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Theological Publications






Enlightenment and Entertainment


Once a novice monk who had served his aged Zen master, awaiting instruction toward Satori, lost patience and complained, "Master, I have served you all these months, and as yet you have taught me nothing about Zen!" Taken aback, the Master replied, "What do you mean? When you served me tea, did I not enjoy it?"

Often Zen apophthegms like this are meant to serve as koans, nonsensical puzzles aimed at defying the hearer's expectations and thus, possibly, jolting him in the direction of Enlightenment. One cannot think one's way to Enlightenment. One can, however, be startled into it. This is why I for one like to use shock tactics in teachings. One may be, as C.S. Lewis says, "surprised by joy."

But I don't think the anecdote I have begun with is merely a challenging non sequitor. There is a logical theoretical comment contained in it. A comment about the implications of Enlightenment. The Zen master was evidencing the result of Enlightenment by savoring the reality of tea, the effect of tea. What has that got to do with Zen? With Enlightenment?, you may ask. I will be happy to tell you, O bikkhus.

The goal of Zen is to strip away the illusions of the self-existence of things, of the phenomenal world. The goal of Zen is to enable us to see the bare Tathata of things, the Suchness, the Thusness of things. The Ding-an-Sich. One drops, or is forced to drop, one's screen of interpretive preconceptions about things, that have come to substitute for things. It is not that the world pops like a bubble. Maya is more delusion than hallucination. It is a misconception of things, a misinterpretation of what you are seeing. You are taking things too seriously in their own right instead of seeing them as transparent to sheer Thusness.

And once you see things thusly in their Thusness, what do you make of the everyday world of appearances? Do you withdraw from them? Despise them? Pretend they don't exist? There is no reason. David Hume said, he whose argument for agnosticism about the existence of self remarkably parallels that of Buddhism, "We must leave our skepticism in the study." That is, we may entertain theoretical  doubts about the existence of anything at all while sitting at the desk reasoning out the conundrums of philosophy. but only a lunatic would cower in fear that the sidewalk beneath him will vanish as he walks on it.

In the same way, Zen says, so to speak, we must leave our Enlightenment in the study. The world doesn't stop being the world once you snap out of the moment of Satori. It is still there waiting for you. And there is no place else for you to live. The Zen adage runs, "Before I was enlightened, a mountain was just a mountain. When I was enlightened, a mountain wasn't a mountain anymore. After I was enlightened, a mountain's just a mountain again." And then you get in touch with Thusness by savoring the tea.

The great Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna understood the peculiar character of the Samsaric world once one became enlightened and knew it for Nirvana. He saw that the phenomenal world of Samsara and the noumenal world of Nirvana were one, and that Samara only becomes Samsara, the veil of desire and disappointed suffering, because one does not see in the first place that it is Nirvana! One does not look all the way through to the depths, which alone can satisfy the heart. One does not penetrate unto the Suchness. When one does, one recognizes that there is only Nirvana, not Samsara at all.

It is like Karl Barth's universalism: if you are in the condition of being damned, it is only because you do not recognize the fact that you are saved.

Back to Nagarjuna. He saw that the world of appearances, rightly understood, need not be shunned and feared as a distraction. No, it may for the first time be fully appreciated for what it is. And it is beauty. It is fascination. It becomes no longer a will-o'-the-wisp that we forever chase, vainly hoping it will bring us eternal satisfaction. Only Nirvana can do that. No, we accept and admit that the beauty of the world is fleeting, transitory, and for that very reason all the more precious! This insight, called Nagarjuna's Dialectic, opened the way for a positive Buddhist esthetic.

I believe Nietzsche was similarly enlightened. He believed that in the wake of the Death of God, we see that all supposed truth is fiction, that all meaning is our own creation. Conventional meaning has been imposed upon us by previous generations, and the Superman creates his own values. But either way they are human creations. like all religion, and Zen admits this, too. Nietzsche's Nihilism is a joyful knowledge. He associated it with mad Dionysus in his revelry, not with rational, oh-so-earnest Apollo, God of prophecy.

I used to take life and religion with an Apollonian earnestness. But I have affirmed the Death of God. I have come to understand all things in the world of appearances as phantoms and shadows, true, but as illusions not to be despised. A mountain is just a mountain again. And I want to climb that mountain. Neil Postman laments that Americans are "amusing ourselves to death." I say, why not? What else is there to do?

By saying this, I don't mean to negate the importance of social issues. But I see them in the context of a massive game we all  tacitly agree to play. Do we actually have "human rights"? No, of course not. But we assign rights, as we assign meanings. Society and social order are a big game, and life is much more pleasant when we play by the rules. In other parts of the world, they play variations on the game, even different games. That's their business. But if you want to come into our midst and play, let's say, the murder game, I'm afraid we're going to have to eject you from the stadium! And we're not going to wait till we can prove to you that you have no right to commit murder before we eject you. No, to hell with that. To hell with you!

You see, I admit it's arbitrary, a fiction, a game. But that doesn't mean I don't take it seriously. In fact, I take all the games I play with utmost seriousness. The Marriage Game. The Lovecraft Game. The Bible Game. The Superhero game. The Beatles Game.

The Epicureans, who made pleasure the guiding goal of life, saw things this way. As to politics, they said you should avoid it if you find it a drag. You  should get into it if that particular sport appeals to you. But otherwise you have no obligation to get involved.

Last weekend I was expressing to my mother-in-law Cecelia my utter and complete indifference to political reality. She said, "You're too young to take that attitude." This was a sharp insight. Because one thing that really pushed me to my present position of utter indifference was a remark Berkeley Leeds made at Heretics Anonymous. Berkeley, who is over 80 years old, said that at length he had come to realize how pointless all the political anxiety, all the efforts, the lobbying, the campaigning, the being an angry young man, was. And I recognized the voice of wisdom. Why don't I get started early in dismissing all that stuff  as unimportant? Leave it to other tormented souls to worry about India and Pakistan, about Clinton selling us out. What difference does it make? It means no more in the long run than celebrity gossip. If you happen to like celebrity gossip, good for you. But it's not my game, and neither is politics. A mountain is just a mountain again. Climb it or not: it's up to you. But I'm enlightened, and now I'm living to be entertained.

Robert M. Price

May 31, 1998



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