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All you can do is do what you must Barry Magid June 25th 2022

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The other day I came across a reference which said, I am not what has happened to me. I am what I have chosen to do. And on first reading it seems like one of those “feel good,” affirmative kinds of sayings that people passively nod their heads and agree with. But as I thought about it for a minute, I thought that it is actually an excellent example of what the existentialists, DeBeauvoir and Sartre, called bad faith. For them, when we wanted to talk about authenticity, and truly being who and what we are, they wanted to emphasize freedom, always in balance with conditions, with determinism.

Bad faith, then, disrupts the balance between determinism and choice in a way that skews the balance in the direction of one over the other, without keeping them in a kind of dialectic. If we skew things in the direction of determinism, and only talk about cause and effect, we can feel stuck or trapped, completely boxed in by the circumstances of our birth, by our history. Our cultural moment seems to be a narrowing down of anything we may want to choose, and at its most extreme, we can feel not just helpless and hopeless, but we can deny that there can even be such a thing as free will at all. We can adopt a kind of scientism that says the physical world is totally determined, that there’s no place in it for such a thing as choice or free will. We get completely boxed in by that point of view.

But bad faith is equally represented by a kind of fantasy of pure choice, pure freedom, one in which we sort of narcissistically delude ourselves into believing in our own autonomy, a kind of fantastical omnipotence of absolute freedom, and we want to deny our interconnectedness and our vulnerability. We want to either imagine or create circumstances where we do not have to take into account anybody else or anything else.

Now the challenge in practice is always to acknowledge both sides of that dialectic and let them interact with each other, or work within the dynamism of that interaction. Once when D. T. Suzuki was asked, “What is the meaning of freedom in Zen?” he said, “The elbow doesn’t bend backwards.“ We have free movement within the constraints of our anatomy, within the constraints of these real circumstances, and we do not alter the fact that I can’t move my elbow 360 degrees but only 180 degrees. It’s not what an elbow is, it’s not how it functions. In a certain way it would be crazy to ask the elbow to be anything other than what it is.

I probably thought of that Suzuki quote because these last few weeks I’ve been having a lot of pain in my knee, and it wasn’t getting better so I finally decided I would go see an orthopedist about it. He examined me and took xrays, he looked at the xrays and then he said the words that every Zen student dreams of hearing. He said, “You will never need a knee replacement.” I have great knees, and the pain was just from tendonitis, not from anything arthritic or structural.

Now that’s a very real world kind of dilemma where we have to face the interaction between what we choose to do and one of the limitations imposed by our body and what we’re able to do, particularly a body that’s getting old. And even if I don’t have to have a knee replacement, I still mostly have to sit in a chair these days, and I have to be able to practice in a way that I feel is an extension of my freedom, that I can practice in a chair. It’s a reality I have to come to terms with, but it doesn’t mean my practice life is over because I can’t sit sesshin in half lotus the way I used to be able to do. If I thought just in terms of that kind of constraint, I would feel Oh, my freedom is very constricted now, I really can’t do what I used to do. Or I can emphasize that although my knees are bad, they are stiff, there are still ways I can practice. There are always ways to practice within the circumstances I have.

Another way we see this dialectic played out in the Buddhist terminology is the tension between karma and the precepts. Karma is a way of talking about the inescapability of cause and effect, that everything we do is the result of what’s gone before and it will continue to send forth ripples of causality all through the future. We’re always in that net of cause and effect. And yet within that reality, we take vows. We take the precepts. We vow to save all beings. We vow not to kill. We vow not to steal.

How can we make a vow if everything is karmically predetermined? Well, in part when people give their talks about the precepts, part of what they say is all the things that have happened in their life that has brought them to this point. There’s a kind of acknowledgement that I am the sum of all the things that have happened to me, and because I’ve encountered suffering in one form or another, that now I’ve chosen this path and this practice. And I’m choosing it because of what happened and I’m choosing it in response to what has happened, and it is part of my way of responding to what has happened.

When suffering happens, we can simply become resigned to it, feel helpless and hopeless, and say it’s the condition of life, or we have the capacity to respond to it with agency, with vow. Now obviously all the political events of this past week illustrate the tension between those two kinds of possibilities. Our lives are inevitably shaped, determined, by the political decisions that are being made now. And yet we also have the choice and the responsibility and the freedom to respond with agency and action and a sense of possibility rather than resignation.

I also just came upon a very good summary of what this dharma position means in a song by Bob Dylan called “Buckets of Rain.” It pretty much sums up the dharma in one stanza so I thought I’d recite that for you. I won’t sing it, I’ll just recite it.

Life is sad

Life is a bust [There you have the first noble truth.]

All you can do is what you must [That’s karma.]

You do what you must do, and you do it well [That’s putting the two halves back together. That’s adding the whole notion of vow and precepts, of doing things well, to the reality of karmic determination.] And finally:

I’ll do it for you

Honey, baby, can’t you tell? [All of it is driven by compassion.]

Buckets of Rain

Life is sad
Life is a bust
All you can do is do what you must
You do what you must do, and you do it well

I’ll do it for you
Honey, baby, can’t you tell?


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