Wednesday, October 6, 2010
Sunset over Sea, Helsinki, October 1, 2010
Kodo Sawaki Roshi is a pretty well-known Soto Zen teacher. Many contemporary Zen teachers in our neck o' the woods count him in their lineage. His best known saying is that zazen is good for nothing.
I'm sure that's true.
However, like all such truths, it's only true from a certain point of view. From some other points of view, zazen is clearly good for something. What's considered problematic is practicing Zen for what it's good for, rather that for what it's about.
Practicing Zen in order to cope with stuff is known in Zen circles as "bompu Zen." Most Zen teachers I've come across seem at least ambivalent about it; either they reject it altogether (like Sawaki Roshi in his "good for nothing" quote), or they make a point of saying that even though bompu Zen is all well and good, that's really not the point of Zen, and it can become a major obstacle for that which is the point of Zen, whatever that is.
The HZC is going to be at the Health and Beauty fair in another couple of weeks, so I guess we're not all that down on bompu Zen. I still think there's something delightfully out of place about it.
I can see that bompu Zen could become a problem if you make it the focus of your practice. You might get discouraged if the benefits stop manifesting, or if your practice brings up something that's not very nice, or if you manage to reach a state where you're comfortable enough with stuff that you feel you don't need zazen anymore. I'm not even sure how the latter is a problem, actually—it's not like there's some huge moral imperative to keep practicing if you don't want to.
Possibly another reason for this reticence is that there are plenty of people talking about, and offering, therapeutic meditation, intended explicitly to help you deal with stuff and make life more comfortable. There is even a movement of sorts to 'psychologize' Buddhism; to cut out all of the religious bits and the hard parts of the philosophy. Some Zen teachers want to make sure people understand that they're not therapists, that Zen practice can make you very uncomfortable indeed, and that any nice things that can come from zazen are side benefits at best. That is, if your purpose is to cope with stuff, there are other things out there that'll probably work out better.
Nevertheless, I'll risk a little Zen no-no. Here are some things that my zazen has been good for.
I have a volatile temperament, in both good and bad. I get excited easily. I get irritated and angry easily. I calm down quickly. I have a tendency to be impatient. I have a tendency to get the blues, or foul moods that make me want to snarl and snap at everything and everyone. I get sad and hurt very easily. I don't deal well with the sight of blood. I have a low pain threshold. I get carried away easily.
Most of this stuff poses no major problems in my daily life. Anger, however, does. I'm not physically violent, but I have a sharp tongue, and if anger takes over, I can say stuff that's probably as damaging as punching someone in the head. This has resulted in some bad stuff over the years—irreparably hurt interpersonal relationships, that sort of thing.
Over the past year, I have lost my temper this way exactly once. That was in December of last year. I'm hoping to make it through 2010 with that counter set to zero.
This is a significant improvement, and zazen did it. It has helped me be more aware of my emotional state, and catch myself before it spins out of control, some of the time at least.
I sometimes recognize that I'm starting to get angry, and instead of feeding that anger, do something else. Often the best I can manage is walk away and let it drop, which isn't good, but it's still better than the default course of action.
A few times, however, I've managed something better: to switch to another mode—listening to the situation, in order to understand what it is whoever is making me angry is actually saying, instead of doing what I'd reflexively do—i.e., start talking fast and loud to defend whatever it is I feel is being attacked, and work myself into more anger while I'm at it. It's difficult as hell, but when I can swing it, it's like a miracle. It really breaks the cycle that leads to the blow-up, and lets the anger go.
Another improvement is that my blues are a lot less tenacious. I get foul moods, but instead of lasting days, they last hours. Sitting a round of zazen might "cure" such a mood straightaway, and even if it doesn't, it'll make me feel better about feeling bad.
I'm eating better, and not eating too much. I'm more in touch with how food makes me feel, which means I find it easy to stop eating when I'm full, instead of taking another helping that I know would make me feel heavy and uncomfortable afterwards.
I find it easier to maintain a routine to take care of my physical health. Gym, stretching, that sort of thing.
I have discovered a pleasure in music that I did not have before. I'm able to focus on the music instead of letting my mind drift, and am opening up to it. That gives me a big kick.
I stress about work less. I don't try to do other people's jobs as much as before, and I recognize that all I can do is my best, and if that's not enough, then it's not my problem anymore, and fretting about it won't help. I also deal with tedious and even tense meetings better; they don't tire me out as much, I provoke less conflict, and walk away understanding what they were about better.
I've given up on computer games, which I used to play with more than a smidgen of compulsiveness. I may give them another shot one day, to see if I can play them without becoming compulsive about it, if something really worthwhile comes along. Not just yet, though. No Civilization V for me.
I drink less alcohol, because I no longer enjoy the way it muddies the mind. Not that I drank all that much before, but now I'm down to one glass of wine or the equivalent every week or two. Ironically, I should probably drink a bit more, because it helps with cardiovascular health, for which I have genetic risk factors.
I find more enjoyment in chores, like our weekly cleaning.
I get less upset about small annoyances, such as catching a cold on vacation.
I get less annoyed about being annoyed.
All of this, and more, has happened more or less by itself, without any huge struggle or effort of will. The only resolution I've made, and managed to keep with perhaps a few exceptions made when traveling, is not to skip more than one day of zazen in a row, even if it's just a few minutes. The rest has happened on its own, just pieces falling into place.
Zazen is good for nothing? Perhaps so. Some days I do zazen for some of these benefits, for example because I figure it'll make me feel better about feeling glum. Sometimes I sit for other reasons. Most of the time I don't really think why I sit zazen, I just sit. Ultimately, I don't know how much it even matters. I don't know that I'd recommend zazen for someone with similar problems I have; perhaps starting to do zazen specifically in order to deal with those problems will ruin it. I do know that I'm a good deal happier, saner, healthier, and probably less of a drag to be around now than this time two years ago, and a lot of this change has to do with zazen.
Now, if I could learn to not get into scraps on the Internet…