Thursday, February 19, 2015
the 'emptiness' of things
Once upon a time, on a Saturday night, I was skimming the wire service stories at the newspaper I then worked for. It was my job to keep an eye skinned for stories that might be worthy of the next day's paper and it was inevitable that I would skim stories that wouldn't make the cut. The small AP story -- no longer than six or seven paragraphs, fell into the latter category.
Datelined somewhere in Russia, the story told the tale of a man who had created quite a gathering of followers who subscribed to and even adored his appreciation of life as being essentially "empty." All things, this man asserted, were baseless from the get-go and that premise meandered out into a wider spiritual appreciation of life ... of which he was the exponent and guru. Anyone on the spiritual circuit knows the type if not the particular flavor.
Anyway, different from other expositors of the true faith, this man told his followers that as a means of proving the emptiness of all things, he himself would stand on some nearby railroad tracks at a time when a freight train passed by on a daily basis. He would stand in its path ... and remain unscathed ... because, after all, things are by nature "empty."
This man was good to his word. He stood on the railroad tracks as the freight train approached. He did not move.
The AP story did not give any details as to the funeral arrangements.
The spiritually-inclined or credulous mind, of course, may run off into much-faceted defense of the "emptiness" of all things: Clearly things are empty, but this man was merely badly in tune with the greater depths of a deeeeep understanding. The incredulous mind snickers, "Asshole!"
I kind of like this guy. At least he had the decency to put his world to the test instead of feeding credulous adherents into some spiritual woodchipper. Everyone deserves the freedom to be a doofus in his or her own life. Everyone deserves a chance to fuck up by his or her own numbers. How else is anyone to learn ... even if it is just one last lesson? I admire this guy, jackass though he might be, because he did not -- at least in his one grand act -- subject others to his tomfoolery.
This morning, in email, a friend passed along an article about covering up child abuse in the world of Jehovah's Witnesses. Whether in the Catholic Church, the synagogue, the flossy prep school or whatever other well-intended organization, the pattern of addressing child abuse is the same: Let's keep it in-house; don't call the cops; the institution is more important than the discomfort or terror of individual members; the behavior isn't really all that bad.
Reading the article, I could feel my mind simultaneously crouching in horror and yawning. Been there, done that. Heard the story again and again and again. I have a pigeon hole for that situation. It's vile, but ... well ... how long can anyone dwell on 'vile?' The same goes for 'virtuous' and 'wondrous.' The mind runs out of focus and caring. And yet the coarse realities really are coarse and the depredations really do deserve to be tied to some railroad track. The wondrousness really is wondrous but ... oh well ... a religion or cult is the best second-hand pigeon hole available... let's get together and tell each other how wondrous the wondrousness is and thus maintain the wondrousness of it all, the emptiness of it all, the coziness or coarseness of it all... and ain't we grand!?
My guess is that there is a desire for improvement, for happiness, for peace. My guess is that such a yearning, to the extent anyone wants to exercise and realize it, seeks out mentors and insignias and institutions that point the way. My guess is that in the learning process, everyone gets it wrong and is run over by one freight train or another: The coarse and in-your-face is really coarse and in-your-face; the wondrousness and beauty really is wondrous and beautiful.
But it is, as the Hindus put it, "the razor's edge" and smothering coarseness with beauty won't work any better than smothering wondrousness with what is coarse. The two instill each other and there is no escaping it, assuming anyone wants to make the effort.
What's the answer?
My own preference runs along the train tracks of what my Zen teacher told me when I asked him what the purpose of a zendo (place for Zen practice) was and moreover, what the hell he saw his role as. Wasn't he supposed to promote Zen Buddhism?
"No!" he said emphatically. It was not his job to make Zen Buddhism flourish as an insignia or cure-all or 'authentic' institution to which he would woo more adherents.
What then was his job?
"I teach them for zazen," he said of the students who practiced with him. His job was to encourage students to practice. To focus on their own lives and see the truth for themselves. His job was not to be famous or make Zen Buddhism famous.
All this may sound yawningly boring, very yeah-I-know-that.
But the older I get, the more I am impressed with anyone who seeks out the honest railroad tracks of an unfettered and unrestricted life.
Coarse is just coarse, wondrous is just wondrous... and it's not as if love had anything to do with it.
Whoa Nellie! What a trip!