Monday, July 24, 2017

Barnacles

In Zen, you'll often hear things like Suzuki-Roshi’s statement, “You're perfect as you are...and you need a little work.” 

ZM Seung Sahn quotes from “Song of Dharma Nature”: 
“The nature of the Dharmas is perfect. It does not have two different aspects.
“All the various Dharmas are unmoving and fundamentally still.
“They are without name and form, cut off from all things.
“This is understood by enlightened wisdom, and not by any other sphere.”

Some point to war, genocide, the Holocaust, child abuse, and all the other events typically perceived as evil as Not Perfect. It would be tough to think of any of those measuring up to “Perfect.” That's also the kind of thinking some use to “prove,” or at least question the existence of God, who is also thought of as perfect.

So it seems the first problem we encounter is using the common definition of “perfect.” Usually that's used to define a state that isn't imperfect, and that is just dualism and dissatisfaction--Dukkha in a nutshell. This neither perfect nor not-imperfect state is impermanent, so that's not what the Zen Masters refer to. Aiming for perfection is a decidedly non-Buddhist activity, as the Three Doors of Liberation are Emptiness, Signlessness, and Aimlessness. We can think of “aimlessness” as not expecting a payoff--we don't meditate to become buddha any more than we’d polish a brick so it becomes a mirror. 

There could be a misunderstanding of the Three Doors that leads to complacency, even annihilationism. You could mistake the Heart Sutra’s message that “form is emptiness” or the Diamond Sutras all dharmas are no-dharmas, leaving out the second half of those two statements, leading to the annihilationist view that since everything is empty, nothing matters, so Par-tay! I'm pretty sure that if you read the Sutras, dialogs with the Great Patriarchs, and/or have a teacher of your own, that none of them will infer that these are the correct interpretation. You could say that “If you ain't doing what a Buddha does, you ain't  being what a Buddha is.”

But when we’re not feeling particularly Buddha-esque, when we don’t think our actions are what the World-honored one would have done in the situation we’re in now, when things are anything but perfect, there is still something Buddha-like that can be done. Our practice may include meditation as the Buddha did, in which we examine who or what it is that is feeling like not-the-Buddha. We may take refuge in our sangha, whatever that may be, and ask for some guidance, and if not guidance, at least a hint. We may take refuge in the Dharma, maybe by reading a Sutra, but maybe by going a step further and examining what the Dharma is, without so many dead words. “What is this that is asking the question?” “Help!” “Hmmm, the Buddha really read Ananda the riot act in the Shurangama Sutra. Ananda is asking the same questions and being confused just like I am. Maybe there’s something in there applicable to me.” And quite possibly, we realize that our mental image of “What would Buddha Do?” is a pointless exercise in just more thought, and more thought that we take as based in reality, when in fact, that’s not really the case. It’s just projecting our “selves” into a story that is no more real than sky-flowers.

Ultimately, we examine the self to forget the self, as Dogen put it. We examine and examine some more, just what is the Dharma in our life right here&now. What is the Dharma? What IS the Dharma, I need to solve this riddle now, as if there were no other time to find the answer. In a more honest and less cliched way, what WOULD a buddha do? But, most important, what is buddha. I can refer to what the Great Ancestors said, but they said them 1,000 years ago, and they said them to a monk in a Chinese temple, and frankly, I’m not a thousand-year-old Chinese monk, and that’s not who is thinking what I’m thinking.

One of the first times I went to sit with a Zen group, a man named Alan Drake took it upon himself to help coach us novices. I don’t know if he was ordained, I got the feeling he had at one time practiced Tibetan Buddhism, but he was there helping us get a handle on this thing we were basically clueless about. I’d read a lot of general Buddhist writings, and out of all of the traditions, Zen just felt right. I didn’t have a clue what any of it meant, I didn’t understand what kong-ans were when I read them, how much moreso did I not know what they did. I seriously didn’t know why he told me to read “Moon in a Dewdrop,” and really seriously didn’t know why he gave me a copy of Nagarjuna’s “The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way.” Oddly enough, I was able to wrap my arms around Nagarjuna more than Dogen, which in retrospect, is a bit odd. But Alan was there to guide us, to help us, to relieve our struggle and dissatisfaction with our situations, different as they may have been from one of us to the next. He said something that had never dawned on me, something I hadn’t even considered to consider, and that I never thought of as anything but a given.

He said that in Buddhism, there is no Original Sin. You could say the same for Judaism, but I wasn’t coming from that background, so to my thinking there was this blot on my, and everyone else’s, eternal soul. He also dispelled a number of other misconceptions is that sentence eventually, but his point was that, I, and every other being, was not born blemished. At the very least, I was starting with a blank slate; maybe not having the wisdom of the Sages, but also not any worse off than anyone else born into this world of struggle. He was planting the seed of our pristine nature in our fertile little heads, though we didn't know it at the time, or what it was called, or how much discussion has gone on about it. I didn’t attach name and form to it (whatever “it” was), didn’t have any attachment to expectations, what was right and wrong about it, whether I agreed with it, whether it was green or yellow or long or short. But it was as much as anything a relief.



Let’s say you just bought a new boat. It’s a beautiful boat, not a flaw to it. Great paint job, nice finish on the woodwork, comfortable furniture, no leaks. Nothing more could ever be asked of a boat. Taking it out on the ocean, it holds up well in both calm and choppy seas. Sure, when it’s choppy, it isn’t the same smooth ride as when it’s placid, but it holds up well nevertheless. Then the colder weather comes, and it seems like it would be a lot easier not to go sailing, at least not today...or tomorrow...or the next day. And soon, that pristine boat is starting to get a bit shabby. There was some food left in the fridge, and that was probably a bad idea, unless there’s a high school science fair coming up, or you’re trying to develop biological weapons. Some leaves got blown in from the shoreline, and they’re starting to accumulate in the corners of the deck. Someone apparently thought this boat would be a perfect place to toss some old beer cans, especially the ones that weren’t quite empty, and someone else decided the same about their soda cans. Between the leftover food and the liquids that once were liquid and now are some other consistency, there are flies, mice, a couple wharf rats spending time on deck. That’s all obvious, so cleaning it wouldn’t really take too much effort. What’s going on below the waterline however, is more insidious. Barnacles. Really well-attached, verging on embedded, barnacles. So far as the boat is concerned, it’s questionable how easily the boat can extricate itself from these little, multitudinous, calcified, clingy creatures.

Underneath all of them however, the boat is still pristine, the leaves and beer cans can go away, even the barnacles can be scraped off--they are clingy and they’re not coming off easily, but they can come off, to reveal the perfect nature of the boat. It’s never been imperfect, its perfection has just been obscured by a few things. Does that sound like any humans whose teeth you might brush in the morning? The being who only needs someone with a scraper to take care of those damn clingy, really tightly held karmic barnacles? The one who finds out he or she can be the only one to scrape those barnacles away themselves, but with others’ help humbly and gratefully accepted? And who might find out that being mindful of the next time a barnacle tries to attach itself? Those damn barnacles can always come back, we only need to keep from attaching themselves too tightly. But under the barnacles it is perfect, even with the barnacles, it is already perfect. 

The barnacle is also a perfect barnacle, just doing what a barnacle does. Scrape anyway, and help the next boat owner scrape too.