By Tyson Davis
I was born in June. They tell me that makes me a Gemini.
I’m not really into horoscopes, but one characteristic that Geminis are supposed to exhibit is a split personality. This is probably true for me. Sometimes I am very serious and other times I’m very…well…not serious.
From a Buddhist perspective this can best be demonstrated by my altar at home.
On my small altar I have a statue of the Buddha like any good Buddhist would. But, on one side of the World Honored One I have a small Daruma doll, which is a round, painted statue of Bodhidharma. And if you’ve ever seen him pictured in Zen pop culture, you know he was probably pretty damn serious and probably a jerk to boot. In fact, he wouldn’t take on one of his students until the prospective pupil spent three days outside a cave and cut off his arm. I’m a traditionalist, but I’m glad Zen has changed in that respect over the centuries.
On the other side of my altar is a carving of Budai, or Hotei in Japanese. He is definitely not depicted as a pretty serious jerk. He is the “Fat Buddha,” although in today’s PC climate I’m sure we can’t call him that any more. In today’s culture, his other alias is probably more acceptable—“The Laughing Buddha.” He loved kids and was always pretty content, no matter what his situation was. He’s always depicted with a big smile on his face.
Zen in the West has a Bodhidharma problem. It’s entirely too serious, it’s not fun and there is no joy in it.
If you read articles from the Big Two Buddhist magazines, it is just like the mainstream media—biased and depressing, socio-political stories about how the world has gone to heck. And many of the podcasts from Zen teachers and the questions from Zen students in those podcasts are the same. To paraphrase a great American poem, there is no joy in Zenville.
The world is burning. There’s no doubt about it.
Turn on any one of the 24/7 news channels and they will be more than happy to show you that it is burning. But it was burning during the Buddha’s time too. It was burning during Bodhidharma’s time. It was really burning during a lot of our Zen ancestor’s times. They lived through periods of mass starvation, mass death caused by disease, political upheaval and other calamities that we in the West can’t comprehend. It probably felt like it was literally burning to our distant relatives—the cave ancestors at the end of the Great Ice Age.
And it will continue burning. Until one day it doesn’t.
But as students of Zen, we shouldn’t be attached to that burning. We should also be able to recognize as Yun-men answered his own question, “Every day is a good day.” He made this statement during one of the most politically and socially chaotic times in Chinese history. So even though the world was (probably literally) burning around him, he was able to see something else.
There is plenty of beauty in this world if we are not obsessed with the burning.
I can’t remember if I have told this story before, but earlier this year my fiancé and I were flying to Seattle. We were on a pretty big plane. Towards the front of the plane were two rows worth of an extended family. It looked like brothers, sisters, children and grandparents. One of the children was a baby, and the baby wasn’t happy. Evidently her world was burning; she was crying loud enough to let everyone on the plane know.
I was several rows back reading. I noticed the crying, but it didn’t bother me. Just another sound on a loud flight. But I guess I noticed when the crying stopped because I looked up from my book and saw the grandfather standing in the aisle with the baby in his arms. He was rocking the baby and either whispering something to her or singing, I couldn’t really tell. But somehow my brain stopped all the processing and then all I saw was Love with a capital L.
The world stopped.
There was no me, no baby, no grandfather and at the same time there was and we were all it. I was the baby, the grandfather and the Love with a capital L. I am tearing up right now as I type this, just remembering that feeling. The world was still in flames, but I was somehow able to notice and be a part of that Love.
I have a friend who says that Buddhism saved his life.
He was heading down a path of self-destruction and he would have died an early death if not for Buddhism. Buddhism saved my life too, but not in the same way as my friend. I was never heading down a path of self-destruction. I have never been suicidal and I have never done drugs. It’s just that I wasn’t living.
I was only going through the motions of life. I was asleep walking through it—about 35 years worth of it. I was disconnected and glad about it. I didn’t want to experience any emotion. To use a cliché, I was like a zombie, the Romero slow walking kind, not the new and improved The Walking Dead fast models.
When I stumbled onto Zen, I was instantly drawn to the stories of the old Zen masters who were detached from the world. But the more I practiced, the more I started to connect. At first it was just a little, but then after a few years I started having experiences like the one on the plane. It was a profound connection that I could never have imagined B.Z.P. (Before Zen Practice). If you look, there is beauty and Love everywhere.
The Buddha provided an escape from this burning world. Mahayana Buddhism decided it didn’t want to escape. Instead it wanted to be the rescue worker, the first responder that helped others out of the flames. But now, in America, those bodhisattva fire fighters are at risk of becoming engulfed in the flames, voluntarily, almost like self-immolation. It seems they are more concerned with the burning—the social and political issues of the day—than they are the sentient beings that are being burned. We save sentient beings by helping them awaken to their True Nature. There is no other way to permanently save them.
Can’t we recognize beauty and try to put out the fires? The world is beautiful just as it is, flames and all. I’ve always said that I wouldn’t want to be a Christian because Heaven sounds like a boring place to spend eternity—it’s too perfect. So, maybe the world is a beautiful place because it is burning.
Wake up and smell the roses. Literally.
Tyson Davis is not a Zen teacher. In fact, his main practice is “don’t know.” So don’t take anything he writes as the proverbial gospel (or sutra as the case may be). He studied Buddhism for a decade or so before he began practicing Zen. He’s been practicing meditation and Zen for about 10 years now. He grew up on a farm, retired from farming at age 22 and moved to civilization. He has a wonderful fiancé and a French bulldog named Ombre.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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