In Buddhist circles there is the parable of "the worst horse", as explained best (says I) by way of Shunryu Suzuki (copied verbatim):
In our scripture it is said that there are four kinds of horses -- an excellent one, and not so good ones, and bad horse. The best horse will run before it sees the shadow of the whip. That is the best one. The second one will run just before the whip reaches his skin. The third one will run when it feels pain on his body. The fourth one will run after the pain penetrates into the marrow of his bone. That is the worst one. When we hear this story, perhaps everyone wants to be a good horse -- the best horse. Even if it is impossible to be the best one we want to be the second best. That is quite usual understanding of horse. But actually when we sit you will understand whether we are the best horse or the not-so-good ones. Here we have some problem in understanding of Zen. Zen is not the practice to be the best horse. If you think so -- if you understand Zen as a kind of practice to be a best horse you will have a problem -- big problem. That is not the right understanding of Zen. Actually, if you practice right Zen, whether you are the best horse or worst one doesn't matter. That is not the point.
Back in 2013 or so when I started my other site Ganriki, devoted to reviews and analyses of Japanese popular culture, one of the notes I made to myself that ended up in the site's explicatory note went something like this: Palettes, not hierarchies. This was something I had gleaned from another figure prominent in my Zen studies, John Cage. The point was not to worry about ranking things, least of all one's self, but to simply learn the lessons on display all around you, as offered by others. The worst horse is actually the best because he has the most to learn, the most opportunity for growth and application of the universe of lessons.
Said Cage, in Lecture On Something:
When Art comes from within, which is what it was for so long doing, it became a thing which seemed to elevate the man who made it above those who observed it or heard it, and the artist was considered a genius or given a rating: First, Second, No Good, until finally riding in a bus or subway: so proudly he signs his name like a manufacturer.
Again, emphasis mine.
Our society makes it nearly impossible not to exist in a stack-ranked deck. Everything we do gets sorted as Better or Worse by others, and not always consciously. No surprise if our employers do it, but shock and horror ensue if there's even a milli-whiff of such a thing emanating from a mother's lips about her children. But it's stupid to pretend parents don't in fact favor one kid over others, or that a Golden Boy or Girl doesn't bubble to the top in a given organization -- and maybe not because of anything done, but simply because they tickled fancies that the ticklees didn't even know were there to be tickled.
All of this exists, continues, and perpetuates itself almost entirely unchallenged. When challenged, it is only challenged in the most passing way, or as a nod towards some more egalitarian future, the details of the construction of which are always conveniently Somewhere Else.
It's impossible not to live in relation with others. Even the hermit in his cabin overlooking waves that crash the cliffs is some product of a social matrix, touches it however distantly and peripherally. But somewhere along the way we got it stuck in our fat heads that relationship means, or at least implies, ranking. When I was younger, the phrase was, "We can't all be chiefs, some have to be Indians," a line that has unadmitted racism and inegalitarianism in about equal measure. (Exercise for the reader: determine how much of each springs from the other.)
The response I'm brewing up here isn't so much "all Indians, no chiefs", although the unreconstructed anarchist/Utopian in me would love it that way. It's more that the labels that other people apply to us, as part of their unthinking way of placing us in society as they are accustomed to knowing it, don't really exist. They exist for them, to be sure, and if something exists for enough of them it exists for us as well, by proxy. So my point is not that if we sit crosslegged for half an hour a day all this stuff magically disappears. Rather, it's that if we want to see beyond it, we have to start with the one place in our lives where we have any modicum of control over how we choose to see things, which is our sweet selves.
Reality has no concepts of rankings or divisions or preferences; that's all us. But that also doesn't mean the way we transcend that is by ignoring them, or forcing ourselves to pretend they don't exist. Some of that is always going to creep back in at a certain stage of social development. The point is to be able to train ourselves to see it as something we don't have to invest with any more reality than is absolutely needed for the situation, which in more cases than we think might well be zero.
Creative acts manifest this kind of thing most vividly. The other day I got to talking with friends about why I write at all, and the stock answer is, I do it because I like it. Even if I had an audience of zero, I still would do it, because the point isn't try to outdo anyone else or show off. Maybe not even to try to outdo myself, in the sense of being better than I was yesterday. The sheer doing of it is the thing that matters most. Yes, that doing can and ought to be informed by attention -- not repeating stupid mistakes, not putting yourself in the position of being a perpetual amateur, etc. But what matters most is practicing to practice, not practicing to be the best of anything.
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