Monday, January 3, 2011

Bullshitting Ourselves

When I first started blogging, I really enjoyed visiting Zen Teacher Brad Warner's blog. His writing is quirky, often irreverent, and yet demonstrates a commitment to Zen practice in the daily lives of lay people. Over time, though, the blathering and bickering of the dozens of commenters on every post grew tiresome, as did Brad's attempts to egg them on at times. So, I haven't been visiting as often as in the past, but still am thankful his voice is part of Zen mix out there.

Today's post refers to the following article in which another Zen teacher takes sideways shots at Brad's views on teaching, sex, and other topics. I don't care much about all that, but I did find myself pausing at this paragraph from teacher Muho's article:

Zen practice is not something you just do on the zafu (sitting cushion), alone at your home or on the weekends in a dojo. And you certainly do not find it in books. Zen practice happens when you cook, eat or go to the toilet. For that you do not necessarily need to live in a monastery, but if you do, everything is naturally designed in a way to remind you that the 24 hours of the day are indeed practice. When you live alone at home, you have to tell yourself each time that you are indeed practicing. And more often than not, you might just be fooling yourself. If you live with a family or work with others, that is also practice, but if those that you live and work with do not share the perspective that the whole day is practice, it will be very difficult to uphold your practice during the 24 hours of the day. Sooner or later, you will just follow your idea "that everything is practice", but that idea itself is not practice. It is just an idea.

I'm interested in this "fooling yourself" because I think he's right that it's easy to do so. However, I'd say it's easy no matter what the setting. Monastics get fooled by all the props and rituals, thinking they've got something lay folks don't. And those of us "in the everyday world" definitely get fooled by labeling everything as practice, and then just wandering through our lives thinking we've got something figured out.

What stood out for me, though, was this sentence:

If you live with a family or work with others, that is also practice, but if those that you live and work with do not share the perspective that the whole day is practice, it will be very difficult to uphold your practice during the 24 hours of the day.

In one way, I agree with him. In another, there's something off about this statement.

Having a community of practicing peers, dharma friends if you will, is no doubt a huge support. There is little chance I would be the person I am today without all the sharing, silent support during meditation, and reflecting on teachings I have received from members of my zen community. In addition, the same has been true over the past few years from members of the greater worldwide cyber sangha. Without dharma friends in some form or another being present in your life at least some of the time, chances are great that you'll get lost in delusion eventually. Or that you never actually broke though any delusion to begin with, and just thought you were practice Buddha's teachings. So, we need dharma friends - some of the time at least.

However, the way Muho's statement seems off to me is in it's assumptions about the external environment people live in,and how that might affect practice and insight.

I have been reading the autobiography of Vietnamese Buddhist nun and social activist Chan Khong. One of Thich Nhat Hanh's early students, she spent decades working with people in poverty, under threat in war zones, and was instrumental in the founding of Plum Village. During the years leading up to, and through the Vietnam War, Chan Khong spent as much if not more of her time with people just struggling to survive, who had views on life and ways of living quite different from her own, and some of whom either hated her or felt threatened by her. Once, she was imprisoned for possessing a copy of an early Thich Nhat Hanh book, which was at the time considered communist propaganda by the Vietnamese government. And she spoke about how the experience of being arrested, locked in a cell with others, and kept there by people who considered her an enemy, offered her great a opportunity. She practiced meditation, listened to the stories of other prisoners, and recognized how much in her day to day life she took for granted. Other well known "prisoners" from various backgrounds throughout history, including Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr., have reported similar experiences with their time in prison. Now, this is not to suggest that prison is some wonderful experience - it's often deeply awful - but that sometimes being in a context that doesn't support even the basics of your worldview can be a great teacher, perhaps the only teacher able to penetrate through certain habits, attachments, and delusion.

Always being in a cozy monastery, in your friendly Buddhist center, or in your fairly nice middle class neighborhood - where most of the people you come across share at least some of your core values and modes of being, can be a great source of delusion production, and can easily lead to claims of knowing exactly how it is that Buddhist practice, or any spiritual practice, must be done.

So, since I tend to write about lay practice, and am a lay practitioner - whatever that is - I'd like to offer everyone out there an opportunity to pay attention to that "everything is practice" view. I see lots of Buddhist bloggers blogging about variations on this theme, and I know I have done so as well. There's a true sentiment behind the statement, but it's also becoming another piece of Buddhist candy in my opinion. You know, you scream at your partner, and then write about it or talk about it the next day, and say something like "Well, that was a mistake. But even mistakes are practice." Where's the rigor in that? Where's the willingness to sit with, or walk with, or bow with, or chant with, or just breath with the pattern that led to that screaming, so that perhaps next time, you respond differently? See things differently?

Somehow, it seems to me that living an awakened life is about being both fierce and radically kind to yourself and others at the same time. Fierce in our devotion to seeing the truth of reality, and expressing our part of that truth. And radically kind in the way we handle the myriad of ways in which we and everyone around us fail to see reality.


David Ashton said...

With you all the way on this one. A big part of my job is cutting through the bullshit others try to pass off. A big part of my practice is recognizing and letting go of all the bullshit that originates in my head. Thank you.

Petteri Sulonen said...

If this is from your dark night Zen, be assured that it's not going to waste. You're making more sense than many certified Zen teachers I've run across. (Don't let that go to your head.)

Barry said...

If our practice is contingent on getting outside circumstances "just so" then we're not engaged in Zen practice.

Algernon said...

Barry nailed it above.

helmut said...

Any presumption that I have about another persons practice, whether monastic or lay, is just that; and is very likely to take me away from my own "fierce" honesty and practice. I need to be very careful when I offer opinions because they often disguise themselves as wise discernment.

peter said...

so, dear nathan, which "cozy monastery" did you train at? as a lay practitioner i rarely found a moment or place to hide at either of the 2 american zen monasteries that took me in. they taught me the rudiments of practice and continue to support it as i make my way in the market place.

Nathan said...


I'm running on reports from friends who have trained at zen monasteries. Glad to hear you had a different experience, but I also sense a bit of sarcasm in your response. You perhaps think I'm anti-monastery, given the way I write. In no way am I against monasteries, but I would question anyone who thinks practitioners can't hide while practicing in monasteries.