Friday, February 17, 2012

Rinzai ... take his advice at your peril

The Zen Buddhist teacher Rinzai was a crusty bastard. There he was in ninth-century China -- whacking the monks in his care, yelling at them and spouting all sorts of iconoclastic encouragements. Today, he is offered with a kind of jaw-dropping reverence that would doubtless have made him puke. People 'study' him and 'follow' him and 'quote' him and place all sorts of laurels at his long-dead feet. He was a 'great' man. Less frequently do they bother to make 'friends' with him ... another activity that would probably excite his roar of disgust.

Of course few, if any, people want to be Zen Buddhists, let alone submit to such a crabby expositor. But it seems to me that -- Zen Buddhism or no Zen Buddhism -- everyone seeks out a wisdom to inform their lives. Wealth, fame, excellence in science or stock-brokering or NASCAR driving ... there are always stars in the skies and stars in our eyes.

Not all pursuits work out perfectly. Actually, I am tempted to say that no pursuits work out perfectly... 'perfectly' being defined as the activity or philosophy or ritual or religion or soaring effort that will assure the peaceful relief that is always just out of reach. Everyone wants to be happy, perhaps, but few bother to gauge the price and effectiveness of their efforts. In order to do that, you would have to slow down and who has time to slow down in a life that flies by in an instant?

I marvel this morning that anyone might willingly slow down. Really, it's pretty amazing. Rare and amazing and yet life has a way of getting in our faces and forcing us to slow down. Everything's going well and someone near and dear dies. A cross-country trip is full of laughter and the car gets a flat. One assumption or another has a forever-and-ever quality in the mind ... only to be brought up short.

And when things get brought up short, when life seems to giggle at our presumptuousness, sometimes there is an antidote found in simplification, triage and a willingness to settle on what anyone really takes seriously. It may be as simple as a spatula.

Rinzai used to rake his monks over the coals ... much as life can rake anyone over the coals. To the best of my knowledge, he never used the word "asshole," but his gnawing, rug-burn encouragements could be brimming with such an epithet. The treacly and solemn add-on's of religion and spiritual fervor were forever in his gun sights. Rinzai was not a guy to mess with.

Using Buddhist terminology, for example, there was this:

Those who have fulfilled the ten stages of bodhisattva practice are no better than hired field hands; those who have attained the enlightenment of the fifty-first and fifty-second stages are prisoners shackled and bound; arhats and pratyekabuddhas are so much filth in the latrine; bodhi and nirvana are hitching posts for donkeys.
If he had been a Christian, Rinzai might just as well have said, "All your bullshit about God and heaven and hell and goodness ... man, get a clue! Stick it up your ass!" But Rinzai was not a Christian and he wasn't a stock broker and he wasn't a NASCAR driver. He just happened to be a Zen Buddhist monk. So he used Zen-speak or monk-speak ... and he was a crusty bastard in much the same way anyone might find themselves forced by a giggling life to be pretty crusty on their own behalf ... choosing a way to assure happiness and then going the distance... no more half-measures, no more chummy analyses or philosophies or spiritual mumblings or lying down for overwhelming sorrow. No more whining or extolling. No more improvements! No more relying on others, be they wise men or idiots. Screw it! Do it! Thus spake your Dutch uncle and mine.

As I say, I think it is pretty amazing that anyone might take up such a challenge. On the other hand, how could they not? As the refrigerator-magnet philosophers suggest, "Your life is so difficult that it has never been tried before."

And hand-in-hand with that challenge, Rinzai's words float gently into my mind ... words enough to suffice for a lifetime ... "Your whole problem," he once told his monks, "is that you do not trust yourselves enough."

Even when you haven't got the foggiest notion of who you might actually be ... trust yourself. And if that doesn't work, trust yourself anyway. Heaven and hell are minor matters for minor players. Where the spotlight is brightest and where minor players are forced to take their leave ... trust yourself.

1 comment:

  1. Genkaku

    Thank you for this post.