HOLLYWOOD ASSCLOWN or BLIND DONKEY? + QUESTION #5 FROM ST. PAUL

In the span of one week I was called a “Hollywood assclown” by some guy posting on an Ultraman forum who thinks he could do my job way better than I’m doing it and a “blind donkey” by some guy who thinks I should drop Nishijima as my teacher and follow him — oh yes, right away, Sir. In assessing these two categorizations, I tend to prefer “Hollywood assclown” simply because it’s far more creative. “Blind donkey” sounds like someone trying to talk like Dogen the way white-boy Hare Krishna followers often put on fake Indian accents.

In the same week I probably received a half-dozen or more unsolicited thank you’s for writing Hardcore Zen and this silly blog. Yet I can’t quote any of them off the top of my head. It’s funny how criticism, even when it’s completely irrelevant as in these two recent cases, always seems to stick in my mind more than words of praise and encouragement. That’s just the kind of person I am, I suppose.

Buddhist sutras often talk about keeping our balance in the face of both praise and blame. Some people like to suck up praise while others, like me, have a tendency to enjoy wallowing in blame. But both types of reaction are just the function of the ego. Praise and blame have equal ability to build up our false sense of selfhood. Thinking “I’m the greatest” and “I’m scum” are ultimately rooted in the same desire to define “I.”

Buddhist teachers tend to caution against sucking up praise more often than they caution against wallowing in blame, I assume, mainly because most normal people get stuck on believing their own hype more often than they get stuck on believing their own bad reviews. But, unfortunately, this sometimes has the effect of making those of us who are more prone to focus on blame think that we’re doing the right thing already and don’t need to fix anything. This is why I’m always wary of people who say they’re trying to destroy their egos. In the past, when I’ve followed that way of thinking, it just led to a lot of depression and despair. The ego is fueled just as much by constantly reinforcing your view that you are worthless as it is by constantly reinforcing your view that you are the coolest thing on two legs.

Neither praise nor blame can ever touch what you truly are. I am no more a Hollywood assclown or blind donkey than I am the brilliant Zen iconoclast fans of my book think I am. You’re not anything your fans or your detractors say you are either. What you really are can never be put into words either of praise or of blame.

So there!

Back to the questions from St. Paul. This one is number 5 on their list and it goes like this:

How should we “embrace and sustain forms and ceremonies” when it comes to monastic liturgical practices that may present obstacles for many western students?

I’m curious as to why the words “embrace and sustain forms and ceremonies” are in quotes. Did someone tell them in the past that they should do this? Maybe so. I don’t know.

I find that there are people who have a very, very hard time with the ceremonial stuff and there are people who love it to death. I tend to be one of those who has a hard time with it. But after pursuing Zen practice for a number of years, I’ve begun to see that it really does have value.

On the one hand, there’s nothing magical about the chants and bows we do or the costumes Zen guys sometimes wear. This is true, of course, for all such customs, although plenty of people out there will tell you that their costumes, chants and rituals really are magic. And if you wanna believe that, go right on ahead. I don’t.

But there are other reasons to wear costumes, do chanting and bow to statues. A couple weeks ago I performed a wedding ceremony for my friends Emily and Doug. You could say a wedding ceremony is a kind of useless thing. In the Sixties and Seventies it was really trendy to dispense with weddings, thinking that if two people loved each other, there was no need to formalize it with some silly ritual. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. Lately, though, people have gone back to having weddings because they can see that there really is something powerful about making a formal public declaration in a very ritualized way.

I was really against taking the formal Buddhist precepts because I felt like the ceremonial aspect was all a big load of horse crap. Either I was gonna follow the Buddhist vows or I wasn’t. It didn’t matter if I made some ritual declaration of my intention to do so in public. But Nishijima talked me into doing it, so I did. And to my great surprise, it really did make a difference. I feel a kind of obligation now to uphold those vows much more strongly than I ever did before.

When I do my talks on Buddhism, I like to start and end with a short chant. The opening one is called the “Verse to Open the Sutras” and it basically says, “We’re so lucky to get to hear this Buddhist teaching, let’s pay attention.” The closing chant is called “Extending Merit to All Beings” and says we give whatever merit we got from listening to this good stuff to all the beings in the universe. Awwwww. How sweet!

For a while I dropped the chanting cuz it felt very ritualized and fakey. But when I did so, the stuff I said in lectures didn’t feel as important. I felt free to chat, to stray from the topic at hand, to make small talk. And that wasn’t right. So I brought the chanting back. Now I still digress plenty. But I always feel an obligation to get back to the Buddhist stuff.

Nishijima’s view on the rituals and funny clothes is great. “It’s just a hobby” he always says. I like that attitude.

One Response

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  1. Alan Sailer
    Alan Sailer March 17, 2014 at 12:52 pm | |

    There is a good article by Bill Morgan called “Resistance in Meditation” that talks about some of this stuff. I have a copy that I re-read it every once and a while.

    The part that I remember best is when he talks about beginning meditation. Many people think that they are going to get “it” really quick.

    I’m going to be “one of the good one” we tell ourselves. I’m gonna get enlightened just like that….

    Then after a few weeks/days/years progress is not made. The self-assessment changes. Maybe I’m one of the slow one’s, maybe I’ll never get this. The pendulum swings from thinking I’m the chosen one to I’m the depraved one, the failure.

    The truth is that you’re probably just the one in the middle, neither especially good or especially bad.

    The pendulum, of course, doesn’t ever stop swinging.

    Right now I’m on the failure edge of the swing. Not my favorite place to be, but at least it’s an honest place to be.

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