Buddhism

Extract from "Boundaries" Everyday Zen, by Charlotte Joko Beck (London?: Thorsons, 1997)

“A while ago I broke my wrist and wore a cast for three months. When the cast was removed I was touched by what I saw. My hand was just skin and bones, very feeble and trembling: it was too weak to do anything. But when I got home from the hospital and started to do a task with my good hand, this little nothing of skin and bones tried to help. It knew what it was supposed to do. It was almost pathetic: this little skeleton, with no power, still wanted to help. It knew its function. As I looked at it, it seemed to have nothing to do with me; this hand seemed to have its own life; it wanted to get in there and do its work. It was moving to see this little scarecrow trying to do the work of a real hand.

If we don’t confuse ourselves we also know what we should be doing in life. But we do confuse ourselves. We engage in odd relationships that have no fruits in them; we get obsessed with a person, or with a movement, or with a philosophy. But with practice we begin to see through our confusion, and can discern what we need to do - just as my left hand, even when it couldn’t function, still made an effort to contribute, to do the work that needed to be done.”

Charlotte Joko Beck, “Boundaries” p.155 (Everyday Zen, 1997)

The day I read this, my right hand had a crisis of some kind (RSI); I couldn’t use it without feeling intense pain. I couldn’t write with a pen or type, or cut bread with a knife - the pressure was too great. I managed to do the work that needed to be done, but it gave me a fright. A small warning to keep things in balance. To all writer-people, if there are any out there, be careful of this too, take a break, walk around. The work will still get done, in its own time.

Reading "Being Zen: Bringing Meditation to Life" by Ezra Bayda (Boston & London: Shambhala, 2003)

“An ambitious long-time meditator comes to see a Zen teacher. As soon as the student sits down, the teacher asks, “What’s the basic human problem?” The student ponders this, then answers, “We’re not awake.” The teacher says, “Yes, but those are just words. You’re just thinking.” And ringing the bell, he sends the student away.

Perturbed, the student continues to ponder, “What is the basic human problem?”, determined to figure it out. A week later he returns. The teacher says, “Well, have you figured out what the basic human problem is?” The student replies, “Yes. The basic human problem is that we think too much. We’re identified with our thinking. We believe our thoughts.” The teacher answers, “Again, you’re just thinking. You have to see the basic human problem yourself.” The student leaves feeling very dejected.

Wanting to find the right answer, the student pulls out his Zen books to read and study. When he returns to see the teacher, he’s almost strutting, he’s so aware he knows the answer to this question. Seeing the state he’s in, the teacher asks, “What’s the basic human problem?” And the student says, “There is no problem!” He’s so happy with his answer. The teacher just stares at him and says, “Then what are you doing here?” In that moment the student instantly deflates. His shoulders drop, his head drops; he feels totally humiliated. Peering at him, the teacher asks, “What are you experiencing right now?” The student, without even looking up, says, “I just feel like crawling into a hole.” At this point the teacher says to him, “If you can fully experience this feeling, then you’ll understand the basic human problem.”

“The Substitute Life” pp.47-48

I have the strangest relationship with this (wonderful) book by Ezra Bayda, Being Zen - Bringing Meditation to Life. I carry it around with me in my bag, thinking I’ll read it on the metro, or when waiting for an appointment; I read parts of it when scrunched up in the bath (more the deep basin of the shower), read a section, then say, no I know this, to start another part and have the same response: no, I’ve read this already, I know this. I then put the book to one side, add it to the pile, I never seem to finish it, but still I keep returning to it.

Related article: Groundlessness (Pema Chödrön's 'When things fall apart') & Tim Buckley's 'Hallucinations' published May, 22 2017

Groundlessness (Pema Chödrön's 'When things fall apart') & Tim Buckley's 'Hallucinations'

Even though I’m challenging myself to think differently about my life, why highlight one moment over another, I ask myself; why hold onto one experience as being transformative, rather than another especially if this way of thinking encourages a certain narrative.

Earlier tonight, when listening to music and feeling moved by the music, I had a sensation somehow connected to diffuse memories of something I couldn’t recognise, perhaps something related to Australia. I wanted to hold onto the feeling, locate it, but was unable to and this inability to do so made me feel sad. I wanted to take hold of this feeling, and my longing for this place, or something related to one of my earlier lives (I wanted to remember the enormous skies, where the sunset paints the world above you in ridiculous extravagant hues – shards of pink, orange at times and darker colours too - and the aberrant wildness of the ocean beaches; that sensation of space, even in the cities where most of the people live).

That sensation – of sensing something and it remaining outside your grasp, inherently elusive – says something of what it is to be alive, to be human; it’s something we all share. It reminds me of an idea that I really loved when I first encountered it, carrying it around with me as if it were a charm, a rabbit’s foot on a key-chain perhaps (during one of those troubled times, if not the most troubled time). ‘Groundlessness’ in Buddhism refers to the fact that nothing is fixed, in life – in our experiences – but also in ourselves, we are constantly changing, shifting. Nothing is fixed. So it is too for our thoughts, our desires, our fixations.  

The first book by the North American Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön that I bought, When things fall apart is small, the size of my hand, with a white cover that is creased, with pen marks (perhaps written by a child).

Immediately I fell in love with Chödrön’s writing and her perspective. Many people have this view of Buddhism as a happy-clappy (smiley-face) singing-thing where all the sins of the world are forgiven by people sliding through their lives with beatific smiles, well, that’s not quite accurate, let’s say. Buddhism, in its purest form, is tough and centred on discipline, while sustained by compassion for ourselves and others and the desire not to cause harm, or add to the harm that already exists. But it’s also about being honest with who we are and the nature of our lives; many, if not most, of the teachings tell of flawed protagonists bewitched by various ‘vices’ and the teachers themselves admit their own failings. It’s not as if you get to a point where you see the light and suddenly transform into some kind of angel.  

Within the covers of this book, with its subtitle, ‘heart advice for difficult times’ I found something perfectly suited to my temperament and where I was at that moment (overwhelmed by fear and feelings of being lacking, inadequate unworthy for the task facing me). The tone of the work was playful at times, but straight. What resonated with me was the idea that we needed to be still, simply be there with what faced us, not to try and escape it in diversions and distractions (even though this tendency is something we, or I, will never fully be free of: I’m always trying to escape).

We just needed to be still, there with the experience. I loved the austere tone of this, non-judgmental, but reminding us that we need to face what we fear the most (and in various forms of the traditional teachings suggesting that we speak politely to our fear and be grateful for its presence in our lives).

Fear is a universal experience. Even the smallest insect feels it. We wade in the tidal pools and put our finger near the soft, open bodies of sea anemones and they close up. Everything spontaneously does that. It’s not a terrible thing that we feel fear when faced with the unknown. It is part of being alive, something we all share. We react against the possibility of loneliness, of death, of not having anything to hold on to. Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.
— 'Intimacy with Fear', When Things Fall Apart

Coda:  

Tim Buckley: ‘Hallucinations’ (Goodbye and Hello, Elektra, 1967)