Musings

August 2019 Musings

The Zen master Hakuin was praised by his neighbors as one living a pure life.
 
A beautiful girl whose parents owned a food store lived near him. One day, her parents discovered she was with child.
 
This made her parents angry. She would not confess who the man was, but after much harassment at last named Hakuin. In great anger the parents went to the master. 'Is that so?' was all he would say.
 
After the child was born it was brought to Hakuin. By this time he had lost his reputation, which did not trouble him, but he took very good care of the child. He obtained milk from his neighbors and everything else the little one needed.
 
A year later the girl-mother could stand it no longer. She told her parents the truth - that the real father of the child was a young man who worked in the fish market.
 
The mother and father of the girl at once went to Hakuin to ask his forgiveness, to apologize at length, and to get the child back again.
 
Hakuin was willing. In yielding the child, all he said was, 'Is that so?'
 
– Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
 
Recently, life offered a workshop in “false accusation” in which I was not directly implicated. The target was Practice, the embodiment of goodness, generosity and compassion. I watched bewilderment arise. How could someone who only ever received from us respect, understanding, and support choose a course of action that might adversely impact this community? We did everything right…how can that result in something so “bad”?
 
Life happens, that’s our experience, and yet we carry around this false and unhelpful notion that “doing the right thing” protects us from “bad” things happening. We’re shocked when encountering a situation that is contrary to our ideas of how “good” people’s lives go. Because we entertain the deeply conditioned belief that we are in control of how our lives should unfold, we slide into a suffering loop of “wanting it to be different than it is” rather than compassionately assisting the human being who has to deal with the inevitable difficulties that a life presents.
 
The exploration of the inability to say “Is that so?” in this case shatteringly revealed a hidden cynicism. Underneath the belief that doing the right thing would result only in good was a lack of trust that Unconditional Love would prevail. Ego is smugly confident that when the chips are down everyone will choose ego over compassion, everyone will accuse rather than defend innocence, no matter how much evidence of goodness exists. History seems to bear this out. Doesn’t hate tend to wreak havoc unchecked? Don’t fear, malevolence and evil frequently overpower good? It’s the rare exception that a human being has the courage to be heroic, to make a choice for Authenticity in the face of ego’s threats.
 
Drilling down beneath this lack of trust we see another conditioned belief. The force of darkness appears to have the advantage over the force of Light because an aspect of Goodness is vulnerability. Its inherent openness implies it is undefended against the barbs of ego. Everything good can be destroyed by the identified human being. Gandhi was assassinated, Jesus was crucified and Hakuin’s fate was to lose his reputation. “Is that so?” did not prevent the world from thinking the worst of Hakuin! How could that not affect him? It’s hard enough not to be tortured by self-hate when one has acted out of identification and done something unskillful. It’s a whole other level of practice not to jump to “my” defense, not to clarify, justify or explain when my motives are questioned or my intentions misunderstood, especially if the interaction is with someone who knows me.
 
A disclaimer before we go any further: Practice doesn’t advocate for not defending innocence or not fighting injustice. Where there is suffering, Practice always advocates further exploration. The question behind the looking is: does this orientation/behavior lead to suffering or does it lead to freedom from suffering?
 
What about being “falsely” accused produces so much suffering?
 
It always seems to come down to the intensity of sensations in the body associated with a particular set of beliefs. “Being misunderstood” means someone is thinking and saying awful things about me that are not true, and I’m told I can’t stand that. The real discomfort is the writhing, cringing, quailing, shrinking “sensations” that arise when attention is on the voices in my head projecting what other people are saying. The narrative of ego in this crucible of suffering is “If they knew me, how could they think that?” “Oh my God, they do think that of me! I need to rectify this somehow! I can’t stand this!” The impulse to correct the double-reverse projection (they are saying what the voices in my head are saying about me) reveals much childhood conditioning and usually a rather startlingly naïve set of beliefs. “If I’m the good-right person then I will be all right.”
 
A practice of awareness inexorably brings us to the precipice of having to let go the identity of being the good-right person. And since this is a hard place in practice, it begs the question, “Why must we?”
 
To transcend suffering we have to relinquish all identification and not because being the “good-right person” is the wrong thing to be! The “good” person and the “bad” person have “person” as the common denominator. As long as we cling to an identification with the ego, we’re in the process of separation. An identification with an orientation of separation perpetuates the illusory dualistic world of self and other, good and bad, right and wrong. The spiritual consequence of that dualism, to quote the Third Patriarch of Zen, Seng T’san:
 
“As long as you remain in one extreme or the other 
you will never know Oneness.”

 
The focus on trying to be a good person and trying not to be a bad person obscures the truth that our True Nature is Goodness itself, a quality beyond the small judgments of a dualistic orientation. It perpetuates the ignorance that the Buddha taught is the root cause of suffering. To inhere in True Nature is to know a place of peace where the arrows of self-hate cannot penetrate or wound. From in HERE, there is neither right nor wrong, just Life as IT is.
 
Over and over again, I went over the meaning of “Is that so,” the equanimity in the face of an unjust accusation. And then one day, as it always does, Life presented its case. It wasn’t a spirited defense but a gentle revelation of strength.
 
I was walking along the shores of an alpine lake, amidst a pine forest devastated by fires and storms, saddened at the carnage on the forest floor. My reverie was interrupted by the shriek of a blue jay. Attention shifted to the beauty of the forest, the air alive with the sounds of insects and birds. I was aware of a tiny patch of pine seedlings, vividly green against a giant fallen limb. The fires had failed to destroy the forest. There it was… the blinding revelation. Goodness does not need to be defended. It’s a vulnerability that endures without protection simply because it IS existence. Besides, the Intelligence That Animates is always GOODNESS. It doesn’t doubt itself. Goodness is innocence that cannot be tainted. Because it transcends the dualistic orientation of good/bad/right/wrong, in an identification with Goodness there is no-one to offend and no-thing to be defended. From True Nature, “Is that so” is an easy response!
 
Conditioned mind would say, “That’s all very well but you still get identified when someone accuses you unjustly.” To which the only appropriate response, to borrow a phrase from Hakuin, is: “Is that so?”
 
Gasshō
ashwini