Saturday, April 2, 2011


One of my all-time favorite New Yorker cartoons is a drawing of two Buddhist monks sitting next to one another, one young, smooth, and puzzled of face, the other wrinkled and clearly cranky, snapping at his junior, “Nothing happens next. This is it.”

The further you burrow down into the joke, the further its petals will open out to embrace you.

I keep coming back to it because I feel in myself, all the time, the urge to find out What Happens Next. Somewhere deep down inside, I’m after the next big splash, the next peak experience, the next shattering revelation. When things just move along as usual, I easily take on the puzzled, naive expression of the younger monk–and in doing so, run the risk of missing that what’s needful is right under my nose. (In fact, probably is my nose.)

“This Is It” is a fair approximation of the oversimplified understanding of Zen teaching that’s insinuated itself into North American pop culture over the last couple of generations. But ironically, along with the stress on what’s right in front of us, the discourse of spiritual self-improvement tends to emphasize the big, cathartic, singular experience that will get us there: we’ll fully embrace the ordinary, just as soon as we get our money’s worth out of our trip to the mountaintop. We want a dramatic opening, a flash of intuition that bowls us over and makes everything different. Then we’ll settle down to accepting that everything’s just the same as it was before–except perfect.

The paradox of wanting it both ways is like being the young monk and the old monk at the same time. It’s also in a sense the paradox of the relation between the two main schools of Zen Buddhism, Rinzai and Soto. It’s Rinzai that long held sway in the American imagination, thanks to the formative influence of D.T. Suzuki.

Rinzai is the Zen of long, rigorous training and radical breaks in consciousness, of going nuts over an insoluble riddle and getting hit by your teacher with a stick when you get it wrong, over and over and over again; of the kensho, the opening, that cuts through illusion and reveals the inherent Buddha-nature of all things as they are.

Soto is the Zen of quiet of contemplation, of just sitting by a lake, or in front of a flower, or over a cup of tea. The distinction in Japan is a class-based distinction: Rinzai was long characterized as the Zen of the samurai; Soto was the Zen of ordinary people, of farmers and shopkeepers.

The Rinzai impulse as it plays out in New Age workshop culture can turn into the macho pyrotechnics of extreme spiritual sports, up to and including incompetently conducted sweat lodges that participants leave feet first.

The Soto impulse can lead to people passing around tacky polished stones with words like TRANQUILLITY carved into them.

I struggle with this all the time. I struggle with it these days while leading a six-week art-based Lenten practice, “Restoring the Wellsprings,” at the Church of the Redeemer in Toronto. Holding space for the dozen people who meet Tuesday evenings to share their inner explorations and make art together, I want it both ways. I tell myself I’m aiming to facilitate a place of calm where people can come forward in response to the still, small voice. But I also find myself asking whether I’ve made enough room for the heightened intensity that can come with focused interaction, the jolt of surprise that something profound and exceptional is opening up for them. The fact is, in striving for either, I’m also playing out the disparate desires I have for my own life.

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