Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Doing the Cockroach and Nailing Boards With Modest Mouse and Lord Pai Mei

The reality of the breakup finally hit last night, in the same way the sky gradually darkens over as you're enjoying being outside; at some definitive point, you realize that the skies are not sunny anymore. If big heaving crumbled wads of storm clouds slide in like a 300 lb. woman saddling up to her seat on the couch in anticipation for the next three hours of watching Titanic, armed with chips and sodas and half gallons of ice cream...she's not going anywhere anytime soon. I imagine a poor little mouse who had the unfortunate fate of being on the sofa at the exact moment her ass made contact with the cushion desperately trying to claw his way to air and freedom; but it is like the princess and the pea--"Debrah" the owner of the ass feels nothing.

So when rain clouds blot out the sun like the shadow of a giant ass descending to sit on top of you, there are two ways to deal with your fate: claw like mad to get out, or try to survive as if you had been buried alive. Of course there is that moment of realization when you think--your last thought--"I'm going to die." But you don't die. Like a shipwreck survivor solely existing on a liferaft in the middle of the fucking ocean, your ship long gone and finding new existence as a piece of wreckage on the ocean floor, you have two choices: survive, or die. It is as if Death were blitzing and has broken the line of scrimage, in midair about to knock the life out you, when he freezes, frozen in amber time 3 inches away from your face. Like the Matrix, really--that slip between the infinite succession of moments, razor thin, outside of the realm of time.

I guess it was in this way that I met my Master for the time I was to be in this slip of no-time. Existence was on hold for training purposes. Last night was becoming acquainted; this morning was the first day of learning how to live.

There is a book by a German professor of philosophy who went to Japan to learn the art of kyujutsu,--Japanese archery. I have never read the book but I am presently reading a critique of it in the Japanese Journal of Religious Studies by Yamada Shoji, a professor at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies. It is interesting to read Professor Shoji's credentials, having taught in the Department of Computer Science at Tsukuba University, worked for IBM Japan, and holding a P. Eng. Professor Shoji is a Doctor of Engineering, not a Doctor of Philosophy. His views reflect his background--scientific and cultural...but not religious.

Bearing this in mind, it brings to mind the anomalistic book Dancing With God Through the Storm by Jennifer Elam, which I was using in the research on mysticism and mental illness. It is just about the least appropriate book to be used in academic research, being unabashedly subjective. It eschews the hard masculine rationalism that can dominate the academic study of theology. It seems ironic to me that some of the best and most influencial minds in France were brought from the University of Paris to preside as judges over Joan of Arc, at her trial. I think I recall Antoine Vergote noting something along the lines of, "she was no match for the sophisticated rhetorical techniques that were used on her to procure a confession of heresy." She couldn't even write--she could only sign her name. How then could this illiterate peasant have been appointed by God directly to lead the charge against the English and reclaim France for the Dauphin? That was the question on trial: witch or mystic? Because there was no doubt that the events leading to the victory of the French forces were owed to supernatural assistance.

Mystical experience does not confine itself, either by class or caste or status of health. And this includes the mentally ill. In fact, as Kay Jamison wrote about in Touched With Fire, people with mental illness are sometimes able to experience living on a different level of experience. If this has any value at all, it is that it shoes that reality is not confined to one Norm.

Nor is God confined to any one mode of communication. Or religion for that matter. If God decides to appear in the guise of a sheep about to be sacrificed during a Voo Doo spirit cleansing seance in a remote village in Trinidad, then that is God's prerogative. God will walk through walls if they are lock, but tries the doorbell first, and if that is not heard, a loud knock. But he will not break down a door. Funny...if we truly desire a visit from God, all we have to do is unlock to door.

When it is locked from the inside, though, we sometimes need a key. And that key must be given. And I was blessed to have received this key for visitation from kumoso Ronnie Nyogetsu Seldin, Shi-han of present day Sui-Zen shakuhachi flute. The playing of zen shakuhachi is like being a sactuary that never existed. It is awe-inspiring, both for the notes' ability to discard barriers of time and geographic location in order to find their 'lost master.' The kumoso were priests of the Fuke-Shu sect of Zen Buddhism during 17th-to 19th century Endo Period in Japan. They were samurai who had lost their masters and wandered Japan as mendicant musicians, wearing tengai baskets on their heads to conceal their faces, and playing their flute as a way to relieve the burdens and illnesses of people in the spirit of an incarnated bodhisattva. The healing was only the result of the notes which were played in a spirit of selfless spirit by one who had chosen to take it upon themselves to reincarnate their Master's spirit through music. In a way the shakuhachi is a musical koan--it is given by a master as a tool for prying the mind away from the ego so it can be experienced in its pure, unadulterated state of being. The healing is nothing more than entering into the place where pain and pleasure do not exist.

The healing I received from Ronnie Nyogetsu Seldin was sorely needed, and during this time of severed attachment, the teachings of the Buddha were never more relevant. It involves a shift in perspective. The typical response to suffering (barring sado-masochistic disorders) is aversion. The ego-based state of being resides in this programmed reality: that suffering is not-desirable and pleasure is desirable. To deny this reality is to be delusional; that is to say, when one says, "I love getting my heart broken, I can't get enough of it," or "I haven't had a drop of water to drink in four days and I don't want any!" they are living in a non-existent reality of their own making.

Contrast this to the prison created by the affirmation of ego-based consciousness. When we affirm that "suffering is bad," and "pleasure is good," then our world is interpreted and lived out accordingly. We run from discomfort and we look for pleasure, no matter how unrealistic its attainment in things might be. We are hamsters on the wheel of samsara, generating the electricity that runs the Devil's house. When we stop running, neither God nor the Devil not any created thing exists, or seems to exist, because we are at the Center of all things. When someone asks you, "are you experiencing the love of God?" it is like asking a fish if he feels wet.

