By John Pendall
So I’ve written, deleted, rewritten and archived columns over the last two weeks.
It’s not a case of writer’s block, but more like I don’t know which direction I want to go from here. I’m like a quarter that’s spinning more and more erratically as it nears its rest.
“Should I publish this?” “No, no, try something else.” “What about this?” “No, no, no…” The only real update in my life is that I withdrew from Facebook Zen. I recently went on a three-day silent retreat in my home; no talking and no typing. After that, I got into the Facebook Zen groups again and thought, “What the **** is going on here?!”
I’d been meditating a lot and studying the Prajnaparamita Sutras during my retreat. When I logged back into Facebook, I was surprised at the number of absolute views Zennies were throwing around. “It’s this, not that!” “It’s that, not this!” “Well, ya know, if we take the Prajna perspective it’s, ‘neither this nor that.'” Judging by the responses you’d think I’d farted on the Pope! So, I’m stepping out of that bag.
There are a ton of things I could write about right now, but I think I’ll go a different direction and share and old parable with you about the nature of reality (I sure don’t hear that phrase every day).
Imagine that you walk into a shadowy room. Casting your glance about, you see a snake coiled in the corner and you freeze. A thousand thoughts flash through your head in an instant. Your muscles tighten, heart throbbing in your chest, and a cold sweat beads down your brow. It’s a small room; if that snake is venomous it may be able to lunge out at any instant.
Then someone walks through the door and you urgently hiss, “Don’t move! There’s a snake in the corner!” The stranger looks at where you’re pointing and giggles, “That’s not a snake! That’s just a rope!” You look at the coiled form, your breath still caught in your throat. “I don’t believe you.” The stranger walks over to the snake and kicks it, “See!” The serpent doesn’t move.
You step slowly over to the corner and kick the snake. Feeling more confident, you pick it up and say, “Great Scott! It is just a rope!”
“See?” the stranger says, “Nothing to worry about.”
The illusive nature of reality is kind of like this. There is a lot of talk of, “Mind only,” and, “All is illusion,” in Eastern wisdom traditions. Neuroscience and cognitive psychology are quickly confirming those beliefs. Yet this isn’t any reason to slip into nihilism or become an emptiness fanatic.
In that metaphor, when you thought that rope was a snake, the fear was real enough. To the mind, there was a snake in the room and you reacted as if there was. So by all standards that snake was real to you. This is true for all the fear, fortitude, sorrow, joy, suffering and pleasure we experience in life. A “mind-made world” means that the mind projects views and perspectives onto whatever it experiences.
Wisdom traditions are about peering through those projections and seeing the rope, the reality of things. Then we laugh and laugh and I ask if you can give me a ride to work.
A lot of questions become unintelligible when projections become transparent. “Does life have a meaning or no meaning?” is like asking, “Is that snake venomous or not?” even though it’s a rope. It’s like asking, “Is water a reptile or a mammal? Is that rock male or female? Does the color nine smell like apples or strawberries?”
As Buddha once said, “Does not apply.”
A lot of things seem inapplicable these days. “Is there life after death or do we cease to exist?”
“Does not apply.”
“Can I be free of suffering or will I always suffer?”
“Does not apply.”
“How many burritos do you want?”
“Does not—uh, two, please.”
Editor: Dana Gornall
John is a Caodong Ch'an student in the Empty Cloud Lineage of Hsu Yun. His Dharma name is Feng Dao which means "Wild Way" or "Windy Way." He originally wanted to become a social worker, focusing on preventative mental health care, but writing is his passion. “Above all else, I’m just a writer. Words come, I write them, I drink coffee.”
Oppression and marginalization are key issues for John. “I was forced out of mainstream society at a young age by my peers. So I will always stand up for the underdog and criticize bullying, coercion, and any institution that relies on those tactics.” Asked about what the most pressing issue of our time is, he replied, “The environment. We’ve bullied the earth so much that it could almost be called marginalized.”