Thursday, March 17, 2005

The Ulysses Effect

Well, if you’re reading this, that means that Blogger is once again working, or I’ve figured out some way to post message text without going through their inconsistent on-line interface.

I’ve been working away from the office for three days now, and while that might be a story unto itself, it’ll have to wait until another day. I've got a lot to say that's all trying to burst out of my mouth simultaneously, but first, I want to respond to GreenSmile’s comments.

Unfortunately, it is, quite simply, not possible to state what Zen teaches about this or teaches about that, just as Zen itself defies definition. To define it is to limit it ("it is this, and therefore not that"), and to make a neat conceptual package that abstracts from the whole and gives only part of the picture. This would not capture Zen, which is rooted in our deepest direct experience. The non-conceptual nature of Zen is apparent in catch phrases that became popular in Song Dynasty China. Zen trainees took their cues from such expressions as:

"No dependence on words or books"
"A special transmission outside the scriptures"
"Direct pointing to Mind" and
"Seeing one's true nature is to become the Buddha."

People talk about “Zen teachings” or “the Buddha’s teachings,” but these are just figures of speech, expediencies for the sake of communication. There is, in fact, nothing to teach. On the other hand, over the last 2,500 or so years, great amounts of “teachings” have been recorded and passed down from Master to student. But keep in mind, these “teachings” are not the thing being taught – they are like fingers pointing at the Moon, skillful means of directing the student toward the truth, but not the truth itself.

In the following email, my friend Julie P. deals with this tricky issue:

From: Julie P.
Date: Wed 3/16/2005 2:49 PM
Subject: Zen Questions

I've just spent a good chunk of today working on answers to a set of questions sent to me by young C. K., an Emory student who came to last Sunday’s newcomers' session. Thought I'd post the dialogue to our group.

Could you describe the Zen Buddhist community further for me. What is it like? Are the people you practice with all close friends of yours? What role does the community play in your life?

As a general point, I’d like to say that I don’t think of myself as a Zen Buddhist - the denomination doesn’t really make much of a difference to me, the way that it might be important to some other people. So my sense of community within Buddhism is more to do with the general idea of sangha - a community of people to practice with, who are each working in their own way to understand and realize the teachings. This is very important in the Buddha’s teaching - this idea that we do not practice alone - that we depend on one another to realize truth. Sangha is the third of the Triple Gems - the three foundations of practice.

Close friendships are always a joy, but that isn’t totally relevant in this context - I almost never see people from the Zen Center outside the zendo, and that is fine. I rely on the Center for a practice community, not a social life.

What are your beliefs on the origin of the universe?

Actually, I don’t think about this very much at all. It’s one of the topics the Buddha put into a wonderful pile he called Things Which Are Not Productive to Think About. Though another way of answering your question is to say that the origin of the universe is in each mind-moment: how is consciousness conditioning what The Universe is understood to be at any given moment?

What are your beliefs on the end of time/death of the universe?

Again, this question doesn’t have much of a bearing on practice, so it’s another member of the aforementioned pile.

What do you believe happens when a person dies?

OK - so this very clearly does have a bearing on practice, if you phrase the question as, “what do you think will happen when you die?” And the answer is a big DON’T KNOW, though I think as a Buddhist there are things I can do to prepare for this inevitability. One is to acknowledge it as an inevitability. Another is to practice “spending time in the neighborhood of death” (my wording). This comes down to a willingness not to ignore death, and to pay attention to death as I encounter it in daily life. In Buddhist countries like Thailand, hospital morgues are teaching facilities which people can visit to familiarize themselves with what dead bodies are like, not from a morbid point of view, but from the point of view that our bodies are themselves of the nature to die. There are a couple of important funeral chants in the Theravada tradition which say:

(for the dead)
All conditions, truly they are transient,
Of the nature to arise and cease
In their cessation, bliss.

(for the living)
Such is the nature of my body
It too will die and lie senseless on the ground
As useless as a rotten log.

Another part of “spending time in the neighborhood of death” is less literal, and involves accepting and fully experiencing the grief and confusion of events such as the breakup of a relationship, an illness, or the death of a friend. Our tendency in this culture is to plaster over painful experiences, to over-medicate and distract ourselves, but Buddhist practice encourages us instead to take the time to be with painful experiences and let them be our teachers. A person who has spent a lot of time getting used to death is much likelier to be able to move gracefully towards her physical death when the time comes. . .

There is more to this email, but I’ll have to continue with this on another day. I want to jump off for now and write a little bit more about this on my own.

At a seminar today, I heard a professor from the University of Georgia who specializes in medicine and public health discuss what he called “The Ulysses Effect.” Basically, this effect refers to what happens to a person who is diagnosed, either correctly or not, as having a life-threatening disease. Ulysses, of course, went off one day to fight in the Trojan War and undertook a long voyage and had many great adventures, some painful and difficult, some pleasurable, but all life-altering. When he finally returned home, he found that both his world and he himself had changed.

It’s like that to the diagnosed. Their life is “normal,” at least to them, and then one day this diagnosis happens and suddenly they’re in a world of hospitals, clinics, tests and procedures, and when it’s all over, they’ve changed. After a battle with cancer, say, the patient suddenly spends less time in the office and more time with family and friends, at the golf course, or even at church. The old world is gone, and they are no longer the same.

What’s happened, in my opinion, is that they had this sudden epiphany of the impermanence of life, and they’ve examined their values, and found the old behaviors lacking. But why does one need to wait for a diagnosis for this kind of life-altering reaction? With the direct experience of Zen, one can clearly see the impermanence of all things, directly realize one’s own mortality, and accept the inevitability of death. And therefore come to live each moment as fully and mindfully as possible.

Don’t mistake these things, “seeing the impermanence of all things, directly realizing one’s own mortality, and accepting the inevitability of death” as the teachings of Zen. These are common experiences of Zen students, but not Zen itself. They’re fingers pointing at the moon.

As I said before, there’s nothing to teach.


GreenSmile said...

Thank you. This is helpful. To those who sense there is only one destination but still ask for directions, it is not dismaying to be shown a rocky, steep and winding path that disappears into the mantle of clouds that hide the peak.

I know a blog is a jealous mistress, mine want about 150% of my time and do not distinquish between spare time and metered time...your effort is obvious and appreciated.

Mumon said...

Thanks for this great post- the issues raised here go to apply to the recent brouhaha over "Terri Schiavo," and I quoted you on my blog today.