Saturday, June 28, 2008

Mastery, Revisited

There was a time once when I had a prestigious job title. It would have been very easy to be arrogant by virtue of holding that position alone, very easy to look down one's nose at other more "common" folks.

As chance would have it, one day I took a break and stepped out of my office into the hall heading toward the bathrooms and vending machines. The floor was undergoing some renovation and the hall was filled with the smell of wet paint. Walking the hall, just ahead of where the new paint tapered off were two tradesmen, a younger guy and and an older fellow, both in coveralls. They were doing finishing work on the drywall ahead of the painters.

In the time it took me to walk this hall, in a few simple motions of his trowel the older man perfectly finished a seam between two panels.

It is a very ordinary scene, but I cannot describe adequately how the sight stunned me and haunts me to this very day...

The man was not gabbing with his coworker; to see him, you might wonder if he moved out of habit or if his mind was even there to perform what to me would have been labeled mundane drudgery. Seeing him move, though, it was clear that this was not the case: his work had his full attention; he was clearly present. What he produced was not perfection by virtue of an eye for detail, an artist revisiting a rough draft adding or subtracting, second-guessing, until the portrait was just so; rather, this was work akin to that of a master Zen calligrapher: whether the movements were large or small, each stroke was simply perfect and complete.

Without looking back, the pair moved along to the next seam.

And so it was. Ichi-e, Ichi-go.

It was blatantly obvious that this man was a master, and I was deeply affected and humbled. In spite of any disparity in our social castes, that "drywall guy" had attained some level of perfection that I was not likely to find where I was.

I don't know if later this fellow went home, got drunk, kicked his dog, or beat his wife. I don't know if he was devoutly religious, took care of his dying parents, or if he lost work opportunities through rushing home to see a kid's ball games or dance recitals. Who knows? All that was clear to me was that, in that moment, this fellow was a master.

A sword cut. Serving tea. The stroke of an ink brush. Arranging flowers. Pruning a tree. A poem. A boxer beating his opponent senseless. Laying bricks. Applying mud to drywall seams. Helping a child with homework. Preparing dinner. A kiss. Living. Dying.

What is mastery anyway?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Lamp Sees Something

Lamp looks for Nothing.
Finds it for awhile, but
Sees that's Something too.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Impulse, Thought, and Regret

Yesterday, a trip from Central New Jersey to Baltimore that might otherwise have taken three hours took four instead. That extra middle hour was, for all intents and purposes, spent between the first three exits on I-95 inside Delaware.

The southbound lanes were deadlocked. Midday this first weekend of summer, it was sunny and hot, a situation exacerbated by our collective inability to even reach five miles-per-hour for more than a second or two at a time. Before I was sensible enough to roll up the windows and turn on the air conditioner, I considered the irony: right behind me in the trunk, just a few feet away yet completely inaccessible, was whatever was left of my stash of Gatorade. As a sometimes-martial-arts-instructor, there is an undeniable convenience in being able to grab a bottle with the gym bag on the way in to class. Now they just taunted me.

I was in the left-most lane, but it did not matter: There was no "fast" lane, per se, though there were those typical folks jockeying for non-existent position or looking for a way to see forward past an arbitrary SUV with tinted windows that inevitably was blocking the view; after all, just ahead of that SUV was surely open road...

For a short time, one of those SUVs was behind me, piloted and occupied by three pretty college-aged girls. Out of nowhere came the thought: Maybe twenty years earlier, I might have stopped my car, popped the trunk, and offered them a drink. Now twenty years later, I just smiled. Within a few minutes, one of those other cars swerved in between us hoping to find paradise ahead, but found my beat up Saturn instead. The moment dissolved naturally.

Some time later, I saw the car parked on the shoulder, hazard lights on. Maybe a flat? Maybe overheated? Maybe just taking a break? Who knew? Moving a little closer, a few feet at a time, I saw a young man, in his late twenties perhaps, outside that car. Who could blame him? It was probably easier to stand over the asphalt in the direct sun than to bake inside the stationary oven.

Some time later, now alongside, I saw the fellow wiping a baby's bottle by the trunk, then handing it through the rear window to a woman holding an infant...

There are moments in life when time dilates, when as if in slow motion you are conscious of the moment in excruciating detail. Rarely has it happened to me because things actually were moving in slow motion though.

