Monday, 6 June 2011

Knotty Problems

Hakuin feared the embraces of Hell. Bankei was mortally afraid of death. Dogen wondered if we are all perfect, as Buddha said, why bother with Buddhism? The great Zen masters often had some gnawing doubt early on in life which propelled them to the doorstep of the Zen temple, and ultimately to self-enquiry of the keenest sort. It was often the case that other types of Buddhists, Shinto-sorts and Confucians sent people who were particularly troubled down the road to the nearest Zen master (they probably didn't want to deal with the really mad ones), so I guess Zen is something you don't enter into lightly.
William James, the founding father of American psychological thought, divided people into two groups “once-born” and “twice –born”. The former group were the hardheaded, hale and hearty sorts who didn’t see what all the fuss was about, and why people couldn't just buck the hell up and stop being so damned wet (I may be paraphrasing the great Dr. James). The latter were the dramatic no-gain without pain crowd, who only felt at one with world after having undergone an arduous journey into the hinterlands of the spirit and then come back to tell everyone about it, much like people who’ve been backpacking to Goa. I used to think I was of the former group...I'm actually slightly envious of those individuals for whom existence presents no particular quibble.

But I wonder, does sitting on a cushion, apparently deeply interested in the  wall, whilst fervently praying that the bald man behind rings the bell before kneecaps explode like firecrackers in a welter of gristle and blood: does it really help with those existential-type woes? Personally, I  think about death a lot, and correspondingly just what life is all about (see former post). When I'm on top of my Zen game, I know that there really is no truth to those thoughts: they are just that, thoughts, no more relevant than those concerning lottery wins and ownership of small tropical islands. That doesn't mean to say that death isn't going to happen, and that the leadup to it will be fun and games exactly. It just means I don't have to live that now. Or going completely the other way, death is going on all the time, so my limited and partial view of it doesn't come anywhere capturing it. The universe, and my being know just fine how to cope with death: it's just the little bit of fretful,conceptual intellectual icing on top that doesn't.
I came to Zen after I felt, in one dramatic afternoon, that there was a hole in my life; nay, in my existence. My normal reaction had always been to stuff something in the gap to fill it. Zen is one of the few things one can do that lets you have gaps in your busyness. In fact, it encourages them. 
Have you got a knotty problem? Maybe Zen is for you. No knotty problem? You'd best get one sharpish.