The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
. . . still studying and learning how to live

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Sunday, August 19, 2012
Spirituality ... Zen ...

It’s time for an audio file! Yes, a real MP3! Well, not exactly a very good audio file. It’s a recording of me talking at a “practice circle” discussion at my local zendo recently. The quality isn’t all that good, given that the mini-recorder was buried in my front pocket and I wasn’t speaking into the mike. But with some clues herein provided, you might be able to make out most of what I said.

The topic of the discussion was a chapter from one of those typical “How to be a Zen Buddhist 101” books (i.e., “Buddhism, Is Not What You Think” by Steve Hagen; I would give this book 2 and 1/2 stars out of 5, basically “meh”, a bit condescending). The “sangha” was discussing one of the better chapters, regarding the idea that “serenity” is not simply going to a peaceful and beautiful place all by yourself and staring at your navel for hours on end, awaiting a great transcendent insight. Hagen, to his credit, makes the point that the serenity that Zen seeks is something much deeper, something that doesn’t evaporate when the lady at the checkout counter shorts you $5 in change, or someone runs a stop sign not far ahead of you while chatting away on their smart phone. True serenity is . . . well, darn if I know or could put it into words even if I did. If I ever do find out, I’ll get back to you.

The sangha was also pondering an old story previously discussed by our own “monk in charge”, Jeff, which was about an ancient Zen master who got framed unfairly for getting a girl pregnant. This old master obviously lost all his credentials as a monk and teacher. Instead of using that classic line from Martin Briley’s 1983 hit “Salt In My Tears”, i.e. “I never did it, no I won’t admit it”, the old monk just said “is that so?”. The girl’s parents gave the baby to the monk and said “you’re the daddy, so take good care of junior”. Again, all he said was “is that so?” The now-former monk and former-teacher was a stand-up guy, so he got a real job, got a crib, and raised the child. But then comes the twist to the story — about a year later, the girl ‘fessed up and pointed her finger at the real daddy. Her parents then charged over to the old master’s hut and said “give that child back, he’s not yours!!” The soon-to-be-restored monk and teacher handed over the child and said . . . wait for it . . . “IS THAT SO?”

We were also discussing the invocation we often use at the end of our zazen, i.e. “may we realize the Buddha Way together”. In my MP3 below, I share my own thoughts on all this, along with the question of “just what are we supposed to be doing or attaining with our minds when we sit in meditation for long periods?” The Zen teachers are mostly quiet on that point. But obviously, it has something to do with seeking out serenity in your life. So I briefly discuss the “big mind” idea and how modern neuroscience seems to affirm that meditation can create a well-integrated brain state, a form of consciousness that captures and includes everything that is going on in your head, and not just a particular area of current attention or worry. In theory, if you could take your “big mind” to the street, bring it “back to the city”, you would be a person who has it all together, who doesn’t argue with her or himself, and thus is less likely to argue and bicker with others. You would work to find common ground and understanding, even when the going gets tough.

So that’s what I’m blabbing on about for 5 minutes or so. PS, I get confused towards the end of my talk about the song “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City”. I forgot that it was written and originally recorded by Bruce Springsteen; I was thinking of the later cover version by David Bowie. One of the many ‘music mavens’ at the zendo helpfully corrects me, though! Enjoy.

Some Semi-Coherent Ramblings from an Eternal Student of Life



◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:01 pm      

  1. Jim, Sorry I am unable to hear your MP3 talk. But I would like to comment on a couple of points you make in your written blog. First: As to what exactly “serenity” may be, I am not sure I can define it myself. But I find myself thinking it may be akin to real kindness (or selflessness–altruism, say) in a person. That is, true “serenity” might be a calmness, quietness that pervades the entire being of an individual, a quietness that wells up from inside the person.

    Second, regarding the whole “IS THAT SO?” story: I find myself thinking of the old Chinese (closely related perhaps) story that indicates that something that happens to an individual may at first be looked at as something good, may turn bad, then turn good again. Specifically (and to make the story very short and paraphrased), the story begins where a poor Chinese farmer has a son. The whole village congratulates him on his good fortune; he’s not so sure. Then the son grows up and breaks both his legs in a horse accident; the whole village symathizes with the farmer that his son has been injured, very bad fortune. Subsequently, the army comes through the village to take all the men for war but leave the farmer’s son as he is unable to walk, very good fortune. And so the story continues on and on.

    And it seems to me that the older one gets the more one sees life with perspective, gets a different view of things. Perhaps that’s what this story is saying.

    I am not really disagreeing with you here, more asking a question or commenting on your point that “In *theory*” [my emphasis] one could use Zen in every aspect of life. I would ask, isn’t that the whole point of trying to live a life of Zen, that one WOULD make efforts to use it in every aspect of life–but then practicing Zen would become a lifestyle, something one would have to continue working on for a long period in life to achieve at least some level of this serenity.

    So, thinking about this, I am inclined to consider that serenity, some wider perspective on life than a simple view of one aspect of it at a time, and at least an attempt at some kind of continued practice leading to at least a small change of lifestyle might be the point of Buddhism not being what one thinks. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — August 20, 2012 @ 2:14 pm

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