Sunday, August 7, 2011

Zen Failure; Zen Success?

There's a slightly provocative post over at No Zen in the West I'd like to draw your attention to. For our purposes here, I want to examine one section of it, which goes like this:

A distinguished Buddhist scholar told me that the burden of Zen teachers he knows is the need to act/be “enlightened”. How heavy! “I’m a Zen teacher, great! Now I have to somehow embody the premise that this way of life and practice makes people better, enlightens people.”

David Chadwick, after decades in Zen circles, hasn’t noticed that Zen practice works, which means that Zen teachers and Zen students everywhere could be off of the hook. If it’s not making us better than other people, it’s not because we’re not doing it right!

The late Rev. John King said that he loved so much going into our San Quentin Sangha because in prison – perhaps only there – “you don’t have to pretend that your life is working”. You don’t have to pretend to be a success, because it’s clear that everyone’s life is a failure. So you can just relax.

I’m feeling something like that about David’s observation. Great! Zen doesn’t work. I don’t need to pretend it does, or convince anyone else it does. I can just do it for the love of doing it, if I happen to love doing it, and forget that any good might come of it in the least. Forget the idea that I’ve gotten any better from it.

Of course, you might recognize that "success" and "failure" are part of the Eight Worldly Winds that Buddha spoke about frequently in various forms. And if you know anything about them, you know that they're always blowing about, shifting and changing like our own breath does.

So, any talk about whether Zen practice "works" or not is coming out of those winds, and as such, doesn't have any ground to stand on. What's considered a success today, is tomorrow's failure. Something gained today is lost tomorrow and regained the next day. Yesterday, I was called a "good Zen student." Tomorrow, maybe I irritate everyone and suddenly am now considered "a bad Zen student." And so it goes.

However, this leaves us in a predicament, I think. Because all of our regular ways for assessing what's happening basically fall flat when it comes to the spiritual life.

Is everyone's life in San Quentin "a failure"? Based upon conventional view standards, I suppose you could say "yes." Yet, that's only one way to see it.

Go a little deeper, though, and you might notice that not only is talk about working and not working, success and failure lacking ground, but it also is all about comparison. And I don't know about you, but when I'm trapped in comparing myself with others, it tends to be a walk down the royal road of hell.

Somehow, if you're really going to do Zen practice, or are really intent on liberation, you have to stop defining whatever it is that you are doing (or not doing) with variations on the Eight Worldly Wind theme. In other words, coming to a place where you can let all the noise of life blow around you and even within you - without choosing to identify yourself with any one or a handful of aspects of it - is pretty key.

Just relaxing - without the need to label "success" or "failure," for example - that's one possibility. Another might be to function with the understanding that all labeling is provisional, just a skillful means for working with the causes and conditions of the moment.


Algernon said...

The very notion that Zen practice "works" or "doesn't work" arises from desire -- a point you make here. And that's also what the comparing bullshit is about: desire, desire, desire. Succeed at what? Fail at what?

Deciding that Zen practice doesn't work is a very good thing. We could use a lesson in how to lose.

Anonymous said...

I wonder what I was expecting when I started sitting. Suzuki Roshi said that sin and and enlightenment are two sides of one coin, sin being a prereq for practice, and enlightenment being the glorious observation that we "sin."

I'm also reminded here of Reb's idea of recognizing the trappings of delusion, even if that doesn't lift you from it.

I've been warned not to "use" buddhism as a means of getting a kick of bliss or purity, that everything gained is just another thing to renounce.

Peaceful Turmoil said...

I am going to throw out a completely unqualified response here just to give a different way of approaching the issue, as it seems to be a common problem for those doing any form of silent/stillness work involving mindfulness, such as Ch'an, Zen, or even Centering Prayer. I leave it for people to do with as they will:

It is easy to get caught up on the idea that we can't talk about success in Zen, that there is no good practice or bad practice. I agree with latter but not the former. Someone could tell you to place tin foil and your head, squiggle your index fingers, and repeat "Googy googy googy!" over and over and call it an effective spiritual practice. And if the practice is just the practice, no questioning, no yardstick, then if you never noticed any change, the teacher could claim it was working and chastise your doubt. I don't want to wear a tin foil hat.

I think another recent post here about spiritual materialism holds one clue. While we shouldn't judge a specific instance of practice itself, because even the intent to practice is beneficial, we can ask whether over the long it is helping us to become more compassionate.

If we don't "try to be Zen" or "try to act enlightened", but learn how to notice our thoughts and feelings without squashing them or getting captivated by them, we see that our mind is what it is without the delusion of self-image. We see the greed, the lust, the anger, the despair, and so on. We see what triggers it. We don't judge it, but there it is. And as we understand it, the triggers lose their power. And then we can see that others are in the same boat, and recognize that they are trapped in the same way, and when we have that empathy, genuine compassion can arise.

OK, so like I said, I am an unqualified nobody. I have no argument to make or defend. It's just something to consider if you so choose. And no, I haven't done any of this myself. I still squish my thoughts when I notice them or get caught up in them, so there is no authority in what I write.

Nathan said...

Dropping off success and failure is definitely the ultimate or absolute side of practice.

At the same time, there is a place for mile markers, questioning whether what's going on is leading towards more compassion and liberation, and maybe even speaking of success and failure.

One of the major challenges is that all that stuff is really seductive. Even a single period of calm zazen can lead someone to think "Oh, I'm a success today." And while that feels good for a bit, it's often a trap in the long run.