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The problem and its solution Barry Magid October 28th 2023

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We’ve been spending some time discussing Lou Nordstrom’s memoir, American Zen Pioneer, and that necessarily puts our focus on his account of his enlightenment experience and everything it did and didn’t do for him. Much of the memoir is focused more on what it didn’t do in terms of an internal split, an internal sense of unreality, of not being seen, and how so much of practice was oriented to the cultivation of states of samadhi that temporarily allowed that sense of unreality to disappear into an absorption or non-separation with the moment, but did not really ever heal the inner condition that was torturing him.

So one of the things we’ve tried to describe is an alternate view of practice, what it’s aiming for, what it can do, and in some ways trying to describe a different kind of post-enlightenment practice. What is our practice intended to settle into? How would it manifest or utilize some of the kind of insight that Lou achieved but which remained very dissociated or compartmentalized? What would that look like if it wasn’t so dissociated?

The traditional Soto response is that enlightenment is not something that is achieved so much as it is something that is continually enacted. But the twist and the paradox is that it’s the effect of an enlightenment experience that allows you or enables you to heal, that your practice is the enactment of enlightenment. We can say that the affective quality of our pre-enlightenment practice is precisely that it’s stuck in a means to an end way of thinking, and that we’re largely stuck in a mode of We’re not there yet.

We could say that it’s a characteristic of post-enlightenment practice, not just in the sense that we’ve arrived and we’re there, so much as even the experience of We’re not there yet, is part of being there. That, rather than the privileging of a certain kind of state of samadhi or concentration, is the embodiment of being there, at least for a moment. What we’re trying to point to is a sense that all those sittings that we were experiencing as our bad sittings, where we were stuck in pain or restlessness or wandering thoughts, are in a sense just as much an enactment of enlightenment as the sittings in which we are deep in samadhi. That there really is a kind of confidence, faith, realization that “just this” is always being enacted in our sitting. And this was Joko’s constant way of pointing to the absolute in the midst of emotion or bodily tension.

In a way it’s a kind of dissolving of the distinction between the problem and its solution. You can say that when we start out, the problem is very clear and the solution, while clear, is something distant in our imagination, and we can see the problem and the solution as a kind of fundamental dichotomy, and it is, in a sense, our basic koan. Koans are always this kind of presentation of a divided self and a divided world. With dogs and Buddha-nature, being a dog is definitely a problem. Being Buddha-nature, now that’s the solution. How do we close the gap and what does closing the gap look like?

One of the ways Joko talked about closing the gap was the abandonment of hope. That was a kind of What does it mean to take away the carrot at the end of the stick that you think you’re always chasing? What if there’s no separate carrot? I remember sometime encountering the work of the French religious philosopher, Simone Weil, if my pronunciation is confusing you, it’s spelled W-E-I- L. She died during the second world war. She was a Jewish convert to Catholicism. When she came to mind the other day, I thought I remembered hearing a Simore Weil joke to the effect that she liked everything about Christianity except the resurrection. So I tried to look that up, and it turns out it’s not a joke at all. I found a quote where she’s writing to one of the Catholic spiritual advisors saying that if the story of the gospel ended on Good Friday with the crucifixion, it would be much better for her faith, and she always thought of the resurrection as this kind of trying to cheat, to have a kind of get out of jail free card, somehow erasing the fact of suffering and death, with this promise of an alternative.

That’s the kind of thinking that Joko sometimes gets associated with, to completely snatch away any hope of resurrection, of enlightenment, of anything outside, just having this experience. Simone Weil saw God not as an antidote to our suffering, but suffering as about the closest we get to an experience of God. I may not be doing her justice because I find her a very difficult and problematic figure, but as I understand it, her idea is in a way that God voluntarily absences himself from the world as a way to make space for man, and that the space that God empties himself out of, is the space in which self emerges. It’s the absence of God that he is the self, and the self in the absence of God necessarily suffers and is afflicted. But in a strange way, the way we best know God is through his absence, through the pain we feel in his absence, and the pain we feel in our suffering.

If I have that right, it’s really no fun. I don’t think I want to go there with her. But it does give a model of this collapse between the problem and the solution. The very thing, the suffering we think we need to relieve, she turns around and makes it in fact the goal we’re moving towards itself.

When we think about enlightenment experiences and what they do and how they manifest, we’re actually presented with two very different kinds of experiences and their consequences in the literature. They might correspond in some way to the experience, on the one hand, that all is one versus the experience that all is empty. One version of the experience that all is one, may be the oneness with immediacy of what’s right in front of you and what you’re doing, and that tends to be much more the kind of oneness that’s valorized in the ritualization of practice in Soto Zen Buddhism, and it’s the oneness of exquisite attention to detail, meticulousness, that can evolve into preciousness. The other kind of all is one experience that we sometimes encounter more today, takes the form of Engaged Buddhism, the sense we’re not just one with the teacup, but we’re one with the suffering of humanity, and that’s the kind of oneness that says, Hurry, we have to put out the fire! And there’s always a fire, the world is always burning, there’s always suffering, so that kind of oneness is a mobilization to action. That’s a very modern version of oneness.

Bernie Glassman tried to enact some of that in his ideas of work practice or engaged Buddhism or street retreats or things like that, although most of what that did was geared to altering the consciousness of the people on the retreat rather than doing a lot of social engagement. He tried to do that with the bakery and homeless people, but by and large we still were in the position where the focus is on our experiencing a connection with the suffering of others, not becoming socially engaged as a response to it.

The fact is there’s also a whole other kind of experience of enlightenment and this plugs much more into the Chinese and Taoist side of Zen, that sees the emptiness of everything, and to see the emptiness of everything is to extinguish the distinctions between good and bad. Everything is just the way it is. And there is a kind of underlying delight in that. That’s the strange psychological reality of emptiness. We don’t experience it as a depressing void, or at least I don’t have that experience. Rather it’s much more the dropping away of all our judgmental baggage, and another kind of simple delight in things as they are.

Now again that can devolve into preciousness. That certainly seems to be an occupational hazard, but I think that affectively, if you give rise to an expression of, shall we say – Lighten the fuck up! As opposed to Hurry up! The house is on fire! – it’s interesting that in the literature of Zen we have many more people who seem to exemplify the lighten up side. Perhaps that’s because for much of its existence in China and Japan, Zen existed in cultures where there was very little potential agency for affecting things like government, society, and the economy, and religious practice was much more a form of dropping out of that world and finding an alternative. And in that alternative you hear things like “In the Spring, I followed the fragrance of the flowers and In the Autumn I returned and I followed the fallen leaves.” There’s not much emergency in that kind of picture of enlightenment.

Again, with most dichotomies, I guess it’s our practice to try to dissolve them, to find either some middle or some synthesis between these two. But in terms of our day to day practice, it seems to begin and be sustained by this dissolving of the difference between good and bad sittings, a collapsing of both into just sitting, in a way that sitting becomes this part of our day, or part of our life, where we just show up to life as it is. We show up to that hour of experience which may go well or may go badly, by our ordinary way of thinking about things. We have this discipline of showing up regardless, without thinking: Is it going well or badly?

I think that may be the most fundamental way in which we get our practice unstuck from goal-oriented thinking. When we get up, after the sound of the bell, we have to see where that takes us. Does that non-distinction lead to heading to Grand Central Station to join protests for cease-fires? Or will it be a way in which we head out to the art gallery and enjoy a moment of beauty in a burning world? With luck we find a way to do some of both.

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