I’m rather chagrined to discover I’ve been MIA for almost a month. There are no excuses but many reasons; and as I type I’m scrolling through my eCalendar to wow you with some of the amazing accomplishments that have come to pass in these three or four weeks. Well, perhaps I overstate myself. It seems the biggest accomplishment has been that I got through the weeks, day-by-day, moment-by-moment, only arrive right here where I began three years ago.
Over those weeks, days, and moments, a challenging question has been worming its way through my mind: Is this Zen? Is this even Buddhism? Perhaps this is a poorly conceptualized version of the more powerful question, What is this? What is this? Or perhaps this is an important space to open up (again) that cultivates the discernment between the Industry of Zen/Buddhism and the embodiment of it.
Not-Zen/Not-Buddhism is typically easy to spot albeit not easy to resist. Beer labels, perfumes, furniture, bars, restaurants, clothing, and most objects can safely be tagged “Not-Zen.” However, it is useful to consider that the intent of using the term for a product is to increase sales through a subtle promise of a mind-state. And yet, if that is the case, perhaps we find ourselves reduced absurdly to include things like books, audio files, dharma talks, zafus, zabutons (and the love of words most people in our life circles would neither understand nor use in daily discourse), and even dharma teachers, priests, temples, zendos, and the odd kit with kaboodle.
Is that absurd? I’m beginning to think not. It’s been my observation that when we first encounter something which fulfills the promise of a mind-state more easeful than the wild, vicious, tumultuous one we inhabit out of habit, we quickly slip from the embodiment of that state to the Industry of what promises to accomplish that state. Meditation helps you feel calmer? Great! Sit longer, download more meditation tracks! Buddhism explains the state of your world? Awesome! Get a few more books, buy a few more buddha statues to fill the spaces! The world too filled with distraction and pain? Great! Go on more retreats, enforce more silence in your schedule!
The sad thing is I don’t think I’m exaggerating. The early stages of the path are filled with opportunity to be infatuated with what we think is Zen and Buddhism but which, on closer examination, is only a promise heard in a moment of desperation. And what a seductive promise it is with its purring engine and fine, fine aerodynamic lines! The vehicle of Buddhism – especially the Zen model rolling off the production lines – has us begging for the keys. And we fall prey to the Industry of Buddhism which is in fact the after-market industry and occasionally comes frighteningly close to “Pimp My Ride.”
But in the fine print of the ownership papers lies the true intention for taking this baby out for a spin. The intent of Buddhism in general and Zen in particular is – and has always been – embodying openness to the dynamic between our experience and our avoidance of it. There’s no promise of elevated mind-states or visceral joy in catharsis in the fine print. There is only bearing witness to the slip-slide-skid and the compassionate action of turning into that skid. And yes, there are some forms in practice that facilitate our skillfulness to embody its intent. However, and sadly so, the more enamoured we are of specific forms of practice – be it meditation, insight cultivation, retreats, or what have you – the easier it is for the Industry of Buddhism to aid and abet our avoidance of who we are in this and every moment.
*This is our little ghost cat, Desirée. She’s 14 years old and this is first time she’s allowed me to cuddle her.