Anno Domini 1997, April

  by Kerry Thornley  

Zenarchy - Chapter 4
Zen Games, Zenarchy Counter-Games

No one complains more loudly and sincerely about hippie games than hipsters. Zen masters object likewise to something they call "the stink of Zen".

A famous roshi once said to his inquiring monks: "All this talk about Zen is making me sick to my stomach!"
If you like to eat with chop sticks and fan yourself with imported Japanese fans, that's lovely. Just don't get the idea it has a tinker's dam to do with Zen.
In every society ridden with class distinctions there is a tendency to turn everything into games of oneupsmanship. Japan is no more an exception than the United States. Zen literature is replete with transcripts of quarrels among masters about which of them is most enlightened. Such arguments frequently begin and end as jokes, however, for Zen people try to remember what they are about. Once a drunken monk wandered into the room where two Zen masters were ferociously contending and both of them collapsed in laughter, never to cross wits again.
Yet as Alan Watts points out in "Hip Zen, Square Zen", even in Japan there is a trend to formalize Zen schools that tends over the centuries to rob them of much of their spontaneous appeal.
Slapping his master was how the great Zen lunatic, Rinzai, signified his awakening. (Only fair to note: his master had been hitting him with a stick whenever he asked a question.) Said Rinzai of his master: "There is not so much to the Buddhism of Huang Po after all!" Nevertheless, today the school founded in Rinzai's name issues certificates to students who attain satori.
In America, the hip counter-culture has not even fared that well, but was co-opted in a matter of years, instead of generations.
What to do? What to do? For you cannot make rules to preserve liveliness and originality. A Zenarchist answer is to keep destroying old forms - or abandoning them - including the habit of destroying old forms when it gets in the way. For the practice of Zen or Zenarchy or psychological nakedness or whatever you want to call it says with Bob Dylan: "I got nothing, Ma, to live up to." In fact, a popular Zen saying goes, "If you meet the Buddha on the path to enlightenment - kill him!"
As Alan Watts says in The Way of Zen, "There must be no confusion between Zen masters and theosophical 'mahatmas' - the glamorous 'Masters of Wisdom' who live in the mountain vastness of Tibet and practice the arts of occultism. Zen masters are quite human. They get sick and die; they know joy and sorrow; they have bad tempers or other little 'weaknesses' of character just like everyone else, and they are not above falling in love and entering into a fully human relationship with the opposite sex. The perfection of Zen is to be perfectly and simply human. The difference of the adept in Zen from the ordinary run of men is that the latter are, in one way or another, at odds with their own humanity, and are attempting to be angels or demons."
To invent ego games wherein the points to be scored are for egolessness is, therefore, to miss the spirit of what we are talking about. Having nothing to do with hierarchies, mundane or spiritual, we are not out to prove anything - except that status is nonsense, as when we lightly bestow lofty titles on one another and ordain each other Zenarchs. Our purpose is, rather, to understand ourselves, our whole beings, and to "remember" something so simple that it tends to elude classification and satisfactory definition. For that reason, it is hard to remember. Captured in this or that string of words, unconditioned and unconditional mind tends soon to become confused in our thoughts of it with the words or sentences that only indicate its possibility. Thus one day we repeat to ourselves words that may once have awakened us, only to find them hollow. Then we find ourselves no longer dealing with the miracle of ordinary existence, but with an abstraction about it - a nervous twitch enshrined idolatrously somewhere in the frontal lobe of the brain! Rote learning is impossible when what we want to remember is spontaneity in living.
Words are useful tools of reference. Clinging too desperately to them is like grasping our lives in fear. We shut out our perceptions that made the thing worthwhile in the first place. We become like lovers who get into a spiteful fight over which of them loves the other the most.
All human activity is this way. Outward forms of religious reverence become so much more important than what religion is trying to teach, that devotees kill for them. Jesus would have to arise in every generation to denounce the scribes and Pharisees of every age for it to be any different. That was the point of the saying about new wine in old skins. Over and over, any such prophet would be crucified or stoned or lynched, besides. Objects of art suffer much the same fate. Pointing beyond the uptight concerns of the market place, they wind up objects of its calculations, investment speculations and status seeking.
In Psychotherapy East and West, Watts recommends dealing with this frantic compulsion to compete. What he calls for is a counter-game. More than a game against games, a counter-game is any activity selected because it is by nature more exciting than status games. At that point, however, all comparisons must end. For the counter-game is played outside the context of direct competition.
