In the previous installment I wrote about spiritual teachers who went bad and asked, “If all that monastic training didn’t even teach him it’s wrong to screw somebody else’s wife, which is something most people without such monastic training know, then what good is it?”
Often when someone starts talking this way I think, “Yeah, but I wonder what that guy would’ve been like if he hadn’t done all the meditation and training?”
In cases where the person is accused of doing something really heinous, like murdering somebody or abusing a child (thankfully nobody in contemporary Zen stands accused of these crimes, but others in other meditation-oriented movements have been) or just plain nasty like forcing themselves sexually upon students, it’s pretty hard to take that stance. But a lot of the time far more subtle things trigger the attitude of saying that meditation practice didn’t do someone any good.
To take myself as an example, it happens a lot that I’ll write something on this blog that people read as being kind of grumpy or angry or otherwise what they would categorize as negative. So they put up comments implying that all those decades of zazen don’t seem to have done Brad much good if he still gets pissy about certain things.
You should’ve seen me before I started doing all that zazen! Or maybe you should be glad you didn’t.
Zazen has not altered my basic personality. I’m kind of grumpy, pessimistic and misanthropic by nature. I was shunned by the cool kids at school, picked on because I was a weirdo, bullied, threatened, intimidated and all the rest of that good stuff by the rednecks of Wadsworth, Ohio where I grew up. As such I do not socialize well and I am generally suspicious of people even when they attempt to be nice to me. Someone recently said to me, “Your books have touched a lot of people.” I responded by saying, “Yeah, probably inappropriately!” That’s how an antisocial curmudgeon like me deals with compliments.
Zen practice does not change what you are. Ed Brown, a Zen teacher at San Francisco Zen Center, wrote a brilliant essay about this for Shambhala Sun called “Have You Tried Meditation?” Go read it for free on line. It says what I’m trying to say here much better than I can. Ed Brown is, like me, basically a cranky sort of fellow. Forty-some years of Zen practice has not changed that.
I often wonder what sort of person I’d have grown into if I hadn’t signed up for that calls about Zen I took when I was a sophomore at Kent State University. I was not happy with myself or with the world in general. I was full of anger and resentment and fear. I figured the planet was on the highway to hell and it was just a matter of time before someone pushed “The Button” and blew us all to smithereens. I fully expected to be dead before I was thirty years old. And that just made me more pissed off and pessimistic.
Had I not found ways of dealing with this stuff through zazen practice, I’m sure the results would have been a lot worse than me being a guy who sometimes writes grumpy things on the Interwebs. I got pretty suicidal there for a while and came pretty close to going through with it on a couple of occasions. I’m glad I didn’t because all the truly cool things that have happened in my life happened after those times I decided the best possible option was to kill myself. But, then again, I’d been doing zazen by then and maybe that also played a role in keeping me from committing suicide.
So the question for me when I hear someone criticizing me or someone else for not living up to their expectations of what a person who practiced a lot of zazen ought to be like is to ask, “What if they hadn’t done it at all?” Comparing it with my own speculations about myself, I generally assume things would have been a whole lot worse.
Brad is at Tassajara until September 11th. He does not have Internet access there so his friend Jayce is posting these articles he wrote before he left. Nevertheless, the donation button and the store still work. Just in case you were wondering.