Yesterday I saw Amanda Palmer of The Dresden Dolls (my new favorite Weimar meets Punkrock drum & piano duo) do this thing that the Hammer Museum near UCLA is putting on called “Conversations.” Basically they invite two celebrities who don’t know each other to sit on stage in the museum courtyard and talk to each other for two hours. Amanda got invited and named Henry Rollins as the celeb she’d most like to talk to (apparently she also requested Noam Chomsky, but Noam wasn’t available). The resulting conversation was really, really interesting. I was pleasantly surprised because I didn’t know what to expect. I don’t think Amanda and Henry knew what to expect and were probably as surprised as the rest of us.
I’m sure if you search around on-line somebody must have posted a blog about the talk. So I’ll just stick to my own impressions. One of the most interesting things they hit upon was the way nearly everyone in the entertainment biz tends to feel like they don’t really belong there. The only ones who are cocky enough to think they deserve to be famous probably won’t be famous very long. Henry Rollins said that when he acts in a film he sometimes feels like at some point the Acting Police are gonna break down the door and arrest him for not being a “real” actor. He said he feels the same about any of the things he does, including writing books, singing and all the rest. Then Amanda (I think it was Amanda) said that she’s seen the same thing with a lot of people, particularly any who are good at what they do. If they’re a doctor, they always feel like the Doctor Police are gonna come in, or the Lawyer Police or whatever it happens to be.
This is something I feel myself. Only it’s the Zen Police I’m worried about. It may be the reason I’m so uncomfortable in Buddhist robes. I feel like any minute somebody’s gonna “out” me as not being a real monk.
In fact, though, this does actually happen. But it’s never anyone who has any actual credentials in Buddhism who tries to out you. It’s always some jag-off who’s read way too many D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts books who’s got some highly developed ideas of what a Zen teacher ought to say and do. I especially love the guys who shriek, “BUDDHA SAID DO NO HARM!!!!!!!” at me on their little blogs because I said something that offended (harmed) them or — more often — that they believe might offend somebody else. They should all go be butt buddies together, that’s all I can say…
When I first published a book on Buddhism I became aware of the tremendous pressure that exists out there in the big wide world to conform to a certain ideal about what a Zen teacher should be. It’s a very vague, but generally understood consensus image we all carry around. And when I say “we all,” this includes me and includes a lot of people who’ve studied and practiced Zazen for years and really ought to know better. But we all have a strong habit of buying into these consensus images society provides for us. In the case of Zen you can see this consensus image in fictional characters like Yoda in Star Wars, Kwai Chang Caine in Kung Fu or even the weird idealized portraits the media has of real people like the Dalai Lama or Tich Naht Hahn. Of course there are a tremendous number of assholes — and I won’t name names, but I’m sure you can guess — out there who play to this image and try and present themselves as the living, breathing embodiment of it. Yeah, right. Believe whatever you want, friends and neighbors.
At one point in my so-called “career” in this business I made an attempt to conform to this. But it was a pretty half-assed attempt. It felt so incredibly wrong that I could see it was doing me a whole lot of harm (see above) to try and be that non-existent thing people seemed to want me to be. In turn it does other people tremendous, perhaps even irreparable, harm when guru guys of various sorts present themselves in that way. It creates tragic fantasies that are nearly impossible to undo. The best way you can “do no harm” is to present yourself exactly as you are.
I can dig what Amanda and Henry were saying because I know I’ll probably never feel like a “real” Zen teacher. I mean, I have all the proper credentials and pedigree. But I often feel like I cheated my way into receiving those certificates and robes. Amanda Palmer said when she plays a concert she sometimes looks out at the audience in amazement thinking, “Wow, I really put one over on these people!” Actually, that’s not a quote. I didn’t take notes. But something like that. Anyhow that’s exactly how I feel sometimes when doing a Zen lecture. Or even when writing a book or a stupid blog entry like this.
But there is one difference. Maybe. I don’t know if Amanda Palmer and Henry Rollins know this. But I suspect they do or they couldn’t be the tremendous performers they are. And that is that anyone who might try and “out” you as not the “real” whatever it is they think they know all about, those people are just as big of posers as you are. This includes the Acting Police, the Music Police and especially the Zen Police. The whole world is made up of nothing but posers. The only “real” whatever it is you can ever be is to really be yourself. The practice of Zazen is intended to do just one thing and that is to help you understand what you really are and to enable you to be that person. If that person isn’t what society thinks he or she should be, that is of no consequence whatsoever.
This is what Dogen goes on and on about in Shobogenzo when he writes about “meeting a true person.” Not someone who lives up to some groundless ideal of what a Zen teacher or student is supposed to look like, but someone who is truly himself or herself. But also keep in mind that what you think you are and what you actually are, are two very different things. There may be no relation at all between the image and the fact.
It’s Sunday today which means it’s gonna be Monday in Tokyo in a couple hours. So I gotta go do some “real job” stuff. See ya!