The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Monday, September 26, 2005

So Now What?

Brad Warner is an American who went to Japan and was ordained a Zen Priest. His commentary on Zen practice is very accessible, and more than a little bit "in your face." His book, Hardcore Zen, and the articles on his website make for very refreshing reading. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to his website where there are a good number of his articles. If his articles resonate with you, get the book.

What follows is an article he's written a while back, from which we could all profit. Enjoy.


The other day someone stole my bicycle. It was in the underground garage below my apartment building. They broke into three cars, stole someone’s GPS, someone else’s amplifier and another person’s gym bag. Apparently they stuffed their loot into the gym bag and used my bike as their get-away vehicle.

The LA Police Dept. didn’t think the incident even merited investigation as far as I can tell. A bunch of us waited and waited for them to respond to our calls. I gave up after three hours, though a few of the others lingered longer. Chances are, we’ll never know who did it, nor will we be able to recover any of our stuff.

Whoever it is probably thinks he (and, face it folks, it most likely was a “he”) got away with something. But he didn’t. Because the Universe doesn’t work that way.

Now I’m not into all that “bad karma” stuff which says that Buddha or God or whoever punishes all wrong doers. We don’t need any supernatural force to mete out justice in cases like this. We do it ourselves. It’s not something that occurs on a conscious level. But it does occur. Here’s how it works.

When you do something wrong, you are always fully aware of the wrong-ness of your action. By fully aware, I don’t necessarily mean you are consciously aware. Yet full awareness exists. When you burn your hand on a hot stove you do not need to think about what has happened to be fully aware you’ve made a mistake. The mistake becomes apparent long before thought or what we call consciousness has a chance to enter into the picture. The awareness that you’ve committed a wrongful action is a lot like this. Most of us are too busy chasing our own thoughts around to notice stuff that’s as readily apparent as this. But that doesn’t mean we’re unaware of it.

Anyway, once you’ve committed such an action, that action sets off a chain reaction within your body/mind. Things are set out of whack and will stay that way until you manage to put right what you’ve done wrong. As long as these effects of your act continue, stuff will keep going wrong for you. Your thoughts become muddled, your physical condition becomes out of sorts, you make easily avoidable mistakes, suffer stress related illnesses and so on and so forth. It’s not God or Buddha or even the Universe punishing you, though. It’s you punishing yourself.

I have noticed this process within myself as clearly and surely as I notice the fact that I have a thumb on my left hand, and I do not believe I am somehow unique among humanity. Nor do I believe there are other people out there who’ve some way or another managed to be exempt from the processes which affect me. Nope. I have complete and unshakable confidence that this is how it works for everyone everywhere in the world.

Now we can all think of cases where it seems like someone has gotten away with some kind of dirty deed — a sleazy business man who makes a load of money, a crooked politician who gets re-elected a dozen times, a thief who never gets caught. And, of course, we can all think of plenty of cases where bad things happen to good people. It’s tempting to take this as evidence that the Universe acts in a random way, rewarding the strongest and ignoring those who make the effort to behave correctly. But I don’t believe it.

If you say a guy who gets rich or famous or powerful off of his disreputable acts has gained something of value through his evil action, you’ve fallen into the trap of believing that getting rich, famous and powerful are always and forever things of real value. Me, I have very serious doubts about that. As for bad things happening to good people, that’s a minefield I’d rather not step into. But I would say that we don’t really know the actual circumstances of those whom we commonly label “good” or “bad.” Nor do most of us know our own circumstances very clearly.

Of course there are plenty of people who play the role of the guy who’s gotten away with murder, or whatever. But people can play all kinds of roles. Some people play the enlightened spiritual master role really well, too. I don’t believe that one either. Yet, the more deluded you are the easier it is to fall for the image you’ve created for yourself. The universe always takes care of that as well.

When I talked about this in the Zen class I run in Santa Monica someone asked me if I didn’t feel anger and resentment towards the guy who stole my bike. I had to stop and think a second. It’s not that I’m so spiritually advanced or pure that feelings of anger and resentment never appear in my mind. It’s just that I’ve seen the futility of chasing such feelings around and lending them strength through repetition. So, for the most part, I don’t even bother with such thoughts much anymore. They don’t give me any pleasure. They won’t lead to the recovery of my bike. They won’t help me prevent another such theft in the future. Why waste time on that kind of thinking?

But I also know it’s not enough just to hear the words “it’s useless to think of such things.” I'd heard those words a hundred thousand times before I was 14 years old. But it was a long while before I could break the habit of doing it anyway. Without the practice of zazen it never would have come about, nor would I be able to maintain the few good habits I’ve managed to develop without continuing the practice every single day.

People are always interested in speculative questions about morality. Like, if a guy has no money but his darling little boy is dying of some disease is it moral or immoral for him to break into the local Walgreen's and steal the drugs the kid needs? I don't really see the use of speculation like that. You rarely run into penniless guys with dying kids who ask you such things anyway. What is far more useful is to develop a clear mind so that when you're faced with moral challenges that lie outside of those to which society has given easy clear cut answers, you can see for yourself what right action needs to be taken.

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