In one of his stories, Primo Levi (by way of a fictional narrator) talks about a slew of fads that have come and gone, with Zen Buddhism being one of them. I was not sure exactly when the story was written — my guess was last Sixties, early Seventies — but I didn't take offense at the description. I knew what he was referring to. Maybe even from the inside.
There was a time when interest in Zen Buddhism in the West had a highly faddish flavor to it. A slew of people got interested in it because their friends were interested in it, tried it out for a bit, and then all but a few who were truly interested in it fell out. It took the likes of Brad Warner and Chuck Klosterman to convince me, as of late, that this arc of appreciation is actually a good thing. It means if someone is now interested in something that once only had faddish appeal, their interest has a far greater chance of being genuine.
It's hard to get deeply interested in a lot of things without some peer support, if only to show you which way to turn and where to park. Anime/manga/J-culture fandom requires at least some fellow-fan support — not just because Japanese culture isn't American culture, and you need someone to help you read the street signs, but because that niche, narrow as it is, now runs very deep, and you can go very broke investigating it if you're not careful.
A while back, I decided I wanted to cultivate interests that were as sincere as I could make them — meaning, I didn't want to get interested in things just because there was a trend associated with them, or because I could parlay that into fast acceptance with some group. That meant, as I soon found out, that I had to actually know what I wanted. This turned out to be the single most difficult but also ultimately rewarding piece of introspection I ever conducted. I wanted work that would let me live comfortably and allow me time to create the things I cared about; I wanted to explore my curiosities about a few specific subjects (e.g., Japan).
But more than anything else, I wanted to understand myself, and I didn't want to do it by way of having some existing set of notions dumped into my lap. Zen has some notions, but they're really not intended to be used as-is. They're things you turn back on yourself so you can get the real answers — and those are things that, once they come, are best kept to yourself, because they're for you alone. These were all things that once I started doing them, I realized were not things I was going to discard as fads, because nobody pressured me into them. (It also helped to encounter teachers who talked about this stuff in a way that was genuine and relevant.)
The other day I wrote about how mainstream cultural things don't really keep my interest, for the most part, because they're in no danger of vanishing. Someone is always going to be paid gobs of money to make sure The Avengers is available on a shelf somewhere. It's not a given that someone will be paid any money at all to keep something like The Zen Teachings Of Huang Po available. Well, maybe they will, but my point is that our priorities are not at all in line with our urgencies. I felt an urgency with Zen I didn't feel with many other things, and still do.
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Other Lives Of The Mind