Saturday, October 20, 2012

bitch-slap koans

My older son and I hadn't touched base in a while, so it was nice yesterday to talk with him on the phone. He is a junior in college and things seemed to be humming along. With the exception of one class in which he was getting a B, everything else was A's; he and some friends had decided to rent a house together although it was a bit "pricey;" and he was studying to take an exam as a "personal trainer" -- an endeavor I don't really know the parameters of, but I was happy if he was willing to work for what he thought he might like to do. As I listened to his adventures, I felt my happiness quotient rising ... he seemed happy and that made me happy.

I asked him if he still had the same girlfriend -- someone named "Ashley" as I recalled. I remembered that name as one among a group of names popular these days ... names that sound vaguely tinny in my ear ... upscale names for wishful thinkers in search of some more blissful realm. Yes, my son said, that was her name and yes they were still hooked up. "I just came from lunch with her and her grandmother."

Ashley's grandmother was "the richest woman I ever met" according to my son. She had traveled and hobnobbed with former Beatle Paul McCartney and visited with the Dalai Lama and ... I could hear the 'wow' in my son's voice ... "the richest woman I ever met."

I held my parental tongue. I half wanted to observe that rich people deserve some caution because their wealth often betokens an ignorance and lack of caring on behalf of others. It's not always deliberate -- though sometimes it is -- but their blind sides often leave human wreckage in their wake.

But I thought better of saying this, first because it's the kind of thing people either learn or don't learn in their own good time, and second because blindness is part of what ordinarily passes for all seeing, irrespective of wealth. Carelessness on the part of others is one of life's bitch-slap koans that needs no help from the 1,700 formal koans of Zen Buddhism.

"Bitch-slap koans" ... I have to admit I like that.

Part of the reason I like it, no doubt, is that I never was very good at the the 1,700 formal koans that Zen Buddhism can use. Somehow I just had a hard time being at home with them, a hard time really letting them in. Zen professionals may think I am somehow dissing or dismissing the 1,700 formal koans, but that's not what I intend. I just mean that bitch-slap koans are more up my alley. As my Zen teacher once observed without criticism, "Buddha never studied 1,700 formal koans." I wouldn't want to pull one of those half-baked Buddhist-teacher schticks and equate myself implicitly or explicitly with Gautama, but my teacher's observation struck me as a good one and ... well, it's nice to have a little company.

Who knows what crowbar will lift what manhole cover in whose life? Formal koan or bitch-slap koan ... or maybe just discovering that wealth, while desirable and admirable from one point of view, also carries with it some palpable injuries that intellectual observation hardly needs to waste its breath on: True facts have a way of raising their heads unbidden ... bitch-slap koans. Just be patient ... bitch slap koans are working as hard as they can ... they'll get around to you soon enough ... just have a little patience.

For me, for example, one of life's bitch-slap koans -- one of the conundrums that can leave me breathless and uncertain and without an escape hatch -- is the recognition that all belief exists in the past; I live in the present (like it or not) ... and yet I can waste a lot of time and energy believing things. This disconnect -- this fragmentation of a life that cannot be fragmented -- deserves attention, for my own purposes, because trying to live in a past that no one can grasp (believing one thing or another) simply does not accord with what's in front of my nose. This is just a situation that can grab me by the balls. I'm not suggesting it should grab anyone else... as, for example, my son.

Honore de Balzac is occasionally credited with the quote, "Behind every great fortune, there is a great crime." I'm a little long in the tooth to be concerned with elevating an observation based on who made it. I am interested, however, in whether the observation holds any water in bitch-slap fact. And as I talked to my son, it occurred to me that Balzac -- or whoever made the assessment -- had a good point.

It was a good point. Who had it or made it didn't make much difference.

But was any collection of wealth or fortune, was any compendium of life experience and resulting perception, much different?  Was there any point of view that did not suffer from ignorance, any wisdom that did presume idiocy, any seeing (any at all) that did not have wrapped in its DNA the kind of carelessness that something like wealth might be accused of?

And as I chewed on this bit of mental bubble gum, it occurred to me that wisdom or wealth or seeing or blindness were only as flawed and incomplete -- only as fragmented and fragmenting -- as the 'having' of them was present. The wild or whispered sense that 'something is missing' or that 'things seem incomplete' or that 'this is wise and that is ignorant' rests entirely on a conviction that it is somehow true. I ... know ... it. And in this "I know it," the entire flaw is revealed. It may be true indeed that wealth can be careless or wisdom wise, but having or keeping or relying on such truth will screw the pooch every time. True is true ... it doesn't need my help or encomiums or disdain.


No koans need apply.

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