THE CONNOISSEUR OF SADNESS: Exploring The Hurt & the Healing of Our Lives Through a Zen Koan

THE CONNOISSEUR OF SADNESS: Exploring The Hurt & the Healing of Our Lives Through a Zen Koan May 23, 2020

 

 

 

THE CONNOISSEUR OF SADNESS

Exploring The Hurt & the Healing of Our Lives Through a Zen Koan

James Ishmael Ford

The Story

Our founding ancestor was facing the wall. A student on the intimate way, Huike, while standing in the snow, cut off his arm, and presented it to the master. He said, “My mind is anxious. I beg you, teacher, please set it at rest!” Bodhidharma replied, “Bring me your mind, and I will set it to rest.” Huike wailed, “I have searched thoroughly, and I cannot find it.” The founding ancestor responded, “I have set it completely at rest for you.”

Gateless Gate, Case 41

I’ve been reflecting quite a bit of late about those places where the world’s different religions might touch. And so, I was quite taken with the religious scholar Stephen Prothero, when in his book God is Not One, he observed “What the world’s religions share is not so much a finish line as a starting point.” That starting point he suggests is that “something is wrong with the world.” Each of the religions offer somewhat different takes on what that wrong is, and of course, that means they then offer rather different solutions.

Where one begins often dictates where one will end up. So, perhaps it’s a good idea to look at some of these different starting places. It might tell us something about who we are. And, we might even catch a glimpse of some larger truths.

Of the list offered by the good professor my third favorite, or, perhaps third and fourth, they’re tied up together, are Daoism and Confucianism. Confucianists sees the problem as chaos while Daoists see the problem as lifelessness. One old joke, actually it might be an observation rather than a joke from medieval China is that the scholar class were all Confuciansts when they had a job, but Daoists if they didn’t. There’s something inside that play I find compelling. There is chaos threatening lives and families and cultures, and there are more stiffling dead letter pronouncements within religion than one can shake a dozen sticks at.

That noted, my second favorite tradition is Judaism, at least in Prothero’s definition of their understanding of the universal problem as exile. I so get that sense of dislocation from something that can be called home. Some great movement from exile toward a dreamed of home feels like the direction of life, like a flower turning toward the sun. I also find the social component of this vision important. That communal aspect isn’t explicit, but it’s hard to see either exile or return without someone waiting at that home.

All this acknowledged, the story that most informs me, the analysis of the problem, certainly as the problem for the individual human heart, is dukkha. Dukkha is the Buddhist observation of that universally acknowledged wrongness. It is commonly translated as suffering. Which while true, is insufficient. Dukkha is hurt, unsatisfactoriness, unhappiness, anguish, angst. It is existential dread. It is the half of a worm we find in the apple of life.

The connoisseur of sadness might notice three aspects to dukkha. The first is the range of physical and psychological hurts to which we are subject just being bodies. The second is the hurt of our constantly encountering change. The bruises and wounds. And, the third is the suffering of existence itself. That existential dread.

Anyone who studies Buddhism will find dukkha front and center in either of the two great summations of the Buddha way, the four noble truths, and the three marks, sometimes four marks of existence. Please forgive a tiny bit of unpacking. This is really important.

The Buddhist marks of existence are, first the reality of impermanence, that is all things change. Second, the reality of insubstantiality, that is no thing or person has any part to them that isn’t subject to causes and conditions or can escape change. And third, the reality of dukkha, of hurt, suffering, angst, that endlessly bubbling sense of dissatisfaction.

And. Some good news. The fourth mark is liberation. I like that its right there at the beginning, crowding up with the problems. Perhaps you can also see it as returning home. In that ancient map of Zen’s path, the ten ox-herding pictures, the final image isn’t an experience of oneness, or as we Buddhists tend to prefer, emptiness. It isn’t at-one-ment with nature. Both are moments on the way. We pass through those. Actually, we revisit them and all the other steps, the less pleasant ones, and the beautiful moments, over and over. The fluidity of all this noted, the last of the ox-herding pictures is an old person wandering into the village, as one version tells us, “with bliss bestowing hands.”

