September 23, 2014

Cappuccino Chan

As we sat across the table from each other, at our usual coffee shop overlooking the beautiful Australian east coast, I noticed the look of distraction on his face, a face I have known for over 10 years. He seemed perplexed and I could see he was looking for answers. With hesitation, he said, "I'm on edge mate." "What's going on?" I asked

As we sat across the table from each other, at our usual coffee shop overlooking the beautiful Australian east coast, I noticed the look of distraction on his face, a face I have known for over 10 years. He seemed perplexed and I could see he was looking for answers. With hesitation, he said, "I'm on edge mate."

"What's going on?" I asked

"You know, I've been working really hard to keep my business going but making the lease payments is hard and the banks want to forclose on me. Since I haven't been able to pay the mortgage for a few months they also are looking at the equity in our house."

Then suddenly, and providently, the expression on his face changed and he blurted out, "You know, I'd almost be happy if I lost everything!"

"Happy?" I said, unprepared for this sudden turn of direction.

"Matt," he said, "we've been mates a long time and you know what a challenge all this has been. Part of me sees this whole situation as a calling for real change. I've been spending all my time lately making money and buying things, it all feels so bloody monotonous and empty. I'd love to start something new and different. But I owe the bank. I'd feel disloyal to the them because they invested in my promise for this business."

I suggested a different perspective: "The human psyche seems to be always indebted to something doesn't it? Somehow we seem to be always ‘paying interest' on our actions or inactions. We don't seem to be easily able to dwell in the present and practice any consistent Dharma. Instead we continue to look for new things all the time. Its like we're always chasing the proverbial ‘carrot' out into the abyss. When one thing doesn't make us happy, we search for another thing."

This was one of my favorite and well used outcries, and while he is a friend with whom I can usually discuss these sorts of matters, his resistance to my initial Dharma offering was quite visible. Like most people here in Australia, he doesn't know much about Chan.

He grimaced and said, "Buddhism eh? I'm not sure that spiritual chit chat will help right now mate, I'm looking for real answers."

"As opposed to unreal ones?" I returned, slightly exasperated.

"Alright Mr. Yin Shan." he said with a smirk, mocking my Buddhist viewpoint. It's not really a funny situation and my sense of humour isn't the ususal."

Sipping a decaf soya-chino, I offered, "As you know, people everywhere are experiencing the pain of bank foreclosures. Many are affected -- they are literally having the rug pulled out from under their feet. The world economy is sick right now and we are its victims."

"You know I've gotten a lot out of Buddhist practices, but right now it doesn't seem to be helping me much."

He waited for me to continue, and finally prompted me. "Well .... ?"

"You know mate," I said, "This stuff is all about being attached to outcomes. Its so easy to become attached to our ‘wish list' when its all so attractive. We want this, we want that, health of the children, success in business, a new car, 3D Television, real coffee, and we feel incomplete if we don't get these things."

I paused and he gestured for me to continue.

"But the irony is, that even if we do get these things, we can later find out that they weren't what we wanted! The business drives us mad, the remote control on the TV is too difficult to understand and the coffee is so strong that if a pin drops, we almost jump like a jack-in-the-box. All of this is just bloody samsara! It's no wonder that people go looking around for spiritual answers. Why do you think the aborigines go ‘walkabout'? It all just becomes too much!"

He nodded and smiled, then asked, "How does your spiritual answer stack up to all of this?"

"Well it goes ok." I said with a smirk. "Do you remember the Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Middle Way?"

"Sure." He said. "The Four Noble Truths can give us a clue of how not to get drawn into this material world of desire. It tells us to look into things deeply and to cultivate One Mind. It tell us that our burdens are due solely to attachment. Detach, and we are free of them."

"Exactly", I said. "And the Middle Way and Eightfold Path gives us a way to live in both the spiritual and mundane worlds simultaneously. By being attentive to our every moment, to our ideas and thoughts, to our speech, and to our actions we can expand our awareness and consciousness. As we tread this path, we become progressively unattached, and progressively independent of things going on around us."

"What about those two guys I've heard you mention before?" he remembered, "you know, Huineng and Linji?"

