Monday, November 1, 2010

It Is What It Is Because It Is What It Isn't, Isn't It?


A lot of people think that Zen is supposed to be confusing, and it can be.  It's not intentional but pointing directly at the truth is very specific and precise.  So much so that until you actually experience, it won't feel true.  Maybe intellectually you can wrap your mind around it as being possible, but it won't feel true like gravity feels true, or pain, or the taste of fresh strawberries.

Words lay out the boundaries providing the frame for understanding, but without direct experience we can't see the picture within that frame.  The best we can do is describe it with metaphors, telling parables and stories of the moment of realizations of those who've come before.

For years, I'd read all these stories and metaphors, wrapping my mind around them but recently I've experienced my mind becoming them.  Something will fall into place and as I put together the words to describe it, I realize the descriptions already exist.  Not only do they exist, but they're pointing exactly to it.

It's like two people bird watching.  One spots a bird and tries to describe to the other where it is among the foliage.  Pointing directly at it, it remains unseen by the other.  "It's right there!" they exclaim. And of course, it is right there just waiting to be seen.  The second person may even be looking right at it, but not seeing it because of distracting foliage breaking up the bird's silhouette.

As I listened to Sojun Roshi's talk on the Middle Way that I wrote about last week, I heard things what he was saying but not always what he was telling me.  During the question and answer after the talk, I brought up my thoughts about things being just as much what they aren't as what they are and all that.

I knew he had been a painter earlier in his life so I brought up something related that I had struggled with years ago.  I mentioned that when I was studying fine arts, as I was developing my own "style," I struggled with portraying the figure and ground* as not being separate.  I became frustrated because, visually this is impossible.  By definition, the figure and ground have to be visually distinguishable or the canvas would be blank or at least a solid color.

This was an idea informed by my intellectual understanding of Zen and Taoism about the interconnectedness of everything, the lack of discrimination in an existential way.

After I'd said this, he told me I should try and go back to painting.  I realized at this advice, that Zen does not teach that reality is homogeneous, just that things are not separate.  The figure in a painting exists as figure because it is not the ground and vice versa, but the painting is nothing without them both.  The existence of the painting relies on the existence of the figure and the ground in relation to each other.  Every painting communicates this idea, we just don't see it even though we're looking right at it.

I could be dramatic and say it struck me like a bolt of lightning, but it wasn't like those Windows 7 commercials.  I wasn't suddenly prettier and surrounded by light with awe inspiring music in the background.  It was just the truth, as I'd been looking at it but never seeing it.

A few other examples of this came rolling out of my brain soon after this.

The first is very Taoist, in fact it's a whole chapter from the Tao Te Ching.  A cup only functions as a cup because of the absence of material inside, such is the hole for the spoke of a wheel as well.

Another that goes back to my own artistic bent is that of flavor.  When cooking, everything has some sort of flavor. Those that are successful at composing new flavors rely just as much on what they include as what flavors they exclude.  The true flavor of a well marbled piece of beef relies on not smothering it with butter or barbecue sauce or even ketchup.  Some foods call for this, and sometimes even a nice piece of beef.  But in true flavor composition, these things need to be recognized.

Speaking of composition, music is the same way.  A song is just as much the rests between notes as it is the notes themselves.  Take out the pauses and the song is no longer the same song.

I could go on like this forever, but it doesn't matter.

This seems to be one of the problems with promoting enlightenment experiences, satori or kensho.  You convince someone they're looking for something in particular when it's right in front of them the whole time, they might not recognize it when they actually see it.

Ever been in a situation similar to the bird watching one above?  As the second person, you finally see what you're looking for and get upset with the directions towards whatever's being pointed to?  "Oh, that right there!  That doesn't look like one of those, you should have said it looked like this right next to that."

Get the picture?  Look for yourself, if you keep looking you'll see it.  Remember that others can only point from where they're standing, sometimes perspective gets skewed.  Their descriptions might not make sense now, but when you no longer need them, they will.

*The figure is whatever you're supposed to be looking at while the ground is what is behind the figure.  Optical illusions usually play on this interaction with an effect called "figure-ground reversal."  This phenomena inspired my desire to eliminate this confusion.

1 comment:

  1. Greeting Kevin,

    Again, you have made an inspiring post.

    I am a Buddhist myself since birth but a lazy buddhist. I read very little about sutras and doctines as I could not much understand them. I studied about zen but I find them too confusing. The teacher who taught me acts as if he is beyond reach above the students. I personally feel that if a religion writing is over the profound limit of a layman's wisdom, then in what way could that particular religion help us in transforming our lives? It is like a chicken and a duck talking. If we were to ask ourselves why do we need a religion? It is because we wish to transform our lives for the better and to attain happiness.

    I feel that the best teachings or collections of writings are the real living kind. Sometimes, I always wonder why animals know an earthquake and they could sense any form of changes are about to happen... they are actually so zen minded without even studying zen. Let me share something further. I have a dog and a cat now. Both my furkids seem to know every plant and tree in the garden. When my cat is sick with flu, she knows where to find some particular grass/leaf and eats it. The plant did cures her effectively without going to the vet. And my little dog taught me how to listen to the rain and the wind. In the past, I took no notice of any rain or thunder. Whenever it rains, my dog would sit by the window or the doorstep and with its ears perk up, it is like he is enjoying the rain. There is one particular afternoon that I sat with him together and I suddenly realise I have listened to a musical tune without any notes. That is the sound of the rain and the wind that does not require any musical notes. That feeling I experience at that moment is so lovely. I feel my heart float and all my wonderful memories in the past came back to me. From that experience, I started to enjoy listening to the birds and then to the singing of the cicidas, and then to some other insects. I experience this very slowly a little at a day. But as much as I love to be this sensitive and carefree, I am always busy with my life as I have to tend to my housework and my job. I would not afford this luxury often. I think my dog and my cat has a more comfortable life than I am. They do not need to work and when they are snoring or sleeping, they always assume they are working haha.

    Anyway so much for this causal joke, I wish to say that a religion should have documentary proof and it should show actual proof that it is able to help us to transform our life for the better. I think it is pointless to read a thick book full of un-understanding words that we need to take years to interprete and we keep thinking "well it seems like this but it seems not like this".

    If I switch on the TV, I know I can immediately watch pictures, but I absolutely do not need to study all the complicated wires that store behind the TV box. I do not need to understand the technical terms on how that TV gets to flash the pictures. Likewise same as a religion or a faith... it should be easy to understand and within the reach of a layman's wisdom so that we can practice with joy. Life should be light, and stressfree and we should enjoy what we are doing.

    Just my personal silly thoughts.... well dont take it to heart about what I share....

    Cheers and may you have a beautiful day :)