Thanks to Paul Lynch over at his blog Zen Mirror for this little commentary from a book introduction Robert Aitken wrote for Zen Master Seung Sahn.
How are you?
Sŏnsa-nim begins his letters by asking “How are you?”, and his students take up the question too. “How are you?” they ask in turn in their letters to their teacher. We begin to notice this most routine of American greetings as though for the first time.
Does Sŏnsa-nim’s “How are you?” differ from his students’ “How are you?” Is their “How are you?” just an echo? Are they being imitation Sŏnsa-nims? If so, that won’t do. Sŏnsa-nim stands on his own feet, you stand on yours, I stand on mine.
If you stand on your own feet, then what do you say? “Fine!” might be all right, or maybe you are just temporizing. “Temporizing” there’s an interesting word. It means you are gaining time, but gaining time for what? The next question and the next temporizing? When will you come to terms?
“How are you?” “Fine!” That’s more like it. There are other questions like this in this book. Please pay attention.
I don't know about you, but the "How are you?" often feels like a throw away question. Polite. Trite. Slightly curious. Filler. These are a few of the ways I see it, even when I'm saying it often. Not always, but often.
And answering it, especially when I'm either in a lousy mood or feeling like I have nothing new to say, is equally throw away. "Fine" is often a lie, even if in the ultimate sense, it is exactly true. "Good" is a wildly inaccurate judgment, as is "Bad." And beyond those three words, most responses seem to be an effort to fixate on something that might draw some interest, or at least offer some satisfaction. "Oh, I'm happy because the weather is warmer." "Oh, I'm not so good because work is stressful." "Oh, my writing is doing well. How about you?"
Yesterday, during my ESL class, we studied using "How about you?" An interesting phrase. I can show care for another, or can simply be a way to pass the buck to another. I really don't want to talk about the intense suffering I'm feeling about X or Y, so lets just stick to pleasantries. Or, I really don't think you will understand the joy I'm experiencing about learning something new about the medicinal properties of Rosemary plants, so let's just stick to pleasantries. That kind of passing the buck.
I often don't really know how to become intimate with another, and I can imagine neither do you. Lots of fumbling about, judgments, defensiveness, and confusion - not as much actual liberated interaction. Even though people say a lot of things when it comes to why they started practicing meditation, the precepts, and the Eight Fold Path, I'm starting to think that the misery of failed relationships - all relationships, from the slightly off stranger on the street to your parents - is one of the main reasons people start all this.
Yesterday, there was a televised forum on health care reform here in the U.S. Lots to yawn at in my opinion, but one thing that came out very clearly was that these people - representing people like me and some of you - aren't very good at relationships. Listening without snap judgment is at a minimum. Curiousity is almost out the door, as is openness to new ideas. These supposed leaders are like many of us, stuck in auto pilot, firmly convinced we have everything under control, when in fact we haven't a clue what's really going on.
"How are you? Can you ask it, and/or answer it with heart? To hell with knowing for sure, can you answer it from your heart? Far from being some soft request, this, to me, is becoming the gateway question for liberation.
How about you?