A guy named Brian who posts on my blog (hardcorezen.blogspot.com) asked:
“I’m wondering how you feel about stories of Zen masters who endured what would normally be insane levels of pain through the discipline of zazen? No doubt some of the stories are fanciful, but we have on video the monk who set himself on fire and didn’t flinch until he was dead.
“Do you think you could do that after so many years of sitting or is something missing? Or is that really not the point of zazen, just a type of parlor trick that’s cool to know can be done but isn’t the primary purpose of meditation?”
In case you can’t view it, this is a video of the uber-spiritual wonderman Ken Wilber hooking himself up to a machine that supposedly demonstrates how he can voluntarily stop his brainwaves.
This stuff kind of reminds me of juggling.
When I lived in Santa Monica, I used to walk down to Venice Beach on weekends. There would always be lots of talented people on the boardwalk doing various tricks for chump change from tourists. One of these guys was a juggler. He was absolutely amazing. He had this trick where he’d climb up on a balance board on top of a top of a rickety wooden ladder and juggle like five butcher’s knives, all while making clever jokes at his own expense. It was astounding. Take a look:
Like most people on the boardwalk, I’d watch his act, be amazed and then put a dollar or two in the bucket he passed around at the end. I was a local, and hence a cheapskate. Maybe the tourists slipped him fives and tens. Or maybe some of them were cheaper than me and just threw in quarters.
I’ve done twenty plus years of daily zazen meditation, plus more intensive retreats than I care to remember. Having been through some interesting scenes during practice I can understand how one could use meditation practice to learn to do some pretty impressive tricks. I personally could not sit still while I was on fire and I doubt I could wire myself up to an EEG and make the indicators do whatever I wanted. But I can see clearly how that could be done.
A few people have responded to my blog by comparing me to this or that teacher and saying those guys are much better because they encourage their followers to help others. One reader advised me to get over myself and, “learn to live for others.” It’s good advice, to be sure. But what exactly does it mean?
One of the complaints often lodged against Zen is that it’s a selfish philosophy and practice. Spiritual teachers of other schools are always talking about how we should give to others, help those in need, lend a hand to our brothers and so on. But when you take a look at Zen literature there’s not a whole lot of that. Oh, Dogen Zenji talks a bit about compassion and sometimes you hear the Metta Sutra, the Buddha’s words on kindness, chanted at Zen temples in America. Although elsewhere in the world this chant is more associated with the Theravada school than with Zen.
Zen, on the other hand, tends to seem self-centered. Rather that hearing a lot about how we should be of service to others, the standard canonical texts of Zen appear to focus on what we need to do to improve our own situation and state of mind. They do sometimes make reference to helping others and saving all beings. But these references are almost always a bit abstract. They say we need to help others, but don’t go very deeply into how that might be done. This focus on the self is ironic considering that Zen is often portrayed as a practice aimed at eradicating the self.
But have you ever glanced up randomly when you’re on an airplane ignoring the flight attendants safety instructions? When they tell you how to use those oxygen masks they say that you should first secure your own mask before helping others. There’s a good reason for this. If the plane is losing oxygen you’re going to be too woozy to be of service to anyone else until you first get your own stuff together. This is the way it is in life as well.
About a week ago I saw a posting on Facebook regarding a big Buddhist gathering in upstate New York. The post read as follows, “Next week, New York’s Garrison Institute will be hosting some 230 Buddhist teachers for a conference on a range of topics concerning the future of Buddhist practice in North America, including legacy, succession, lineage, ethics, and ‘how to preserve and adapt the Dharma in new conditions without losing depth.’ The conference, known as the Maha Teacher Council, is by invitation only.”
I reposted this link on my own Facebook page with the following comments, “Oh nice. A self-selected group of important Buddhists get together to decide what’s best for the rest of us. Gatherings like this worry me a lot. The intent is to create a unified sense of what Buddhism ought to be. It’s like trying to create a unified sense of what art ought to be. Very Soviet sounding to me.” This generated a lot of commentary and crosstalk that’s still going on even as I type this.
One of the initial comments asked if I was “butt hurt” at not being invited. I’m not sure if “butt hurt” is how I would describe my feelings. But the commenter was correct in assuming I was not invited. And he was on the right track in thinking that my not having been invited was part of my problem with the event. But it wasn’t because I was “butt hurt.”
That’s right! Here’s your chance to win a date with Brad Warner! You know he’s a dreamboat! You know he’s a famous author! Now here’s your golden opportunity to actually go on a real live date with Brad Warner! Where will you go on your date with Brad? Will he take you to his favorite Thai restaurant? Or perhaps you’ll go on a shopping spree to the comic book store! Who knows?
My friend John Graves sent me a photo of a billboard that’s been appearing all over Los Angeles. The one he took a picture of was right near The Grove, in one of the highest rent districts in one of the highest rent cities in the whole world. The billboard says: “The Bible Guarantees Judgment Day May 21, 2011, …Cry mightily unto God – Jonah 3:8, Mon-Fri 5:30 – 7PM, 1280 AM Radio FamilyRadio.” Next to these words is a photo of a guy who is either kneeling to pray or in the throes of a painful bout of constipation.