Friday, April 16, 2010

Choices, Classism, and Buddhist Living

Thanks to Katie over at Kloncke for this poem from an old favorite, Jane Hirshfield.


by Jane Hirshfield



It is foolish
to let a young redwood
grow next to a house.

Even in this
one lifetime,
you will have to choose.

That great calm being,
this clutter of soup pots and books –

Already the first branch-tips brush at the window.
Softly, calmly, immensity taps at your life.

Katie talks a little in her post about wondering if she has to choose between deep dharma practice and things like social justice work and relationships. I've felt this divide myself many times. Ultimately, I don't think they have to be separate "things" we have to choose, but how exactly they come together, I frequently feel at a loss.

According to the old narrative, at 34, I'm supposed to have my shit together to some degree. To know my career. Be partnered. Have children or at least own something substantial (house, car, whatever). Well, that's the old narrative, and obviously people in their 50's, 60's, and even 70's are redefining themselves, and/or being forced to by external pressures.

It's a confusing era where there are no sets of blueprints available. It's a liberating era, where the confinements of the past blueprints have fallen apart. Hell if I know how to describe what's actually going on in the greater society right now. But in some ways, it seems that feeling like standing atop that 100 foot pole we Zennys talk about is pretty easy to access. I've felt like I've been standing on it for awhile now, looking all around and not being able to let go and step off.

In some ways, maybe it would have been easier to have grown up in a time and/or place where the options were few, and you hadn't just spent your twenties and early thirties watching the material comforts your parents generation had access to suddenly disappear. Frankly, I find it challenging to listen to Baby Boomer dharma teachers who have retirement accounts and lake homes tell people like me that life is always precarious, and the practice is to let go of hang ups about material wants and desires. Sure. That's easy for you to say. Try living nearly a decade without health insurance, never making more that 20 grand a year because you're trying your best to actually do work that fulfills those pesky bodhisattva vows.

In Buddhist circles, I hear phrases like "we always have choices" in this life all the time. It's true. There's always choices available in terms of how we view this life. Always. Some days, I'm totally able to see the blessings of things as they are. Others, not so much. But when it comes down to it, phrases like "we always have choices" tend to come from places of privilege. Long ago, I remember saying something like this to a student in an ESL class, only to receive a "dharma" lecture about the real-life limitations this person faced being a middle aged refugee with little formal education living in a nation like the U.S.

Honestly, I can feel that redwood tree growing within me, and outside of me as well. The pressure of the roots of confusion and attachment within; the pressure of worsened economic conditions and cloudy social standards on the outside. Making choices is really an act of faith and trust in this kind of environment, and sometimes, I just don't feel up to it. What's a devoted lay practitioner who isn't attracted to monasticism at this point in his life to do?


Helmut said...

It may a good idea to go to August 16th in this years calendar and write down "what was I so worried about on April 16th?". Even if you write in the April 16th section what you are worried about, chances are that in August you'll realize it probably wasn't a big deal anyway.
Remember this statistic I just made up.
98.36% of the things we worry about never come to pass.

Nathan said...

Yes, could be.

Although, maybe not too. Not sure what I was experiencing yesterday or over the past several months is just worry.

Celestial Horizon said...

Making choices is really an act of faith and trust in this kind of environment, and sometimes, I just don't feel up to it. What's a devoted lay practitioner who isn't attracted to monasticism at this point in his life to do?

I just go with the flow. Pushing too hard against my will into making choices which are theorically right may cause side effects to our state of mind. It's quite a juggle I have to admit. Neither this nor that?

Helmut said...

Worry is just unease and unease is just Dukkha and the basic translation of Dukkha revolves around the concept of forbearance, the putting up with troublesome states of mind. Anything from the tangible things like hangnails or atom bombs to the intangibles surrounding anxiety are the agents of suffering because we must endure them. The Buddha's teaching is not about getting rid of suffering it's about seeing that our suffering's are our teachers. Forbearance. Patience.
How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
Practice. Practice. Practice.
Hope I'm not being too over-reaching here.

Nathan said...

Hi Celestial,

Yep, sometimes I don't feel up to it either. I totally agree that pushing too hard doesn't work. It probably has the opposite effect.


Dogen, in his Instructions to the Zen Cook, repeated pointed to what I've come to see as aiming in the "right" direction. The monastic cook's job is to have a vision of who is in the community, how much food will be needed, and how much time will be required. He or she needs to have a direction in order to feed and take care of the community. It's more than zazen, chanting, and ritual. It's really about vision.

The second teaching from that text, though, is that the cook has to simultaneously have the vision, and let go of the vision completely. No way to know will be coming along in the morning, so you can't hold on to what you prepared for.

Right now, I think I've been clinging to having a vision at all. I'm a person who is used to having a vision - but lately, it's been pretty cloudy. This is ok. But not always easy to handle.