Friday, December 10, 2010

Hard Ass Zen



Blasting holes through misunderstandings and clingings is a familiar tactic found in the Zen stories of old. Teachers and students sometimes seem to be locked in a duel, shouting down one statement after another as off the mark. Certainly, this approach can be exactly the medicine each of us needs at some critical point in our lives. And it's also true that a fiercely thrown wisdom bolt can be extremely helpful in piercing collective lies and falsehoods as well.

Most of the time though, those of us trying to act the hard ass, like old Nanchuan the cat cutter, for example, fall flat on our faces. Not only does the effort made miss the mark, but sometimes it's so unskillful that a lot of people suffer.

The Zennist's posts lately have been running hard ass on Soto Zen practitioners. In my opinion, some of the critiques he offers are very useful, and worth considering. However, then there are lines like these:

The first oxherding picture concerns the adept who is in a life and death search for Bodhicitta—not just behaving like some aspirant dunce taking Jukai in a Soto Zen center aspiring to Bodhicitta as if this were all there was to the matter. A real votary of Buddhism, like the oxherd boy, discerns fully (hence wisdom) they have lost something dear and vital. What they are searching for is their lost Buddha-nature or absolute Mind that hides in the jungle of the ordinary deluded mind.


Dude. Where's my dunce cap?

Seems to me that there's a hell of a lot of aspirant dunce in most of us, whether our ass is on fire searching for the truth, or we're just fumbling about in spiritual la la land. Confidence slides into arrogance rather quickly, especially when making comments about the validity of other people's ways of accessing the truths of this life. I've crossed this line before, and probably will do so again, so this post is a check on myself as well.

Along these lines, there is the following post by Uku about the Blogisattva Awards. While I can appreciate some of the sentiment (i.e. what's the point of blogging contests), the level of angst feels quite misplaced:


I understand it's a good opportunity to nominate wonderful bloggers but I don't see those finalists under-read. And listen folks, I don't have nothing personal in this. I'm not against bloggers or blogs, not at all. I'm against contests. I find it silly when people are putting all those badges "oooh, I'm a finalist!" in their blogs and posting blog posts "ooh, I'm nominated!". Yeah, I'm a hypocrit right now while acclaiming that in my little Buddhist bubble contests are pretty stupid. I don't think this world needs celebrity-awards-contests-glamour-shit. I find those Buddhist blog contests to be very lame. Who's got the biggest dick? Well, not me.


Here's the thing. Had there been a several month period of ongoing talk and announcements leading up to the Blogisattva Awards, then a dressing down would have been appropriate. Like Uku, I have a deep distaste for the commercialization and glamorizing of certain aspects of Buddhism, and certain teachers. And some of it calls forth the need for fierce response, even if that response isn't pleasant to experience.

However, the Blogisattvas were announced several months ago. In fact, I had a highly discussed post back then asking if these awards fostered a sense of community or not. After the first wave of announcements and discussion, there was mostly nothing for a good four months. Those working on the award website collected blog links, nominations, and whatnot. Once in a while, they would mention the award website. But mostly, it was just something that went on quietly, with almost no hype. So, really, the whole "fuck these awards" commentary smells a lot like teen spirit.

I don't wish to simply pick on The Zennist and Uku here. Actually, I think the stripped down, rigorous qualities of Zen seem to attract a fair amount of hard- assnessed, especially amongst us male practitioners.

No fucking way we're gonna talk about love. Hell, compassion is sometimes too mushy.

If you don't sit several hours of zazen a day, do weeks of sesshin, and need knee surgery at 45, you haven't practiced hard enough.

Better do full lotus motherfucker - none of that half-assed seiza bench shit.

You offer a Dogen quote, I'll one up you with a citation, exegesis, and discourse on why you don't understand that line you quoted.

