Zen and The Wire

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In the great TV series The Wire, Major Howard “Bunny” Colvin has a habit of randomly asking his police officers: “Where are you right now?” When he asks, he expects them to be able to give their precise location - the street corner or address, the floor of the building, the compass direction they’re facing. 

It’s a good question for the Zen practitioner, especially if applied to more than geographic location.

Where are you? Who are you? What makes it “here”? What makes it “you”?

A note on what is

Image: Ryan McGuire

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I read accounts of people meditating who notice a bird, butterfly, moth, or other pleasant creature (not a rat or cockroach) and decide that it’s a deceased loved one visiting in another form. This kind of magical thinking seems to me to deny the suchness of both the dead person and the living creature. When we project a personal, self-centered story onto life as it is, we miss the birdness of the bird, bird-nature, butterfly-nature, moth-nature, the Buddha nature of what is.

What comprises me was not created and cannot be destroyed. You were there when the sun caught on fire, there when the first explosion brought the universe into being.

Everything is our mother. Everything is our father, our brother, our sister, our friend, our child. Every person, every animal, every mountain, every cloud, every star. Everything, whether sentient or insentient, is what we have been and what we will be.”

I agree with what James Ford Roshi says in this post. I’m often frustrated at how many people assume that if you’re a Zen practitioner, you must also believe in various kinds of “alternative” medicine. 

If an “alternative medicine” actually works, it quickly stops being alternative. if a medicine has been “alternative” for a while, then it must be quackery.

Zen and horror: Our worst fears are always realized

What is the thing that we fear most? Some will say death, others will name other catastrophes, but it all amounts to the same thing: the loss of the certainties we cling to.

This is the heart of all that scares us, and so it is the fuel that powers every horror story. In Stephen King’s novel Pet Sematary, there is a scene so chilling that nothing that follows matches it, even though there are 300 pages left.

A boy’s dog has died, and the town drunk takes him to a certain place and tells him to bury it there. Later, the dog comes home, alive. The boy sits outside with the dog and nervously waits for his father to get home from work, wondering how he’ll react when he sees the dog. When his father gets home, he simply tells the boy, “He needs a bath, Jud. He stinks of the ground you buried him in.” And he goes inside the house.

More frightening than a burial ground that brings the dead back to life is the realization that his father knows about it, and so does everyone else in town. Things are not they way the boy always thought they were. Life and death no longer make sense. His reality has collapsed.

The reason horror novels are so enduring is that they are essentially true. However hard we try to construct, organize and control life, it never works. We fear the dark because of what we cannot see.

Zen practice is frightening because, if we really do it, it collapses our realities, and does not replace them with others. Nothing we believed turns out to be true, including any beliefs about Zen. Nothing can be held on to, including who we think we are. How much we suffer depends on how invested we are in our beliefs. Meister Eckhart wrote:

The only thing that burns in hell is the part of you that won’t let go of your life: your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away, but they’re not punishing you, they’re freeing your soul. If you’re frightened of dying and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. If you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels freeing you from the earth.