Zen and Now

I cannot afford to dwell on anger, but that and fear are my reflexive conditions, so I am annoyingly high-maintenance in pursuit of palliatives and crutches. Throughout my day, I find it necessary to remind myself not to be angry, and when asked to do something will squeeze out a 'Sure,' 'Certainly' or 'Of course' in an attempt to combat my immediate responses of 'No!', 'Why do you distract me with this drivel?' or the self-pitying 'This, this is my life?' Forced positivity may be repulsive, but I'm better off masquerading as a fallacious facetious transparent Pollyanna Pangloss than using the personality that I was born with. The personality that I was born with wants me dead and isn't too concerned with the people around her, either. Not-so innocent bystanders: they had it coming. What were they doing there, anyway? Collateral damage. The personality that I was born with would take me out if she wasn't such a coward. That bitch is better left behind.

Anger is one of the 'defilements' that they allude to at the zen center. I heard of the zen center through a global e-mail publicizing an acquaintance's husband's band performing for the weekend of the Buddha's birthday bash. Every belief system appears to need some anthropomorphic figurehead, some theoretical progeniture, some monkey kin to celebrate. So let's hear it for the Bodhisvatta. I missed the party but attended the lotus lantern lighting ceremony and admired the altar: three golden gods with the merest suggestion of subtle smirks; folding screens painted with deer, peonies, and exotic birds on flowering boughs; drums with stylized stands, standing silent. I decided that I like the zen center because it's pretty and clean and quiet and safe, although hideous beige plaid second-hand furniture in a basement appears to be another universal among the faithful, and then have a spasm of self-criticism for critiquing their furniture. I may be superficial, or perhaps should just accept that an aesthetic is a necessity on my path. Emma Goldman said that it wasn't her revolution unless she could dance to it. LeCorbusier said that God is in the details. Perhaps my precepts must be pretty, my dogma must know delicacy, my monastery must be well-designed. They give me green tea and cookies, cut sections of day-old scones, I suspect, from someone's Starbucks' gig. At the zen center, you wash your own cup, of course. They are tiny, celadon or plain earthenware. I do not understand small portions. Everyone pauses before speaking. Everyone is most gracious, and to me there is something comic in people so consistently demonstrating calmness, a sort of competition in bemused non-affect. Mirror mirror that we must break in a non-aggressive manner in order to escape the trap of self on the wall who's the most detached of them all?

I am completely unlettered in Buddhism, and am admittedly uncomfortable with the stereotype of the platoon of westerners surrounding the elderly Asian for instruction, earnest and cross-legged on the floor. I script rationalizations for my attendance: "All mysticism is specious, but I can handle these Buddhists because they are 1) non-deistic, 2) non-doctrinal, 3) earthy, and 4) pragmatic." There is one participant who lectures, and I attend because he is 1) funny, 2) kind, 3) a member of an ethnic group towards which I am predisposed, and 4) highly credentialed from western institutions in more than one field, although he claims to have forgotten everything. Gay and a dedicated fan of the ballet doesn't hurt, either. Apparently the (older, Asian) teacher is an autocrat. The bracelets that some people wear are called yomjus. I purchase at least a half dozen -- for Christmas gifts -- but later decided to keep them. A reminder to be good, recognizable to those in the know, but not as loaded as a cross or literal as some blissed-out master's smiling face. Accessorize your enlightenment. And they come in nice colors: faux amber, clear pink with tinsel glitter, wood, engraved with teensy buddhas so small that they're abstract black squiggles, a rather 80's seeming turquoise with black splatters, garnet red. A bit of little kid 'dress-up': "I'm going to put on my 'good girl' beads now." The thirty six beads represent one third of the one hundred and eight great defilements. This information is from a meditation course, not the lectures. The meditation instructor (female) has buzzed hair and funky glasses, and this makes me feel comfortable. (Another positive for the temple was an attendee at a fundraiser wearing a 'Stop Plate Tectonics' t-shirt. This is my level of geeketry.) Apparently the condensed version of the thirty-six defilements are but three: Greed, Anger, and Delusion. These are the demons. I have the most intense, passionate and constant relationship with Delusion, view Greed as inevitable and companionable, but cannot afford to hang with Anger. The teacher, or Sunim, (apparently the term for 'teacher' in Korean Buddhism also means 'Bald-headed idiot,' and the terms master or priest make me twitch) declares, "Anger makes you stupid." Another statement that renders this franchise acceptable is Sunim's definition of the ultimate zen experience as "Intimate, immediate, spontaneous, and obvious -- like a bowel movement!" Does liking a spiritual organization with a predilection for the pithy make me stupid? As long as it doesn't make me angry. I haven't been there for a month. Perhaps I'll go back for the cookies.


- Erika Mikkalo