Zen and the Art of Non-Cyclic Existence…

There have been a plethora of ‘Zen-and-the-Art-of’ books, since the original was published, some seventy years ago now, e.g. ‘Zen-and-the-Art-of Faking It’, ‘Zen-and-the-Art-of Happiness”, ‘Zen-and-the-Art-of Housekeeping’, ‘Zen-and-the-Art-of Living’, and more, but did you know that the original was published in 1948, in German, and with a slight but important difference in the title, so ‘Zen IN the Art of Archery’ (CAPS mine), which seems to actually be a serious discussion of Zen Buddhism, unlike the best-known ‘Zen-and-the-Art-of’ book…

Which was ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’, of course, which sold a cool 5 Mil, published almost fifty years ago, and apparently has changed many people’s lives, hopefully for the better. I thought it all sounded very interesting way back then, as much for the motorcycles, my early passion, as for the Zen, but my own personal tastes at the time ran more to the Beats and the Existentialists than something that sounded like a slightly sullied Jonathan Livingston Seagull. But I finally got around to it, a year or two ago now (any book I’m seriously interested in, I try to read within 50 years of publication)…

So I was surprised to read the book and find that it actually spoke very little about Buddhism in general, and even less about Zen in particular, as if the average Joe would even know the difference, whether then or now. But maybe no one really noticed because the life of travel might seem equally exotic to that same Joe, and therefore very Zen-like, or even (and this is the intriguing part)…

…maybe travel IS the paradigm for Zen, in sharp contrast to the Theravada Buddhist paradigm of the solitary monk attached to a temple or monastery, so as much like the TV shows ‘Kung Fu’ or ‘Then Came Bronson’ as ‘Zen-and-the-Art-of’, which talked much about motorcycles, and philosophy, but not so much about Zen. They could have named it ‘Plato and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ and come closer to the truth. But hey, whatever works…

If Buddhism at its most serious is about renunciation, then the object of that renunciation is crucial. Samsara is a word that gets tossed about a lot, but now more often used as the ultimate dodge, it the ‘cyclic existence’ which Tibetans have made the prime mover for Buddhism, that from which we must be liberated. Originally, though, the word simply meant the ‘world’ as it still does in modern standard Nepali, i.e. gorkhali, the language of the Gurkhas, and apparently the language most closely derived from ancient Sanskrit (and very similar to Hindi, with less English, and Arabic, etc.)…

What is the object of renunciation, anyway?

So I believe that the original object of renunciation, was indeed the ‘world’, same as Christian monk-hood, i.e. the life of a householder, since enshrined in the Indian practice of ‘going forth’ during old age as a renunciant. But to do it as a youth is an act of faith, and religion. And so in my paradigm we have nomadic travel as renunciation, of the world, the conventional world…

So in this hypothetical paradigm there is instead a solitary seeker, not attached to anything, but living the life of dharma anywhere and everywhere, among strangers, who need not be so strange nor estranged. And this resonates strongly with me, that if the Theravada paradigm is that of a monk attached to a temple, eating but once a day, and wishing for more, the Mahayana paradigm, for me at least, is that of the traveler, who lives by his wits, and makes the best of it…

Of course Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder set the paradigm in Kerouac’s ‘Dharma Bums’ in the late 50’s and everything since is but pale imitation. Often people have accused me of having fun while traveling, but it’s not about having fun, with this Mahayana paradigm, the traveling’s not, and that’s for sure. It’s always been more like a vision quest, for me, anyway, looking for something, even if not sure exactly what that something is…

And as a serious Buddhist now there’s always the question of whether to ordain or not, whether long-term or just temporary, especially in SE Asia, where such is very common, if not the norm, the issue being one not just of renunciation, and the definition and value thereof, but multiple social and personal issues…

So in my hypothetical paradigm, I suppose it could be argued that I renounced and self-ordained many decades ago, with recurrent bouts of dedication and slackness, once it became obvious that my life would be interwoven with travel and little concerned with PTA meetings and homecoming parades, for better or worse. And now that I’ve accepted dharma as the focus of my life, then the circle, I suppose, is complete. And this is a definition of ‘cyclic existence’ that I can live with…

Of course, it all has to mean something, or it’s just mindlessness, not mindfulness, and mindless travel is hardly comparable to a monk’s life. And in the spirit of spirituality, it’s certainly not about partying. It’s about giving something, and being a part of whatever it is the locals are and do, reducing divisions and misunderstandings and uncertainties…

But mostly it’s about discipline, the discipline of being steady and secure in one’s outlook and demeanor. Because anyone can be kind and gentle and helpful if and when they’re actually trying, but to do so as a matter of course in one’s life is something different, not the turning on or off of metta or garuna, but a steady trickle charge that never goes away, and never goes down, like a good motorcycle. When discipline is no longer necessary, then I think Enlightenment will take over, pure and natural. Maybe the immortal Alan Watts put it best:

Zen has no goal; it is a traveling without point, with nowhere to go. To travel is to be alive, but to get somewhere is to be dead, for as our own proverb says, “To travel well is better than to arrive.”

 

 

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