The Same Thing–Yet Again

My husband doesn’t like it that I occasionally get impatient with Zen teachers, but sometimes it’s inevitable. In Buddhism III we’re studying The Sutra on Impermanence and we come to these lines:

“All who are born will die,
All beauty will fade,
The strong are stricken by illness,
And no one can escape.
Even the great Mt. Sumeru
Will erode by the kalpa’s end.
The vast and fathomless seas
Will eventually dry up.
The earth, sun and moon
Will all perish in due time.
Not one thing in the world
Can escape impermanence.”

Our teacher looks at me and asks “What do you think of that?” Well, here I am sitting in the second row frowning and I just shrug and say “That’s Buddhism for you.” Because let’s face it: The lesson that “all phenomena are transitory” is not only shoved down our throats from the very first day of class, but is a fact that everyone older than 10 knows with about 5 minutes thought. Can we just say this? The nature of phenomena is to be transitory and “empty.” Okay. Got it.

There’s an old story–you’ve probably heard it–that goes something like this: A king offers his advisor a bag of gold for the secret of happiness (or some such thing!) His advisor gives the king an engraved ring which the king carries throughout his successful reign. After many years of guiding the realm through times good and times hard, he dies, and what is written inside the ring is finally revealed: “This too shall pass.”

Sometimes I think about the time & place in which the Buddha lived. Most of the people were poor. Most were victimized. Most were not free or educated. So the Buddhist solution was, as it is to this very day, to develop detachment; to see all things as equal; to accept it all; to not make distinctions. Somehow that’s supposed to be the solution to suffering. But try banging your head up against that brick wall here in the Western world, where beauty, sex, money, power, youth and health dominate every single aspect of our lives. We are evaluated by our society by just these things.  We are also supposed to be “spiritual” in some sense. (Not “religious.” That’s a no-no, because that word has come to be associated with empty forms instead of some completely arbitrary thing going on inside.) Good luck with that…

Right now at SVZC we’re getting ready for a visit from The Big Man: the Abbot of the founding temple. And since his presence presents a rare opportunity to take the 5 Bodhisattva Vows as well as the 3 Refuges from him without having to travel to Taiwan, now my friends are pushing me toward this–it’s not like they actually know anything about me except that I’ve taken all these classes for the past year and in them I actually make comments and ask questions. (My husband has said that “Asian people keep quiet as a sign of respect.” A puzzling thing to think about: It amounts to most in the class sitting there month after month immobile as a bunch of rocks.) I don’t participate in the religious ceremonies. I don’t work for the brownie points. I do a bit of voluntary work and contribute a bit of money and that’s about it. I have a job. I’m not involved in monastery business 24/7 as others are. But I still get asked the same questions. “Have you taken the Refuges?” “No.” “Are you taking the 5 Vows?” “No.” “But you participate. Aren’t you a believer? Aren’t you a Buddhist?” I don’t even know how to answer that.  Actually, probably not. If asked about me, different answers might come from different people. Here’s a statement about me: I have a past and a context. That past and context is not Buddhist. I didn’t come here to convert to a religion. I came here to practice Zen. I came here to wake up. And that experience of awakening to the universal truth is cross cultural.

Here is a fact: The problem is not the lack of beliefs, incomplete beliefs or even incorrect beliefs. The problem is belief itself. Belief is the shell, the suit of armor, the artificial construct separating us from the maelstrom, or truth, or God, or self-as-god or whatever you want to call it. But religion as a social club offers you yet another identity…it will gladly rope you in, and you will feel the rope…and the rope is belief. It will give you a convenient identity within a system,which would not be too bad, if you think about it, unless you start adopting that identity and believing in it yourself. Let me ask you: Do people understand you? Do they actually know who you are? Would it help with the ol’ identity crisis if you did 5 million prostrations or sat on your butt fighting idle thoughts until you developed hemorrhoids, or shaved your hair and got a new name and took the robes and moved to Japan or Taiwan and memorized the sutras and became a life-long vegan? Do you realize that you could do all that stuff with total sincerity and get…exactly nowhere?

Maybe, if you’ve read this far you’re asking yourself “Where is she getting all this??” Read Jed McKenna. Inoculate yourself. Don’t put yourself in the position where you are ready to sell out by adopting yet another fake identity. I don’t care what you name them. They’re all fake.

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