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
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
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
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