"Ahhh, Hui Neng!" I exclaimed. "He fought a great battle. While the monks around him strove for enlightenment through sitting for long hours on end 'trying to become a Buddha,' he was relentless in admonishing them: "You can make a mirror polishing a a brick faster than you can make a Buddha sitting on a cushion!" Of course, this didn't make him too popular at the time since sitting in meditation for hours and hours at a time was simply the "thing to do." Despite a lot of harsh judgment and criticism from the other monks, he was patient and compassion guided him, not hostility. You know, he was our last Zen Patriarch. With him, it was predicted centuries earlier, the development of Zen Buddhism would become complete.

He was silent and gestured for me to continue.

"There is more than one way to make a living." I said, "But beyond all of this worry, Hui Neng left us with a compelling practice of Dhyana meditation sometimes referred to as ‘turning the light inward.' It can take us out of our samsaric mind filled with conflicting thoughts and bad memories and feelings, and bring us toward Nirvana."

"Didn't Lin Ji used to shout a lot, like ‘Kill this! Kill that!" he asked off-handed.

I began wondering if he was listening to what I was saying. Well, you know, as we say here in Australia, its your "shout for the coffee" (in Australia a round of drinks means a ‘shout') - when we want something really bad, we shout for it with an energy, a ferocity that is anything but timid!

I think Hui Neng would have made a good Ozzie because he got angry when he felt strongly about something he believed in. Zen isn't a passive thing, it takes ferocity! "He was famous for saying that if you meet the Buddha, kill him." I laugh every time I think of this because nobody understands it. He meant it, of course, metaphorically. The Buddha is not outside of each of us, it is only found within. He said this in response to people who were looking for Buddhahood by following in the footsteps of others. Most often, they would project some sort of exhaled holiness on their master, then they would, essentially, worship their master. We don't do this in Zen. Masters are there as guides only - they point the finger and the dedicated disciple searches to find where it is pointing. To ‘Kill the Buddha' means to sever projections of godhood that may arise on our spiritual travels.To kill a thing, according to Lin Ji, was all about not allowing the mind get fixated on that thing.

"Actually, after some consideration mate, my understanding of the legacy left by Linji tells me that we must be mindful to just let go of all of it."

Jokingly I said, "Maybe we could call it ‘Zen Banking' or ‘Zen and the art of bank foreclosure!'" I laughed, unable to take the loss of monetary assets very seriously. "But that would be like ‘driving a nail into the empty sky'. In other words, any attempt for us to try to ‘name the nameless' would be completely futile."

He smiled and responded well to these comments and with visible glimmers of hope he remembered a little more: "What's that Chan patron's name again? You know the one, I think the order that you are with that is named after him?"

"Oh, you mean Hsu Yun?"

"Yep! But I never know how to pronounce his name!

"No matter. Hsu Yun delivered many enlightened words. Perhaps a few to address this situation could be: "When you meet an obstacle go on! Don't Linger! Let the mind rest nowhere. Take a breath and move forward, ready for the next one!" Also, "Recognize the constant changing of all things! Cultivate indifference - be unmovable, yet aware, watching things arise and pass!"

"I could certainly do with some of that!" he said, seeming resigned to giving up his quest for worldly attainments.

As I was offering these words, I remembered I was carrying a notebook in my pocket. "I also have a writing here that may be of interest from a Chan ‘patron' named Han Shan Te Ching. He was a monk during the 16th Century."

"Go for it!" he said. "What did he have to say?"

I then recited number 10 of Han Shan's Maxims hoping it wouldn't get lost in my broad Australian Accent: "What do people strive for? Money, or fame, or successful relationships, or the Dharma? Well, one man may become very rich but be hated by his family. Another man may be loved by everyone but not have a penny to his name. Still a third man may be hailed as a hero by his countrymen and then find himself with neither funds nor loving family. Usually, so much effort is put into achieving one goal, that the other goals cannot be attained. But what about the man who strives to attain the Dharma? If he succeeds he has gained in that one goal far more than the other three combined. He who has Dharma lacks nothing."

The conversation moved to silence as we sat in the sun in complete presence. I had never before been with my friend in such silence and it felt really good. Had a little Zen rubbed off on him?

After what seemed a long time, he stood up to leave and I couldn't help myself; I asked: where are you off to?"

"Nowhere. I'm already there."

He strode off, while I sat alone, more than a little bit stunned. It was the happiest I'd been in a long time.