By John Pendall
I don’t practice Zen anymore.
My departing phrase could’ve been, “It’s not you, it’s me.” I made several mistakes that thoroughly damaged my practice. I could probably return to it, but I’ve since moved on to other pastures in the Buddha realm. I’d also have to be repeatedly hit in the head until I forgot everything that I learned. This column is a friendly disclaimer to Zen students on the pitfalls they may encounter along the Middle Way.
Practice was a breeze when I was an idiot. I just sat, and sat, and sat, and engaged in perpetual mindfulness. Then I started reading Sutras and heady commentaries. I began to get involved in academic conversations with fellow Zennies. If I’d read Taking the Path of Zen by Robert Aitken and Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by S. Suzuki and stopped there, then I might’ve been fine. Of course, I didn’t stop there—I was voracious.
Really, it wasn’t books that caused me harm, it was the internet searches. Books seem to have a flow about them that tickles the intuition bone. Wikipedia, About and Britannica don’t care about intuition, they just present raw information devoid of the author’s personal experiences. “Just the facts, Jack.” When I absorb such dry articles on Buddhism, then my practice also becomes dry and crusty, like a piece of pizza you forgot in the microwave overnight but decided to eat anyway.
Facebook was invaluable when I first started practicing Zen. I joined a few groups on there and met some amazing people who helped me with my budding practice. Things would’ve been great if I’d made a few friends and then stopped participating in groups. Instead, I used my knowledge as a way to browbeat people into submission. I got into astounding debates that just solidified my views (because that’s what debates do). Suddenly, there was no uncertainty in me anymore. I knew what was what and I was determined to “help” others know what was what as well.
Why So Serious?
There I was on the zafu, banging my head against koan after koan, focusing with all my might on a Hua Tou, and sitting Shikantaza with military-like precision. I knew exactly what needed to be done and exactly how to do it. There was no humor in my practice, no lightheartedness. I approached it as an animal; no openness, creativity, or vibrancy at all.
I didn’t see the big picture, I didn’t see the delightful absurdity of practice. I was smitten by the legends of ancient teachers. Some masters had mind-blowing Samadhis lasting several days. There are countless stories about the hardships people went through while practicing Zen, and the intense effort they put into their practice.
It’s easy to lose a sense of humor when Zen’s patriarch supposedly sat staring at a wall for so long that his eyelids fell off. Some masters tell us to sit as if our lives depended on it—as if there’s a sword above our heads that will drop on us if we grow too lax or rigid. I failed to see the humor in this seriousness.
When I take a step back, all of these stories are hilariously absurd and even incorporate dark humor. I mean, Nansen cut a cat in half because two monks were fighting about it! Then, in response, Joshu put his sandals on his head! If I took that seriously, then I’d conclude that Zen is a solemn affair that endorses psychopathy. Everyone’s actions in that koan were extreme and absurd and Joshu reflected that absurdity by wearing his sandals like a Fedora. I approached Zen like Nansen and the two bickering monks, completely overlooking Joshu’s critique of seriousness.
Out these pitfalls, having expectations was the most damaging of all. Right from the get go I learned that dukkha is caused by clinging and craving—that was too much information for me. With so much information available online, it was easy for me to form a clear picture of what practice is about. Then, I just became a Zen parrot.
The Way was mapped out clearly before me; so much so that I mistook reading the map for hiking the trail. Even when I was walking the way, I’d just point at the landmarks that the map talked about and ignore all the personal stuff that wasn’t on the map. That’s the real meat of Dharma practice—the things that aren’t mapped out and can’t be found in internet databases, things so personal that they’re only relevant to you. Often times these things are painfully intimate, glaringly particular.
So now, I interpret the Four Noble Truths as: “What is dukkha? Dukkha is caused by ______. Is there relief from dukkha? If there is relief, how is it relieved?” I’m currently amidst the Second Noble Truth, stripping off my armor piece by piece so that I can see how it was put together to begin with. I have no static answers, no profound insights, no absolute truths and I have no idea where my practice is going.
I’m using the map as a guide to where I’m at right now, not as a way to tell me where I’m headed.
Editor: Dana Gornall