Saturday, October 27, 2007

MOZO (3): Not Meeting the Criterion

Yesterday on a shopping trip to La Ferte Mace, I prepaid for 20 litres of heating fuel, and took my ticket and jerry can to the pump. To save the woman at the pump the trouble of bending down I held the can up to the nozzle for her. Then, as the can started filling up, I let it drop very slightly. Not much, but just enough for the nozzle to come out and spray diesel fuel all over my trousers. My wife, who had been surveying the scene in silence, helpfully observed that she had wondered why, from the beginning, I hadn’t just put the jerry can on the ground and let the woman at the pump get on with her job.

Although this week we are sleeping in very peaceful surroundings I woke this morning, not unusually, long before dawn, worrying. Notwithstanding my professed desire to live a simple life, sometimes I make decisions that complicate things unnecessarily. Indeed, sometimes it seems that my effort to simplify things is the very thing that has caused arrangements to become complicated. So I wake up in the middle of the night, feeling worried.

If only the 2nd law of thermodynamics would cease operating for an hour or two, so that all noisy engines would whir to a halt, the next tax year would never come, heating fuel would be unnecessary -- no disturbances of any kind could threaten the stillness. If only everything were fixed for a while, then I, sitting immovably as a Buddha-statue in the centre of it all, could truly be like a dragon finding water. A likely story.

Posh Brits have a particular way of spinning things, using understatement (“spot of bother, old girl -- just pranged the old motor and had both legs amputated”) and overstatement (“a morning of unmitigated catastrophe, darling -- the bins haven’t been collected and my hairdresser has got flu.”) Although I am not posh, I might be liable to a bit of that tendency to spin things -- going on endlessly about fake elephantery as a roundabout way of trying to manifest myself as the true dragon. That is how fake elephantery works -- the deeper it goes, the cleverer it gets.

I remember an episode in the kitchen of the Zen Center in San Francisco when I was staying there in 1984. I made some self-deprecating remark to the American cook who took my remark at face value. When she innocently passed on to somebody else the information that I was totally incompetent at practical matters, I was shocked. She hadn’t understood that what I was actually trying to express, in my upside-down British manner, was my deep belief that I was potentially the true bees knees in all matters Zen, including chopping vegetables.

When all spinning is said and done, however, there remains a simple criterion, a Zen gold standard, for fake elephantery or true dragonhood. The criterion is, in accepting and using the self, stillness.

In the second half of Fukan-zazengi Shinpitsu bon, where Master Dogen praises the virtue of sitting-zen practice, he places great emphasis on stillness, the power of stillness, the energy of stillness.

This is why Gudo places such great emphasis on balance of the autonomic nervous system, by which theory he would like to define stillness.

But reflecting on my own efforts to nail Samadhi down with a physiological explanation -- in terms of primitive reflexes, antigravity reflexes, the vestibular system et cetera -- I began to see, or at least I began to be caused to see by Marjory Barlow and Nelly Ben-Or, that those efforts on my part belong to something other than the practice of stillness. Those efforts have been a bit of fixity on my part, a bit of imitating an imitation elephant.

What truly causes us to become open to stillness, Marjory showed me in practice, was what FM called “thinking in activity.” Marjory distinguished between this kind of thinking and the other kind of thinking which comes easier to me -- abstract thinking, thinking about. Neuro-physiological explanation, for Marjory, belonged firmly in the latter camp.

Never in a million years would Marjory have put herself forward as a Zen master. She practised sitting-zen, wearing a robe that my wife and I sewed for her. But she was a truly modest person. When I presented the robe to her she said, “Oh no! I am not worthy!” And she meant it.

Towards the end of one lesson, Marjory said to me: “You are an inveterate worrier, aren’t you?” “I know,” she added, “because I am too.”

Again, this wasn’t self-deprecating rhetoric on Marjory’s part. She was a worrier. As a baby she never crawled -- that probably had something to do with it. Even a life in Alexander work hadn’t turned Marjory into a fire-breathing non-worrier.

Usually I used to bike down the A41 to Marjory’s flat in Hampstead but on one dismal winter’s morning I thought better of it and took the train and tube. Eventually I arrived at Marjory’s flat where she was teaching one of her teachers’ groups, and so she couldn’t see me -- she had got the dates mixed up. “That’s OK, Marjory,” I said, “Don’t worry.” “Oh,” she retorted in a feisty voice that belied her almost ninety years, “but I DO worry!”

I am not saying that Marjory was the true dragon. I don’t think she was the true dragon. But she most certainly was not a fake elephant. She was an inveterate worrier who knew herself to be such. Her life was devoted not to sitting-zen but to teaching the true principles discovered, or rediscovered, by her uncle. She was not a Zen dragon. But she was a truly excellent teacher.

I am not the true dragon either. I also am an inveterate worrier. But I think, if I have been able to express on this blog anything of the original truth of Fukan-zazengi, it is very largely due to Marjory’s influence.

Some bright spark will think and maybe comment along the lines of: “Mike: you are the true dragon. Only the true dragon declares himself not to be the true dragon.” But I am telling you: I am not the true dragon. It is not self-deprecating British spin, not rhetoric. I am bloody well not the true dragon. In general, I do not meet the criterion. Or, to put it probably a better way, the criterion doesn’t catch me. I am too busy end-gaining to give the criterion a chance to catch me.

In any case, if you have come to this blog looking for the true dragon, that may be a case of futile endgaining on your part. Do not hope to meet the real dragon. The great thing is not to be fooled by fake elephants.

That is my true field of expertise: fake elephantery. It is on that subject that I have really got something to say.

Regrettably, in our endgaining eagerness to meet the real dragon, sometimes we are almost totally fooled by a fake elephant. When that happens, and life subsequently becomes too complicated, it is nobody’s fault but our own.


Blogger Michael Kendo Tait said...

Nor can the fake elephant make itself the true dragon by investigating the fake elephant.

Nor can the true dragon make itself the true dragon.

The true dragon flies free despite our efforts to grab onto his tail.

'It is always not that' and it is always this.

The work you have done on Fukanzazengi on your web page is truly excellent.

12:09 PM  
Blogger gniz said...


Wonderful, funny, touching post.
I got tears in my eyes--literally--reading it.
We are just inching our way along...a fellow blogger once told me that the greatest gift we can give someone is the gift of "no fear."
Then we can finally drop our gaurd and our walls and be a little more who we are.
It sounds like your teacher Marjory did that for you.


5:46 PM  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thanks MT.

10:25 AM  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thanks Aaron.

Yes, Marjory strove to cause me to understand how fear of being wrong prevents us from going in the right direction, from growing.

But I don't think I have got to the bottom yet, by any means, of what she was striving to teach me. It keeps revealing itself little by little.

10:28 AM  

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