In an instant, the compassionate notion to pull over and check on them, to offer them the drinks, arose; but, in the very next moment, that notion moved into the realm of thought and reason... I wondered what was wrong with their car? I have no mechanical skills, so there really was no point in that question... I wondered if help was on the way? There were the occasional tow trucks crawling up the shoulder, after all... I wondered if in fact the engine and air conditioning were working? If so, they would be fine... I wondered if the traffic was ready to break? If so, they'd be noticed by someone more competent than me shortly... I wondered whether I could make it back to Maryland in time for my wife's recital if I stopped now... I wondered if they would have felt threatened had I stopped? A young husband cornered, watching over his wife and infant as a ragged fellow in a beaten car approaches them might not understand the advance...

Punctuating each question was the discrete movement by one single car-length at a time. Tick, tock. Tick, tock. ...

Slowly climbing a hill, at one point I still thought I could still pull over and run back to them, but I didn't. Approaching the crest, I saw two motorcyclists taking a break on the shoulder. I thought I could ask them to run the drinks back, but I didn't. A few minutes later, I still saw them all in my side mirror, but a few moments later I didn't; I'd crested the hill and they were lost from sight---but not from mind.

Not too long later traffic broke, and sometime later I was at home. Worn from the trip, as I took my bag from the trunk, I took one of the three remaining Gatorade bottles from the plastic rings. I sat down inside, and I drank it.

Within one hour, on one slow stretch of highway, the notion to make a gift of my stashed Gatorade arose and moved into thought twice. In the first case, reason's intervention potentially saved me from explaining to the police and to my wife what I was doing approaching coeds trapped in the SUV behind me on I-95. In the second case, reason's intervention potentially prevented me from helping a young family in distress...

But all of this is speculation: Had I freely offered the three girls the three bottles, I would have had none to help the couple. Would offering the girls the drinks put a smile on a despondent teen's face? What if I had the foresight to know that the couple was there, but not the prescience to know that they had their own trunk filled with Gatorade, thus missing the opportunity to offer to the girls? What if that couple was up to no good? What if someone had some strange allergic reaction? ...

What if...? What if...? What if...? There are infinitely many stories we can create about how we came to that point and infinitely many stories we can create about what transpired afterward. The feeling of regret---the looking back at past decisions or indecision and considering how things might be different now had circumstances or choices been different then---is fruitless. Here we are, right now---what are we to do about a moment ago?

Before the thoughts arose, what was actually the same or different between the two impulses? Before thoughts of "flirtation" or "compassion" were assigned, was either impulse "right" or "wrong"? Was engaging thought an error? Maybe in one case but not the other?

It is a Zen koan of sorts, worth everyone's consideration...

I still see it's still trendy to wear the "WWJD - What would Jesus do?" bracelets in some circles. So, go ahead: consider the question. If you are confident that you know the sage's answer, I'll suggest you likely missed it.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Save Yourself

No email again?
No response is the response?!
My own koan solved.

Faith and Absurdity

As I see each new Zen koan and look forward through the list, what is obvious is not necessarily the answers, but rather that there is an unspoken koan that is the koan practice itself.

The mind is first divided with the dualistic notion of student and teacher. The teacher asserts that he will confirm how well your mind conforms to that of an unbroken line of patriarchs back to the Buddha himself through koan practice. The teacher holds the secret answers to a system of koans; the student is enlisted to crave the answers, to hold the thoughts, to allow the koan to paint pictures in your mind. Through the exchanges with the teacher, the student may deduce what constitutes a good answer versus a poor answer, the correct answer versus an incorrect answer, further inspiring dualistic thought.

At the same time, the student reads the Heart Sutra and knows there is nothing to attain. The Four Noble Truths state that the craving itself is the source of suffering. Bodhidharma's teachings tell us essentially that enlightenment as such is a moment-by-moment state of mind available to anyone. All answers are within you; realize this, but rely upon a teacher to tell you are right? Depending upon the lineage, you may find that those teachers who see past form and celebrate impermanence are required to shave their heads, wear uniforms indicating rank, and participate in a life of ritual.

The same types of apparent contradictions exist in other faiths as well.

For me, the practice and faith itself begin---and maybe end---with seeing the underlying absurdity.

