Friday, October 2, 2009

Motivation and Illusions in Practice

I really enjoyed reading this post on Brad Warner's blog (Use Your Illusions. Not that I agreed with everything he said, but I found that there were many points in it worthy of considering.

The first one is the old "Is online a good place to study and practice?"

Brad writes:
I spent a lot of one-on-one time with my teachers and that’s how I got to know their character — not through books or blog postings or videos on YouTube. Those tell you next to nothing about a person’s true character. No matter how many of them you read or watch. Whatever picture you have in your mind of people you see on your computer screen is false. Absolutely fictitious. You don’t have a clue.

In some ways, I completely agree with this. Human interaction and connection in person is so essential to our lives, and given that we are in the middle of the digital revolution, we don't really have a full awareness yet of how things like the internet are effecting our relationship, communities, and ways in which we structure our lives. However, I think Brad is a little too dismissive of the written word, and how it does portray parts of people's lives and character. A few months ago, I read the teaching letters of Zen Master Seung Sahn, which you can read here. Now, at least for some of these people, these letters were the primary relationship they had with their teacher. It may be that they had a lot of illusions about their teacher because of a lack of in the flesh experience, but it's also true that many of us in sanghas are filled with illusions about the teachers we see on a weekly, or even daily basis. In my opinion, true character can appear anywhere - in person, in a kind or nasty letter, even in a fleeting glance or word said over the phone.

Another point Brad brings up is the commonplace desire for a perfect teacher, and the man ways in which this ends up not holding up in reality. The upheaval at my own zen center about five years ago broke through the illusion of a perfect teacher for me, and many others there. The downfall of our charismatic teacher, and subsequent period of questioning and searching for a new leader, was extremely fruitful in terms of providing continuous teachings on how teachers are still humans, and how it's essential that you take responsibility for your own practice, and not expect someone else to lead the way for you.

Finally, there's the issue of motivation. I'm definitely familiar with this one. Even though some see me as a pretty dedicated practitioner, my motivation sometimes flags, and laziness sometimes is the tune of the day.

Brad writes:

What our questioner today has seen has convinced her that there is nothing to this Zen shit, that even after 20+ years of practice its teachers are still not perfect people. So why bother?

And it seems to go even beyond that for her. She despairs that she will never find the answers she seeks – even if she understands those answers won’t make her a perfect person.

Why bother? It's actually a damn good question. What is all this sitting and chanting and bowing and reflecting on your life about? Why not just crack a cold one and watch the ballgame?

Well, here's the funny thing. Any answer I come up with seems to crumble like rotten wood. I'd love to give you all an elegant, clear sounding answer that you will all quote for years on end. (Insert wild laughter here.) However, the reality is that I don't know why I bother for sure. Yes, my vows are important to me. Yes, I want to do what I can to lessen suffering in the world. Yes, I want liberation and ease and joy and all that. But somehow even all those things, as important as they are, still feel a bit self-focused to be answers to the question "Why bother?"

The pretty sounding words we Buddhists speak can be traps as well. I'm really noticing this lately. Claiming to want peace or liberation or a bucket of chicken isn't the same as actually manifesting those qualities in your life. How many of us claim to want one thing, but in reality really want a bucket of chicken? (Or chocolate or a pat on the back). I'd argue that a lot of our motivations are mixed, terribly unclear, and littered with the chicken bones of our desires.

Zen teachers often talk about the practice as being a "goal-less" one, which complicates the picture even more. Why bother? becomes a koan under these terms because whatever answer you give, it's probably going to contain a goal. Maybe not every answer, but most.

So, then what? Why do you bother doing all this? Don't rush to answer, or you'll be nothing more than a bucket of burned chicken. I suppose there are worse things, but then again, maybe we're all burnt chickens trying to heal our way back home.


spldbch said...

I think the images we get of people we see in real life -- not just on television, online, in books, etc. -- are just illusions as well. With few exceptions, most of us interpret the world through our egos' projections. It is rare that we see a person for who he or she really is -- in order to do this we must spend time being fully present with that person, without judging, simply observing what is without expectation.

Not everyone has access to a live, flesh and blood teacher on a regular basis. For us, websites, readings, recordings, videos, etc. are our only sources of information -- they become our teachers out of necessity. I guess what I'm trying to say is that learning from technology (instead of from a flesh and blood teacher)has its place.

I always enjoy reading your thoughts and opinions:-)

Kyle said...

You are right, no matter what, we always have another kind of goal in our practice.

I think that is why my zen teacher always said try without trying, be without being, sit without sitting.

I think there are two answers to why bother, and this might be a zen thing as you know. Relative answer is....well could be a million things. The absolute answer is 'no reason'. When we can practice with both understandings, I think that helps.

Kris said...

Sit down an look at your mind.

Nathan said...

@Kris - I do sit down and look at my mind, almost every day. Sometimes more than once a day. :)

@spldbch - I totally agree that technology and online has it's place in our practice.

@Kyle - yeah, I think your right on about holding two answers or understandings together. To not get stuck in either one or the other.

ZenDotStudio said...

Why practice? I think the comment my teacher made once sums it up for me "Once you've seen a ghost, you can't pretend you haven't."

What else is there to do really? Could you stop after you've started? What would life be like then?

It seems to me that practice makes life fuller and richer and as Pema Chodron says "gives us a bigger container" to hold everything in. Personally I can't imagine my life now without practice.

That's my 2 cents worth!