Reputation is a funny thing. In my career here in Zen Land, I’ve adopted the policy that it’s better if people think you’re worse than you really are and then get surprised when you’re nice than it is to have people think you’re saintly and then get shocked and outraged when they find out you’re not. To this end, I have deliberately allowed my reputation to get pretty bad.
Still, it’s always funny to see how this plays out in actual practice. Like, for example, I was doing a dharma talk in the Midwest and, even though I wanted to talk about the nature of God, the audience seemed to be more interested in my attitudes about sex. Sex, God, same thing right?
So it starts off with a guy asking me if I think clergy having sex with congregants is “no problem.” I said, “No! It’s definitely a problem! But it happens and will continue to happen. So I think we need to deal with reality.” I’ve talked this issue to death already here on this blog, so I’ll spare you the rest.
This goes on for some time. And finally someone says to me, “What do you do when women throw themselves at you?”
I wish I could’ve come up with a witty response like, “I wake up, because that only happens in my dreams!” But I didn’t. It made me wonder, though, if I haven’t been a little too good at letting my reputation get bad. Women throwing themselves at me? Do people think I’m the Zen version of Paul McCartney circa 1965?
Reputation, as I said, is a funny thing. We all have one. I think Gandhi said, “Create and preserve the image of your choice.” Or at least George Harrison said that he said it. But I think that’s easier said than done. Gandhi managed it pretty successfully. But I imagine it was a whole lot of work first to create the image of Gandhi and then to have to be Gandhi all the time.
If you create a Gandhi-like image of the pure holy person, lots of people are going to want to prove you’re just a big phony. They’ll be digging into your trashcans looking for used condoms and bottles of booze. You have to work hard at damage control. Whereas if you create a more down-and-dirty image, there’s a lot less work involved. Unless you’re Tom Waits who apparently developed a serious drinking problem in his efforts to create and preserve the image of himself as a 70s version of a hobo jazz singer from the 1940s.
In the Zen game a lot of what people respond to is image. You walk into a Zen center you don’t know and you see someone dressed in black robes. Immediately you form a set of assumptions about her. If you’re an American it’s likely you’ll make assumptions that she has a good character, practices moral purity, and so forth. If you’re Japanese, it’s just as likely you’ll have the opposite impression. You might assume the person is a lazy, sex-obsessed, fancy-car driving drain on society. Most of the Japanese people I associated with had a very dim view of Zen monks, much like the view we tend to have of televangelists.
Yet Buddha himself was said to have been inspired on his spiritual quest by seeing a wandering acetic dressed in robes. For all we know, this unknown monk may have been a complete phony. He may have groped women who came to him for spiritual counseling. He may have owned three houses in Vrindaban and a couple Harley Davidson chariots that he bought with money from his begging bowl. For all we know the guy who inspired Buddha could’ve been the worst possible example of a wandering monk. We have no idea. Buddha, as far as we know, had no idea. There’s no evidence he ever talked to the guy. He just saw him walk by.
The image has meaning. And the image alone can transform people’s lives even if the person playing the role is far from exemplary.
My own approach is to try and be as open as possible about who I am. I feel it’s valuable for people to know the often less-than-glamorous facts about who I am and to know that even a guy like me was able to pursue meditation practice to the point of having some very deep experience of the underlying Truth. It seems useful. It was people like that who inspired me, rather than people who seemed much more holy and faultless.
But that’s just how I do things. Maybe it’s right. Maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s right for some and wrong for others. I can’t really help that. I just gotta keep plugging away!
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TONIGHT: Thursday, March 21st @ 8:30pm. Zazen and Discussion at Yogavidala
4640 Franklin Avenue (Corner of Franklin & Vermont, behind the 7-11)
Los Angeles, CA 90027
SATURDAY: 10am till Noon, Zazen and discussion at Hill Street Center 237 Hill St., Santa Monica, CA 90405
Have you signed up for the Zen Retreat at Mt. Baldy April 26-28, 2013? Spots are going fast!