Sunday, May 1, 2011


Almost Green

NellaLou has an excellent post up about the Genpo Merzel hoopla. It got me thinking, although not so much about Genpo Merzel. About doubt. The zazenkai a week ago did that too.

One of the first teishos I heard when I got into this here Zen thing a couple of years ago was about great faith and great doubt. It didn't make a lot of sense to me at the time. It's starting to do so now, though.

As far as I know, Zen is fairly unique in making doubt an engine of spiritual practice. In the Abrahamic religions at least, faith and doubt are opposed; faith is good, doubt is bad. What's more, at least in Western Christianity, faith is conflated with belief, and doubt with skepticism. Yet these are actually quite distinct things.

Belief is about intellectual acceptance of a proposition. Skepticism is intellectual questioning of the veracity of a proposition. St. Thomas wasn't actually a doubter; merely a skeptic—he wanted evidence of the Christ's resurrection before accepting that proposition, and, according to the story anyway, when presented with the evidence, his doubts were dispelled.

Faith and doubt have another dimension, though. If you're climbing down a rope, you have faith in the rope's strength to take your weight. If you doubt the rope's strength, you won't make the climb. The concepts of belief and faith, skepticism and doubt are related, of course, but they're not a perfect overlap: you might intellectually accept that the rope will take your weight, but will find yourself unable to make the climb anyway. A smoker might intellectually accept that smoking is likely to kill him in one of several highly unpleasant ways, but will keep smoking anyway.

One facet of Zen practice is the cultivation of doubt. Questioning everything. Digging out those things that are so fundamental that it doesn't even occur to you to question them. Who am I, really? What is consciousness? Where do thoughts come from? Why did I just do what I did? Why does that stimulus create this kind of experience? What is this stimulus and experience anyway?

A lot of what I am is story. For forty years, I've been playing to a script. It's the usual one provided for someone lucky enough to be born in a first-world country to loving, educated, intellectual middle-class parents. There have been a few minor deviations, for sure—I never graduated from university, for example—but on the whole, I've been a pretty good citizen. I'm happily married to a wonderful woman I love tremendously; I'm gainfully employed; I live in a nice apartment just where I want to; I have my mortgage and cat and dog; we try to be good citizens of the planet, for the most part.

It is not altogether pleasant to find myself questioning this script I'm living. Why do I work? To earn money so I can buy stuff. What would I like to buy? Well, a Leica M9 with a Summicron 35/2.0 IV and a Zeiss Sonnar 50/1.5 would be nice. I could afford it, too, just about, not having bought anything much for a while. But then what? Cameras are nice, no doubt, and I would certainly derive a good deal of pleasure out of it, but I'm pretty sure it would not actually make me any happier. Worse, I'm not even sure that "happier" is the right way to look. "Happier" is about experiences or possessions or such, and the beastly thing with them is that they always raise the bar. The more I have, the more I want, and the less satisfied I am with things that made me happy when I first got them.

So that's doubt there. Starting from camera lust, fading via my job right into heavy-ass existential shit. What is all of this for? I don't know.

Who knows, perhaps this has fuck all to do with Zen. Or perhaps Zen practice just forces the pace; makes it more difficult to run away from stuff that comes up anyway. Most guys my age seem to get over this sort of thing by buying a motorcycle and/or taking a mistress. Neither of these options seems particularly appealing to me at this time.

As to great faith... now, that's another post, perhaps. But I think I'm getting some idea of what Sensei meant in that teisho of his that played from a tape a couple of years ago. Quite a neat mechanism there, in fact.


  1. My opinion and experience is that spending the money never makes you happier. I'm doubt that motorcycles or mistresses allow those other guys to get "over this sort of thing" either. In the past, I could have paid for my house with the money I've spent on camera gear, but it never made me happier or cured the cravings to spend more. Now that I'm 52 though, I am noticing some changes in my behavior and a different sense of realism. After having owned some fantastic camera gear in the past, I actually wouldn't want a Leica now. Today, I realise that I am getting so much satisfaction and derived pleasure from just making images with the gear I've already got and that it is more than good enough for me. As an amateur what do you really need? That in turn has made me realise that it's better to spend my energies enjoying "the now" with what I've already got, so my outings have become the things absorb my mind instead.

  2. Get over it? Perhaps not. Bury it deep? Perhaps. In the long run, we're all dead. There are plenty of distractions to be found along the way. But distractions from what? Now, that's something I'd like to be able to answer.

  3. The question is, what makes you happy ?
    As with everything, everyone is different. Some people are only happy when they travel around the world meeting people, whilst other prefer being home and playing with their kids. Yet others prefer working 14 hours a day and other like sleeping around.

    Pleasure and happiness are not the same like you say, but they are somewhat related.
    I can say I have had a very happy life in what you describe as a loving, middle-class family. For me loved ones are more important than most anything else and spending time with them makes me happy. However, when I do things like for example travel and I see people who get to go ahead of me just because they have more money, it make me want to have some more too. Waiting in line for 20 minutes is quite long.

    So, yeah more would give me more pleasure and at some points a more comfortable life too. How this exactly translates to happiness I cannot say, but I can say that it does affect it.

    Happiness is not something that just happens, it's an addition of hundreds of factors in my life. If all things I take pleasure from keep getting taken away from me, my happiness would slide away too.

    I think that it's important to make yourself enjoy your time on this planet. Do so as much as you can because life is short. This doesn't mean you should do what others do, just what you enjoy doing. So if you like buying new cameras because it gives you some extra pleasure, you wanting to buy a new one in a year or two does not make you into a bad person. Go out, splurge some money and have fun.

