During the rampant consumerism of the holiday season, exemplified by the hysteria engendered by continuous promotion of sales and the giveaways of thousands of dollars in the Twelve Days of the Ellen DeGeneres show (which may have started as a play on her name), we come to question the values of the society in which we find ourselves. We must wonder at the stupefying, wide-eyed rapture all the bright lights and sparkling promise of prosperity inspires.
We can take some comfort in the admonition of one of our Chinese forefathers to, "with practice hidden, function secretly, like a fool, like an idiot"; and his assurance that "just to continue in this way is called the 'Host within the host'," a peak experience in Zen terms, the height of awareness. A high accomplishment that has nothing to do with how we may appear, or relate, to others, our "guests."
And we recognize that we do not make a major issue of our practice, through proselytizing, for example. But when we offer Zen to the public, we are certainly not hiding it. So this brings up the question of the value of Zen, especially in the era of 24x7 fundraising of all other not-for-profit outfits, such as National Public Radio.
How many times, and how many ways, have we heard NPR try to express the benefit of their service to their supporting members? When does it begin to fall on deaf ears, with the token consumerism of an NPR coffee mug, or umbrella, attached to self-identifying with their cause?
This conflict in context raises the overarching issue of what is the most important thing in life; what comprises our highest values? In this milieu, the values of Zen, starting with the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, may begin to look a bit quaint, and out of synch with the times.
In his First Sermon, Shakyamuni Buddha spoke of the "true knowledge" that had become clear to him through his insight:
But when my vision of true knowledge was fully clear... regarding the Four Noble Truths... I did claim to have realized the perfect Awakening that is supreme in the world... and a vision of true knowledge arose in me thus... my heart's deliverance is unassailable... this is the last birth... now there is no more becoming.This begs the question of what is ordinary knowledge, which may in this context be considered untrue.
Of course, we would not expect most people today to accept, or "believe," that avoiding a next birth, and arriving at a state of no becoming, to be of any value. We find ourselves in a religious culture that prefers to believe in rebirth in heaven; worst case in hell; or failing that, in purgatory of some kind. The very idea of rebirth in this life cycle, as a natural matter of course, has a long way to go to find acceptance; let alone a corollary benefit associated with being born in a different way, as a bodhisattva.
For those of us positively embracing the possibilities propounded by Buddhism, the finer distinctions, the gray areas, such as that between rebirth versus reincarnation, become germane. The more black-and-white differences, such as the notion that we can escape the wheel of birth and death altogether, may also have some appeal, as it apparently did in early Hinayana teachings. But the later Mahayana philosophy points out the absurdly self-centered nature of this idea.
We have to wonder, then, at the difference between true knowledge and the other kind, presumably all other forms of knowledge. If we remember the message of the Four Noble Truths, we can begin to see the outlines of this true knowledge:
One, that all is of the nature of change, or suffering in the universal sense (S. dukkha); Two, that the main source of human suffering is our own craving, i.e. for pleasure and comfort, and to avoid pain and discomfort; Three, that the solution to an end of this problem is to relinquish our attachment to our own ideas of how things should be, and consequent craving; and Four, the way to live out this proposition in daily life, through inner disciplines of effort, mindfulness and meditation; modifying our outer conduct of speech, action and livelihood; eventually leading to a total refinement of our wisdom, in the form of our worldview and thought, or understanding, coming to approximate that of Buddhism.The Precepts of Zen Buddhism offer other clues to our highest values. They mainly have to do with the aspect of maintaining harmony in the Sangha, whether within the Zen community, or as regards the larger scope of family, colleagues, and neighbors in our cities, states, and nations.
The early precepts in India are somewhat different than those offered by Master Dogen in 13th Century Japan, being partially defined by monastic differences in values compared to those of the contemporary lay culture, which may explain such anomalies as the admonition against sleeping in high beds.
But Zen's Precepts, such as not taking life, not stealing or lying, not engaging in intoxicants, gossip, and indulging other inducements from conventional life, point at the values that Zen holds dear.
