out in alternative mind frames. It’s completely possible to practice most forms of meditation and never even hear the word “Buddhist.”

Not so with zazen. Zazen is distinctly Buddhist, but that doesn't mean that you become one when you start doing it. That's like saying you stop being a Christian when you begin studying physics. Zazen is beyond these silly labels but we have to keep using them in order to convey meaning sometimes.

People don’t have to abandon their faith or convert to Buddhism in order to practice zazen. However, the point of zazen is to see things as they really are and one needs to be prepared for the idea that they may not like what comes up. Our minds are crazy places and zazen lets us see deeply into the madness. Sometimes it’s liberating. Sometimes it’s horrifying. The point is, either way, it doesn’t matter. It is only necessary to watch what happens, and not get too attached to whatever it is.

Since zazen lets us see Truth as it really is, it’s possible to become frustrated or discouraged when it doesn’t conform to what we want. Having insights into the nature of our lives is only one step of the process. The other is accepting what we find. No matter how disappointing or ugly the Truth turns out to be, no amount of wishing is going to change it. For some, this can be crushing. Deeply held beliefs can be swayed, twisted or even destroyed. Buddhism accepts this and doesn’t hold on very tightly to beliefs. In other religions, belief is usually the cornerstone of the entire shindig. If zazen starts messing with that foundation then practitioners can quickly run into trouble.

I’m not saying it’s always better to be a Buddhist during this process. I’m saying that, as a Buddhist, should I ever run into doubt during my practice, IT DOESN’T MATTER. Did the Buddha really exist? Doesn’t matter. Are his teachings the ultimate Truth? Doesn’t matter. Am I wasting my time? Doesn’t matter. What if this is all wrong? It doesn’t fucking matter. This is often hard for practitioners of other religions to comprehend. It certainly does matter to Christians that Christ really lived. It definitely matters to Muslims that Muhammad’s teachings are the ultimate Truth. The doubt that assails members of other religions is viewed as natural, but still something to be overcome with faith.

Zen looks at doubt as a natural part of practice as well, but understands that it’s not something to be overcome. You just sit with it. Doubt, just like faith, boredom, hate, jealousy, and everything else, comes and goes on its own. We don’t control it; we only strive not to get too caught up in it.

Zazen can destroy Buddhists as well. Anyone that isn’t willing to accept things as they are is in for a real nightmare. Personally, I think the Buddha’s teachings (as well as those of Brad Warner and Gudo Nishijima) prepare us for this unique journey. They guide us and help us to relax when we encounter something that at first seems terrifying or antithetical to our ideas. Zazen and the teachings are specifically designed for this path to awakening. They are the tools perfectly suited to the job at hand. There’s no doubt they’re useful in non-Buddhist hands as well, but practitioners should exercise caution. Zazen isn’t a delicate little brush, meant to gently sweep debris of off our true selves. It’s a fucking hammer meant to smash through good and evil, right and wrong, intelligence and ignorance, faith and doubt, love and hate…whatever you’ve got. You’d better be ready for the pile of rubble.