When missionaries or school teachers taught young Hopi Indians the game of basketball, the latter steadfastly refused to keep score. With their strong taboos on competition, the Hopi turned basketball into a counter-game!
Usually, though, a counter-game is something going on over to one side. Gradually, individuals become curious about it and, when it is successful, they forget all about what they were doing previously. No such course of action is without pitfalls. There is no getting around that a counter-game is in part trying to be more fascinating than other games and is therefore in competition with them, indirectly.
Watts insists the counter-game must be soft and sexy and invitational, rather than imperative in tone. When everything not forbidden - no matter how desirable - becomes compulsory, then we are back where we started. Like good lovers we must let the matter go when our seductions fail. To become bitter and resort to intimidation or guilt as a means of persuasion would be to lose the spirit of the counter-game.
Here the dictum of karma yoga is useful: devotion to our activity for its own sake with detachment from the results. Or, as Jesus phrased it, what your hand finds to do, do it with a whole heart.
Precisely because these things are too simple for words, it has been necessary to develop a whole literature about them! We could say, for example, that if you want to step out of Zen games and into Zenarchy, then throw away your rice bowl and begin drinking coffee instead of green tea. Every now and then some serious student of Zen would find liberation upon reading those words. "Trees are trees again and mountains are again mountains" is the way one Zen master summed up that feeling. Or, as Robert Anton Wilson once said, "God is dead: you are all absolutely free!" Taken too literally or not literally enough, though, such words are nonsense at best. Not only do words mean slightly different things to different people, an action taken in the context of one person's life produces different results in another's. For that reason Zen monks are exposed to whole barrages of stories and sayings that are all windows into the same reality. Hopefully, sooner or later one statement or another clicks. When that happens an intuitive perception makes clear that every object is a thing in itself, and all our grand ideas are simply distractions: visitors "look at these flowers as if in a dream." They were not seeing flowers at all; a thousand and one ideas about the flowers and about everything else cluttered their minds - as their conversations must have revealed.
Conceptions help us locate things and they tell us something about their natures. Unfortunately, they are also frequently preconceptions that screen out any direct awareness of what we perceive. Many optical illusions result from this phenomena, and it is chiefly for that reason that Gestalt psychology examines them in so much detail. When we miss the beauty of a flower because of our mental activity, that is sad. When for the same reason we miss the shape of a form or the nature of a diagram, that is puzzling. When we miss the unique character of a human being, that is tragic. What we call prejudice is a result of stereotyping, and yet stereotyping is only an exaggerated and crude form of something that occurs even among the most liberal individuals in almost every human encounter.
With enlightened, or naked minds (the no-mind of Zen) we enjoy the flowers. What's more, we avoid the depersonalization of individual human beings.
When the reality of what I'm talking about is brought home to us with traumatic force by some remark or event, those with understanding say we are enlightened, or hip, or aware. That makes us in their eyes desirable company. We don't bring them down. Beyond that much, though, there is no badge of status.
In the words of the Lankavatra Sutra, this is a "turning about in the deepest seat of consciousness." Perhaps because our culture is not Buddhist and because it stresses belief more than what D.T. Suzuki called the noetic aspect of conversion, such a once-and-for-all realization is rare. Instead, we experience something when we are not grasping for it at all and then, when we try to hold onto it, it eludes us. After that we know the sneaky thing is there, somewhere. Like a wild bird, it comes into view only if we learn to be patient and wait for it - never when we try to summon it forth by beating a drum.
So there is not so much to the Zenarchy of Ho Chi Zen after all. When a priest boasted to Bankei that the founder of his sect could perform miracles, Bankei replied, "My miracle is that I eat when I'm hungry and drink when I'm thirsty!"
In a like spirit, Chaung Tzu wrote: "What I call good at hearing is not hearing others but hearing oneself. What I call good at vision is not seeing others but seeing oneself. For those who see others but not themselves, or take not possession of themselves but of others, possess only what others possess. In thus failing to possess themselves, they do what pleases others instead of what pleases their own natures."