As I listened to the shakuhachi in meditation, my eyes wandered outside and noticed through the screen that it was raining. It was very soft, like dandelion blossoms falling on the grass. And then I was given the koan by Shi-han Nyogetsu:

When does the rain stop falling?

I watched for the answer, with every falling drop. I hung onto the air and waited. My eyes became unfocused, and the screen, the rain, and the trees in the yard across the street bled together into a simultaneous vision. Does rain ever stop falling? I brought my eyes back into focus--the rain had stopped, and the music folded into silence.

* * *

It is common for conservative Catholics to fear and condemn practices outside the Church, and for good reason: it is unknown, and so cannot be trusted. This is just stating a matter of fact. How can one trust something one knows nothing about? It is like having a stranger come up to you and saying, "So and so sent me to give you a ride home from school. Get in!" You are either operating on blind faith and trust that the person is telling the truth, or you decline the offer.

There is an old zen saying, "If you see the Buddha, KILL HIM!" The Dalai Lama called Buddha a great scientist. The Buddha did not trust or believe--he knew. And that is the difference between Christianity and Buddhism, and why so many Buddhists (and atheists) are so incredulous at the practice of believing in what you cannot see. Buddhists are staunch empiricists of the mind, and Christians are cultivators of the heart. Thich Nhat Hanh has said quite a big about the use of the terms "heart" and "mind" in Buddhism, since they are often used interchangeably when speaking about Buddha-nature. In essence they are both words, just as God is a word, a word much too small to contain the Essence. But for practical purposes a system must be devised for communicating this essence linquistically. The Jews, considering the name of God given from the guise of (of all incredulous ridiculous things) an unconsumed burning bush, was considered almost synonymous with its source. To avoiding bring the Presence into the world through language, a linquistical system was devised that forwent the placement of vowels so that YAHWEH--the Name of God--became YHWH. When the vernacular was translated outside of Judaism (i.e., in Christianity), Y became "J" and W became "V," and vowels were inserted to create JEHOVAH. And we are all familiar with His Witnesses, for they trust in the promise, "Knock, and it shall be opened to you";)

The realization that God is just a three letter word breaks a few paradigms. For one, such brazenness regarding the name of the Most High "I AM" is objectionable to those who trust in the structures that claim to house Him. It is in this way that organized religion becomes unbelievable to those who cannot fathom their being a God, and that "He" has a Name.

However there are some who embrace organized religion wholeheartedly with the realization that it is not the "whole truth," as it is often made out to be by the respective party. If God is called the "Tree of Life," then a tree has many branches. And Jesus said "In my Father's house there are many mansions." Neither of these statements are any implication of anything other than to point out the fact that they were made by someone, somewhere. Buddha was not especially interested in religion; neither was Jesus, except to use the hypocricy of the Pharisees and Sadducees as an example of what genuine religion was not supposed to look like. In this way it can be admitted, as Simone Weil said, that

"Each religion is alone true, that is to say, that at the moment we are thinking of it we must bring as much attention to bear on it as if there were nothing else...A "synthesis" of religion implies a lower quality of attention."

There have been many an inquisition in the history of the Church. Bishops have often saddled up as if they were on a fox hunt when the scent of heresy wafts into their diocese. The trial of Joan of Arc is just one example, though Joan, despite the assuredness in the truthfulness of what the voices in her head were telling her, knew the fear of having to defend such non-empirical events against an onslaught of learned religious inquisitors. It is one of the realities of living in a world in which very few dwell. But a thought came to me, shortly after the koan was presented:

If you are doing nothing, you cannot be prosecuted.

It is true--the practice of zazen pleads the 5th. Because there is nothin' doin'. Zen is only a "religion" in the sense of being attached to the Buddhist tradition and in its reliance on the teachings of Buddha in scripture. Zen has no qualms about killing its master. Zen is spiritual seppuku--the hand kills the body, and one is thrown into non-existence.

* * *

I wrote a haiku a while ago:

Hakuin told me
enlightenment comes to those
with a clean toilet.

The extent of my research was how one distinguishes between mental illness and mystical experience, and the best answer I can come up with relies on spiritual discernment in the practice of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, and in the words of Jesus, "you can tell a tree by its fruits." If the fruits of experience are meanness, disorganization, sloth, arrorgance, pride, ego--these are not things of God. Experiences of clarity and peace, on the other hand, when they are reflected in non-pathological (but possibly eccentric) behavior, do not necessarily prove that the Spirit is working within them. But they do not discount the possibility either, because there are no charges to bring against such a claim. Pontius Pilate asked his own koan--"what is Truth?", never came to its realization because of his acquiescence to the mob calling for the death of an innocent man, despite having found "no guilt" in him.

And so the consequence of decision in freedom, which Dostoevsky was so fond of writing about (and which troubled him constantly), becomes truly a dreadful thing. My professor in American Buddhism related his awakening to emptiness as having reached an abyss in a state of meditation in which the decision to enter into or not rested entirely on the will, and I imagine it was absolutely terrifying. Even if we could find a black hole somewhere on this earth, I doubt we would even be able to go near it--the Government would probably have yellow tape and patrol guards surrounding it 24/7 and putting out propaganda news feeds that "scientists have discovered that what had appeared to be a bottomless "black hole" is nothing but an abandoned mining shaft." But to have stumbled upon such a place when there is no one around and to be faced with the decision (since the opportunity is staring you in the face) to throw oneself into it to be consumed in non-existence....well, its no wonder we don't go there very often.


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