August 31, 2010
Last time I decided to ask myself questions about happiness. I found out that asking myself helps me a lot to explain certain problems to myself or others. It is strange to write an article about happiness in terms of writing a single text as if I wanted to explain a problem nobody asked me about. But if there are questions, I feel more natural to answer them. As nobody asks me questions about Buddhism, or hardly ever, I think I will ask myself more and write these interviews down. My teacher Mike says it helps him to teach Buddhism to others. By teaching, he can encourage himself to practice Buddhism. I don't teach Buddhism formally, but I can encourage myself by writing about Buddhism and asking myself about it seems the best way.
Last time you said people can practice active peacefulness or peaceful activity when they don't disturb the original balance of body-mind. But do you know anyone who is always happy, who can live like that all the time?
All the time? No. I think we can live more or less happily every day, but all the time is a rather abstract concept. People tend to want things forever or for years but such ideas about time only disturb the balance of body-mind. You think a lot and neglect actual activities. I remember when I was at a Zen Buddhist temple for the first time and wanted to attain "enlightenment". I imagined that until I attain "enlightenment", my life wouldn't be complete and I couldn't be completely satisfied. I thought that after "enlightenment" I would be completely satisfied until the very end of my life. But the people who have realized what reality is, which is what that vague term "enlightenment" basically means, can only practice some kind of balancing, rather than being perfectly balanced all the time. No matter how good you are at riding a bicycle, you can only balance, wobble, rather than maintaining a perfectly balanced position of your bike. The whole universe is like that - it is something dynamic, not static. So there is no perfect balance anywhere in the universe. All the great people we have met and who seem strong and balanced are just balancing things, they are dynamically moving from left to right, wobbling around the center, sometimes a bit sad, sometimes a bit angry, sometimes a bit funny, but never perfect. The essence is perfect, the universe that we are part of, is basically perfect, but a person is never like that. Some people are disappointed when they find out that Brad Warner has some personal problems or shows some negative emotions. And some people who look for a perfect Zen master may be disappointed when they find out Mike is a real person who acts and speaks just like other people. But Mike or Brad know exactly what supports them and can make good use of that platform. So they return to the source of balance and can enjoy that state of peaceful activity in their lives, although they may have lots of different problems.
It seems that people interested in Buddhism tend to look for perfectly happy and peaceful masters, teachers and hope to achieve such a perfectly happy lives themselves. But Brad or Mike act just like others, sometimes happy, sometimes sad, sometimes peaceful, sometimes angry. How can they inspire others if they are not perfectly happy or peaceful? What can we learn from them, other than Buddhist philosophy?
I have never met Gautama Buddha so I don't know if he was perfectly happy. But I think the biggest misunderstanding of the role of a Buddhist teacher is that people tend to confuse someone's character with attaining some kind of quality, some kind of personality. There are lots of people in this world with a great character, or people who are naturally happy and peaceful. And there are lots of people who tend to be very emotional, their mood changes a lot, their character is very complex and they have a lot of personal problems. All these kinds of people may become involved in practicing Buddhism. We can notice that Buddhism doesn't change their character at all. The peaceful types may be a bit more peaceful, because zazen helps us settle, so if someone who is already peaceful sits in zazen, they are almost perfectly peaceful, but those very emotional or sensitive people who practice zazen are just a bit less emotional. So there is hardly any difference at all. This is what most Buddhists don't realize and keep their naive ideas about how Buddhism will change their personality completely. They think they will be like Dalailama or Gandhi. I don't think so.
So what is the point then, what does zazen give you other than feeling a tiny bit better?
Buddhist practice is not about changing ourselves but becoming ourselves, finding the reality of what we are and what we are not. So our true potential can be revealed. When I practice zazen I realize that I don't have to be what I am not and that is nice, it is like taking off some burden. You don't have to think about it, it just happens naturally. But if you have doubts about what reality is, then it is sometimes difficult to be what you are. I talked about happiness last time but the happiness I mean is really just being what we are where we are without trying to be somebody else and somewhere else. A frustrated, confused person wants to be enlightened, peaceful and happy. An enlightened, peaceful and happy person doesn't worry when he or she is frustrated or confused. So being frustrated or confused is no problem! Just let's ourselves be whatever we are just now. And when a frustrated and confused person just grabs a cup and drinks tea, instantly they are not frustrated anymore. For a second or two. Or five minutes. A wise person can feel lots of happy moments in between sadness, confusion and frustration. A silly person has lots of difficulties doing simple things and enjoying simple things. A silly person says: I am not enlightened. I am not good enough. I am not this. I am not that and I want to be that and not this. Thinking like this they forget to close the door. I am silly like that, too, but not so much as in the past, I hope.
It seems that Buddhism is not so special as most people imagine.
Exactly! It's just about our original state. But the civilization tends to ignore this treasure, this natural state of a human being that is the source of the greatest things that have actually happened in this civilization. The paradox is that the greatest artists, philosophers, teachers, politicians did their best things thanks to being natural, acting naturally, just being themselves completely. Like when Leonardo painted Mona Lisa or when John Fitzgerald Kennedy gave his best speech. That original state opens our utmost honesty and that honesty enables us to act the best we can and do the best things. A cook that is absolutely honest is the best cook and the bricklayer who is absolutely himself and sincere is the best bricklayer. So this civilization is paradoxically built upon the very natural state of a human being. And Buddhism points to that state and says: Look, that's worth noticing and worth practicing and doing! So to become a Buddhist means to aspire to get the best out of our personality, without changing its original nature, without becoming somebody we are not and never will be.
So what is the most inspiring or valuable thing that your teacher Mike gives you?
There are lots of things. He is interested only in real things. But that doesn't mean he is like a computer. He is very sensitive, he can be absolutely tender when he comes across certain things. Mike has taught me through his acting that how we feel is also very important and part of our real lives. We cannot ignore how we feel ourselves or how other people feel. So he is very sensitive and caring. On the other hand, he has no respect for lies or pretentious behavior or nonsense that some people consider great. He is interested in honest questions and honest answers that are based on someone's real experience and if you pretend something, he won't be happy and he can make terrible faces in such situations. He can be gentle and kind in one moment, but then he looks like a rock. What I really appreciate is that Mike doesn't hide his weak points, he always corrects people when they tend to see him as someone great. He says that he is awful or or even calls himself names.
Is that character the result of his Buddhist practice? Or was he like that even before practicing Buddhism?
I asked him about it and what I understand is that practicing Buddhism has made him just more clear, more himself. Just like what I said about the effects of zazen. So it is a big mistake to conclude that a Buddhist teacher should be just like Mike. A Buddhist teacher should be just like himself or herself, not somebody else. That's the point. We should learn from people who have only made themselves real, not from someone who is always happy or peaceful, because if they teach us to be always happy and peaceful, they will only make us frustrated. I have met several teachers like that and it never worked. Plus most of them only pretended they were special. So that has nothing to do with Buddhism. It doesn't matter if a teacher is always kind or always firm, but they must be honest and realistic and sincerely caring, not just talking about caring. Brad is very different from Mike, they have different characters, very different, but both are absolutely honest. I don't know Brad so well, I only met him once, but I believe he is like that. And both can encourage others to lead a balanced life and they both do their best to lead their lives in a balanced way. If they fail today or tomorrow or sometimes, that's not important, but they know the value of the balanced state and the value of realistic, honest life and they live like that and that's important. They are great people and beautifully and sincerely imperfect.