Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Zen’

On My Mind

In Books, Life, Memoir, Reading, The Examined Life on February 15, 2013 at 6:00 am

A few odds & ends, things I’ve been contemplating recently:

I read about 50 books a year. I am 57. Let’s say I live another 30 years. That’s: 30 x 50 = 1500. Fifteen hundred books in front of me, given the assumptions. That’s a focus I need to get my head around.

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There are 196 countries in the world. To the best of my recollection, I’ve been to about thirty-five of them. That’s about 18%. I would like more, but am satisfied. Fifty seems a nice round number, though. If wanderlust is your thing, you might want to check out The Art of Non-Conformity, Unconventional Strategies for Life, Work, and Travel. I met Chris, the unassuming force behind The Art of Non-Conformity, here in Portland a year or two ago as he was passing through on a book tour. He’s on country 193.

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I’m a baby boomer. I was raised in a Mad Men world of: More, Bigger, Faster. That hasn’t worked out all that well. The future is: Less, Smaller, Slower. Not everyone agrees with my assessment and that’s fine. Eventually, however, more people rather than less must embrace the future mantra, Less, Smaller, Slower, or there will be no future to experience–or rather, no species to experience it. This is a hard thing and I worry we’ll not pull it off.  Wm. James:

“The world may be saved, on condition that its parts shall do their best. But shipwreck in detail, or even on the whole, is among the open possibilities.”

There is a blog I follow, Zen Habits, that might be of interest if you want to think more on a Less, Smaller, Slower lifestyle.

* * *

Alan Watts writes that the Zen mind is like a mirror: it reflects everything but absorbs nothing. This image has dogged me since I first encountered it. It seems much of what remains difficult, in politics, in business, in life, is the result of that which has been absorbed–what the Buddha called attachment. What is the cost-value ratio of that which we have “absorbed?”

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Dostoyevsky wrote: “You must know that there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory, especially a memory of childhood, of home…” Our recent snow storm prompted memories of my fondest childhood experiences: towering snow drifts, King of the Hill battles atop snow mountains, bundled neighborhood friends. I said recently that, as a species, we have no calling to a natal stream, no return to a territory; yet, perhaps the territory of memory is our blessing-curse natal shadowland. There is comfort there, but like a strong drug, memory over-use is addictive and ultimately debilitating.

* * *

The world remains a wonderful–and wonderous–place. There is not so much effort required to make this observation, though it does not come freely. I subscribe to a modest discipline to maintain this perspective: “Develop your legitimate strangeness,” said poet, René Char. The world would rather we not take this course and remain with the herd. You know my thoughts on this.

Thanks for reading and your continued interest in “…the house I live in….”

Zen and Being

In Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life, Wisdom on January 28, 2013 at 6:00 am
Chinese character for "Tao" -- the way. A gift, as it hangs on my wall, from Zen Master, Sunim Potwah

Chinese character for “Tao” — the way. A gift, as it hangs on my wall, from Zen Master, Sunim Potwah

I used to study Zen with a Korean Zen Master. He said a lot of things I did not–do not still–understand. For instance:

“Any single word loads all sorts of connection and is always valuable as the wholeness of the truth.”rightcol_banner_art

and

“Mistake or error is still good.”

A Zen Master will typically give the student a koan. A koan is like a riddle without an answer–at least most of us would think it is without an answer. The Master, however, might differ. Most likely, the Master would not consider it in such terms. Here is the first koan my teacher gave me:

A Monk asked Zen Master Yunmen the following: “When not producing a single thought, is there any fault or not?”

To which Master Yunmen replied: “Mount Sumeru.”

It would be bad form to discuss it here. That is a matter between teacher and student. But you are welcome to pick it up and noodle it. Mount Sumeru, indeed!

I like Zen in its austerity. Zen has no doctrine, no sacred texts, no gods, saints, or sinners. There is no heaven, no hell,  devil, or superstition. There is simply the practitioner and the meditation cushion. Despite all that, I don’t practice any longer. I cannot explain why. It is the koan of my life, the way I plunge into a pool, dive deeply, then dry off and never swim again. Like I said, some koans have no answer.

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I opened Alan Watts’s classic, The Way of Zen, the other day. Watts was a

The Way of Zen, by Alan Watts

The Way of Zen, by Alan Watts

friend of Ginsburg, Burroughs, and the Beats. He was also a scholar. His book on Zen is considered a classic introduction to eastern philosophy. This passage caught my eye, in particular:

“Zen Buddhism is a way and a view of life which does not belong to any of the formal categories of modern Western Thought….It is an example of what is known in India and China as a “way of liberation,”…a way of liberation can have no positive definition. It has to be suggested by saying what it is not, somewhat as a sculptor reveals an image by the act of removing pieces of stone from a block.”