    If you feel guilty doing that, then it means you are not doing something you enjoy and you should not buy that camera. You can start your own micro-charity or if you want, you save it or buy something for your wife/partner instead.
    Enjoy your life is the whole point of this post...

  4. The older I get, the better the idea of moderation sounds.

    As for that camera, I decided to do the old-fashioned thing and save up for it—really save up, not blow what I've already saved. Rather interestingly, my desire for it diminished considerably subsequently.

    What I'm after there, though, is the whole way my life is set up: I work, to earn money, to consume. I can easily adjust the consumption part, to spend more or less of my income on experiences, or durables, or my apartment, or capital accumulation, or presents, or worthwhile causes. But the basic dynamic is there. If I don't care all that much for spending on any of those things, what's the point of my job? Would there be some other, more... valuable? ... way to spend my time? If so, what would that be? For example, suppose I decided I wanted to do as much as I can to make the world a better place. Would donating all of my disposable income to a variety of charities while continuing to work at my job really be the best way to do that?

    Don't know. Working on it. Not planning on any dramatic changes at this time, but there may be some in the not too distant future. Who knows.

  5. Well, if you lived alone then that would probably make the choice easier too.
    Since you don't you have to think about your partner's needs and wants too.

    If you're not looking for dramatic changes then you should probably try some of the following :
    - volunteering part-time somewhere (animal shelter, old people's home, some big NGO...)
    - when you take your time off work, instead of spending all your money on personal stuff, go somewhere where people need help and help build shelters or houses. Go and teach underprivileged kids.
    - Find orphans to be a big brother too.

    Just some ideas which would not affect your day-to-day lifestyle too much.

  6. Interesting post, Petteri. Doubt and Faith and all the conflations. Thanks for making me think about those things.

    AFA working for a camera, or whatever--I think that's about the most superficial way of assessing it. We work because we have an inborn need to work--it keeps us sane, to one extent or another, to put our efforts into physical survival. Those who don't have this need(i,.e. the rich and famous, especially the suddenly rich and famous) often become extremely nutty. What we do for our work, what we work towards with our lives, that's a whole nother question, which I know you are also looking at here. There is,as well, of course, the work of the mind, and the spirit, which are often neglected through that whole job thing, but also sometimes, directed as well.

    Good luck with the thorny knots, my friend.And believing the rope will take your weight.

  7. Exactly. I do need to work, that's for sure. Feeling useless is a total soul-killer, and work does take care of that. But there is a range of different kinds of work you can do.

    The point is that while there's nothing badly wrong with my job, there's not much more to it than the ability to buy stuff I like, either. I could get by with a lot less. Did, for quite a few years. (And having a monthly salary and paid vacation felt wonderful and bizarre when I eventually got that.)

    So if I took money out of the equation, I wouldn't be doing it. It's not that much fun, nor is it that rewarding intellectually, nor does it have that much social value. I am doing this job rather than some other job for the money. That camera, in other words.

    What I'm driving at is this sense of "I don't know." I'm mostly doing what I'm doing—my job, the rest—out of habit. Mine, and other people's—they have a habit of relying on me to do that stuff.

    Put another way, there's a certain set of incentives in place keeping me where I am. Many of those incentives are economic in nature. I'm in the process of teasing apart those incentives, trying to figure out what's behind them; what this story I'm living is really about. And, not too surprisingly, the question of whether there would be some other, more interesting, useful, edifying, or exciting alternative stories comes up.

    "Whoever dies with the most stuff wins" somehow isn't working out for me. There's gotta be a better victory condition out there.

  8. "Whoever dies with the most" has been part of humanity for thousands of years, going as far back as the Egyptian pharaohs and their tombs filled with treasure or even before that with cavemen buried with trinkets. It's part of humanity.

    For me though, I prefer "Whoever lives with the most stuff" instead. And then "Whoever leaves the most for his children".

    Basically, you live in a sandbox game where you make your own victory conditions. If you do not want the "Earn 500 gold pieces in the next 50 years" scenario, then maybe you should play another scenario.

    Maybe "Earn 250 gold pieces and give 500 gold pieces to charity" is a better one. Or "Live out as hermit in cave for 20 years".
    Just do what makes you happy. Even if it's "Spend as much time possible with partner and less time online or taking photographs".

  9. I never liked sandbox games with vague or unsatisfactory victory conditions.

  10. Lol... Unfortunately, you're in one :P

  11. All the unnecessary buying we do is also damaging to the environment. It requires a lot of energy to make stuff, ship it around and (perhaps) recycle it when it's not cool anymore. I sometimes find it helpful to think about that.

  12. Hi Petteri,

    I thought you would like to read first academic study about Dogen Sangha? Here's more info:


  13. Thanks, that was quite interesting. Doesn't it feel weird to be put under the magnifying glass like that?

  14. Thanks. No, I'm used to it, it doesn't feel weird. :P

  15. Hi,
    I tend to think that I have been living life mindlessly, doing things merely because it has been my routine for my whole life. I seriously am considering going into a meditation class, changing my perspective in life and being aware of myself and the life I am living. I have always had questioned whether I will be able to attain the state of “inner peace” by being mindful, but I guess I wouldn’t really know until I try. I do hope I will be able to be fully aware, “mindful” of myself. I just need to know the first step.

  16. @Salinya -- I think you've already taken the first step. The next step would be to start doing it. I started by reading a book and attempting to do what it says. Then I found a group, and eventually a teacher. Both have been immensely helpful. Not all groups and teachers are the same, and not even the good ones are good for everyone, so if the first one doesn't click, don't get discouraged.

    I'd also suggest that you don't worry too much about the changing your life and achieving inner peace thing; if it happens it happens, but fretting about it is unlikely to help.