Tuesday, June 17, 2008

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?

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