Saturday, 30 December 2017

Why Do We Do This?

By Rory A.A. Hinton

I was raised as an agnostic. "No mind? No matter. No matter? Never mind." This sums up my attitude at the time. The only religious conversation I had with my father was at the dinner table one evening when I was young. It was about a simple prayer that I was told to pray before each meal: "God is great. God is good. Let us thank Him for this food. Amen." I did what I was told. It eventually became more of a poem than a prayer for me. I liked the cadence of it, but that did not prevent me from wondering why I had to recite it. At the very least it was a constant reminder for me to be thankful.
     After I prayed this prayer before dinner one evening, I asked my father: "Why do we do this?" Only now (forty years later) do I understand the wisdom not only of his response to my question, but of my parent's decision to have me continually pray (day after day) in the first place. He looked at me and said: "Fine. We won't pray anymore."
     I lived as a spiritual materialist from my late youth to my early adulthood. Curious George was my spirit animal growing up, so my monkey mind was on a mission to know. This heroic epistemological quest (the hero with a thousand questions) was a form of rebellion against my agnostic upbringing. It eventually led me (years later) to a YouTube video in which an interviewer asked C.G. Jung near the end of his life whether he now believed in God. Jung answered: "Now? Difficult to answer. I know. I don't need to believe. I know." I wanted to know like Jung.
     After ten years of wanting, my early agnostic roots got the very best of me. Curiously enough, it was Jung's Forward to D.T. Suzuki's book Introduction To Zen Buddhism that woke me up out of my gnostic slumber. From here, it was only a small step to know what follows from the following syllogism: if to know God is to know the self, and if to know the self is to know there is no self that knows, then to know God is to know that there is no self that knows (QED). Knowledge without a knower? I don't know.
     I took this best of steps at the worst of times in my life. I had finished a PhD and started an academic career. However, I could not find full-time academic work. All I could do was teach courses on a part-time basis for a fraction of a tenured salary. The struggle to make a living in the career of my choice, coupled with my maddening confusion over this "knowledge-without-a-knower" business, drove me to literally sit and do nothing.
     During this time I read Philip Kapleau's The Three Pillars Of Zen. This introduced me to the practice of zazen (just sitting). I just sat on my own until I started sitting at a local Zen Center. This experience was instructive, but not long lived. My wife at the time was resentful toward me practicing Zen at the Center, and did not want me to practice there any longer. I had to make a choice. I was married with three children. Loving them was my top priority. I wrote the Roshi at the Zen Center and said that I would not be sitting with the sangha any longer because of my situation at home. He wrote me back a very short letter that was to the point: "You are obviously not ready." He knew.
     Not long after this my marriage ended in a very difficult divorce. The experience left me bankrupt (in every way). I was without hope. As I sat in this hopelessness I read Chögyam Trungpa's Crazy Wisdom and felt a hint of freedom for the first time in my life. The insight that to have no hope is to have no fear, and to have no fear is to be free, eventually led me to practice at a local Shambhala Center. However, this too did not last long. As I sat at the center, I started to feel like I was missing something. What's there to miss? There was also something strangely amiss about the place. This gave me very serious pause. These were things I was not unaware of, but at the time I did not know what they were.
     As I sat in the foyer of the Shambhala Center one evening before a scheduled sitting, an older and seasoned member of the sangha noticed that I was wearing mala beads. He looked at me and asked: "Do you wear those for fashion or for practice?" This was no ordinary question. Without thinking I answered: "Both." I did not know who or what was speaking, but at that moment I knew what I was missing: the Zen sitting style of cool boredom. His use of 'fashion' made me think of 'style.' At that moment style and practice became one, and I realized that practicing a Tibetan style of sitting had helped me determine what was ultimately best for me. After I finished sitting that evening I left the Center and did not return. The manure of experience had served its purpose. As for the amissness, it turns out that the basis for it was not an idiosyncratic reaction on my part.



     What do I mean by "best"? The best answer I can give is to say that sitting within the Zen tradition grounds me in basic goodness, enjoyment, and ease. This is a commentary on my history, part of which consists in my discovery of Dōgen Zenji in the midst of my various life experiences (briefly described above). This feeling is therefore not fleeting, but founded upon and informed by Dōgen's demonstration of the dharma. His "Sōtō Zen" is the threadless red thread that gets read through the fabric of my life, providing wise guidance as the endless ensō of it is so continues beyond the point of death (Dōgen "died in the posture of zazen," as Hee-Jin Kim points out).
   "On the great road of buddha ancestors there is always unsurpassable practice, continuous and sustained. It forms the circle of the way and is never cut off. Between aspiration, practice, enlightenment, and nirvana, there is not a moment’s gap; continuous practice is the circle of the way. This being so, continuous practice is unstained, not forced by you or others. The power of this continuous practice confirms you as well as others. It means your practice affects the entire earth and the entire sky in the ten directions. Although not noticed by others or by yourself, it is so."
     Dōgen Zenji's words remind me of the wisdom behind my parent's decision to have me experience the continual practice of praying. There was a method to my parent's madness here (whether noticed on their part or not): it was only through this continual practice that I was ready and able to ask my father about its significance, and willing to hear the answer he gave me. And it is only now, after experiencing all of the methodological madness of my life up to this point, that I continue to sit (day after day) facing the gateless gate of the Great Matter and ask: Why do we do this?

Chögyam Trungpa. Crazy Wisdom. Shambhala. 2001.
Dōgen Zenji. The Essential Dōgen. Shambhala. 2013.
Dōgen Zenji. Treasury Of The True Dharma Eye (ed. Kazuaki Tanahashi). Shambhala. 2012.
D.T. Suzuki. Introduction To Zen Buddhism. Grove/Atlantic. 1991.
Hee-Jin Kim. Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist. Wisdom Publications. 2000.
Philip Kapleau. The Three Pillars Of Zen. Anchor. 1989.
Stephen Batchelor. Buddhism Without Beliefs. Penguin Group. 1997.