By John Lee Pendall
If we go by the books, enlightened sages aren’t the life of the party.
When we picture adepts, most of us probably imagine people who are tranquil, wise, and refined. In other words, total bores too #woke for personality or worldly interests. That’s why, every now and then, some weirdo Zen Master has to come along and pass out drunk in an alleyway, swear and frequent prostitutes. These teachers don’t leave behind lineages or do anything by the book. They’re beautiful disasters, like lightning strikes that leave behind only the smoldering earth they’ve scorched.
Which of these two is genuine, the stuffy sage or the wild fox? Neither, really. Er, both, I don’t know.
I do know that these nutcases are a minority. Most of the teachers in these books are portrayed as stern, studious, serious people. But that’s not because of practice; that’s because monastic life tends to attract that personality type.
This touches on a fear I’ve heard a lot of practitioners express. Many of us are afraid that our brokenness and anxiety are what make us fun and lovable, and that without them we’ll be dull. But here’s the thing: that thought is caused by anxiety. If we weren’t anxious, that thought couldn’t even form. It’s worrying about not worrying; meta-anxiety. Isn’t it great being human? We not only worry about things—like being mauled by a bear—but we worry about our thoughts and feelings.
We worry about our worries.
Practice kind of replaced that meta-worry and meta-sadness with stable, open-hearted, silent awareness. This doesn’t turn us into lackluster log bumps, it frees us up to express ourselves without hindrance. Think about your interests and passions.
Call to mind the things that make you laugh and the times you’ve made others laugh. What sort of experiences do you gravitate toward in life? What makes you feel at home? This is your personality, and all of that exists without the sorrow, doubt, worry, anger, and disorder that’s been tossed into it.
A quiet, intellectual introvert goes into a monastery crushed under desperate suffering, and a quiet, intellectual introvert leaves the monastery without that suffering. The same goes for cranky buttholes, gregarious pranksters, warm-hearted nurturers and village idiots. Buddhism only addresses dukkha (stress/suffering). That’s what practice treats. Our suffering isn’t what makes us who we are it’s what distorts who we are, it’s what creates those moments of disharmony with others. It’s that joke that falls flat, that kindness ignored, and that alienating spiritual experience that’s clung to.
The trouble with all these books, videos, and podcasts crafted by adepts is that we didn’t know them before they started their journeys.
Many of us have this belief that practice changes everything, that it totally renovates and rebuilds our personality from the ground up until we no longer resemble who we were before. That’s a steaming pile of dung. I saw an interview with a former cult leader once. He was everything we’d imagine a #woke person to be. He was collected, charismatic, and seemed to be overflowing with peace and compassion. He said that his awakening changed everything, that, “This is the only way I am now. I don’t know any other way to be.”
The dude was totally bonkers. If an awakening experience does that to you, then it wasn’t an awakening—it was a psychotic episode. It’s easy to gauge if someone is legitimately awake or not, and it has nothing to do with their personality. You just have to ask, “Do they intentionally do things that cause suffering?” If someone causes suffering, then that means they haven’t understood or aren’t free of their own suffering yet.
There’s no need to worry about not worrying. Practice isn’t going to take away anything that makes us funny and lovable; it just alleviates suffering. Your dark humor and playful cynicism might seem to stem from suffering, but they actually stem from the way you cope with things, and the way you cope with things is part of your personality—not the thoughts and feelings that interact with it. So all that stuff is still gonna be there after you kick the dukkha.
We were born with our temperaments and experiences shaped those into personality. The code has already been written, the changes have already been made.
Zen Master Ikkyu was a mischievous rebel before he tasted Bodhi and he was one after. Dogen was a quiet intellectual before practicing and he was one after. Siddhartha was a bright, studious, compassionate person before he started practicing, and he was one after. The only difference is that they no longer stood in their own way. They were able to flow out into the world and let the world flow into them. They lived authentically, and for some of them that authenticity looked kinda boring. For others, it looked vibrant and achingly human.
Practice didn’t make them into that, that’s just who they were beneath the pain.
Editor: Dana Gornall