The Inevitable Consequence Of Everything You’ve Ever Done

Seeing as this blog literally has “zen” in the URL, I should probably write about Zen in a non-flippant way at least once.

So, Zen. All is one. No past, no future, no present, only the beauty and perfection of what is. As is generally the case with eastern religions, a lot of western folks have an odd, idealized conception of what it means to be a Buddhist, so let’s get a few things straight right off the bat:

  • I have never shaved all of my hair off.
  • The only robe I wear is my bathrobe.
  • It is possible for me to experience anger, in addition to various other strong emotions, both constructive and otherwise.
  • I do not believe that the soul of my great grandfather currently inhabits my cat.

Are we clear on that? Good.

My fascination with Zen began when I was browsing an alternative bookstore in my hometown. The guy who owned this store (he might still own it, I’m not sure), who is also the proprietor of a local hemporium, is an interesting sort of fellow; allegedly, he’s as nutty as a fruitcake. An avid conspiracy theorist, believer of Scientology-like religions and cults centered around alien intervention with life on Earth, all kinds of nonsense. As is generally the case with such individuals, more than a few rumors and urban legends have circulated about the man and the way he operates his businesses. The legend behind this bookstore, as people tell it, is that he buys all the books at retail, reads them cover to cover, then resells them at the price he believes to be their “actual” worth. Sometimes this is higher than the cover price, sometimes this is lower, depending on some unknown criteria of which only he is truly aware. Doesn’t strike me as a particularly viable business model, but that’s how the stories go. Regardless, the store has a charming atmosphere about it, and it’s a great place to find books that are a little ways off the beaten path. It was here that I found the book Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies, & the Truth about Reality by Brad Warner. The book is an autobiographical recount of a bassist’s progression from having beer bottles thrown at his punk rock band in country bars to receiving his rites as a Buddhist Priest in Japan.

Hardcore Zen is a refreshingly candid take on what he feels is the true nature of Zen. Far from the flowery, pretentious depiction of Buddhism that a lot of other books offer, Warner speaks openly about how frustrating it is to study Zen, how self-contradictory so much of the doctrine is, and how crushing his experience with his teachers was. Like a lot of people, I don’t enjoy feeling as if I’m being pandered to, so his brand of brutal honesty was especially appealing to me, in spite of (and, indeed, because of) his unpalatable-at-times presentation. After reading this book, I became a Buddhist.

The mythic origins of Zen are about as bizarre as what you might expect from any mythic origin stories. Long after the virgin birth of Siddhartha Gautama in 563 BCE, a Buddhist teacher named Bodhidharma was visiting a powerful king, who was showing off his newly constructed, lavish and elaborate Buddhist temples. Bodhidharma, upon seeing this, is all like “yo, WTF is this shit??” and the king is all like “yo, I thought you’d be psyched, what’s your damage?” and Bodhidharma’s all “…shit, man, I don’t know,” at which point he crawls into a cave at the base of a mountain and meditates until his legs atrophy and fall off.

At this point I would like to point out that Chan Buddhism, the Chinese tradition upon which the Japanese Zen is based, is also known as “Crazy Buddhism”.

One of the central elements of Zen is the beauty and perfection of the world as it is, and that separation between people, objects, and the world are merely illusory. Consider: the act of preparing a cup of tea is a fairly mundane thing that millions of people do hundreds of times a day. When you prepare that tea, however, you are using dishes crafted by another, based on designs inherited from others, using a mixture of herbs and ingredients based on traditional recipes reaching back thousands of years, with other tools and implements constructed by others based on inventions and traditions stretching into eternity. All of those objects, all of those people, all of those lives, all of that existence came together to bring you that cup of tea, and now all of that is an irrevocable part of who you are and your life’s story. This simple act of boiling some water and steeping tea connects you with so much of the universe in ways you can not even begin to fathom, and your actions today shape the universe in ways you can not even begin to conceive. According to Zen, the way to understanding is through recognizing these supposed “mundane” things as intricate, beautiful, and perfect.

Of course, there’s a hell of a lot more to it than that. And my understanding is still quite limited. Next time I post about Zen, I’ll talk about why, specifically, it appeals to me.