Monday, March 11, 2013

ON NOT PACKAGING THE SKY

Bamboo Grove, Hasedera Buddhist Temple, Kamakura, Japan
Photo by Urashimataro

Imagine a world in which you are liberated from all of the labels that have been imposed on you throughout your life.  Imagine a world in which that elusive experience we call "enlightenment," "awakening," or "higher consciousness" is not to be found in another time and place, but, instead, is to be found right under your nose — in this moment, this place, with all of your imperfections.  

These are two of the matters discussed by Alan Watts in his introduction to Zen: The Supreme Experience.  Having just reread that portion of the book, I am providing a few quotes that I find extremely liberating.  

I must begin with a word of explanation.  Some time ago I was in a radio station as a participant in a panel discussion on man and religion.  Before we went on air, the moderator asked all the participants around the table to introduce themselves.  I was sitting on his left, and the man on his right began: Rabbi So-and-so, Jewish; Reverend So-and-so, Protestant minister; Father So-and-so, Catholic priest; Doctor So-and-so, logical positivist and so on.  When it was my turn, I said, 'Alan Watts, no label." Immediately, there was an outcry: "You aren't being fair."
     I say 'No label' sincerely, because although I speak a great deal about Zen, I never refer to myself as a 'Zen-ist" or as a Buddhist because that seems to me like packaging the sky.
     There is an excellent reason for the absence of a definition of Zen.  All systems that have preconceived views of what the human being is and what the world ought to be categorize existence under labels.  People who have Jehovah-like ideas of an order that they wish to impose on reality also use labels.  But when one's concern is not to order the world around but to understand it, to experience it and to find out about it, you give up this superior attitude and become receptive.
     Then, instead of knowing all about it, you come to know it directly.  But this 'knowing' is difficult to talk about because it has to be felt.  It is the difference between eating dinner and eating the menu.
•  •  •  •  •


We may in the past have had marvelous spiritual experiences — almost everyone in this world is lucky enough to experience satori once in their life . . . Ever afterwords, you search for that experience again: 'I want it that way.'  You once had a wonderful girlfriend, and now you want another just like her.  That way of thinking blocks the possibility of meeting with life.  This is why meditation for Zen practitioners and Taoists means affirming that your everyday mind is the way — not the mind you ought to have or the mind you might have if you practiced acceptance or concentration.  We want you to look at it just the way it is right now — that's Buddha.  Just like that.
     Of course, many will say this is nonsense.  'The way I am now is degraded, ordinary, unevolved, not spiritual, decadent.'  Yet remember this phrase from the Zenrin poem:  'At midnight, the sun brightly shines.' All right, it is midnight now.  This, at this moment, is the awful dark thing we think we are.  Yet the poem also says, 'This is Buddha.' 
     A monk once asked a Zen master, 'What is Zen?'  The master replied, 'I don't feel like answering now.  Wait until there is nobody else around and I'll tell you.'  Some time later the monk returned to the master and said, 'There is nobody around now, Master.  Please tell me about Zen.' The master took him into the garden and said, 'What a long bamboo this is!  What a short bamboo that is!'
     So you may be a long bamboo, you may be a short bamboo.  You may be a giraffe with a long neck or a giraffe with a short neck.. What you are now is the very point.  There is no goal because all goals are in the future. There is only the question of what is.  Look and see; see how, of its own accord, it comes to your eye. 
Alan Watts, No Label 
                      
                         

19 comments:

  1. Interesting post George. That heron looks as though he is enlightened. I used to have the urge when people asked me about myself when I first came up here, to tell them about my job and what I had done with my life. Suddenly I realised that none of it was important - that it is how you behave and what you are doing with your life now that matters - in any case I find that up here in the Yorkshire Dales the 'natives' are not remotely interested.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Pat. Yes, I'm quite confident the heron is more enlightened than I. I also agree with you entirely that the only thing that really matters is what you are doing with your life now. What we have done in the past can become quickly boring to others.

