Speculative Non-Buddhism

ruins of the buddhist real

Posts Tagged ‘Kwan Um’

Only Don’t Know! Reflections on a Thoughtless Life

Posted by Glenn Wallis on May 13, 2017

John Cage, “The Return: Bearing Gifts to the Village.” Zen Ox-herding Image #10

By Jonathan Earle*

My conversion to Buddhism happened in a church bathroom.

I remember flushing the toilet and watching the water disappear to who-knows-where. I scrubbed my hands and examined my face in the mirror, thinking, “I’m going to be doing this for the rest of my life.”1 Becoming a Buddha would take my whole life, surely. I imagined a path spiraling out endlessly before me. It was a terrifying and exciting thought. I guess I would call that my, “conversion experience.”

I must have been thirteen years old. I was in the bathroom of the local Unitarian Church at a Friday evening meeting of the Springwind Zen Center.2  I had gone to several meetings by this time. They usually consisted of sitting meditation for twenty minutes, walking meditation for ten, sitting another twenty, and then a discussion with the group’s leaders Troy and Carlo. I didn’t quite get the point of meditation and I didn’t quite get the point of the strange, circular kind of language Zen people use to talk about what they do, but there was something that they possessed and I lacked. They: Those wild, old Zen men from the kōans.3  I was fascinated by stories of these masters performing miracles and giving laconic answers to enigmatic questions. I was captured by the mystique,4 believing it to be profound. Even my American Zen teachers seemed to be completely at home in a radically different way of seeing and being in the world. What had they figured out that I hadn’t? I supposed it could be summed up with the one word, “enlightenment.” In the bathroom that evening, I was prepared to spend my whole life getting there.

I have re-told this memory enough times that it has become a myth: I’m certain that whatever content it once had has been thoroughly re-inscribed by new meanings. In the past I’ve said of this story, “It was a gut feeling. I just knew that there was something about this stuff (i.e., Zen) that was real.” I no longer think of my “conversion experience” as a pre-conceptual recognition of timeless wisdom. Maybe Zen does indeed intimate to something true, but the mystical experience of a believer cannot verify that truth. I write this today as an incorrigible icchantika: a slanderer of the Three Jewels.5 Read the rest of this entry »

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