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Buddhadharma : Summer 2010
buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly summer 20 1 0 64 In other words, spiritual work isn’t always “instructive”— it’s transformative, and this kind of transformation can get messy. The Sanskrit term for this is clusterfuck. Some people, for example, seem to be born angry. Not me. I was born a coward. So when the energy gets moving through Zen practice and I suddenly become angry rather than a quiv- ering eunuch, this can feel like an improvement—or at least a new way to be screwed up rather than the same old patterns of screwed-upness. A sharp word suddenly tastes good in my mouth. Anger takes on the illusion of upward spiritual mobility in comparison with my habitual cravenness. In reality, however, it’s a lateral move—to an adjacent room in the same hell. None of this happens in a vacuum. Zen is a group practice, but the thing about groups is that they’re made up of people, and we all know what people are like. So not only does Zen practice flush your issues out into the open, it does so within a certain context; it flushes them into the “container” of your relationships with fellow monks and nuns. Energies and issues that had no discernible dimension within you are externalized and embodied with the “help” of your peers, one of whom, say, unwittingly takes the form of your stepmother who once bullied and humiliated you. Meanwhile, to this peer you rep- resent the weakness and stupidity within himself that for more than thirty years he has felt the compulsive need to stamp out, as his father once tried to stamp it out of him. (In beating ourselves up, we usually pick up where our parents left off.) Only neither of you realizes (at least initially) that the other represents something within yourself that needs to be dealt with, for it is only in the dramatic playing out of your inter- actions that these powerful patterns and deep psychological dysfunctions are brought to light. I defer to Carl Jung, who either spent a lot of time in a nuthouse or a monastery. “The psychological rule says that when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside, as fate,” Jung said. “That is to say, when the indi- vidual remains undivided and does not become conscious of his inner contradictions, the world must perforce act out the conflict and be torn in two opposite halves.” It’s amazing to watch sometimes. These monastery battles royal can be downright epic. Forget about what happens when an immovable object meets an irresistible force. What happens when a weenie who’s sworn off his cowardice meets a monster who can’t help himself from bullying? “First Law of Thermodynamics: Energy can neither be cre- ated nor destroyed. It simply changes forms!” So went the mantra of an erstwhile Zen peer, one of those quasi-scientific mystic types forever trying to link quantum physics with whacked-out spiritual mumbo-jumbo. If you ever disagreed with him, he trembled, his jowls purpling: “That’s... just... your... ego!” A regular fury farmer, this sower of hate seeds was one of those unfortunate American Zen sangha fixtures whose respect and admiration for the teacher is in inverse proportion to his resentment and suspicion of his peers. Once, a fed-up nun, ornery and pugnacious in her own right, shot sand,” William Blake wrote. Or as that great metaphysician Tom “Jerry Maguire” Cruise put it: “You complete me.” Sounds romantic. But what if the seeds at the root of your behavior are the seeds of hate and anger? A year ago I was walking down a bustling city street with my mentor, whom I love. We got into a fight about something, and I smacked him. It came out of nowhere and was meant to be light. Only it clearly did not come out of nowhere, and it was not light. I can still hear the thwack of my open palm against his belly. There was a long stretch of silence, wherein I should have begged for his forgiveness. But I couldn’t admit to the violence that had just erupted from within me. I couldn’t tell whether I meant it, whether it was real, where it came from, and how it got there. I have violence in me, unfortunately. The seeds were planted long ago by my father, the poor man. How about all the times he didn’t whack me? The time he sighed and let it go when I stole one of his antique firearms and ran around the house, or sat on a sibling and released a cloud of flatulence? No, I remember only the three or four moments when his anger broke through. All it takes is one seed. I’ve apologized, and even sent a cute card. But my blow planted a hate seed in my mentor, and something irreconcilable has grown between us. I can’t seem to reclaim the friendship. I feel like I’m losing him. Zen practice can be a tricky thing, because done right, sooner or later all the issues and energies you’ve been repress- ing your whole life will ooze, trickle, and burst to the surface through your tight little smile. And I’m afraid that the prac- tice itself doesn’t necessarily equip you to deal skillfully with these issues and energies. This is one of the big misconceptions about spiritual work: that, if applied correctly, it will make us “better people” (whatever that means). Zen is not a psychiat- ric or therapeutic discipline, it’s a spiritual one. It’s supposed to get energy moving on a deep, fundamental, life-changing level. Its purpose is to orient you toward the truth/reality, whatever this takes. It’s not supposed to boss you around with behavioral or self-help dictates, or to shoehorn you into the slipper of well-adjusted citizenhood. You just cannot keep telling yourself how spiritually with-it you are when every time you sit down to read that Eckhart Tolle book the monastery cat jumps on your shoulders and claws your bald head and you fling it halfway across the room and scream, “Goddamnit, I’m trying to read about patience and equanimity here!”