Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Like a dumb man who has had a dream

Joshu’s Dog

A monk asked Joshu, a Chinese Zen master: `Has a dog Buddha-nature or not?’ Joshu answered: `Mu.’ [Mu is the negative symbol in Chinese, meaning `No-thing’ or `Nay’]

Mumon’s comments: To realize Zen one has to pass through the barrier of the patriarchs. Enlightenment always comes after the road of thinking is blocked. If you do not pass the barrier of the patriarchs or if your thinking road is not blocked, whatever you think, whatever you do, is like a tangling ghost. You may ask: What is a barrier of a patriarch? This one word, Mu, is it.

This is the barrier of Zen. If you pass through it you will see Joshu face to face. Then you can work hand in hand with the whole line of patriarchs. Is this not a pleasant thing to do?

If you want to pass this barrier, you must work through every bone in your body, through every pore in your skin, filled with this question: What is Mu? and carry it day and night. Do not believe it is the common negative symbol meaning nothing. It is not nothingness, the opposite of existence. If you really want to pass this barrier, you should feel like drinking a hot iron ball that you can neither swallow nor spit out.

Then your previous lesser knowledge disappears. As a fruit ripening in season, your subjectivity and objectivity naturally become one. It is like a dumb man who has had a dream. He knows about it but cannot tell it.


I. The Voice

My child irritates me beyond endurance while we are out and about, as his resistance to doing what I wish him to do becomes more frequent and obstinate on a schedule that would probably plot nicely on a graph, until I am pulling out the big guns in the car, like being put straight to bed when we get home, culminating in a protest, delivered from his booster seat in an angry imperious whine, that he just wants to have everything his own way.

The irony of course is that this is a phrase he unquestionably learned from me in a purely negative presentation: he has identified the condition but rejected my thesis on its impossibility.  And without consideration or intent (in the worst possible state to conduct parenting, in other words) I am delivering a lecture to this four year old.  I have slapped the stereo into silence and left the car in Park and I am holding forth, my voice descending almost immediately into a tone a long-ago ex-girlfriend used to call “The Voice,” half an octave lower than my conversational tone, dry and hectoring and professorial and vibrating with poorly suppressed anger.  The topic of today’s lecture is the importance of learning, in this life, that you can’t always have things the way you want them to be, as exquisitely demonstrated by Daddy’s own life, illustrated with numerous, vivid examples.  I wield this lash as the pressure mounts in my skull, until my child is cowed and dejected, responding in monosyllable, agreeing glumly to whatever rhetorical question I put to him.  And I master myself, and force some sunshine that I do not feel at all into my voice, to indicate that this unfortunate lapse of several minutes is over, and we are going to move past it, start over, try again.

II. Permanent Vacation

I get hung up on weird  ideas sometimes.  After reading an absurd, pot-boiling political thriller (in which I discover a seemingly original plot I had independently conceived half a dozen years after the book in question was published had long ago become the basis of an international bestseller, not to mention a massive videogame franchise), I find myself dwelling unprofitably on the fictional cliché of a suitcase full of cash.  You know what would solve a lot of my problems? I ask myself.  A suitcase full of cash.

It is an image that acquires a particular bitter barb as I read about vast amounts of physical American currency (representing Iraqi funds from various sources) - primarily $100 bills - flown into Iraq to grease the wheels of regime change - large volumes of which vanished untraceably in a vacuum of accountability, oversight or control. It is stupid - and greedy, and fundamentally contrary to my supposed Christian faith - but I find myself in odd moments dwelling on that lost Iraqi cash.  A stack of one hundred bills, a little under half an inch tall, two side by side accounting no more space than one of my slender golden age science fiction paperbacks, $20,000.

I run my fingers along spines on the bookshelf, looking for something that isn’t there, mentally calculating, there is the end of consumer debt, there is the house paid for, there is a brand new house and a year’s vacation, there is the end of work for pay, vacation forever more.  I lecture myself that this is greed, venality, that I’m perfectly aware that money doesn’t really solve problems or make you happy.  Yes, yes, I answer glumly.  I know.

III. Hot Iron Ball

The last dream that I remember that involved the literal presence of God happened 14 years ago now.  I did not see God but I heard His voice.  I was arguing, contending with him, as He told me that His cup was not for me.  And it was no metaphor, this cup, no abstraction: it hung in the air before my eyes, a gorgeous golden chalice.  I argued and fought and insisted until finally it tipped towards me and spilled its contents into my mouth.

And I knew instantly that I had made a terrible mistake, as molten chaos blazed a column straight through the center of me, as the torrent flowed and flowed, and I understood that the cup was boundless, unending.

originally posted at Jan 20, 2009 at 2:40 PM

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