To pull Watts’s metaphor, the working sculptor, a smidgen down the road, let us consider sculpting in clay and sculpting in marble. One day you, the artist, arrive at your studio, lets say, and want to create something three dimensional. You grab some clay and start molding, adding a piece here, a piece there. You form it to your vision, building it, smoothing it, building more. That, it seems to me, is how we live. We build on existence until an object conforming to our vision is created. We call it our life. It is a process of addition. I note that this method does not conform to the Zen Master of New England‘s  admonition to simplify, simplify, simplify.

David, as released from the stone.

David, as released from the stone.

But, should we turn to marble, that is altogether a different matter. That is a process of subtraction, of chiseling away, of polishing and removing until the form is revealed in the rock. Michelangelo looked at the block and saw his David locked inside. As “a way of liberation,” David must have been grateful.

What is inside? is the question. It is the opposite of What should be added? Eastern thought asks the first question, Western thought the latter.

For me, after years of working in clay, building an image to conform to my vision, I wish to turn to the marble block and attempt to release its contents. Now where did I put my chisel and hammer? (Boy, I love exhausting a metaphor!)

Thanks for reading

My breakfast with Michael.

In Creativity, Mythology, Philosophy, The Examined Life on January 21, 2013 at 6:00 am

I’m away from home, back in Maryland, where I used to live, and have just finished breakfast with one of my oldest and best of friends, Michael. I’ve written before about Michael, specifically our climbing life together, as well as the question he once put to me, “Is that all there is?” He is, to state it candidly, a constant source of interest. He has a keen mind that is curious to exhaustive degrees. Too, he exhibits a natural and uncanny ability to make unique and surprising observations. This from a man without  a lot book reading or higher education. He is one of those rare raw individuals that addresses life without the pretense most of us, for one reason or another, construct around our existence.

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Socrates, instigator of “the examined life.”

Upon sitting he declared that he was keenly pursuing “the examined life.” I was not aware that he was a member of “…the house…” and he smiled broadly at the declaration. An hour into our conversation he had a revelation. Our conversation had roamed widely: tribalism, religion, Stoicism, biology, creativity, evolution, Zen. We were off and running when he had a unique and creative thought.

I saw the idea unfold in front of me. “Like you,” he said, “I don’t subscribe to the notion that everything happens for a reason.” He said he found this notion, though comforting to so many, to be nothing more that a self-imposed fashion of mind-control. “I don’t believe in the mystical either,” he declared. “Yet,” he continued, “there is a place not mystical but beyond irony. I don’t have a name for it.” I put up my finger. “Wait,” I said. I thought out loud: “Beyond irony?” I was captivated by that idea, though I had no inkling of what it meant. “…but short of mysticism.” He smiled. I smiled. I asked if he could give me an example. There was a long silence, accompanied by head holding.

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Sisyphus

We had been talking about Camus’s take on the story of Sisyphus. Was it beyond irony, I asked, that Camus, the saint of the absurd was killed in a car crash after declaring that he was afraid of cars? We didn’t think so. That was just coincidence too close to simple irony. Perhaps it was like a Zen koan, I suggested: a thing that cannot be explained with the rational mind, but yet can be known intuitively? We agreed that that was closer. And so the conversation continued without resolution. We parted ways with Michael promising to come up with an example.

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In search of the land north of irony, south of mysticism.

An example–what is beyond irony but short of mystical?– would be nice and I will be thinking toward one as well. But more I like the notion that the thing is ineffable–which is not to be mistaken with the mystical. Although I want to explore this territory beyond the land of irony that stops at the foothills of mysticism, I was more energized by the process of our discussion than the construction of a new idea.

We began our conversation bemoaning the atrophy of creativity in our lives, then launched into one of the most creative of dialogues, resulting in a thing or two worth pondering. The point is, at least as it settled on me, that the things we value–in this instance creativity–do not exist without our effort to sustain them. To sit and moan over a loss that can be, indeed was, reversed–is that not perhaps a thing “beyond irony?”

Saturday Quote

In Wisdom on September 8, 2012 at 6:00 am

John Cage score.

I had to read and think on this a while; it is simple yet not simple, a sort of yin and yang of a thought, a binary, on off, notion by the avant garde composer John Cage. Take a moment to consider:

“The important questions are answered by not liking only but disliking and accepting equally what one likes and dislikes. Otherwise there is no access to the dark night of the soul.”

Cage is a student of Zen, that should be obvious. And if you’ve ever listened to his music you might appreciate accepting that which is liked as well as that which is not.