Sitting in a towering, gilded cathedral, a man in the finest vestments, backlit by ornate stained glass and flanked by statues of martyrs, reads, "Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God," before a team of practitioners with baskets come to relieve the congregation of their money. Elsewhere in cloistered monasteries, renunciates read the same words, but spread the message to no one. Priests take vows of obedience and are expected to be humble, yet those who are ambitious and skilled may be selected to receive the "fullness of the priesthood" and be ordained as bishops. Old women kneel before the graven image of Mary with their rosary beads, praying to the mother of the one true god to intercede on their behalf. The devout Jews will write "G-d" rather than "God" like a pious person might say "the 'F'-word" or the politically correct person might say "the 'N'-word" as not to offend anyone's sensibilities directly.

But who will deny that between two priests performing the daily ritual of saying mass, between two old women lighting candles and saying rosaries in front of statues, between two rabbis at the Wailing Wall, between two Muslims at their prayer rugs, or between the two monks pouring tea and preaching the dharma, or even between two professors teaching the same tired calculus lecture, that in spite of the identical words being spoken and the same ritual being performed, there is a distinct difference between the holy and the not holy, the awakened and the sleeping, the novice and the master?

All people live within a world of rule, ritual, and habit; we cannot leave it, but some do manage to transcend it. Others can even help others to transcend it, pointing the way with words, signs, symbols, or even the index finger.

Aversion to all presentations of the absurd is a fast track to excluding oneself from the world. With such sensitivity, how can this person reintegrate with a society replete with the absurd? The only sensible answer for most people would seem to be to rid oneself of the aversion.

Your consciousness dwells for a very short time inside a very temporary and fragile form, an expression of the universe. Through whatever chain of events, here you are. You are not separate from it; you are not distinct from it. You are it; it is you. What are you to do?

Saturday, June 14, 2008

OT: "We shot you, but we're gong to let it slide."

The opening paragraph of a news story from the Baltimore Sun:

Prosecutors have decided not to file charges against a Howard County teenager who was shot accidentally in April by an undercover officer during a suspected drug deal, according to the Howard County state's attorney's office.

Naturally, the no-charges-filed decision was with regard to the suspected drug deal, but somehow it read differently to me.

Language is a tricky thing.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Offering Advice

In this post, a person anonymously announces that his wife is jealous of his interactions with a 20-year-old student. He seeks your advice---whoever you are.

Really, there is little more detail than just that, yet a cascade of responses offering advice and assigning blame follow.

What is amazing is the absolute willingness of many to use their imaginations to fill in details that were simply not offered and then to assign blame or to offer advice. There were some neutral offers of advice (such as to see a marriage counsellor to work through the issue), and there were a few who questioned whether or not there was any cause for the wife's jealousy. Most identified with the poster regarding "his wife's problem," only few questioned that there might be another side to the story at all, and only one person even questioned the fellow's sensitivity to his wife's jealousy in light of the fact that he posted his situation publicly to the internet looking for uninformed counsel.

This is a routine point of discussion for me. We human animals are accustomed to operating with less than complete or perfect information. We make the best decisions we can, based upon our own knowledge, patterned experience, and so forth. This, though, is precisely where we also dramatically fail to see things clearly. We often fail to distinguish between what is actually in front of us and what we project around the situation, failing to see what baggage we bring to the analysis.

Every situation is unique, and we rarely have all of the facts. If nothing else, until we learn even to clear our own minds and see what is real and what we are adding, would not the world be somewhat more tranquil place if we could at least hold our tongues?

Monday, June 9, 2008

Mental Obstacles

Someone is having trouble getting past some mental stumbling blocks to get to the dojo. I paraphrase the person's posting with a twist, hoping to make a point and to elicit a response:
I look at myself sitting in my easy chair and yell out loud, "Get off your ass!" but look: I'm still in my chair. I yell louder; still there. I can reason with and plead with my ass, but it ignores me, just sitting there. How do I get up? I'm concerned that my ass is fat, having sat here for so long, and I have fallen on it once or twice over the years when not in my easy chair. What should I do? And please, no one tell me to just get up!

Following up later:
Still, I think the example is apt. The way to get out of a chair is to stand up. The way to get out of bed in the morning is to get out of bed. When you're pouring a cup of tea and it's about to overflow, you don't question how to stop pouring; you stop pouring. The way to get to go to practice is to go to practice.

Mental obstacles are very real, of course---they're what are keeping you from getting to practice. However, mental obstacles are also very much not real. There is no thought that is going to leap out of the ceiling panels and attack you like Kato after Inspector Clouseau in a Pink Panther movie! No thought is going to grab your jo staff and crack your kneecaps as you reach for the dojo door.

Maybe the advice is easier to give than to follow, but it does ring true. I suspect that most barriers in life are of the type we create between our ears.