Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Relational Zen

I found myself quite moved by this post from the blog On the Precipice. In particular, I'd like to look at the following two paragraphs:

If this practice isn’t about relationship, fundamentally, then I’d question what awakening means to the person who claims as much. Whether it’s realizing the no-self, the Self, or the nature of mind–whatever you want to call it, waking up has something to do with seeing the illusion of separation. Embedded in that is relationship. Relationship of observer to observed, of mind to object, of self to other. Buddhist practice and meditation are then not about disengaging with the world but rather engaging with it fully. But this daily life practice, practice in relationship (which is really all of practice, since the body and mind are always relating to experience), can be difficult to do with no support system, with no conditions ripe for cultivating stillness and solitude. Why? Because of deeply embedded habit patterns, grooves of behavior, conditioning. Because, from Reggie Ray: “Relationships stir up the toxins in us, to the surface.” Particularly those where physical intimacy is added to the equation, and much for that reason, I assume Joshu Sasaki says: “The best monastery for Americans might in fact be marriage.”

What’s so complicated is, while relationship itself is the default experience of life, we can’t entirely choose to be in romantic relationship. By far, more than any time in my life, there is real contentment in being alone. I have no interest in dating or casual encounters, certainly. And the prospect of having to make life decisions with only myself to consider is not as daunting as it once was. I credit intensive retreat practice and deep solitude with allowing this acceptance of what is, this clear seeing into our fundamental aloneness. Thanks to a couple of good friends for making me admit it, the undercurrent of my expectation post, however, was that I would like to have more intimacy in my life – namely because I see the mirror of relationship to be an important, if not the most important, element of this practice. And in order to spiritually evolve and grow as a human being, I think it’s essential to be in relationship; and those that trigger the difficult emotions which help us the most can be that much more valuable as a result. But how to want this without attaching to any particular expectation

Although romantic relationships are emphasized in this section, Katherine points out later that living with her parents as a mid-30's adult, and experiencing the old entanglements that come with those parent/children relationships, has been quite valuable as well.

This makes me think of Peter Hershock's dense, but quite interesting book Liberating Intimacy. A PhD philosophy thesis about Ch'an Buddhism, this text can be quite daunting upon first glance, but I think it's worth it. Amongst the major points Hershock makes is the following: both suffering and the liberation from suffering are social, and that Ch'an practice is about being dynamically creative in how we "relate" in the world. He reminds readers again and again that since suffering isn't owned a by person, and since there isn't any fixed self to own it in the first place, that all we experience is profoundly relational, even if we each experience life in a unique manner.

Hermit monks and nuns aside - although even they are in relationships to the places they live, the air they breath, and whomever they came in contact before going off into the mountains and valleys. But leaving them aside, it's fairly easy to see how Buddhist practice is very much about relationships. Monastics have their fellow monastics, and anyone that they might care for or be supporting outside of the monastic community. Householders have parents, friends, lovers, co-workers, neighbors - the lists go on and on.

We "Western" Buddhists are fond of saying practice is about zazen, retreats, bowing, chanting, and whatnot. And it is - to some degree. But what about this "mirror of relationship" Katherine speaks about? In some ways, the influx of psychology into Buddhist circles has elevated relational life, and brought it into consideration. However, I also believe the same thing has also created a veil of language through which people hide themselves from truly experiencing the relational quality of life.

Instead of opening to a moment with a loved one, for example, how often do we - you and I - end up trying diagnose some problem or troubling emotion another person is experiencing, and then shift our attention towards "fixing" it somehow? Or even worse, how often do we reduce spiritual practice to some kind of working with difficult emotions process?

The "toxins" Reggie Ray speaks of in the quote above are much more than emotions, and even though emotions are a familiar gateway to deeper understanding, the relational quality of life is far too vast to limit to something like we all experience anger, therefore we are interconnected.

I remember as a child being fascinated by a large cottonwood tree that was in a yard across the alley from my grandparent's house. Every year, it's huge branches released enough seeds covered in white hairs to blanket most of my grandparent's back yard. A snowfall in late spring is how I saw it. This particular tree had to be near 100 years old, and I remember wondering how it had gotten so big, and lived so long. One time, we took a tape measure and measured around the tree's trunk. I only remember it was "really big" - ah, the clarity of an eight year old mind. Anyway, stepping around the tree meant leaping over the large, exposed sections of the tree's roots - almost like snakes to my kid mind.

It's said that the natural habitat of these trees is near rivers or other muddy places, but that human soil cultivation has expanded the growing range - hence this large cottonwood in the middle of city neighborhood, no where near a river or lake. When I think of that tree and the soil, the rain and the soil, and the soil and the people tended the soil, it's all relational. Try to separate it out, to describe the difference facets of these relationships and you get some nice sounding chemistry and biology - but ultimately a limited story.

Life is relational, and liberation comes through it, but we can't pin "it" down. There often seems to be discussions and debates online about dharma transmission, enlightenment "experiences," and the pitfalls of teachers who don't seem to handle relationships with students or even other teachers well. Lots of talk about all of this - but think about it, whatever is being talked about in these arenas, a lot of it really boils down to the relational quality of practice life. Sure, there are solitary figures throughout Buddhist history who have been considered enlightened without the need of a teacher or sangha, but it's other people who speak of this enlightenment, and in a way, confirm it.

But there's something troubling, I think, about over emphasizing the more solitary aspects of Buddhist practice, including our cherished zazen practice. How do we function as social beings embedded in neighborhoods, communities, nations? How committed are we to being with the people in our lives, no matter how much they are struggling? How willing are we to get close to others, and in doing so, be exposed to the mirrors they each will hold up to us?

Buddha's story is often cut in half in our collective memories. The drama of his leaping over the palace wall and leaving his family behind - that sticks with us. The near death experience he had after starving himself sticks with us. The enlightenment under the bodhi tree sticks with us. In other words, the more solitary parts.

But what about the development of the sangha? The encounters with kings, thieves, and everyday householders? How about the reappearance of several family members, who became part of the new community? The forty plus years of teaching, entirely done with others present?

Less dramatic than the lone seeker part of the story, but no less valuable. In fact, probably much more important because without it, what we have today as practice and teachings wouldn't be here in the way it is. Maybe not at all. Had Buddha gone off into the mountains to live off the grid for the rest of his days, the way Buddhists view suffering and liberation would be - in my opinion - quite different. And frankly, much less beneficial to both lay practitioners and monastics living in communities. Which is nearly all of us.

And thus the very act of a single man 2600 years ago to not disappear illuminates, itself, the relational quality of life.


Kaspa Thompson said...

Really good post. The more I practice, the more I learn that relationship is at the core of Buddhism/life.

Algernon said...

Yes, good post. I am constantly reminded of the story of Buddha's awakening immediately after realization. He was inclined to turn away from relating to other people or talking about his experience since no one would believe him anyway. He would just enjoy this unity.

Brahma had to come down and hit him on the head, telling him that enlightenment was a job, and urging him to interact with people.

A period or periods of hermitage can be very useful in our practice, but as a saying I've heard goes, Zen hermits come back.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad this resonated. Thank you for sharing and exploring these questions further Nathan.

Anonymous said...

Also, regarding the interdependence and interrelatedness of all beings - it brings to mind the beauty of saying "grace" at meal times. See here for a few versions I'm familiar with.