At last Sunday’s meeting, I gave a Dharma talk about free will, which I think is a myth, and so it’s a mistake to make too much of our locus of control, though having an external one makes more sense than having an internal one. A couple days later, this article appeared in The Guardian. It brought to mind Shakespeare’s tragedies, in which the inescapable fate that dooms the protagonist is not something written in the stars by gods, but by everything that makes the person who they are.
If our faults are not in our stars, but in ourselves — or, more accurately, our selves — then praise and blame are irrelevant, and the only sane response to anyone, however admirable or heinous their behaviour, is compassion. This doesn’t mean not restraining someone from causing harm, but it means restraining them for everyone’s good, not as punishment.
According to Lacan, the I which speaks and the I which is spoken of are not the same. The one observes and describes the other.
Zen practice reveals to us that we are not the I, the self, the aggregate of traits we describe and identify as “I” or “me.”
As we study the self, we may find we do not like, or even have much in common with, that self, the same way we experience some other people. Or we may like and relate to that self we are studying, the same way we experience some other people. But we are none of those people we can analyse and describe, including the self.
One of the most common practices in Buddhist meditation, including Zen, is to simply pay attention to your breath. When you realise you have been distracted by a thought, you label it “Thinking,” then return your attention to the breath.
It is a useful practice, but I question the accuracy of the label. Using the word “thinking” suggests you are in control, doing something, producing the distracting thoughts. But, as practice goes on, you will find the thoughts are there whether you are actively thinking or not, and trying to stop thinking and quiet the mind is just one more activity to be distracted by.
What if you let the thoughts be, just allow them to make their noise, like the background noise in a public place, a chatter you hear but do not pay attention to? You will find that the correct label is not “Thinking,” but rather, “Thoughts.” The thoughts just happen, and they are not your concern, and so you notice they have distracted you, and you return to the breath.
At last Sunday's sangha meeting, we discussed the first koan of The Gateless Gate. Koans are normally asked and answered in dokusan, private meetings between student and teacher, but the word actually means “public case,” and I thought it might be interesting to experiment with the type of discussion that was probably more similar to how koans were originally practiced. It went well, so we'll continue to do it.
This is Burns Night, and it should be noted that, though he likely never heard of Zen or Buddhism, he was one of the great Zen poets of the West:
But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white – then melts for ever;
Or like the borealis race,
That flit ere you can point their place;
Or like the rainbow’s lovely form
Evanishing amid the storm.
As part of last Sunday's Dharma talk, I read Sam Hamill's poem The Orchid Flower. I corresponded with him for years, though we never met. He is among the people who have died whom I cannot bring myself to delete from my email contacts. When he died in 2018, I wrote this poem:
Elegy for Sam Hamill
Two days ago you breathed out
and didn’t breathe in again. You
were in your bed at home in Cascadia.
I’m on my couch at home in Glasgow,
reading a book of your poems, one of
the books you put in a package, took
to a post office and mailed to me.
I find you in the words, and I look for you
in the spaces between.
Many people go through life with one identity, based on an aggregate of subordinate identities, often a hybrid of job and family role. When we don't hold on to identities, when we let go of old things as we move on to new things (without clinging to the new), we can be amazed as we realise all the different people we have been.
At today's sangha meeting, we discussed the dangers of judging our meditation, of thinking of it as something to fail at. How some people say, “I can't meditate,” when what they mean is that their meditation isn't what they think it should be.
It never is. And that's okay.
The only way you can do it wrong is by thinking you're doing it wrong. If you're meditating, then whatever your mind is doing — being focused, being distracted, happy, sad, angry, bored — is what it should be doing.