This afternoon our study group will begin looking into Joko Beck’s Everyday Zen, which famously begins, My dog doesn’t worry about the meaning of life. As long as she gets enough food and a little bit of affection she has no problems. But we with our self-centered minds make things difficult. Right away we’re confronted with a metaphor of a certain kind of simplicity or simple life so that we have to decide: What are we going to make of this idea of comparing ourselves to a dog? Is this the kind of simplicity we’re aspiring to? A little bit of affection, enough to eat? What’s the trouble? Everything else is just a lot of fussiness? Of course, when we talk about a simple thing like a dog’s life, as Joko does, we’re not talking about a dog in isolation, we’re talking about a dog that is someone’s pet, rather than a dog that is roaming the streets, a dog that presumably has been trained, some way or another is domesticated and is part of a household, and probably nontrivially, a dog that has been neutered.
Sometimes in Zen we also hear metaphors of child-like simplicity, another picture of what it would be like to have a simple and direct experience of life moment after moment, just like a child. As I walked to the zendo this morning there were a couple of parents wheeling a kid in a stroller, and all down the block the kid is going Wahhhh, whining and moaning. Childlike simplicity, right? So we always have to be very careful about how we get attracted to and beguiled by metaphors, particularly metaphors of simplicity or directness because it means that one way or another we imagine that this practice is not going to be about coming to terms with the complexity of our mind and life but somehow restructuring our mind and life so that they will be simple. Many people will imagine a literal kind of enactment when that simplicity takes place in a monastery, again ignoring the fact that monasteries can be enormously complicated places.
So often, when we create an image like that, whether it’s the dog, the child, the monk, what we’re doing is picking out one dimension and trying to make that the real thing that we’re going to aim for, and beyond that we ignore the whole context in which this supposedly simple thing exists, which it’s dependent on and supported by.
I’d like to read a little passage in that spirit from a new novel by J. M. Coetzee. It’s called the Childhood of Jesus, and it’s a somewhat Kafkaesque parable of the afterlife. We’re introduced to a world in which people arrive more or less out of nowhere, their memories washed clean of their previous life, brought by boat to some kind of an induction center where they are given a new name, everyone learns rudimentary Spanish, and they are assigned a new life. which in this world is one of great simplicity. Everyone does hard but meaningful manual labor, something like unloading big bags of grain from a ship that’s going to be used to make bread, and bread is pretty much literally the staff of life. It’s the main staple of everybody’s diet, and there’s very little in the way of variety but everybody is well fed. There’s very little in the way of uneven distribution of goods or housing or anything like that. Everyone lives a very spartan life but has enough, there’s very little to be competitive over or jealous about, there’s nothing to particularly envy in your neighbor’s lot. Everybody seems to have been inculcated with an attitude of good will toward one another.
The new arrivals are struck by how everyone is cheerful, greets them in a friendly kind of way, is as helpful as they can be, there seems to be very little anger, as I say very little competitiveness, but there’s also very little to strive for and very little that might count as passion. People seem to occasionally engage in friendly sexual activities but no one seems to be driven by passionate desire. The protagonist of the story -- there’s a father and a son figure, but there’s no one in the story named Jesus. There’s a little boy named David who is somewhat odd and a misfit, and the story will deal with how he doesn’t quite fit in. The father figure also doesn’t quite know what to make of what is being presented more or less as a utopia, a stripped down utopia. He lives with a woman who has another son his boy’s age, and they cohabit in a friendly way, but he at some point expresses some dissatisfaction with this arrangement and says to her that he misses passion in his life and is thinking about wanting to see other women.
And so having expressed that to her, this is her response to him: “I am going to put in words something I was hoping you would come to understand by yourself. You want to see another woman because I do not provide what you feel you need, namely storms of passion. Friendship by itself is not good enough for you. Without the accompaniment of storms of passion it is somehow deficient. To my ear, that is an old way of thinking, and in the old way of thinking, no matter how much you may have, there is always something missing. The name you choose to give this ‘something more,’ is it’s missing in passion. Yet I’m willing to bet that if tomorrow you’re offered all the passion you wanted, passion by the bucketful, you’d probably find something new to miss, to lack. This endless dissatisfaction, this yearning for something more that is missing, is a way of thinking we’re well rid of, in my opinion. Nothing is missing. Nothing that you think is missing is an illusion. You are living by an illusion.”
Very nice little dharma talk, wouldn’t you say? What’s wrong with this picture?