Walking the Streets with Ancient Conversations

We Zen monks walk through the deep mountains and valleys, through the brightly lit streets and dark alleys of the cities of this world, with stories of ancient conversations up our sleeves, or in our bosoms, stories of people who enacted buddha’s teaching together and realized the way, stories that encourage us to continue walking the path of devotion to the welfare of all beings. (1)

— Reb Anderson

I read this passage a few nights ago and it touched me deeply. Conversations are ubiquitous in the Zen tradition, conversations between students and teachers, wayseekers and adepts, puffed up egoists and realized peasants. Conversations are the medium through which one’s realization is tested and revealed, and are often paradoxical and bizarre. At least, they appear to be paradoxical and bizarre when viewed from a particular paradigm.

Version 2

Monks walk the world with stories of ancient conversations in their hearts, stories that cultivate sincere devotion practice, and devotion to all beings. I realized when I read this passage that I had been viewing conversations from the same paradigm that struggles to understand the apparently odd conversations that make up these stories.

In the next paragraph, Anderson describes bringing the objects and language of breakfast to a guest that is staying with him. In coming to his guest, they enter into a conversation called “breakfast,” a conversation in which he and his guest, “together with all things, dependently coproduce breakfast” (2).

This draws from the Buddhist teaching of dependent co-arising, in which all things arise out of all things, and nothing is separate or independent from anything else. One way to understand this teaching is to consider all the beings who efforted in order to bring you an egg you have for breakfast: the beings who packaged, transported, and stocked the egg; the beings who built the vehicles, roads, and buildings in which that egg was housed; the beings who fed and cared for the chicken that produced the egg; the beings that grew the food that fed all the beings that efforted to bring you this egg. This is one way of looking at dependent co-arising.

And so, when I, following Anderson, come to my guest, we, together with all things, dependently co-produce the conversation that is breakfast. This conversation is beyond-mutual: there are far more than two parties coproducing the conversation. And really, there are no parties. There is no separation between me and my guest and all things. We are the conversation that is breakfast.

There was a moment in which I understood this directly. As I write it now, my understanding is conceptual, intellectual; it is relative knowledge. I must keep practicing to know it directly.

Notes

(1) Reb Anderson, Being Upright: Zen Meditation and the Bodhisattva Precepts (Berkeley, CA: Rodmell Press, 2000) 166.

(2) Anderson, Being Upright, 166.

Lessons from my Master’s Thesis

I submitted my Master’s thesis last week. The whole project unfolded over the course of about 15 months, with the most recent 9 months being markedly more involved. I learned a tremendous amount about how to do research, how to write, and how to manage myself. I also learned a lot about my topic, which included Neoplatonism, Dionysius the Areopagite, apophasis, theurgy, and Christian apologetics, among other things (1).

For a good chunk of that time, the angst that I wrote of a month back has been in play, with some ebbing and flowing. In fact, my reactions to doing the work played a larger role in how the work got done than any actual skills I had or didn’t have. This project was by far the biggest research and writing endeavor I have undertaken, and, it might be argued, my first product as a “scholar.”

Desk_cropped

My desk

It is of course a beginning, rather than any kind of end. Many seeds of ideas were planted that I will cultivate, grow and explore in the future. I hope to present, publish, blog, and share my work in other ways. Dissemination and conversation are perhaps more important than the initial research itself.

Now that I am a week out after turning it in, I have a few reflections on the process that I’d like to share:

1) Work doesn’t come before family or spiritual practice. This is a guideline I set for myself a while back, and though I don’t always follow it, I had an opportunity to affirm it during my last big push. Instead of skipping dinner and working relentlessly away on the night my thesis was due, I chose to stop for a few hours, cook and eat with my partner.

2) After digging deeply into a topic for over a year, I feel I know less about it now than I did at the start. I’ve heard many variations of this realization before: the more you learn, the more questions you have, rather than answers (2). This seems like a good thing.

3) A nice side effect of #2 is that I feel like I can communicate the topic more clearly, with more precise language than I could before. And I’m not constrained to technical language only, but have a range of words at my disposal. Which is nice, if I want anyone to have a clue what I’m talking about.

4) Don’t take things too seriously. This is going to be a lifelong effort for me. Even though I enjoy humor and can be a goof, I’ve got a real serious streak that is pretty good at killing all joy. I love to read and research and learn, but when the serious angst sets in, it’s all killed. And this violates the first grave precept in Zen, which is:

5) No killing.

Notes

(1) Many of these terms may be unfamiliar, and for the time being I would recommend googling them for more information. I anticipate writing more on each of these topics in the future, and when I do, I’ll link to those entries directly.

(2) There is a great Michael Franti song that comes to mind: “I say hey, I be gone today, but I be back around the way; seems like everywhere I go, the more I see the less I know.” From ‘Say Hey (I love You).’