Sunday, November 25, 2012

I think therefore I am...confused

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have been revamped for TV with an attitude. My kids watch it, and I must admit that the show is pretty cool. In this latest episode, Donatello, the most cerebral of the turtles, tries to think his way through combat and even life itself.

The way he sees it, if only he can anticipate every variable, then he will be prepared for whatever life throws at him. This should sound familiar. This is the way most people approach life.

If only I can anticipate everything, then I'll be safe. 

Now that might work in chess--I wouldn't know; I'm a terrible chess player--but not in life. The Buddha cautions against this approach to living in the Four Noble Truths. Our "if only's" can go on forever; that's the nature of being human. Our potential for dissatisfaction is limitless. The moment one thing in our lives goes the way we want it, we immediately think of ten ways that it could be better. 

That's dukkha, the human tendency to be dissatisfied with life, regardless of its content. Thinking is a tool, a capacity; it's not who we are. 

Donatello learns this hard way. In a very convenient TV-fashion, as the episode develops we learn that the villain can read minds and thus anticipate whatever move the turtles make before they attack. 

Daunted by this, Donatello, seeks the advice of his master, Splinter. Splinter says, "In a fight you cannot be up here,"and taps his head. This is the same for life. If we try to think our way through life, all we will do is get tangled up in hypothetical scenarios, none of which have any reality. They are, after all, only thoughts.

Instead, we need to come back to the present moment and just see, just hear, just smell. Drop the thinking.

Or as Splinter puts it so well, "You must find the space between your thoughts and live there."

Wow, talk about a great Zen teaching!

This is Zen Master Seung Sanh's Don't-know mind or Suzuki Roshi's Beginner's mind. It's our original nature before we clutter it up with strategizing and manipulating. That's our original mind, our Buddha nature.

And Donatello needs to return to it in order to defeat the villain. 

Not bad for a kids' show, huh?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Tangled Shoes Outside the Zendo

I just read Shoes Outside the Door for the first time, a book that every Zen student should read. Honestly, I don't know how or why I took so long to read it. The book chronicles, in an engaging non-linear fashion, the outrageous exploits at the San Francisco Zen Center throughout the '70s and early 1980s. All of which culminates in the 1983 "Apocalypse" where the delicate deck of cards that is the SFZC topples.

The picture that the author Michael Downing paints is a complicated one where the lines between teacher, student, and lover blur. In which exploitation and surrender are not so easily definable, where careers/businesses and spirituality are strange bedfellows. It's a complicated scenario to say the least.

The sprawling, labyrinthine structure of the San Francisco Zen Center, coupled with ambition, deep financial debt, and dozens of other factors, certainly played a hand in the unfortunate dysfunction that marked the decade of Richard Baker's abbotship.

Complicated, that's the only word I can think of to describe the confluence of forces at work in this book.   Reading Shoes Outside the Door is great Zen practice for the sheer fact that it challenges us to suspend our judgment--that all too human tendency to blame, reduce, minimize, and bifurcate.

That kind of thinking often amputates compassion.

Studying this book can be very helpful to spot our own delusion, due to psychological projection, insecurity, prejudice, you name it. For instance, why do we feel the need to blame someone? Blame, after all, while a natural human reaction, is dualistic, and thus limited.

There's no doubt that Shoes Outside the Door displays a lot of unskillful action. But we can learn a lot from this book, about wisdom, compassion, deception (and self-deception), systems of power, sex and spirituality, Western Buddhism, devotion, loyalty, Zen masters, gender roles and sexism, the role of Buddhist teachers in the West, and much more.

This is an important book, both for what it contains, and perhaps even more so, for what it can reveal about us and our practice.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Discovering Wei Wu Wei

Photo borrowed from
I'm a self-admitted Amazon troller. Always on the lookout for new Buddhist authors, I read Amazon book reviews, scan the 'suggested authors' side bar, and single-handedly keep online booksellers in business. Most of the time the search is fruitless, but occasionally I stumble upon a gem.

I recently discovered an amazing author, one whose name I have seen at least half a dozen times, but never took the initiative to explore. Wei Wu Wei, the pen name of British Terence Gray (1895-1986), is an amazing author. Although his adopted name suggests a Taoist perspective, his writing primarily explores Buddhism, and Zen in particular, with a few obligatory head nods to Ramana Maharshi, with whom he personally studied for a period.

Wei Wu Wei, as his name suggests (it's Chinese for non-volitional action), was interested in nonduality. In order to break free from the delusion of a separate self, Wei Wu Wei offers us the teachings of the great Chinese and Indian masters. As he teaches, if we can practice non-action (not inaction), or non-intentional action, then we can close the false gap between us and the rest of the universe.

To clarify, it's not that the I does not exist, for that is nihilism or annihliationism. It simply doesn't exist the way we think it does--autonomously, independently, as a thing or object. That sense of self is a complete fiction. The truth, according to Wei Wu Wei and other nondualists, is that the sense of I that we identify with as ourselves, is absurd, for by definition a self is something concrete, distinct, and separate--an ontological impossibility. What we are is formless, impossible to locate (in time or space), not separate from anything else; in short, nondual. This demolishes our notion of 'things,' for no such phenomena exists. When he says that the self is 'no-thing,' he means just that--it is not a thing. He isn't discounting experience, for there is experience; it's just not a noun.

There is no thing called an I which experiences. That's dualistic, as are any notions, including existence and nonexistence, loss and gain, here and there, etc.

According to Wei, it is the delusion of intention that creates this phenomenon we call 'I.' The false sense of will is the agent that creates our impression of separation from others, so if we can just see through it, by acting without intention, then we can free ourselves from the false bifurcation of self and other.

Throughout his work, Wei Wu Wei launches an unrelenting assault on the absurdity of the notions of self, other, subject, object, and all other dualistic concepts.

I can't attest to his personal insights (I don't know anything about his personal practice), but I can vouch for his dialectical mastery of the subject. In a via negativa approach similar to Buddhist Madhyamaka, Wei Wu Wei negates all mental categories in order to reveal the true, nondual thusness of the present moment. Or 'this-ness' as he calls it, as opposed to 'that-ness' that we ordinarily suffer from--a world of objects. And that's Wei Wu Wei's central focus: the fact that we objectify everything, including ourselves.

All that we know are objects. Even our sense of self is an object. Anything that can be 'known' in the traditional sense, as an object of mind, falls into this category. The solution is not some form of super subjectivity--some transcendental I, whether it be a soul, spirit, or Godhood--for that is simply the other half of the subject/object dualism. That perspective has fallen into the exact inverse trap that most of us inhabit in our world of objects.

The true path is beyond the subject/object duality altogether. That's Zen. That's what koans, huatous, and meditation aim at--the obliteration of the central duality of self and other.

At freedom.

Wei Wu Wei is one of those extraordinary writers that too few people have read. If you haven't read his work, by all means, dig right in. Like many authors, his work evolves, so I recommend some of his later material. I started with All Else is Bondage and loved it; it's short, handy, and refreshing.

Give yourself a treat this fall and winter, and check him out.