All of this sounds exactly like that old dharma hall Nanchuan led so many years ago. Here's Case 14 of the Mumonkan:

The case: Nanchuan saw the monks of the eastern and western halls fighting over a cat. Seizing the cat, he told the monks: "If any of you can say a word of Zen, you will save the cat." No one answered. Nanchuan cut the cat in two. That evening Zhaozhou returned to the monastery and Nanchuan told him what had happened. Zhaozhou removed his sandals, placed them on his head, and walked out. Nanchuan said: "If you had been there, you would have saved the cat."


Who are wearing the dunce caps in the eastern and western halls? Might not be as easy as it appears. I'm sure as hell not sure. In fact, every time I go back to this koan, the players involved and their responses look different.

What can we learn from our inner hard-ass?

First off, there are the potential beneficial qualities, such as diligence, commitment, powerful effort, fierceness, and the like.

Secondly, there is everything that might be considered opposite, such as softness, gentleness, kindness, love, balance, and humility.

But let's get fucking real - when you recognize that inner hard-ass running your life, it's a great opportunity to laugh. Because being a hard-ass is pretty damned funny looking. Bulging eyes. Teeth stuck out. Arms flailing all over the place. Mouth foaming. And when you add something as powderkeggish as religion to the mix, it's like puttingHoward Dean and Ted Nugent in a blender. (Man, that would be fun.)

Marguerite's current post over at Mind Deep about her retreat with Buddhist teacher Ruth Denison includes the following lines:

I remember entire evenings devoted to reciting the five precepts, over and over again, and Ruth smiling while we all dozed off and secretly begged to be freed. "Now, one more time . . . "


So damned funny! You can just see that inner hard-ass coming out in all sorts of ways here. "I'm gonna chant every last syllable if it kills me!" "You think I'm a sucker, Ruth, I'll show you!" "BOOOOORRRRring! I'm gonna just do zazen and to hell with this chanting shit!"

The suffering that came before it sucks, but it's really hilarious when you see how something so simple pushes you over the edge. I saw it just a few hours ago, when a bus was twenty minutes late, and I was getting ticked that I wouldn't have enough time to check my e-mail before Friday afternoon meditation practice with the college students. Shaking your fist at a late bus - how stupid is that?

About as stupid as this photo here.



Take that you glamour hound! No blogisattva badge for you!

16 comments:

Uku said...

Great post!

You wrote

However, the Blogisattvas were announced several months ago. In fact, I had a highly discussed post back then asking if these awards fostered a sense of community or not. After the first wave of announcements and discussion, there was mostly nothing for a good four months. Those working on the award website collected blog links, nominations, and whatnot. Once in a while, they would mention the award website. But mostly, it was just something that went on quietly, with almost no hype. So, really, the whole "fuck these awards" commentary smells a lot like teen spirit.

To be honest, I don't remember that I saw those posts or announcements several months. Or if I did or if I even commented, I don't recall. This time those awards caught my attention because a lot of bloggers we're stoked about it and Facebook, Twitter was (and is) full of that stuff.

Keep up the good work! Who knows, you might end up being a finalist next year! :)

Take care!

Uku said...

And I'm not a fan of hard-ass Zen. I'm pretty soft actually. Of course I think Buddhism is too often just some nambybambybuugabuuga but I don't support hard-ass style either. The middle way or something like that. Sometimes it's good to be a hard-ass and to feel some pain (because life is painful sometimes) but experiencing pain that is breaking things like knees, is just stupid.

Kyle Lovett said...

I have to say Nathan, I have never seen you so raw before. I LIKE IT! :-)

Somewhere between the individual and the community is compassion.

Algernon said...

That picture! You are invoking your inner Kyle!

I've commented previously on The Zennist and on the occasions I have peaked at his blog lately, it's the same. He has a lot of intellectual understanding, and he has a tough act that he works very hard at. How is it working for him? Do I read how he regards other people, noting his need to show how much he knows, and conclude that he is happy or free? Am I convinced that he understands something about Bodhicitta that others don't?

As an old actor, I know a performance when I see it.

Good commentary from you on the awards, too.

Nathan said...