Have a nice weekend. I am back from Colorado on Tuesday and hope to have something to report. However, home only a day, I head north into the woods to brush up on my skills before taking the Maine guide test on the 20th.

Thanks for reading.

Fancy I cannot manufacture.

In Creativity, Life, The Examined Life, Writing on May 14, 2012 at 6:00 am

Van Gogh, self portrait

Artists did not depict themselves as the main subject of their work until the early fifteenth century, which correlates with the rise of individual wealth and power. A hundred or so years later Montaigne made himself the center of his literary work, creating a new genre in the process. In the early twentieth century Joyce declared that “The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”

Raising a family of three children and sustaining a long and successful marriage has not afforded me time to pare my nails in distant observation. I have dirt under my nails. This project (good to know my efforts here can be rendered a “project”) reflects a modern pace, whereby I attempt to get a thing done without a lot of fancy dancing around the subject. In this instance the subject being me and all the subjects that interest me. (How’s that for a circular thesis?) It may occasionally seem like fancy dancing, but it is not. I’m as straight-forward as I know how to be. Fancy I cannot manufacture.

Some say the advent of the self-portrait correlates to the improvements of polished silvering in the manufacturing of mirrors. I am trying to polish my mirror and determine exactly what it holds–though I am aware of an ancient warning of this conceit. The zen master, Nangaku asked his student, Baso, what he is trying to attain by sitting meditation. “I am trying to become a Buddha,” replied Baso. Then Nangaku picked up a roof tile and began to grind it against a rock.

“What are you doing, Master?” asked Baso.

“I am polishing it to make it a mirror.”

“How could polishing a tile make it a mirror?” Baso inquired.

“How could sitting meditation make a Buddha?” replied Nangaku.

Baso then asked: “What should I then do?”

“If you are driving a cart and it does not move,” said Nangaku, “do you whip the cart or the ox?”

Interestingly, Van Gogh’s self-portraits are all of the left side of side of his face, the right side sporting the mutilated ear. Can a person peer so deeply inside, yet expect to hide the obvious? Is that not whipping the cart? Call it self-knowledge, enlightenment, clarity, t/Truth–the ox is to be whipped.

Coffee or Tea?

In Books, Happiness, Life, Philosophy, Reading, The Examined Life on April 23, 2012 at 6:00 am

I need to shake things up. I am contemplating a switch from morning coffee to tea. Don’t laugh. This might not seem significant, but trust me, it has subtle philosophical implications.

I have a deeply nurtured routine. Until now it was not subject to alteration. Upon getting up I light a fire under the tea-pot to boil water. I take the espresso beans I ground the previous evening and pour them into the french press. When the water boils it goes into the press. I set the timer for four minutes, and so forth. Making coffee to my taste is a skill I have developed and I believe that to have a skill, no matter how small or seemingly irrelevant, is to know what counts as meaning in a certain domain.

William James observed that the individual “who has daily inured himself to habits of concentrated attention…will stand like a tower when everything rocks around him.” It’s in that concentrated attention I find the occasional burst of meaning. Mindfully making coffee is the way I begin that daily practice. The rutted path leads to the comfort of the barn. I shy from the word spiritual. Making coffee is as close as I get.

There is a tradition that tea plants grew from the eye lashes of the Buddha. Siddhartha, in an effort to stay awake while meditating, plucked his eye lashes. As they fell to the ground, plants blossomed and from the leaves of those plants tea was discovered. It is no coincidence that the tea ceremony is at the heart of the zen tradition, where focus is centered upon the paying of attention.

I was raised with the idea that life has intrinsic meaning; however, I abandoned that notion as a young man. I drifted in the direction of Camus, where meaning is a thing to be developed, not discovered–an idea I still embrace. To that end, I experience glimpses of meaningfulness in simple life activities. Last summer I read a book that shed light on my coffee routine specifically.

The book is All Things Shining, Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age. (I mentioned this book in a post earlier this year, My Window.) It’s written by two philosophers, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly. (The subtitle to their blog is: Luring back the gods.) There is one idea Kelly and Dreyfus explore that pertains to my meanderings here: making coffee. Imagine my surprise to discover this sentence, “…the coffee-drinking routine that recognizes no distinctions of worth is a routine in which the coffee drinker becomes exchangeable: assimilable to all of the millions of others who are sleepwalking through the same generic routine.”

My daily challenge is to resist the condition of becoming exchangeable, to avoid slipping into the sleepwalking state. I do not wish to live generically and have built habits and cultivated stimulus to mitigate this. Making morning coffee is one such example. But now my instincts are to step it up and challenge even that routine.

And that is why switching from coffee to tea is such a big deal.

Thanks for reading.