Self-sufficiency is a pragmatic value that Zen would promote, meaning not to become too much of a burden on others. To some extent, this might mean that the old tradition of begging for one's sustenance, relying on the kindness of strangers, and the mercy of the community, would be prohibited in today's world. In China, we understand, the community of Zen practitioners became more sufficient, through "chopping wood, carrying water"; in other words, raising their own food, providing for their own needs, and so on. But the monasteries were nonetheless dependent upon patrons, or land grants from the government. There is no absolute self-sufficiency possible, in an interconnected world. This brings up the Precept of "not taking what is not freely given." This seems simple enough, and should be easy enough to follow.
However, again, all these teachings are intimately interrelated to the context in which we find ourselves, both generally as to the culture, and specifically as to a particular situation. For example, the fundamental needs of being alive, for air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat, et cetera, are taken as freely given, or freely traded, based on shared agreements as to their current worth, or the dictates of the market of supply and demand.
A horrific example of something that is ordinarily freely given, but access to which quickly becomes a matter of life and death, is found in the rare historical cases of groups exposed to starvation, thirst, or even suffocation. When and if the resource of food, water, or air is limited, every bite of nourishment we take, every sip of water, every breath, is one stolen from the others in the group. If worse comes to worst, the lone survivor has, in effect, stolen life from those who did not survive. In which case, it is difficult to argue that it was freely given, altruistic heroics notwithstanding.
Air and water have largely been considered freely available from nature, whereas food and shelter, clothing, and all the other resources addressing the basic needs of physical existence, such as outlined by Maslow, have been subject to barter, or other modes of trade. The development of artisans and guilds, specializing in the design and production of such material goods, marked the initial rise of city states and, later, nations.
We have seen the decades-long decline of potable drinking water, to the point that the only safe water is deemed to be that which is filtered, or bottled. This treatment hopefully filters out pollutants from waste, produced by human population as well as various levels of industry, from all three kingdoms of mass resource exploitation — mineral, vegetable, and animal. With few exceptions, most sources and bodies of water in the most populous countries are largely sewers, carrying varying degrees of effluents.
Unlike the proposed inevitable apotheosis of Artificial Intelligence, when machines become self-aware, and surpass their creators in intelligence, which has a 50/50 chance of being a good thing — in the last few years, we have reached a kind of natural singularity — one that definitely does not bode well for humanity. The great industrial centers of civilization in China — notably Beijing and Shanghai — have become major clients for corporations in Canada, who are now bottling air, for sale. This turning point has long been predicted, and a staple of certain dystopian views of the future in science fiction. But we have actually lived long enough to see it come to pass. As the old Chinese curse says, "May you live in interesting times."
In a time in which corporate titans seem to be maneuvering to corner the market on every resource available for exploitation, including life-saving medications, air would be the last bastion of a common commodity, on offer for free. If you were in a position to control the source of food, drinkable water, or the very air we breathe; and to sell it to us to boot - you would be in an enviable position, from the perspective of capitalism.
For those who might feel this is an attack on our way of life in America, I suggest that you consider that capitalism is not necessarily a component of democracy, nor of a republican form of government. We need look no further than China for proof. I would argue that the connection between theism and democracy is as tenuous, and certainly that between capitalism and religion births an ugly baby.
In living a lay life informed by Zen, we tend toward the apolitical. Not because the exercise of politics, especially that of expediency, does not affect us and our lives, but because the way of politics tends to absorb all such programs into its own culture. Zen has always been a counter-cultural movement, but not in a way that plays into the hands of any political system. If we think and work locally, we can still think globally. The problems of the world are caused by individual human beings acting in what they think is their best interest, based on the knowledge they have of what their interests are. Zen opens the door to re-thinking what it is that is in our best interests.
True knowledge, in this pragmatic context, would be knowledge of what it is that we truly need, beyond the basics of air, water, food, shelter and the rest. How much is enough? What, at minimum, constitutes happiness?
If we can find true knowledge on the cushion and in our daily lives, we will know what we need to be truly happy. If all peoples everywhere could find this out, we would see the potential for peace on earth to be realized. True peace has to come from the ground up, not from the top down. No political system can provide it.
The most we can do is the best we can do. The best we can do is to find peace within ourselves, regardless of circumstance. From that standpoint we have a chance of effecting peace in the world by affecting others. Let us hope for peace of this kind in the New Year. It surpasseth understanding, but is doable, in Zen.