Life animates us and we return the favor Barry Magid August 17th 2013

The traditional way we talk about the relationship of the individual to the world, usually framed in terms of separation versus oneness and the paradigmatic story of the life of Shakyamuni, is told of his growing up in a literally walled-off sheltered idyllic kingdom protected from the realities of sickness, old age and death, and at some point venturing out into a broader world to come to terms with those realities, finally culminating in an experience of oneness.

I’d like to suggest that we look at the relationship of the individual to the world from a different axis that has to do with the way we experience the nature of the world that we’re either a part of or cut off from. The sociologist Max Weber used the term disenchantment to describe modern man’s experience of the world as purely material, purely the object of our rational goals and our techniques for transformation. It was, in some sense, a valueless object onto which we projected our own intentions and it’s value was in what we chose to do with it. It’s a measure of how thoroughly we occupy a disenchanted world that it’s hard to even come up with a word for the opposite end of the spectrum. Enchanted has too much of a kind of fairy-tale quality to it, to think of it now as a viable alternative to disenchanted. We don’t even know what to call the opposite.

The dilemma for us, if we see the world as intrinsically material and devoid of any meaning of its own, is that when we feel non-separate from that world, we feel part of something meaningless, a vast material universe driven by cause and effect or even randomness, with no plan, no purpose, no meaning, and that the best we can do is sort of try to impose our own narrative upon it to give us some solace in the midst of a deeply alienating landscape. The modern sense of alienation, or of meaninglessness of the world, is not just a matter of feeling separate from the world, but of feeling part of a world that is just a thing.

So part of our practice is to try to find out how to reanimate the world with value, and what we are a part of is not just a lifeless thing. Now Weber talked about man’s relationship to this disenchanted world as existing solely in terms of the imposition of his own rational goals of that world, goals that were intrinsically arbitrary or self-centered, but it’s value was synonymous with the fulfillment of that goal. When we try to talk about no gain in zazen, when we talk about uselessness, one of the things we’re trying to do is move out of that modern paradigm in which value is synonymous with use and synonymous with a goal. We’re trying to recapture some experience of imminent value, of the value of things in and of themselves, not just in terms of what use we can put them to, what we can make out of them.

Another way of trying to reanimate our world comes from our sense of participation in something that is vitalizing, with a lot of meaningful energizing, that the world is not simply lifeless material to be shaped by us, but has a vitality that we draw from, that we are animated by. We can experience that in all sorts of ways that don’t have anything to do with religion or some kind of mystical notion of oneness. When you move from the suburbs to the big city, you can have the feeling that you’re going to the place where it’s all happening. This is where it’s at. Even if you aren’t directly participating in the literary or cultural or political or financial center of what’s going on, you can feel like this is Oz, this is really where it’s all happening. We know it’s not happening in New Jersey, that’s why we come to New York, right? So there’s a way in which we can imagine that a society, an institution, a center, has a kind of meaning and vitality in its own right, and just by being there we draw something from that. Our life is not completely random or alienated. We are where it’s happening.

One of the very poignant documents from classical Rome are Ovid’s Poems of Exile. He had been the favored poet in the court of Augustus and wrote something that really offended the Emperor after he had composed Metamorphoses and he was driven into exile. He was lucky he didn’t have his head cut off, but he was sent off into exile, which in some sense was worse. The Roman Empire was a pretty big place, and he was sent to live out his life in a little town in what is now Bulgaria on the coast of the Black Sea, which was about as out of it as a court poet could possibly feel. And he wrote all these poetic letters back, trying to reinstate himself in favor. It never worked and he died in exile. But there’s that whole sense that we can have of either being at the center of things, where life is happening, or being hopelessly exiled to some intellectually or culturally dead periphery.

Now there are lots of versions of that. The sangha can be one of them, right? We can create for ourselves a sense that this place is really where it’s happening, or we can treat the sangha as sort of the Dharma equivalent of Bulgaria, and think that the real thing is happening in Japan at Eihei-ji, but we have to sort of piddle out our days in a little zendo in the middle of nowhere on 74th Street. To some extent, this is part of our own cultural and intellectual choice and creation, where we feel like it’s happening, or it’s what’s happening very far away.

We can also participate in meaning on a somewhat more abstract level when we feel like we are participating in the Dharma itself, we feel like we are part of something valuable and bigger than ourselves, and as in the verse we chant before these talks, we say “Now we see it, hear it, hold and maintain it,” See, there’s two sides of this: We see it and hear it, we are able to partake of it and draw meaning and strength from it, but we also are responsible for holding and maintaining it. We have this bidirectional relationship to the Dharma. It’s both something that supports us and something that we are responsible for co-creating and keeping alive.

In some sense the Dharma is a teaching that continues cross culturally over a couple thousand years and is available all times everywhere to everyone. In another sense, we know we exist here and now when we come together, sit down together, talk together, and enact the Dharma. We call it forth, call it forth into existence by our actions. This was really Dogen’s sense of what zazen is, how zazen from the very first sitting is a way of both participating in and creating the enlightened way. Our very act of zazen calls forth the enlightened way, manifests it right here and right now, by this action. And at the same time we don’t have to invent it from scratch, it’s not as if every time we come together we have to figure out how to sit or how to run the zendo. There’s this whole cultural stream that we can enter into and be carried along by, so we are both carried by it and the carriers of it, and I think that our experience with our practice will vary over the years, maybe over moment to moment, that experience of what is foregrounded, we’re making some big effort being here, this is it. Are we taking a lot of trouble getting up in the morning, coming down here and doing this thing, or are we in a sense able just to step on the bus and have it carry us along? Can we experience this as something that holds, supports, and carries us, rather than as a big stone that we’re pushing uphill?

It’s an interesting way to think about many aspects of our life, and Dharma perhaps is only one version of that that we participate in. It’s something that we hold as an ideal, that both supports us and that we have to support. We can think of love or justice in the same way. We in some sense live our lives trusting in the existence of a lawful world, of an idea of justice or fairness that we can appeal to, count on, hold things together, and yet that is something that in our actions we have to maintain and embody if it’s going to be continuing. We want to trust that the meaning is in the existence of love between people, compassion between people, something we want to be the recipient of, and yet it’s something that if it’s going to exist, we also have to embody.

I think we need to see our practice in this dimension in which we are not just trying to be one with everything, but that in our actions and our attitudes we are animating that world that we are one with, that we are making it a world of the Dharma, we are making it a world of love, we are making it a world of justice. That’s a world that’s worth being one with.

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