Friday, June 26, 2009

What counts

Buddhists talk about taking the Bodhissatva vow. It is a vow to stay on this earth through many lifetimes (and not go to nirvana) until all beings are saved. If you don’t believe in reincarnation, it makes sense to interpret it as a metaphor: a vow to stay in what Kierkegaard called “the finite,” the everyday world, and not relax in a bliss that is far removed from the world of creatures. The Zen metaphor for staying in a removed place of purity and calm is sitting on “the hundred-foot pole,” like a religious hermit, looking down on the marketplace from far away, not involved.

I remember exactly when I began to get that koan, “How do you get down from a hundred-foot pole?” I was at church, having coffee in Fellowship Hall and talking with a member of the Zen group I sometimes sat with at the time. He talked about a problem the group was having - I’ve forgotten now what it was. Suddenly I realized, I shouldn’t be talking about this - I should be in there helping. Then I thought, That’s what they mean about getting down off the hundred foot pole.

The pole is the state we bring back from a good retreat, the calm, removed state we mistake for “enlightenment” or “being saved.” I remember once telling another Teacher in great frustration, “I was enlightened, I had it, I know, but I keep losing it.”

He said with rare abruptness, “Enlightenment is not something you hold on to.” I suppose he explained it further in his talk that night. It was years before I got it, though, and that was from reading another teacher, Lama Surya Das - “There is no such thing as enlightenment - there is only enlightened activity.” Clearly, that activity must take place in this created world, our every-day every-moment life.

And further, it is action that counts - not mood or a state of being. Good intentions? The jury seems to be out on that. But when you look at it case by case it becomes clear that how we act is, after all, what counts. What happens in Vegas, whether it's adultery or losing the farm, doesn't really stay there, but makes its way out into the world, sometimes with sad consequences.

I always thought the idea in the song attached here (interpreted by Elvis with effortless beauty) was questionable. It made me think the songwriter cheated on his wife and neglected her - well, a singer on the road, you know, all the temptation - and what he did wasn't supposed to count because . . . well, because he maintains he was always thinking of her when he did it. As pretty as the song is, I kind of doubt that. In fact, I don't even like the idea. My reply, when I was a Christian, would have been, "Faith without works is dead." Another case where the religions seem to come into agreement.

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