To begin the story at the beginning, read "Part 1: Post 1: Beginning Again," published in January, 2013. To consult a description of the campus, read "Part 1: Post 14: The Greening of Campus," published in March, 2013.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Part 8: Post 8: Considering Buddhism

We're only a few weeks away from Brigit, now--in a little over two weeks, I'll have been here a year!

Preparations are afoot. Some of them I expected. For example, a lot of prospective students are coming in now, sometimes two or three a day. They just happen to come in, just as Sharon said. It's one of the weird, and weirdly useful, coincidences of this place that they do it so often right before the new school year starts. I always know what they're doing here--they have a certain kind of immediately recognizable confusion. I really wish I could talk to them, because I remember what it's like to be new, but for the same reason I mostly ignore them, just like all the strange people in the Harry Potter robes ignored me when I first got here.

We're cleaning and repairing things, too, getting the Mansion and the Dining Hall ready for new people. We're even dusting light bulbs and so forth. And gradually more and more people are coming back. 

But there are other things I hadn't thought about. Like whether we're going to keep going to zazen. It's required for yearlings, optional for everybody else. I knew that. I figured I'd just complete my year and then decide what I wanted to do. I figured it would feel strange to have the option, but I'd get over the strangeness. But it turns out, there's more to the decision than that.

Greg talked to us about it this morning. I forget if I've said so, but we don't just sit zazen during morning meditation. On Fridays we have shortened zazen sessions and Greg does short lectures, called dharma talks. In the beginning, he mostly talked about the history and basic tenets of Buddhism, but he's also talked about different types of Buddhism, details of Zen teaching, and a little about his own experience. Today he talked about why we meditate, and why we might or might not want to keep doing it. He said he wants us to have a few weeks to make our decision, though as far as I know we don't have to finalize our decisions by Brigid anyway. I remember senior students have come and gone all year long. It's not all or nothing thing.


"Why do you meditate?" He asked.

"To clarify our minds."

"To achieve enlightenment."

"To reduce suffering."

"Because you tell us to." That was me, my answer. Everyone looked at me. "What? I'm not saying there aren't good reasons to tell us...." Greg smiled.

"I wasn't looking for a specific right answer," Greg commented, "but I suspect Daniel answered a different question than the rest of you. Daniel said why he meditates, but you others said why one meditates, right?" Nobody said anything, and Greg continued. "But that is a point I wanted to get to--what question you're trying to answer. For example, Andy, what would you say is the answer? I mean, outside of the context of this room and what we do here, fill in the blank; 'blank' is the answer."

"Jesus," he answered, promptly.

"And Joanna, what do you think of his answer?"

"Honestly?" Joanna looked nervous.

"Of course," said Greg.

"I think it's wrong. That's not the answer. Not for me, anyway. I don't believe in Heaven or Hell or Jesus, or any of that. But if being Christian makes Andy happy, then maybe it's right for him."

"I'm guessing that sounds strange to you, Andy?" Greg asked.

"Me? I'm not in any position to judge."

Greg rolled his eyes.

"Yes, I'm sure we're all very non-judgmental here" he said. "We've established that. Now, can we please start talking about the judgments we actually do make? No one is going to die of it, I promise."

There was a little titter of laughter. Andy smiled nervously and tried again.

"Well, according to the Bible, Jesus said 'nobody gets to the Father except through Me.'  So that means you can't get to Heaven without believing in Jesus. You go to Hell instead. I don't want anyone to go to Hell." He paused for a minute and then turned to Joanna. "So Jesus is the answer. Whether you believe in him yet or not. I'm sorry, Joanna, I know that's not what you want to hear, but it is the truth."

"But I don't believe in any of that!" she reiterated.

"I didn't believe in homelessness," Any said, "but I went there anyway."

"So Jesus is the answer. What is the question?" asked Greg.

"How to get to Heaven," Andy answered promptly. "And how to avoid Hell."

"Joanna, what is your question?"

"How to be happy," Joanna told Greg. "How to treat other people well."

"You see what different worlds we live in?" Greg commented, "or, seem to live in, anyway. Without the delusion of the conditioned mind, perhaps we could all experience the real world together? But of course, that is my Zen Buddhist conditioning talking." He almost chuckled a little, a kind of bubbly smile. "And of course, the first Buddhists were not particularly Zen about it. Buddhism arose in a cultural context where people not only believed in heavens and hells and eternity, they believed that throughout eternity souls could cycle through the various heavens and hells and Earths in the middle. There were things they thought they could do to assure themselves of being reborn into a better life, even a heaven, when they died, but they also believed that assignment would be no more permanent than this one. No matter how delicious the heaven you went to, eventually you'd die again and fall back down into one of the hells. There was no escape but to escape. That is what Lord Buddha offered them--the chance, not to be reborn into heaven, but to avoid being reborn at all."

He let that sink in a bit. He'd said as much before, but this time it seemed starker, more alien somehow.

"Now, is there anyone in this room who is honestly concerned about escaping the endless cycle of samsara?"

No one raised their hands.

"Well, then, Buddhism isn't your answer, because Buddhism isn't your question. And there is nothing I can do to make it your question, even if I were inclined to try. The answer only becomes the answer when it has the question for context."

"Like 42," said one of the Ravens.


"Why did you tell us to meditate, though?" I asked.

"Because meditation does other things,"he told us. "This form of meditation is good for improving your powers of concentration and focus, your ability to make decisions and stay with them, and your awareness of your own mental states. Sitting like this reduces stress and improves posture. Doing something in the morning for spiritual reasons is a good habit to establish, whatever practices you choose to adopt later, for whatever reasons. There are other ways to do all of these things, but we do this thing here, because I am available and a different teacher is not. All communities use the resources they have."

He let that sink in a moment, and then spoke again.

"So if you wish to continue using zazen for its subsidiary benefits, by all means, do so, either here with me or on your own. You may actually want to practice meditating on your own, as you will not always have me to hold space for you. Likewise, if you wish to explore Buddhism as such, you may do so with me. You may also come to me if you wish my help in exploring other, non-Buddhist paths. Some of you are doing so already. After February 1st, you may come and go from this room as you like, and I will not question you, unless you wish to be questioned. However, I ask you not to continue with Zen Buddhist meditation simply out of a belief that it is what you are supposed to do,or based on the unexamined assumption that all spiritual practices are functionally the same. That is not what Buddhism is for. I do not want to help you waste your time, nor do I need your help in wasting mine."

And then we were quiet and he rang the bell to resume meditation.

When it was time to leave and get ready for breakfast I stayed behind.

"Greg," I began, "you didn't raise your hand."

"When did you expect me to?"

"When you asked who was concerned about the Wheel of Samsara."

"I am not concerned about it. I do not try to escape the present moment."


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