The critical element here is the assertion that we exist within a flow of causes and effects, that reality, both the physical reality within which live and breathe and take our being, and our inner reality, the stories that we weave out of our experiences as beings moving through space and time, are from one angle as real as real can be. There is an “I,” you experience it. It can be hurt. It can be nourished. And your body and all bodies are real and subject to joy and sorrow. And, yet, from another angle each thing as it arises, including you and me, is merely a moment in the play of causes and conditions. Nothing is extricable from the play of rising and falling, of the great web of existence. And that includes our end, our deaths.

Personally, I call that play of causes and conditions the buzz. It is the buzz of reality interacting with itself. All things hum with this play of things. But for us as human beings, this hum, this buzz, manifests as anxiety, or, as some Western thinkers put it, existential angst, or existential dread. You know. Dukkha.

What is important is that if this is the problem, then Buddhism offers a solution. Several in fact. Although I believe they’re all complementary. And that takes us to case 41 in the Gateless Gate. It ranks as one of the foundational stories of our way, an epitome of Buddhism and how Zen engages the great question of human suffering.

Our founding ancestor was facing the wall. A student on the intimate way, Huike, while standing in the snow, cut off his arm, and presented it to the master. He said, “My mind is anxious. I beg you, teacher, please set it at rest!” Bodhidharma replied, “Bring me your mind, and I will set it to rest.” Huike wailed, “I have searched thoroughly, and I cannot find it.” The founding ancestor responded, “I have set it completely at rest for you.”

Liberation is the fourth mark of existence. Usually called nirvana or nibbana depending on the textual tradition that calls you. The etymology of the word suggests a snuffing out. For many on the Buddhist path it means an ending to the otherwise endless cycles of rebirths, caught up in this endlessly exhausting web of suffering. In some schools of Buddhism, the path to liberation is long, it takes many lifetimes, and much hard practice in order to liberate oneself from the shackles of this hurting life. But. Here. With Zen something else is on offer. Or, a different angle. Like wave and particle. Each true as true from one angle.

I don’t know which should be wave, which particle. But within the Great Way tradition, of which Zen is a part, there’s that other angle on nirvana. It tends to prefer the word awakening. In a nutshell: If there is no other place, then the place of our liberation is nowhere other than the place of our suffering. So, liberation can be found as a letting go of a death grip. It is as easy as awakening from a dream.

Bodhidharma asks Huike where is there a substance, something permanent? And Huike cannot find it. The response can seem a splash of cold water to the face. And it can be misunderstood. And so, let me be clear. This is a new world and new heaven that we’re being invited into. And, yes, as it might seem from the way the answer is given, in part it involves an attitude adjustment. We suffer in part because we cannot accept the way things are. So, stop doing that. Let go, and let it be.

And. There’s more on offer. A lot more. We’re invited into that place with the old person and those bliss bestowing hands. We’re being invited into worlds beyond simple acceptance and variations of mental health. Those can and do happen. And that’s wonderful. But actually, it is nothing compared to the real promise of the Zen way, the fix to Zen’s understanding of the ancient wound. This is a dropping ever further into a reality we miss when we’re clinging to our stories, our opinions, our certainties.

Here we wake from the dream of an ego-centered universe, into a larger consciousness. We need the ego, it allows us to function, but as the certainties begin to fall away, and we discover it is a dream world all the way down, our actions can become more graceful. We learn to join the flow of life.

We take up this way with open hearts and in time our hearts actually open. This is the promise of the Zen school of Buddhism. Like a bolt of lightning. Like a lover’s whisper. Like an unfolding flower.

This very place is the lotus land, it is Zion, it is heaven.

And I think, I find, from this place we genuinely can hear those other stories. The ones about chaos and freedom. I think especially about that one about an exodus. And we discover within the flow of our human dreaming, they all do speak some truths.

And their dreaming and those truths can and do become ours.

When we find this place, how can we help but be grateful?

Here’s the place of that broken hallelujah. The buzz never goes away. But we discover it is the gentle roar of an ocean. Wave and the depths, spray and current, our true nature.

Sadness and joy woven fine.

Our true home.

 

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