Before I begin, I’ll remind you that on April 21-23, 2017 we’re having another Zen retreat at Mount Baldy. Zen retreats are a great way to deepen your practice and get beyond our usual ways of relating to ourselves and others. Some of what I’m going to say here might make more sense if you attend the retreat.
In old Buddhist sutras, they often say things like, “It is a rare and fortunate thing to be born as a human.” I’m paraphrasing, but you see this sentiment expressed a lot. The idea is that it is better to be born as a human than to be born as any other kind of animal or even as a celestial being (or a god with a small “g”).
We don’t know if celestial beings exist. But it’s reasonable to speculate that there may be intelligent creatures elsewhere in the cosmos who have evolved far beyond us. Were we to encounter such creatures, we might regard them as godlike. So perhaps we can read the old sutras as saying it’s better to be born as a human than to be born as one of the dominant species of planet Regizvon who live for 5000 years and have access to technology that would seem like magic to us. If such beings exist.
Were some of the folks who wrote those old sutras able to somehow intuit the existence of beings like that living on other planets? I don’t know. I don’t think it’s impossible, but I also don’t think it’s likely. Still, there have been cases where people speculated about things with no direct knowledge of them and then turned out to be right. So, let’s say maybe they were right. Maybe there are “heavenly realms” more splendid than ours even if they might not be supernatural. Would it be better to be a human than to be one of those guys?
I ask this because I’ve wondered all my life what it means to be human; why I am here, why I am this. Certainly, the odds against me existing in any form seem literally astronomical. The odds are against me being born at all, and then to be born not only at the top of the food chain and in an advanced country where the quality of life is very good… my gosh. I got lucky, didn’t I? Why? Or is “why” the wrong question?
In any case, sometimes I feel like humanity may be on the verge of another of what Jared Diamond calls a Great Leap Forward (which is not the same as what Mao called the Great Leap Forward). The first Great Leap Forward for our species is shrouded in mystery. We don’t know how or why it happened. But from the fossil record it’s clear that anatomically modern human beings — physically and in terms of mental capacity just like us — existed for hundreds of thousands of years as pretty much just one more kind of animal out there on the prairies and in the forests. Then, very quickly, something fundamental changed and we became something utterly different from the rest of the creatures we shared our environment with. Mr. Diamond thinks it has to do with the development of language. That seems reasonable to me.
We thought we were better than the animals at that point. But, really, most of us were still stuck in the animal realm. We fought and fucked and died just like the other animals, only we did it with access to increasingly sophisticated technology and increasingly efficient methods of communication. Most of us are still doing this even today.
But some people were able to see beyond that. I think folks like the historical Buddha, Dogen, and others from similar traditions that we sometimes call philosophical, religious, or mystical were examples. They were a type of genius every bit as advanced as folks like Einstein, Hawking, Galileo, and all the other celebrated scientific geniuses.
These folks were concerned not so much with defining and manipulating the physical world, but with understanding the inner world. The special genius of Buddhism is that the Buddhist tradition understands the interrelatedness of the inner and outer worlds. I’m sure others in other traditions also get this. But the Buddhist tradition emphasizes this aspect more than most other traditions of inner inquiry, who often tend to get lost in their own head-spaces.
So what does it mean to be human? Here are some of my brain farts about that.
You think you’re an individual with your own ideas and your own experiences. But that’s just one way of looking at it. In Buddhist terms, you are also a lens through which the universe views itself.
That may seem highly speculative. It might seem like there is no evidence that your individual experiences feed into the larger collective experience of the universe as a whole. Even if you wrote down everything that happened in your life, maybe nobody would ever read it. And even if a million people read it, all those people would eventually die. Then one day last copy of your book would finally crumble to dust, and that would be that. So in the terms most of us are used to thinking of things, there is no way your experience feeds into the collective universal experience. The disconnect is eternal and the gap between you and the universe as a whole can never be bridged.
To believe that your experience is connected with the universal experience requires that you believe in a deeper kind of connection. Yet in spite of all those X-Files episodes, there really isn’t a lot of convincing evidence of that. However, if you meditate a lot the universal experience starts to become more apparent until, at some point, it becomes as undeniable as your experience as an individual.
Since most people never meditate, those who don’t meditate see those who do as freaky people with weird ideas. Yet more and more people are getting into meditation every day. Eventually there will be a tipping point when enough people will have come into the direct contact with the universal experience and it won’t seem quite as freaky anymore. As this moves forward, there will come a time when what seems normal now will flip and a new kind of normal will be revealed.
I know. I know. I sound like one of those New Age weirdos now. In a way, though, I think those folks might be right. It’s just that they allow themselves to get too carried away with dreams and fantasies. That’s why the Buddhist tradition emphasizes grounding yourself in the more general consensus of what reality is, even when that consensus is mistaken. Otherwise you tend to get lost in the ether.
When you get lost in the stink of your own brain farts — however profound and mystical they might be — you can’t be much help to anyone. You might be entertaining as hell, and people might spend a lot of money to be entertained by you. But you’ll just be a diversion, like a funny sitcom that occasionally says something deep. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But you can do better. Or maybe I should say, there are other roads to follow.
When I think about where I, Brad, stand in all of this, I think maybe I’m a slightly philosophical/mystical sort of clown. Dogen was a genius. Buddha was a genius. I’m a stooge who recognized their brilliance and has managed to comprehend just a little bit of its outer surfaces. I then try to convey this in terms that are a little bit easier on the eyes and ears than trying to read it in its original form.
I guess that’s a useful thing to keep on doing. And I am grateful that you folks out there support this endeavor.
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Here’s another plug! You can register for the Dogen Sangha Los Angeles Spring Retreat April 21-23, 2017 at Mt Baldy Zen Center right now!
Led by Brad Warner, this three-day intensive retreat will focus primarily on the practice of zazen. Morning chanting services, work periods, and yoga (led by Nina Snow) will round out the daily activities. The program will also feature lectures by Brad, as well as the opportunity for dokusan (personal meetings). Participants will be able to take advantage of this beautiful location for hiking during free periods.
Click for the registration form, practice schedules and more!
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September 7-10, 2017 Retreat in Finland
September 11-13, 2017 Stockholm, Sweden
September 15-20, 2017 Retreat at Domicilium, Weyarn, Germany
September 22, 2017 Talk in Munich, Germany
September 23, 2017 Retreat in Munich, Germany
September 24-29, 2017 Retreat at Benediktushof, near Wurzburg, Germany
October 1-4, 2017 Retreat in Hebden Bridge, England
Every Monday at 7:30pm there’s zazen at Angel City Zen Center (NEW TIME, NEW PLACE!) 1407 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles, CA, 90026 Beginners only!
Every Saturday at 10:00 am there’s zazen at the Angel City Zen Center (NEW PLACE!) 1407 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles, CA, 90026 Beginners only!
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