By John Lee Pendall
There’s right speech, and then there’s the fantasy self that keeps it.
Aren’t we a fantasy when we don’t speak what’s in our hearts and minds? Don’t we then create a duality between who we are and how we act? If we choke on enough words, we might wind up at an existential crisis, wondering who we are. Are we the inner self that flows uncensored, or the outer self that passes through filters?
Buddha said that we should avoid saying untruthful, unhelpful, unnecessary and unkind things. But aren’t we being untruthful if we keep silent when there’s something we want to say? Aren’t I being untruthful whenever I stop myself from insulting someone or talking about orgasms even though I want to?
There is much assholery in me that I’ve, more or less, been able to keep to myself. Is it wrong for me to cover up my asshole? Is it wrong to put on a shirt, and a pair of pants? Is it wrong to wear a mask?
Of course not. We cover ourselves for others, because most people find public nudity taboo in this culture. The same goes for a naked mind. So, if I have any consideration for others at all, I have to not be an asshole inside before I take down my filters.
Many, many people have been enlightened before they were ready. I think that Chogyam Trungpa, Sogyal Rinpoche, and Noah Levine are a few (though it’s iffy if Noah Levine has experienced enlightenment or not—I have my doubts).
Enlightenment (Bodhi) and Nirvana (the end of suffering) aren’t the same thing. You can be enlightened but still not “enter Nirvana” and vice versa. A Buddha is someone who’s experienced both, and Buddhas are very rare in this world.
That said, we don’t have to get all the way to Nirvanaville before Waking Up. Just getting halfway there, or one town over, is enough. Then, once those filters come off, we can be our genuine selves, inner and outer can be the same, and we won’t be aggressive, narcissistic, drunk-in-the-gutter perverts.
Teachings like, “Just This,” and, “You’re already complete” point to enlightenment. If I took them to heart right now, I’d basically be Gregory House. If I didn’t try to be different, if I let my inner self be my only self, very few people would wanna be around me and I’d make a lot of people miserable and angry.
We have to train the lion before we let it out of the cage. If not, it will hurt people, because that’s what lions do.
“But when we Wake Up, it’s clear that nothing is separate. So there’s nowhere for things like anger to appear. I mean, who is there to be angry at? What’s there to be angry about? Insults and crudeness become a thing of the past, like last night’s dream.”
Tell that to Ikkyu. I’m a big a fan of Ikkyu, don’t get me wrong, but still. What about the hot-heads like Linji and Hakuin? They might be exceptions to the rule, but they’re exceptional enough to make me question the rule.
If someone thinks that enlightenment suddenly makes you sing Disney songs fart rainbows, then they’ve been grossly misled. In Zen, enlightenment is living non-duality. There’s no longer any conflict between our feelings, perceptions, habits, actions, thoughts, words and consciousness. Our inner worlds and the outer environment are identical.
This means that any afflictions you have will immediately become more visible to yourself and others. You won’t be able to hide your madness anymore than will your peace. People will see you the way you see yourself, and (again) vice versa.
The only affliction that enlightenment relieves is doubt or confusion. Everything else, the love, hate, generosity, selfishness and food fetish are still there. You just won’t be conflicted about them anymore.
So, don’t rush into it or think that there isn’t any work to be done. Like Shunryu Suzuki said, “You’re all perfect as you are, and you could all use a little improvement.” “Perfect as you are,” is the door to enlightenment, and “a little improvement,” is the path to Nirvana.
I’d like it if this was the last word on the subject, really. Confusion on this can really fuck with someone’s practice, and it is a common misconception.
“So, what should I focus on first? Ditching my assholery, or illumination?” It’s definitely easier to work with assholery after illumination, but it can make it hard to settle the mind enough for it to shine. Together is a skillful way, because then they’ll reinforce each other.
It’s common to focus on the wisdom and meditation parts of the Path and forget the moral part. You know how often I meet a Western Buddhist who follows the moral aspect of Buddhism? Not very often, that’s for sure. We compromise here in the West. We water things down like we’re high schoolers stealing our parents’ vodka. Then we expect to stumble on the same results that all the Sutras and commentaries talk about. We’ve got all the cookbooks and all the ingredients.
We want a cake, but we don’t want to bake it. We want to be able to buy it from the store, pre-baked.
More like half-baked! And I’m guilty too. The only reason I can see this in others is because I see it in me. The same way I know another’s love because I’ve felt my own, I can see when someone’s a shitty Buddhist. Most of us are because we can’t combine Buddhism with the Western idea that freedom means doing whatever we want—but we certainly try.
It’s common to even forget about the meditation part of Buddhism, too. Then Buddhism is just Buddhology, an academic subject we geek out over without ever truly getting anything from it.
I do think that Buddhologists should have a prominent place in Buddhism, but not as priests and gurus. Why do ya think I’m still a novice? I’m much more of a Buddhologist than I am a Buddhist. I’ve done very little to ease the inner asshole. Of course, it’s possible that I could be being too hard on myself, but I have no way of knowing.
All I know is that, inner John is both a cynical bastard and a hopeless romantic. On the outside, I’m neither. I’m polite, kind, quirky and considerate. Only on rare occasions do the cynic and romantic come out to play.
I personally fear that I might “fail” at Buddhism, at the aspect of it that softens our hearts. I’m afraid that I’ll Wake Up without making up for all my shadows, and that massive upheaval in my relationships will result.
At the core of it, the solid foundation behind why I keep my inner self and outer appearance separate, is that I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or break anyone’s heart. I’ve managed to live 33 years without breaking a heart (that I’m aware of). Some might argue that this withholding of my impulsive cynicism and wistful dreamer is the True me. That I am, in fact, living true to my deepest values: peace, love and happiness. Those are the reasons why I choke on some of my words.
But, I’m not sure if I buy that. Because I’m not at peace, I’m not happy, and I don’t feel the love. What I feel is sometimes toxic, sometimes sweet. I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to take the filters down. After all, are peace, love and happiness really my values or were they given to me? It could be that I value transparency more. “Here I am, for better or worse.”
I am sorry for how harsh my tone was in this article at times, but the inner me can be harsh.
I can also be gentle, loving, and scared. Scared of losing you, of having you think ill of me, because I care what you think. I would like you to think that I’m a voice of peace and kindness, but I’m unsure if I can be anything but a pile of everything.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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