Friday, February 20, 2009

Things I've Finally Learned

i. Nirvana

There's an old Chinese scroll which depicts a couple of Buddhists jumping off a cliffa, apparently convinced that self-annihilation and Nirvana are one and the same.

Folks who should know better get hung up on that all the time, but Nirvana and nihilism are nothing alike. The Buddha smiles and holds up a couple of fingers, right? It's an enigmatic smile, like the Mona Lisa's. The gesture means, hold that thought.

The Buddha's point is, yes, the words mean exactly what they seem to say. Yes, self-annihilation and Nirvana are identical. But... Your question is not properly framed. If I jump off a cliff and kill myself, I have not attained Nirvana, and even more woefully, I have not attained self-annihilation. My suffering continues unabated. But the Buddha has attained self-annihilation. The Buddha has attained Nirvana. The Buddha smiles.

Technically, this is a koan, a logical paradox that can, if meditated upon for however long it takes, bring the seeker to the threshold of that same enigmatic smile. Of course, such a realization must be abetted, it must be confirmed by the Buddha. Pretensions can't be turned loose in the world, or they will result in a great deal of embarassment.

There's another criticism that gets thrown at the Buddha, which is that Buddhism seems to be entirely self-absorbed, passive and lacking a social conscience or any desire to solve the great problems of the world such as poverty, war, disease, hunger, ignorance and dissatisfaction. Not so. The Buddha is something of an inkblot, a Rohrschach, on this account, receiving your disquiet about social issues in a vast sea, not of complacency, but of compassion. Let's solve your problem first, and then the world's.

aRather a hair-raising image which I first saw in a Japanese art history class at the University of Iowa, 1970. I can't find it on the web, but the painting is notorious. It was a faded vertical wall scroll, and showed two young bodhisattvas or arhats in mid-plunge down the face of a high cliff. No bungie cords. I'm not sure what the purpose of the painting was, but Japan has long had a penchant for religious satire. Buddhist monks are often represented in sumi-e as frogs, while their Shinto critics are monkeys.

ii. Koan

My favorite koan is the one about the two monks.

The younger monk is sitting in meditation. The older monk is puzzled and asks the younger what he's trying to accomplish by sitting in zazen (i.e., meditating).

"I am meditating like this in order to become a Buddha."

The older monk picks up a brick and begins rubbing it against a rock, probably one of those old "growing" rocks in Zen gardens, tracking a minor havoc through the carefully raked sand.

The younger, applying the timeworn principle of monkish dialectic, asks the elder what he thinks he's doing. "I'm polishing this brick in order to make a mirror."

The thunderbolt should have struck by now. If not, "How can polishing a brick make a mirror?"

And the rejoinder, "How can sitting in zazen make a Buddha?"

True to formula, the younger monk instantly became a mirror.


Well, ok. So, D. T. Suzuki somewhat maladroitly called this moment The Great Renunciation, but it's also called satori and it's described as "mingling eyebrows with all the Buddhas," not face to face or nose to nose, but as though wearing a mask, from the inside, slipping on a domino and an altogether other point of view. The eyebrows mingle, the eyes are alike, the same.

It doesn't last long. The moment slips away, the world returns...

Satori is slippery in these psychological times, because anyone who sits quietly in meditation will experience something like it sooner or later. The anime Tenchi Muyo illustrates it like an interior snap of light inside the meditator's skull, a moment so commonplace every Japanese schoolkid recognizes it instantly.

Zen is nothing special. Suffice to say, that as far as bull goes, it arrives tenfold.

iii. Rant

This was all brought on by an extraordinarily irritating program on EWTN, the ultraconservative Catholic channel, Wednesday evening last. The "expert" they brought on to dismiss discuss Buddhism was not a Buddhist, but Anthony Clark, a Catholic polemicist and assistant professor of Asian history at the University of Alabama who praised my cross-cultural hero Thomas Merton with the faintest of damnations. Rather than letting Clark get away with ever so gently kicking the electric fan into Merton's bathwaterb, let me tie this nihilism stuff and my favorite koan, back to Christianity.

Remember Buddha's seeming lack of social concern? I mentioned it just a little bit ago.

When you bring a social conscience to Buddhism and demand to see a little action, especially if you're a Christian, you get the Christian answer: "Go, sell all you have, follow Me."

God delegates.

Be a perfectly reflecting MIRROR to all sorrow, spend everything you have and everything you are on what you see and what you hold, like a mirror, within yourself. Hang on that self-abnegating cross, embrace that descent into hellish judgment from your fellow human beings. Do good works, lose yourself in action (and Imitation), and you're not a dumb, dunderheaded, unconnected BRICK any more. That's Christian — heck, that's Mother Theresa!

And that's Buddhism.

bWhy is December 10, 1968 different from all other Tenths of December? Because, like Mahatma Gandhi, Thomas Merton encountered an improperly grounded fan.

iv. Disclaimer

A friend of mine gave me a poster many years ago which I have to remember whenever I spout Buddhism (because she got very tired of it). It's a quote from G. K. Chesterton, "Satan fell through force of gravity." Indeed, the dilettante's path is beset on all sides with banana peels.



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