Zen: An Inconvenient Truth

JD Martignon of Midnight Records (right) with Billy Miller of Norton Records (left).

Around the year 1990, I was having a conversation with the late, great J.D. Martignon, president of Midnight Records, the label that my band/project Dimentia 13 was signed to. At the time, J.D., who was French, had yet to release anything on CD on his label. I really wanted my latest album to come out on CD. But J.D. was fully committed to vinyl. Nowadays that seems prescient, but at the time it just seemed old fashioned.

J.D. asked me what was good about CDs. I wasn’t all that into CDs myself. I was never sold on the idea that they really sounded better than records, other than being free from scratches and pops. I said something like, “They’re a very portable format. They’re small and you can take them anywhere. You don’t need a lot of equipment to play them. You can listen to them on a boombox or even play them in your car.”

To which J.D. said, “Oh you Americans. All you care about is convenience.”

Last week I put up a video about online Zen. I was very careful not to denounce the entire idea of trying to create virtual sanghas on the internet. I stuck strictly to why I, personally, don’t do that sort of thing. I’m not saying I’ll never do anything like that. But so far, I have resisted, even though I could probably make some good money running one.

Looking at some of the responses in the comments on that video, I feel like I understand what J.D. Martignon told me all those years ago a little better. For lots of people these days, especially in America, convenience is king.

I’m not so sure that convenient is always better.

A lot of the comments were of the “THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!” variety. By that I mean that they were comments about how we need to be concerned for those with disadvantages — usually spoken by someone who has no such disadvantages. Can’t an online sangha fill that need?

In an answer to one of those commenters I said, “These are good questions that have yet to be answered. Students in the past often had to undergo tremendous hardships in order to reach a true teacher. Dogen risked his life to make the trip to China, his friend Myozen who accompanied him did not survive. And there were thousands of generations of Europeans, Americans, South Americans, Africans, and others who never had any access at all to Zen, no matter what their circumstances. What did we do without the Internet? I think we accomplished quite a lot.”

Sure. It’s nice to be able to offer some kind of dharma or practice to people who are shut in for one reason or another or located in places where there are no teachers. And yet…

If I believe that it is simply an accident that I ended up in the circumstances I’m in, then this sort of thinking follows. But I am not so certain that my circumstances are the result of accidents. I tend to look at my circumstances themselves as a teaching. If I am far from a good teacher, then perhaps I am meant to learn through the search for one.

Zen is all about the idea that the journey is more important than the destination. It’s all about learning to be OK with having no goal, to be OK with having our goals thwarted, to be OK with the things that get in the way of what we want. This is central to what Zen is trying to teach us. If I can reach my goals quickly and conveniently maybe I am robbing myself of an important opportunity to learn. If I can get exactly what I want and get it easily, maybe that’s not really what I need.

As anyone who has watched my videos knows, I buy a lot of books. These days, books are very easy to buy. You just go on the internet, type a few things, and the book shows up at your door the next day — or sometimes even the very same day. What could be easier?

But, as much as I like books, I very rarely buy them online. The only time I’ll buy a book online is when I want to find a specific title and I cannot get it from a local bookstore. I will often spend a good deal of time looking for certain books at stores before I reluctantly give up and order them.

I’d save myself a lot of trouble if I just got all my books online. But there’s a price for that. For one thing, I enjoy going to bookstores. It’s one of my favorite things in the world to do, just walking around a bookstore. I often find books at stores that I would never have found online. I notice books when I see actual copies on actual shelves and can leaf through them that I would never have paid any attention to just seeing them listed at an on-line shop. I found one recently that gave me an idea for my own next book. And it was the sort of book I would never have found or even noticed online.

I learn a lot by going to bookstores that I’d never learn shopping online. At the stores I am surrounded by people. I hear little snippets of conversations.

Even just getting to the bookstore is a learning experience every time. I learn how people behave on the busses I take to get to those stores. I see things I’d never see if I stayed at home. It’s fun. So is going home.

Besides that, I find that I value things more if I had to work hard for them than if I got them easily.

Getting Zen delivered right to the phone in your pocket might be convenient. But is it better? I really wonder.

Maybe Zen is an inconvenient truth. Not in quite the way Al Gore, inventor of the internet, spoke about. Rather, the inconvenience of Zen might be an important part of the truth it has to offer.


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