Friday, April 03, 2009
Many years ago, I met and became friends with a man who did more to bring Zen Buddhism to the west than any other. He was a prolific writer, lecturer, and teacher, who could create clear images from the most obscure Zen concepts, and turn koans into poetry. His name was Alan Watts.
I met the man while attending a disciples' retreat at Tasajara Zen Center in the early '70s. Emerging from my first semi-successful experience of shikan taza (just sitting) meditation, I opened my eyes to see his loving face, gazing down at me, both of us seemingly oblivious to the gentle rain that wafted down upon that verdant hillside. All he said was, "It's a beautiful place to be, isn't it?," and I knew he wasn't referring to our location in the woods south of Carmel. The man saw me. Clearly. And touched that place in me that understood. We spoke for some time, and I knew that I had a new friend and teacher.
I never saw Alan again after that retreat, and was saddened to learn, barely a year later, that he had died. His legacy, however, lives on, offering a taste of clarity to those who seek to understand the paradox of Zen.
Now that we're well into a new century - a new millenium, for those who find such things important - a new type of teacher has emerged, claiming to bring the Eight-fold Path to bear upon the world of commerce; a self-proclaimed "Buddha of the Internet," who preaches that the Buddha wants us to have everything we desire, and begs his followers to send him money, so that he can purchase everything he desires, such as an ever-expanding collection of expensive cars, a mansion... well, you get the picture.
This would-be guru also teaches that in order for one's spirit to truly evolve, it is necessary to focus one's gaze only upon positive things, and to turn aside from anything painful, disturbing, or otherwise "negative." He claims that by even acknowledging such "negativity," the seeker blinds him or her self to truth.
Any student of Buddhism knows the fallacy of such teachings. Siddhartha himself grew up in a life of privilege, shielded from the "negativity" of the world by his parents. Somewhere inside, he knew that there was much more to existence than what was visible from his pampered life, and ultimately fled the comfort of his parents' home to find out what it was.
What he found was a world of untold suffering, of people in deep despair and pain, and the discovery left him frantic, devastated. One day, sitting before the river, watching how it flowed so effortlessly, he awakened to a fundamental truth: The suffering we experience is a direct result of our efforts to change the course of our own life's flow. The river flows effortlessly across the face of the earth because it does not strive. It merely flows, guided by natural elements, to its destiny of mingling with the sea. And in that release, the river knows no suffering. If we are to find joy, we must flow like the river, observing the banks, the deeps, and the rapids as we pass, yet not striving to change our own course or the nature of the universe through which our life flows. Our place in the sea awaits, oblivious to our desires or efforts. Siddhartha realized that our suffering is an inescapable product of our desire. Let go of the desire, and suffering ends. With that simple yet profound realization, he achieved true Buddha-hood.
Unfortunately, this new "teacher" is many people's only experience of Buddhism, and they follow, blindly hoping for some morsel to fall from the table of abundance and joy that he claims to experience. While I have no doubt that he has acquired wealth as a result of his teachings, I know the man personally, and know that the joy he dangles before his followers eludes him. Faced with a challenge, be it from someone who doesn't agree, or with the fear that arises from his need to sustain an image, he bears little resemblance to the face he presents to the world at large. He becomes again that frightened little boy who lurked at the fringes of his childhood world, taunted, teased, abused, and feeling unloved and unworthy.
For that little boy that lives inside him, I feel only compassion, and would hug the fear out of him if such were within my power. Yet for the man who enriches himself by distracting and misleading others from their quest for truth, for joy, and for awakening, I feel only disdain. The man knows the fallacy of his words; he has studied enough to understand truth. Yet he chooses illusion, because illusion is easier to sell.
And yet, he does teach me lessons I need to learn. My own disdain is borne of my desire to see truth realized, amplified by my own judgment of those whom I liken to the money changers of Biblical stories. It is my own desire that I must conquer, not the behavior of others. I know this, intellectually, yet that knowledge fails to penetrate to that part of my consciousness that needs no words. And it is little comfort to me to realize that even the Christ grew enraged at the money changers of his day. He obviously had his human moments, times when his Christ-hood eluded him. How could I, a deeply flawed human, far removed from anything resembling Buddha / Christ consciousness, expect to rise above the desires that even those awakened beings felt? Truth is, I can't. My teacher once told me that as long as my footfalls were upon the earth, I wasn't finished yet. He was right. Yet I hunger for that awakening to fill every moment of my life, rather than dancing in and out to the tempo of its circumstances.
Perhaps the time will come when I will look upon those who would spread illusion and wish them well. Perhaps one day, I will know, in every fiber of my being, that those being misguided are at the perfect place on their path. Perhaps there will come a time in my life when I do not strive to right the wrongs I see, or even name them wrongs. I have a little secret to tell you, though. If I ever do get to that point, I won't be here to tell anybody about it, and I most certainly won't be trying to sell it to anyone. I will have joined those wise teachers who have brought truth to us, demanding nothing in return. To flow with my brother river, and to sit again with my friend Alan, delighting in the sound of rain...
Drawing courtesy of a talented old friend, with whom I've (sadly) lost touch - Jennifer Zimmerman