Sunday, July 22, 2012

Do the Dishes III

Scott Bradley


With reference to the Joshu's koan "Wash your bowls", Zenkei writes, "For Joshu, to live Zen was not to lead a life; but to live an ordinary life, just as it is, was Zen." (Zen Comments on the Mumonkan)

This distinction may be a subtle one, but it is a very important one, just the same. As I said in the previous post, it's the difference between applying spirituality and being it. This is also Daoism's wu wei, spontaneous, unselfconscious doing.

Yet, how can it be said of the Zen life that it is "an ordinary life" when it is decidedly not. There is, of course, a sense in which anything done might be done in this 'ordinary" way. One can enter a monastery, meditate 12 hours a day, and all the rest and do it all in an "ordinary" way. But isn't there also a contradiction here?

There is a sense in which Zen is obviously a clear and absolute break from an ordinary life. Zen in fact believes that one cannot attain its goal of satori without such a break. Extreme means are required. One must meditate endlessly. One must "assiduously strive". One must have a Master. (Zenkei is quite emphatic about this since, for him, there is no satori without "transmission" from master to disciple, the two, in effect, becoming of one mind.) This does not allow that one may attain the ultimate experience while working and raising a family.

I am not faulting Zen in this regard. It may very well be right that extreme means are required. Yet, for me, this immediately demonstrates that the entire enterprise is optional and other than "ordinary". (That satori is an extremely rare event even for Zen monks, makes Zen's appeal as an option even less so.)

When Buddhism first arrived in China it had little appeal, being as it was "unnatural" to the Chinese mind. Shaving one's head, renouncing one's responsibilities to one's parents, and going about begging hardly seemed like "an ordinary life, just as it is." The Daoist sensibility, evident then, informs my thinking now. Whatever transcendence one might be able to realize in living a 'normal" life is ever much as valuable as what one can only attain through extreme means. The pursuit of an elusive satori experience, while certainly a worthy project, is not the final word on living a life of transcendence; or do we believe in a discriminating hierarchy of experiences, rendering 'special' people and 'ordinary' people? It seems we do.

What I am trying to say here is that we can, should we choose, take 'ordinary' life as our crucible for growth and ever much as "assiduously strive" (though I shutter at "strive") in this as in a monastery. Life, "just as it is", is our opportunity to grow.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

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