Brad is at Tassajara Zen Monastery where there's no Internet access. Here is one last oldie but goodie written for SuicideGirls to tide you over till he gets back.
So I’m sitting cross-legged in the meditation hall at the San Francisco Zen Center a couple days ago. Incense wafts through the air, bells are rung, ancient chants are intoned, and then profound silence descends. The assembled monks embark on their meditative journeys to the centers of their minds. All at once a thought bubbles up to the surface of my consciousness, like an arrow piercing the cold emptiness of the pre-dawn air.
I am soooo over this shit.
God how I fucking hate it. After 25 years of doing this stupid crap, stick a fork in me I am done. When I was a youngster the mere idea of sitting in a temple with a group of dedicated monks all pursuing the sacred Dharma gave me an iron-hard boner you could have sliced pound cake with. How I longed for that serenity, that peace. How I fantasized of ascending to the heights of Supreme, Unsurpassed, Perfect Enlightenment. How I dreamed of the day I might be in the very spot I’m in right now, living the life of a wandering monk, flitting here and there from temple to temple absorbing the words of the wise and dispensing my own wisdom to those new to the Way, spending my days deepening my practice.
But god-dammit I’d rather be at Amoeba Records right now. It's just up Haight Street. I could be there in 20 minutes. I think that new Om record must be out by now, the one they recorded live in Jerusalem. Maybe even that new Robyn Hitchcock boxed set. But noooooo. I not only signed up for this shit, I signed up to do a five-day long zazen intensive at the Berkeley Zen Center right afterwards, followed immediately by two weeks cloistered at Tassajara monastery deep in the mountains of Carmel Valley - where there are no record stores at all. Fuck. What in God's name was I thinking?
One of the greatest things about Zen practice is that it's incredibly portable. You don't need anything special. You don't need a temple or monastery. You don't need to memorize any chants or read any books. You don't need a congregation. Zen goes anywhere you go. You can do your sitting on a rolled up towel in your dorm room, which is how I started.
But human beings like to do things together. We're social creatures. And so a monastic tradition also developed within Buddhism. A lotta folks think that if you're not hip to the monastery thang you ain't no Buddhist. They're wrong. Shakyamuni himself did not come to his understanding as a member of any religious order, and there is a laundry list as long as your arm of other great teachers who either shunned monastic life, or came to monastic life after establishing the Way on their own, or who did a bit of the monastic stuff when it was necessary but largely stayed away from it. The non-monastic tradition in Buddhism is just as vital as the monastic one.
But the pull towards making Buddhism a social thing, and only a social thing, is strong. In America, we seem dead set on turning Buddhism into a string of socially agreed upon cliches and buzzwords.
A couple weeks ago or so I put a post up on my blog in which I moaned about some of the buzzwords and neo-traditions that have become au currant among American Buddhists these days. One was that dependable puppy dog of a word, "mindfulness." Christ I hate that word. The word seems to indicate some vague state of thinking hard about what you're doing. And I know we're all taught that we should think about what we're doing. But that's not the Buddhist approach. Do what you're doing. When thinking becomes a distraction, stop thinking and get back to doing. I'm also sick to death of hearing hipster Buddha dudes use the word "skillful" to describe things they like and "unskillful" to describe things they don't. It's a total misuse of the old Buddhist idea of upaya, or "skillful means," by which ancient Buddhist teachers are said to have taught in unorthodox ways. These days it just means whatever's under discussion didn't rub the guy who called it "skillful" the wrong way. I'm also fed up with the concept of the "dharma talk," which has come to mean something like, "guys in funny robes using buzzwords like 'mindfulness' and 'skillful' to lull people who think of themselves as 'spiritually minded' to sleep." I'm tired of watching entire audiences nod out like opium addicts while smiling knowingly whenever a favorite word or phrase floats through the haze.
Whatever. Anyway, after I said this stuff a whole buncha folks got really mad about it. Fine. Be as mad as you want. I, myself, am not the least bit angry about this. I was just fed up with it and continue to be fed up with it.
Back when I was first in punk rock, the thing that irked me the most, and finally drove me out of punk rock altogether, was the fact that the philosophy we espoused was all about questioning things. And yet you were not allowed to question punk rock itself. It was great to question Reagan and nuclear proliferation and the cops and school. But if you started asking things like, why do we all have to wear leather jackets, or why can't we have vocal harmonies in some of the songs, or why can't I grow my hair long if I want, that was taboo.
American Buddhism as it stands today is pretty much the same way. Buddhism isn't that way. But the stuff that lotsa people call "Buddhism" is. It's a subtle distinction, I know. But an important one.
So when I started calling bullshit on the idea of mindfulness, and skillfulness and "dharma talks," the reaction was almost identical to what used to happen when I'd go onstage at hardcore shows in the early 80s with long hair and bell-bottoms. You can't do that! We can challenge everything in the world, but don't you dare challenge us!
If Buddhism can’t be challenged it isn’t Buddhism anymore.
We're all looking for a place to settle. We want stability. We want something dependable. Buddhism is all about addressing that very issue. It aims for the ultimate stable resting place. But Buddhism takes things in a very different direction from our habitual way of dealing with our longing for stability. Religions and subculture movements like punkrock want to reduce things to formulas. Believe that Jesus Christ is the one true Son of God and you're all right. But the words "Jesus Christ is the one true Son of God" mean something absolutely different to each individual who uses them. Words such as “mindfulness” and the like take on all kinds of different meanings when they reach the mass culture. And when they stop meaning anything useful it’s time to retire them.
This is hard for lots of folks to get a grip on. They want Buddhism to be like a bumper sticker, “Buddha said it, I believe it and that settles it.” But that’s not the Buddhist way.
At any rate I’m totally over all that stuff big time. And yet, by the time you read this I’ll be finishing up one retreat and heading off to another — being all “mindful” and listening to skillfully delivered Dharma talks.
Sometimes even when you’re over stuff you still gotta do it anyway. Sometimes you gotta do it especially when you’re over it.