Monday, March 14, 2011
Intimacy, Dogen, and Frankenstein: Week 44 in the Zen Center
I've never heard the word intimacy used as much as I have this past year at the Zen Center. But I'm still not completely buying it. Intimacy is a friggin' beast. And that's all I'll divulge on that topic to my readership of twelve. Let's just say I'm not batting a thousand in that batting cage. I must be in that "deep doubt" phase, or "deep faith", depending on your perspective. Our dharma talk was given by Arlene from Green Gulch last Saturday, and she talked about the three qualifications of a zen student: deep faith, deep doubt, and perseverance.
We started reading Frankenstein in my 12th grade English classes this week. It is dense in its 18th Century language, and will, no doubt, bring out the inner monsters in my struggling readers. It's such a beautiful story. I've never read it before, so it's a bit of a risk to teach something I've never read, but I want to challenge my students, and I want my students to explore the novel's themes such as moral responsibility, ethics, commitment, etc. Frankenstein is such a dramatic novel. Mary Shelley wrote it when she was only eighteen. My students love hearing that part, but they especially love hearing how she fell in love with a married man (the poet, Percy Shelley, or a "man whore" as one of my female students called him) at the age of sixteen and ran away with him. Ah, that youthful impulse. She, Percy, and Lord Byron actually spent a summer in Switzerland where they told ghost stories every night to pass the rainy nights, until someone suggested that they write these stories down. She was the only one who delivered the goods. (When you think about it, why would Percy and Byron, the poets, tackle prose anyhow, right?).
I've also been reading (well - re-reading) the Genjo Koan this past week. This practice period is based on the Genjo Koan. It's a fascicle in Dogen's Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, and it is absolutely gorgeous in its language:
To study the Buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, body and mind as well as the body and mind of others drop away.
The monster in Frankenstein becomes self-educated. Moments after Dr. Victor Frankenstein discovers what he has created, he flees, virtually abandoning his "baby". The monster is left to fend for himself. For two years, he lives in the woods, watching from a safe distance a family in their daily interactions. He eventually teaches himself to read, and when he looks at his own reflection in the water one day, he surmises that he is a "hideous creature", one to be feared, even though he has learned about morals and manners in his observation of the family.
To study the Buddha way is to study the self.
The monster has learned enough about society that society judges ugliness or anything that is "other". So what happens? He then discovers Victor's diary and learns that he is Victor's creation. He makes the connection that he has been abandoned, and how do you think he feels? Do you think he strolled into the zendo and "sat with it" for a few days, embraced compassion, and traveled the earth, handing out flowers to miserable people? Not quite. He had the human experience. He felt filled with rage - and sadness. But to make the story tick, Shelly capitalized on the rage. So he goes out and kills Victor's little brother, the lamb of innocence. Revenge is sweet. An innocent woman is then accused of the murder and eventually even hanged for it. Ridden with guilt, Victor does the math, and realizes it's the monster who is responsible for the murder of this woman and his brother. He then finds the monster, realizing that he needs to take responsibility for having created this mess. But, of course, that isn't so easy. It's just the beginning, really. The beginning of his own ancient, twisted path that ultimately leads to his demise.
To study the self is to forget the self.
We call it karma. Causes and conditions. I'm not talking about past lives. That's way too easy, and in my humble opinion (of which there is truly no such thing), a cop-out of an excuse for many new-agers. (There is something to be said, however, about carrying the karma of our parents and grandparents. Thich Nat Hahn talks about this in a recent article in the Shambala Sun). My karma has been kicking my butt lately. Last week, I declared to some friends that I am ready to trade in my karma for a Harley.
We all have moral and personal responsibility. We all have karma. Causes and conditions. We create our conditions; our actions lead to other actions. To every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Newton's third law of physics. Look at Japan. An earthquake. The ocean. A tsunami. A nuclear power plant. Three reactors. One by one, exploding. Toxins into the atmosphere. This is NO judgment. It is heartbreaking to see what is happening in Japan. To every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
When Victor Frankenstein calls the monster "the devil", the monster says, "I expected this reception. All men hate the wretched." Yet, Victor created him. His passion and ambition for scientific advancement got the best of him. Consumed by his need to strive, Victor, in essence, created himself, and then ran away from himself.
To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things.
I guess you could say that Victor Frankenstein would've made a great zen student: deep faith, deep doubt, and perseverance. He feared what he loved once. He hated what he loved once. But he loved it. He loved the monster. He needed the monster. He was the monster.
When actualized by myriad things, body and mind as well as the body and mind of others drop away.
We all have that monster that we have created inside of us. Call it karma, call it DNA, call it what you want. We all need it. We all crave it. Despite our best intentions.
Call it intimacy.