Uku,

"Sometimes it's good to be a hard-ass and to feel some pain (because life is painful sometimes)" Yes. I'm all for pushing yourself sometimes and checking out what happens. I think this is the challenge of right effort. Too soft and pleasant doesn't work and too hard and rough doesn't work either.

Kyle,

I had great fun writing that post. I love having a blog that is dedicated to serious, thoughtful writing about practice. But sometimes it's gotten be shaken up :)

Algernon,

The sad thing about The Zennist's blog, in my view, is that if he just presented what wanted to offer, and attempted to host a discussion, it could be a powerful site of examining Zen teachings. A lot of folks could learn about some of the old masters, and he might learn from those who come and challenge his views. As it is, nothing much is happening on either end of the table there.

Nathan

Mumon said...

I, myself, endeavor to practice rigorous, hardass Zen.

But it's harder-ass than simply being mean and saying "My way is better than thou's."

And it's harder-ass than too-soft or too hard.

And blogging about one's own hard-ass way as better than X?

It's really just an ad for trying to get people attached to one's attachments.

It's flypaper.

It's hard-ass attachments all the way down to the Void - even in a critique, even in this comment.

BD said...

I was so hard ass today in Zazen , I nailed 45 minutes of meditation in only 10 minutes...wink...

peter said...

I enjoy the energy in your post -- but find all that hard-ass, motherfucker language of little interest. too testosterone-laden and agressive for my taste. neither meditation nor blogging (nor living for that matter) is a contest.

i find that there's enough suffering in the world, without creating more under the guise of practice.

peace be upon you.

Robyn said...

Interesting that only men have commented on this one...

So, as a lonely woman commenter, I will only add that I too have felt many moments of machismo in my practice - being the first one in the zendo at 3 a.m. - before the teachers even! Check that out! And on and on.

I think Zen tends to attract Type A people because it takes a kind of hard ass discipline to really do it, even when no one is looking. That said, I think it is important to be able to use that aggressive side to its best advantage and then...drop it.

I used to get angry at all the stories about dragons and tigers in Zen. I mean, what if you really are a rabbit? Shouldn't you just be completely a rabbit? And why is so bad to be a rabbit? I think I better understand that you can be a rabbit for sure, but somewhere in there you need to be a tiger of a rabbit.

This is a hard path and there needs to be some hard-ass practice to realize it.

Thanks for bringing this up, Nathan!

Flyingpig said...

Love this post Nathan. I wanted to say something about the altruistic mind and about how a Bodhisattva should be prepared to lose all battles as there is nothing to be won and anyone who perceives different lacks the altruistic mind. But I don't know anything about that in real life because I always try and win!

But hey, did I read wrong? Didn't you win something? (Someone said you might be nominated next year but i was sure i saw your name as the winner for most political etc.)

Nathan said...

"Didn't you win something? (Someone said you might be nominated next year but i was sure i saw your name as the winner for most political etc.)"

You are correct. I did win one of the Blogisattvas.

Pretty funny after the dramatic last few lines of this post...

Marcus said...

Hi,

I said it at the time and I maintain it still.... how can anyone take seriously the idea of prizes for best Buddhist blogger?! It is - in my opinion - ridiculous. Not least because those awrding the prizes are self-appointed.

However, having said that, congratulations Nathan on your award. LOL!

Marcus

Nathan said...

Hey Marcus,

I wasn't too concerned about awards or no awards. It's no big deal. I do think having the website and collection of blogs in a central location is a nice resource.

Nathan

Flyingpig said...

I also think some things should just be friggin fun. Why does EVERYTHING have to qualify?

Marcus said...

Hi,

Yes, I must agree - one offshoot of the awards is that magnificent page on the site which lists all the blogs and resources. A marvellous effort.

And I'm serious about my congratulations by the way! If anyone deserves an award for best Buddhist blogger, it is you mate. Well done.

Marcus

Nathan said...

"I also think some things should just be friggin fun." Yes! I totally agree.

And Marcus, thank you. This blog has taught me a lot, and I'm glad others seem to benefit from it as well.