Saturday, December 26, 2009

Buddhism is like a Toothache

The following is from a talk given by Sokei-an Sasaki at the First Zen Institute of America in the winter of 1942. You can read the entire talk here, and you can learn more about Sasaki in my post from a few days ago.

Someone said Buddhism is like a toothache. When you are attracted by Buddhism, you go to the temple, listen to the monks' lectures, give up your pleasure and time, buy books, bring them home, read them without sleeping, spend your life, ten, fifteen, twenty years and, in the end realize: 'I was alright in the beginning, there was nothing to gain.' Well, the toothache is over, isn't it? When the tooth is aching, you run amuck, but when the pain is removed, you just smile to yourself: 'It is over.' I feel the same way. I went through such terrific agony studying this Zen; I lost everything I had and gained nothing. But this 'gained nothing' is wonderful. I am satisfied.

Don't know about you, but there's still a fair amount of gaining mind floating about here. Thinking like "What will come if I do this?" Seems pretty natural to want something to come from your actions. Especially to want something beneficial to come from what you do. And I think we have to steer ourselves in a beneficial direction, even if we ultimately have to give up any notion of benefiting ourselves and/or others.

What is so interesting is this "I was alright in the beginning." Very deceptive, isn't it? When I think back on the guy who stumbled into the zen center back in 2002, he was kind of a mess. Often cranky. Somewhat rigid in views. Anger flare ups. Excessive longing for a romantic relationship. Directionless. How much of that has changed, I don't know. Maybe not very much. But something seems to have shifted during these years of practice, and whatever that is, there's markedly less time and energy that I waste wallowing in various states of suffering.

But variants on that statement crops up all the time in Buddhist teachings and, sometimes, I just don't believe it. If I was alright in the beginning, then why bother making any changes? Why bother with all this Zen stuff?

Gain and loss are two of the Eight Worldly Winds. When you drop your stubborn fixed views of these two, you start to see how fleeting they both are. Today's gain is tomorrow's loss. And tomorrow's loss is the next day's gain.

When I was nearing the end of my classes for grad school, I was called into the office at my elementary school job and told I would be laid off at the end of the year. It had been a good year working there; I liked the kids and the classroom teachers I worked with a lot. I felt I had done a good job, and so did the principal. However, the other teaching assistant had seniority, so I was out - the budget couldn't support two of us.

For awhile, I felt bad about loosing this job. And then it dawned on me: I'm about to start writing my master's thesis. It was perfect timing to be unemployed. So, I spent the next several months working on my master's thesis, before finally getting a new job the next spring.

However, I can look back at that "gain" and recognize another level of loss within it. That school job was the last time I had health insurance. Neither of the employers I've worked for since then have offered insurance benefits. And both jobs have paid just enough to live decently on, but not really enough to pay for an insurance plan that actually covers anything.

So it goes. You can examine any event in your life, and see both gain and loss floating in and out like leaves. Even that which you stick the labels on - no insurance, time for writing - doesn't really care about those labels. They are your mind's article of clothing, not at all really penetrating what's actually occurring.

What is gain? What is loss? Good questions to ponder while on the path.


hadv said...

Funny you mention toothache. I have one right now. I'm not hoping for a 'gain' though, just for it to go away hahaha.

Mumon said...

Wow. I thought I had the only collection (borrowed) of "Zen Notes" in the world.

Algernon said...

Ha ha ha! After Sokei-an Sasaki's talk, Nathan raises his hand and says, "So, you gained nothing! Where do you keep it?"

Nathan said...

I'd prefer the toothache to go away too :)