Friday, August 6, 2010

The Daily Grind

One of the things that I don't think many people understand about the spiritual life is how incredibly busy it can be.

This came home to me the other day. I got a phone call early Sunday morning from my neighbour, whom I have given free internet service in exchange for helping with some work on my house. She found that her email wasn't working anymore. I went upstairs and fixed the problem fairly quickly.

She didn't just call me, though. She got all flustered and phoned my internet provider, who then got involved and started harassing me about upgrading my service. So I agreed to the upgrade. So I got the new router. Of course, it didn't just work "out of the box". So I had to go through a bit of a "snipe hunt" to figure out how to make it work on my laptop. About 15 minutes after I got my laptop going, my neighbour phoned me to tell me her computer wasn't connecting to the internet. A couple days later and a lot of research, and I still haven't got her computer to work for her.

I've gotten a bit grumpy about this, because the experience has shown me how incredibly time poor I have become. I work at a full time job and try to meditate and do taijiquan every day. I also walk back and forth to work, which comes down to an hour and a half commute every day. Add in trying to cook at least one meal a day, dealing with the demands of being a fairly involved member of a political party, writing a book, this blog plus the normal stuff---laundry, etc, and I am really busy. The fact that my neighbour is getting upset because of a few days without internet---but has no interest in actually learning anything about computers---isn't helping with my equanimity.

I was reading the autobiography of a zen master, Sheng-yen, a couple days ago and something struck me. He describes his life as the disciple of another master:
My stay with him turned out to be one of the most difficult periods of my life. He constantly harassed me. It reminded me of the treatment that Milarepa received from his guru Marpa. For example, after telling me to move my things into one room, he would later tell me to move to another room. Then he would tell me to move back in again. Once, he told me to seal off a door and to open a new one in another wall. I had to haul the bricks by foot from a distant kiln up to the monastery. We normally used a gas stove, but my master often sent me to the mountains to gather a special kind of firewood that he liked to brew his tea over. I would constantly be scolded for cutting the wood too small or too large. I had many experiences of this kind.

In my practice it was much the same. When I asked him how to practice, he would tell me to meditate. But after a few days he would quote a famous master, saying, "You can't make a mirror by polishing a brick, and you can't become a Buddha by sitting." So he ordered me to do prostrations. Then, after several days, he would say "This is nothing but a dog eating shit off the ground. Read the sutras!" After I read for a couple of weeks, he would scold me again, saying that the patriarchs thought the sutras good only for cleaning sores. He would say, "You're smart. Write an essay." When I showed him an essay he would tear it up saying, "These are all stolen ideas." Then he would challenge me to use my own wisdom and say original things.

When I lived with him he forbade me to keep a blanket, because monks were supposed to meditate at night. When tired, we could nap, but were not to rely on the comfort of a bed or blanket. All these arbitrary things were actually his way of training me. Whatever I did was wrong even if he had just told me to do it. Although it was hard to think of this treatment as compassionate, it really was. If I hadn't been trained with this kind of discipline, I would not have accomplished much. I also realized from him that learning the Buddha Dharma was a very vigorous activity, and that one should be self-reliant in practice.

I can understand how Sheng must have felt when he was studying under the master who harassed him. I feel like that a great deal of the time. The thing is, however, I suspect that the only way to gain the great equanimity that I seek, is to be able to survive in the wild maelstrom that my life has become. When I do get those moments of quiet, like writing this blog during my lunch hour, I find that peace of mind returns. Hopefully some day I will "graduate" and be able to live up the Zen ideal of being able to sit peacefully even though a mountain collapses right next to me.

I hope that this doesn't arrive about 15 minutes before I drop dead, though.


Jim714 said...

Dear CWO:

I would like to make a tentative comment on “Daily Grind”; tentative in the sense that it is only recently that I have come to this view. The depiction of Sheng-yen’s interaction with his teacher is similar to many stories about the harsh, aggressive, yet compassionate spiritual teacher; Sheng-yen himself mentions the famous Milarepa. For a long time I admired such relationships and during my long trek on the spiritual path I have had some teachers who took a similar approach.

In recent years, though, I have gradually seen this differently. For one thing, you never hear the stories about people who were irretrievably lost to the spiritual quest due to this kind of behavior on the part of a teacher. From personal observation I would suggest that those who have been permanently derailed from the spiritual quest due to this kind of interaction is far greater, by many magnitudes, than those who benefit.

Another factor I have gradually come to recognize is how unnecessary this kind of approach is, how ineffective it is. A spiritual teacher who is considerate, humble, not eccentric, and not particularly demanding is, in my observation, at least as effective, if not more so, than those spiritual teachers who are confrontational.

I look at this from the point of view of nature. In early spring, if I go to my garden and approach the sprouts and start shouting at them to “Grow, get going, don’t be lazy”, and then I start slapping them with my hand to get them to bloom, this won’t have much effect. In some cases the plant will be damaged. Similarly, on the spiritual quest I believe most beginners, and even most non-beginners, do not benefit from such an approach to the growth of their soul and spirit or to their capacity for insight.

I do not doubt the experience of Sheng-yen, or Milarepa. What I am questioning is that one can generalize from these cases and conclude that this is the standard way a spiritual teacher should behave. A gentle, nourishing, approach doesn’t make for as many good stories, but in the long run I think it produces more secure results for a much broader spectrum of humanity.

Best wishes,


The Cloudwalking Owl said...


Yes, you are quite right. My interest in the post was more about my situation than trying to make any statement about "teaching". I would suggest, however, that the spiritual path is more than just sipping tea in a pleasant garden. I suspect you would agree.

Your comment does bring up a good question: "What exactly is the goal of this spiritual thing?" I've got to admit that I've never been comfortable with the ideal of the calm, peaceful sage. For most of my life my iconic image was more of Jesus cleansing the temple and John the Baptist preaching fire and brimstone. That certainly has informed my life as an activist.

The experience that I was referencing in my "Grind" post has got me thinking about all of this. The ideal of the calm, tranquil person is becoming more and more appealing. Perhaps this is just age. Perhaps it is wisdom. Perhaps the two are more than just co-incidental. ;-)

Your comment also jarred a question out of me. I had always thought that people who get hammered by stress tend to get stronger and stronger at dealing with chaos. ("The hardest steel goes through the hottest fire---".) Maybe this is only true up to a point, beyond which people just burn out.

Funny thing about harsh/crazy teachers. Moy Lin Shin was like that. And I am one of those guys who got driven away from kooky behaviour. But then again, I was pretty kooky back then too. Who knows what would have happened if he'd been the sort of teacher you describe?

Lots of good thoughts flowing from you comments.

I bow to the benefit I've gained from a fellow traveler on the Way.