October 30, 2019

The Pleasure of Doing Things Properly

In my last article I discussed the problem of suchness versus right and wrong. I said that in Buddhism we learn to see things as such, or "things as it is", quoting Shunryu Suzuki, but we also have to understand that within the world of people, some things are right and some are wrong. So we have to accept that there are these two ways to see things and both are necessary. Today I had done some cleaning at home and noticed this strange kind of pleasure I feel whenever I do things properly. And immediately I realized how I feel a kind of mental mess, or am slightly upset, whenever I don't do things properly. And we all know that Zen centers, Zen teachers, Zen temples, Zen retreats are very much about doing things properly. When I began to practice Zen as a young, bohemian, disorganized intellectual, this obligation to do everything properly got on my nerves, very much, especially when I saw how my fellow practitioners did things much better than I did and kept scolding me. So that was another reason I felt like an oddball in the world of Zen people. At the beginning of my practice and Zen studies, I kind of hoped that Zen would be a mixture of mess and enlightenment, it would be about poetry, sipping tea, listening to the wind in the woods, just like in the Zen books, not that mixture of discipline and everyday life, which Zen is in fact much more than physical and intellectual mess and enlightenment... It took me several years, probably it helped to meet Mike Luetchford, my teacher, to first accept that doing things properly not only makes sense, but later, even that doing things properly is a kind of fun and pleasure. And a few years ago I really started to enjoy doing things properly. At the moment I think I am at a stage when I often fail to do things properly, but I am not discouraged any more, when I mess up. I just feel some hope that it will be okay again tomorrow.

So why is it nice or pleasant, for me, but I suppose for most people, to do things properly? I think that at the moment of doing something properly, we are necessarily in a balanced state of body and mind and we are one with our activity, so obviously, it is a Buddhist state, a state of awakening. Who wouldn't like to be awakened? But we must notice the difference between the idea of awakening, which is absolutely abstract and unreal, and the experience of being fully present and balanced acting here and now, beyond concepts of right and wrong, even proper or improper.  I remember as a little kid I found pleasure in watching people who were busy doing something wholeheartedly, and properly. Let me explain the difference between wholehearted and proper a bit later. Now I was watching, as a kid, these people, like a neighbor who was repairing my bike, or my grandma who was cooking, baking, cleaning, knitting, sewing, washing clothes, gardening and singing all along happily. I deep down was sure that she was perfectly happy and true while being active like that. But I tended, all my life, to do the opposite... to screw up things, mess up, unfinish things, and get furious whenever something went wrong. I would give up almost everything I started... I hardly finished college and I still cannot understand how I was able to finish that school. When I met Mike, I noticed how my old grandma, strangely did things basically just like Mike - just doing it. Mike does not put emphasis on philosophy, he teaches philosophy which puts emphasis on actions. My grandmother did not talk about philosophy or the meaning of life, but she just did things. And when Mike does things, he does not talk about philosophy, either. In that way, to me they represent the same principle. So meeting Mike and seeing him just act without talking kind of helped me understand why I felt so happy and safe in the presence of my active grandma. Of course, she was willing to explain things. She would patiently explain to me how to do this and that, for example I was allowed to help her baking, and when I made a mistake, she laughed and patiently explained why what I had done was not proper stuff. So she did her best, used her skills fully and was willing to teach others what she learned from her mother and others. She did not have dharma transmission, but her mother gave her life transmission, which is at least as important. Paradoxically in Buddhism we learn why such people are our role models and buddhas. That's why I say that life transmission is much more important than academic debates about Buddhism.

This life transmission does not include much philosophy. If we don't understand the meaning of life transmission, the meaning of learning to do things properly from our teachers and parents, studying Buddha's teaching may help. Intellectuals like myself need to transcend their intellect and become someone like my grandmother. Without neglecting their intellectual knowledge, because that knowledge may be helpful or necessary at times. But not when you cook or mend clothes or sew okesa. Now I think it is clear that the balanced state and acting within that state is nice for most people and some of you may really find pleasure in being in that state. I don't mean flow necessarily, I am not sure if doing tedious work, repetitive work, like washing stairs or windows could be a flow. I think flow is fun, but a repetitive, simple actions, are not boring, if we stop judging them, labeling them as boring and ordinary, and just do them. Then we may feel the kind of pleasure I mean.

Now what is the difference between proper and wholehearted. You can see someone who is totally trying to drive a car and failing horribly. They are wholeheartedly committed to it, but it is a complete mess. You want to shout and say, no, not like that, use the clutch, oh, not the second gear, oh, no, stop... Obviously, the person is not driving properly, but they are doing it wholeheartedly. It is a bit different from doing something properly, but indifferently. So you can be a professional driver, you have driven millions of miles, all kinds of cars, but these days you get bored and distracted when driving. You do drive properly, but it is not wholehearted. You couldn't care less, you want to drive a ferrari at least, in order to enjoy driving again. Doing things properly, without care, is just routine, not pleasure at all. I find pleasure in doing things properly and wholeheartedly.

To do things wholeheartedly, but badly, is like making a lot of effort when we practice at our first retreat or when we practice zazen at the beginning. We try hard, we do our best, but we are not sure how to sit properly, how to practice properly. So we make a  lot of effort and we suffer - more or less. I think most people suffer a bit in such a situation. But I have also seen people learning new things, making mistakes, but no worries, just smile and they try again, and again, and again. Wow. I have never been like that. Kudos to them. I think for most people to practice zazen, to study Buddhism must be very difficult at the beginning, the first ten or twenty years, before the whole thing breaks in... but we know very well that there are people who couldn't care less. They just come and go, come and go.
In my last article I discussed the problem of right and wrong and said that in order to help this world, and ourselves, and avoid too much suffering, we need to know first what is right and what is wrong. Even what is the right way to cook and what is the wrong way. What is the right way to drive and what is the wrong way. What is the right way to act during a retreat and what is wrong. We have these concepts of right and wrong and then we do things in real life, and others decide or we decide if the actions were right or wrong. How do you install this? Oh, not this way?  I see...

But we must accept that it is not necessary to stick to, try to rigidly dwell in the state of doing everything properly and wholeheartedly. It is the ideal of Zen, but an ideal is not our real life. Our real life is much more important and much more interesting than the ideals of Zen. So if you notice that you feel nice when you stop being a bohemian mess throwing things on the floor and you begin to dust your room once a week and do your errands, etc. If you realize it is natural for you and you feel nice and balanced, that is great. And you can practice zazen the same way, just sit down, sit properly, don't worry about past and future, don't be a Buddhist intellectual, and you may find that there is something deep and true about this kind of simple way of life. Then you can return to this nice state and nice actions over and over again. But you don't want to be a proper maniac. Like some Zen people are. If you do everything perfectly, something is very imperfect about you and you may be a Japanese robot.

So the point is to learn what is right and wrong, how to do different things properly, and then just do your best, no matter how many mistakes you make. Just doing your best, here and now, doing this or that, may begin to feel strangely nice. And if you make it the basis of your life, if you find awakening in that kind of state, you may have discovered the secret of Buddha's teaching.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very cool.