      Delete
  2. Wow, George. This is exactly what I needed to read at exactly this moment in time... Thank you so much.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great, Teresa! The invoice for my services is in the mail.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I also find these two quotations liberating, George. As I grow older I hope I'm finding it easier to discard the packaging. The world without the packaging, the labels and the prejudices and the preconceptions, can at first seem a little disorientating, frightening even. But then we realise it's an exciting world, it's the real world, and one in which we can be fresh and free.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree entirely, Robert. I understand the human attraction to labels. On the surface, they appear to eliminate uncertainty, provide a modicum of security, and give us a sense of identity. However, most human beings worth their salt cannot be neatly defined by labels. LIke the world, we are rich and complex creatures, and we need the freedom to experience life directly, freed of the expectations that come with the labels others have placed upon us (or we have placed upon ourselves).

      Delete
  5. Not "packaging the sky" is a strikingly helpful image. Living that way takes constant effort, to avoid labeling oneself and everything around. But every label is a separation, and an attempt at ordering things. It takes some work to be willing not to "belong" somewhere, to something, to be part of a group that includes and excludes. Thanks for this. The more I listen to and read Alan Watts the more I want to listen and read more.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I also found Watts imagery to be very helpful. Just as we can never accurately label an infinite, ever-changing sky, we can never accurately label a richly complex, ever-changing individual life.

      And, yes, it is a challenge of the first magnitude to avoid labeling ourselves and others. After all, this is the method which has been used by society since our birth to define our relationships. Each of us, however, is so much more than society, so much more that the petty names, titles, and descriptions we have given to ourselves and to one another.

      It is true that the labeling effort is designed to make us feel like we "belong" somewhere — a group, a nation, a culture, a political party, a family unit, the list is endless. Ironically, however, the labeling can also create alienation because it separates us from our true selves. In my view, we need to "belong" somewhere larger than the small categories that are usually offered by our social circumstances.

      As for reading more of Alan Watts, I heartily recommend it. For what it's worth, here are a few titles I have on my bookshelf (the titles themselves are revealing): The Wisdom of Insecurity, Still the Mind, Does It Matter?, Behold The Spirit, The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, This Is It, and Become What You Are.

      Delete
    2. Thanks for the Watts titles!

      Delete
  6. Hi George, I was listening to Alan Watts on YouTube as I was working in the studio. He has provided much to consider. It's good to hear him and think about what he is saying while I do repetitive tasks. My mind feels freer.

    That is a beautiful Heron.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Great! Glad to know that Alan Watts is resonating with you. He frees my mind as well.

      At Ruth's recommendation, I also just listened to and Alan Watts talk on YouTube. I enjoyed it immensely and will return for more. Thanks for the compliment on the heron shot.

      Delete
  7. I might just be the way I looked at him, but your heron looks like he's having a good think about this post.

    I think that quote is spot on.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I know this heron, Dominic. He's most definitely a Zen Buddhist.

      Delete
  8. I LOVE that! No label, indeed. Wish I'd thought of that when I was visiting a friend a few weeks ago. I was helping her move and her cousin, whom I'd never met, arrived to help. While I was in the middle of rearranging my own labeling of him - he'd just told me he was in the military but his gentle, cheerful, kind, and hopelessly disorganized nature didn't fit with my idea of that label. I liked him, but not his label. Then he asks me, "So what do you do up there?" referring to my northern place of residence. I haven't been so stumped by a question in a long time! I really couldn't come up with a satisfactory answer to the a question, or a suitably brief one. I ended up, in the most dull and dishonest way, stating what I did to procure my main income, even though I consider it a very inconsequential part of my life that has next to nothing to do with who I am.

    This also brings to mind something I read lately. It was about an academic conference where a native elder asked everyone to introduce themselves. "And I don't want to hear about your degrees and the positions you hold, I want you to introduce yourselves, not your roles." She started by introducing herself with a description of the land she grew up on. Wouldn't that be refreshing?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Laurel, and I wholeheartedly agree with you that "what we do," especially from the standpoint of supporting ourselves financially, has nothing to do with who we are as individuals. And, yes, it would be wonderful if everyone would follow the native elder's advice and introduce themselves without mentioning their roles, degrees, positions, and other indicia of status. That would be refreshing indeed!

      Delete
  9. A thoughtful blog. I look forward to reading more.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for stopping by, Theresa, and thanks for the compliment on the blog. I look forward to checking out your own blog. Please stop by again and join the conversation.

      Delete