At first this may seem to contradict what was said earlier about allowing ourselves to perceive others as they are. What becomes clear when we dispense with our mental categories and conceptions in favor of what they indicate is that self and others belong to the same reality. When your own nature is not felt you cannot possibly empathize accurately with what others feel. When you fail to perceive others without the subtle prejudice of expectation, you cannot use the information you absorb about them to evaluate your own behavior objectively.
Words by their nature stress distinctions at the expense of interrelatedness. That is why so many mystics bad-mouth distinctions and speak of the oneness of it all. Not that these distinctions don't exist! A map that shows only political boundaries looks far different than a map of only mountains and valleys and rivers and streams. Yet both indicate the same territory. Likewise, we have the verbal and conceptual map and the map given us directly by our senses. When using one, it is best not to forget the other.
"Speech is obscured by the gloss of this world," lamented Chuang Tzu. "The net exists because of the fish. Once you catch the fish you can then forget the net. The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit. Trap the rabbit and you can leave the snare. Words exist because of the meaning. Get the meaning and then you can forget the words. Where can I locate someone who forgets words, so that communication will be possible?"
Do his words contradict what I said about not forgetting one map while using the other? Only on the surface. Once you've got the meaning, you can forget both his words and mine! Words are tools and what Chaung Tzu is saying is that at times they must be laid aside. After you cut the wood, forget the saw and grab the hammer.
With relational, or spiritual, matters this is much less obvious than with maps and saws and hammers and the things we use them for. As a remedy Ho Chi Zen suggested Spiritual General Semantics, saying, "Every religion asserts that God is unknowable and beyond all human comprehension - then they define God in precise, finite terms and persecute all who disagree with their definition. This is not a struggle on behalf of the Divine. It is a struggle on behalf of a collection of words!"
General Semantics teaches that the word is not the thing as the map is not the territory and the menu is not the meal. "That doesn't mean not to look at the menu," says Ho Chi Zen, "but, for Heaven's sake, don't eat it!"
Alan Watts claims that much of what Buddhist sages mean when they say nothing is real or that everything is maya (illusion) is that our words and thoughts about reality are not real in the sense that they are not the reality they talk and think about. What ordinary people usually speak and think of as reality is "only a finger pointing at the moon", say the Zen masters; it is not the moon itself.
Certain of them have even been known to urinate upon and, in other instances, burn statues of the Buddha. For a wooden Buddha is only a menu. Bowing to Buddhas without getting and practicing the meaning of what the Buddha said is far greater blasphemy than pissing on them!
Occasionally, Buddhists resort to what at first may appear as Orwellian newspeak, in that they assert that something is its opposite in meaning. "Nirvana (Paradise) is Samsara (Hell) and Samsara is Nirvana." Unlike Big Brother, they are not trying to mystify us in order to dominate. They are just trying to get us around the traps we lay for ourselves with words. For Heaven and Hell are states of mind that result from how we perceive reality. Perceive it clearly and, even at its worst, there is a terrifying beauty to behold. Misapprehend it and fail to function appropriately; the inevitable result is suffering.
As Krishnamurti says in The Urgency of Change: "As the man in the jungle must keep terribly awake to survive, so the man in the jungle of the world must keep terribly awake to live completely."
Looking at it that way, we see that the problem in the Sixties was not that they named us the Love Generation. The problem is that we allowed ourselves the luxury of accepting their flattery. After that, every time we failed to love them we felt like hypocrites. Once we felt that way, we lost our confidence and our actions reflected as much. Then our lives changed for the worse.
What if, instead, we had responded to the Love Generation appellation by laughing and saying, "Yeah, sometimes!"?
Far and away the best answer to the problem dealt with in this chapter was given without resort to words. Ho Tai is the mountainously rotund Laughing Buddha whose statues are almost as common a theme of Chinese art as those of Gautama Buddha. A Chinese Zen sage who wandered about dispensing gifts of sweets from a sack slung over his shoulder, Ho Tai was once asked to explain the theory of Zen.
Befuddled and bewildered by the question, he furrowed has brow and sat on a log and thought and thought. When the questioner at last despaired of ever getting an answer, he went on to ask: "What is the practice of Zen?"
Ah! Ho Tai brightened at once, stood, shouldered his bag and went his merry way!

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Zenarchy: Table of Content

Copyright 1991, 1997 Kerry W. Thornley, IllumiNet Press and Impropaganda.