The Justdoitness Of Things

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2021-05-14 08:00:00-04:00 No comments

There's a pretty good YouTube channel that got recommended to me on the basis of my interest in Brad Warner's channel, called "Doug's Dharma", a slightly more formal and polished exploration of Buddhism (generally early Buddhism). One of the recent videos, about the parable of the raft had a few lines that went like this: The dharma is for practicing, not for memorizing. The way I put it to myself: the dharma is for doing, not talking about. As are many other things.

Stuff like this was what drew me to Zen in the first place — the emphasis on practicality, on doing things (like sitting zazen), not on erudition and flaunting one's intellect. It's part of why I found folks like David Feser to be so depressingly empty: they didn't have anything to bring to the table except cleverness and logic-chopping. What they ended up doing was pretty dismal.

It's a constant struggle when explaining Zen to people to emphasize how it's nonintellectual rather than anti-intellectual — that this isn't about erudition and intelligence being useless, only that they are not particularly good for one's spiritual advancement. Especially because the whole point of this stuff is not so that you can go on YouTube and record videos with smarmy titles like "FREETHINKER DESTROYS SIMPS WITH LOGIC". (One sure sign you're dealing with a sophist: they talk about their ideas as if thinking were a zero-sum game.)

Zen teachers are not impressed by how much technical knowledge people have of the dharma. I still don't remember all ten precepts off the top of my head. They also tend not to be impressed by outward fervor, since too often that's just a sign of someone showing off in a different form. Showoffs are not interested in the thing itself, but in what the thing can do for them. One of Seung Sahn's disciples described how in the early days of his sangha (the 1970s), they once had a couple of guys come in who were very clearly of the "San Francisco spiritual buffet" persuasion. They sat zazen for half an hour with the others, which was great, and then got into this boisterous discussion on the way out the door about who had the deeper experience of samadhi, which was silly. Neither one of them ever came back, which was entirely predictable.

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Shunryu Suzuki, in Zen Mind Beginner's Mind, says at one point, "Zen is not something to get excited about." He was, as the title of his work implied, very much a proponent of the idea that one should make Zen practice just an ordinary thing, and that the best benefits of it come from leavening it into one's daily life. This stands in contrast to the way most spiritual systems work: they insist on otherworldly specialness or supernatural power as their claim to truth, whereas Zen keeps wrenching us right back to wherever we are right here 'n now, because that's where the action is, kids. Every time we make this stuff special, we make it into a bad substitute for live as it is actually lived instead of an enrichment for it.

All of this is why I tend to confine my talk of Zen to this blog and mostly nowhere else. I don't think a single other person in my daily life has asked me about it once they found out I sat zazen regularly. Fine by me, since I'd rather people take no interest in something than a false or mendacious interest.

Sometime after I published my third book or so (that is, around 2011), I came to the conclusion the same kinds of things apply to creative work. People should do them because they are worth doing on their own, and not because they are worth bragging about or getting flattery for. If someone comes along and says "What you're doing is great, how about I pay you a bunch of money to keep doing it?", that's a nice bonus, but I'm really starting to feel like deliberately putting yourself in that position is just asking for trouble — especially when the whole reason you started was just to do your own sweet thing, payoffs be damned.

Again, I don't mean that anyone who wants to get an agent and get published is committing a crime against themselves. Only that too many people have the wrong motives — especially the people who start from nothing and go the DIY route. I always felt the whole point of being a DIY-er was to DIY, not to use that as a ladder towards mainstream respectability that you might not really want anyway.

I also feel using the gross exception to the rule as some kind of model for aspiration is a mistake. Not just because you shouldn't try to mold yourself in someone else's image, but because it's too easy to be deluded about what that model consists of in the first place. If you get to be Stephen King, great, but the odds are stupid poor -- and even if you do get to be Stephen King, have you seen the bloated slop he's been producing for the past two decades and change? He's one of the many incarnate proofs for Tibor Fischer's line that in publishing you go from not being published no matter how good you are to being published no matter how bad you are.

All the best things we do in life are things we do because they are sincere — because they are worth doing entirely unto themselves. This doesn't cover even 1% of what we do as a society, and maybe that is the chief reason 90% of everything is crap (as per Theodore Sturgeon). We don't do it very often because we don't live in a world that provides most people with the space to do things they actually care about. We have to fight to carve out even the smallest space to do that. But fight we should, and the best way to fight is by just embodying our intentions. By just doing the things.

Tags: Buddhism Zen creativity writers writing