Hardcore romantic

I was sixteen. In our philosophy class, our teacher had just told us the Hindu story of a woman who found the heads of her husband and his best friend had been switched. He left us to ponder the question what was most important: heart or mind. Then he asked us to choose a philosophical tradition to identify with. When the bell rang, the teacher stopped me going through the door and said: “You might see yourself as a sceptic, but you really are a romantic.”

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“I know you are,” he said. “Your what, sixteen now? Come back and see me in five years and we’ll discuss it. Meanwhile, remember what I said.”

With hindsight, I think he must have seen the look on my face when he read the story. I did not need five years to see that he was right. I am a romantic; I yearn for unattainable goals. Enlightenment, to name but one.

Caspar David Friedrich [Public domain]

Caspar David Friedrich [Public domain]

I remember being sixteen because I’ve just read: “Hardcore zen” by Brad Warner. His book is about as no nonsense as it gets when it comes to zen. It’s also about punk bands and Japanese monster movies, but:

“…the clock just ticked away, my legs started aching, my thoughts kept drifting into my head. Maybe I wasn’t doing it right, I figured. Maybe I was missing something crucial. Maybe what I was doing on my cushion with my stupid mind as I was staring dumbly at the wall wasn’t quite it. – Now I can look back after twenty years of practice and say: ‘Nope – that was it.’ Boring, boring, boring. Just sitting there. But even then, from that first day, there was something about zazen that felt somehow right.”

Brad Warner faced reality long enough to become a zen master. He says it’s not very hard to get dharma transmission in Japan these days, not if your father is a temple priest and you have sufficient funds. Still, he struggled:

“To accept such a thing is to become an authority figure and I’ve always had a problem with authority. I never liked authority figures, never wanted to be one and never gave a shit about the people who did.”

Brad’s own belief in the authority of his zen master prevented him from speaking honestly with him for years. I must add, from personal experience, that the solemnity of zen rituals like sanzen, the personal interview with a zen master, can be quite intimidating.

By Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892) (en.wikipedia) [Public domain]

Bodhidharma By Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892) (en.wikipedia) [Public domain]

Judging Brad by his book, I get the impression that he’s the real deal.

“We harbor some inexplicable fear that if we start to enjoy everything about life without picking and choosing we might cease to exist.”

Yes, I’ve felt that! And his comment is vintage zen. Just like:

“You can’t go to paradise. Not now and not after you made your first million. Not after you die. And not if you eat all your peas and are really, really good. Not ever. (…) You have no future. Future is an idea.”

There’s a good chapter on makyo: the world of demons, a place in your mind that you’re probably familiar with if you’ve done meditation for a while. Brad says that you’ll see your worst thoughts and desires. Then you might think this means you’re a bad person, but you’re not. We all have these thoughts and desires. What matters is whether we act upon them, or watch them arise and go away again. Having immoral thoughts does not make you immoral. And being a good person (if there is such a being in the first place) does not mean you have no immoral desires. If we make the mistake to separate ourselves from the evil people in our society that really makes things worse for all of us.

By Gary Ashley (Flickr: Devil Priest) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

By Gary Ashley (Flickr: Devil Priest) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D

“There are people who think of the spiritual life as a journey. Buddhism isn’t like that. We may use the word path, but we’re not trying to get anywhere. We’re trying to fully experience the wonder and perfectness of being right here.”

Cheers, Brad, that got you the last word. Almost.


About Pipteinpteron

Catch a falling feather. Don't keep it.
This entry was posted in atheism, book review, sceptic and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Hardcore romantic

  1. My son is 16 and his teacher could tell him exactly the same thing (with the same answer!). One day he will drop the protective cloak of skepticism and perhaps he will smile for the first time at the weird things I have said to him about life, the universe and the unspoken romantic quest. Thanks for reminding how I got here.

  2. seanossu says:

    “You can’t go to paradise. Not now and not after you made your first million. Not after you die. And not if you eat all your peas and are really, really good. Not ever. (…) You have no future. Future is an idea.”

    I love this! Great post.

    • Thank you for your comment, seanossu. I read your article on religion in Japan and I thought your remark about “religions like Buddhism shifting to accommodate the modern Japanese in material desires in life” very interesting. As zen buddhists, we tend to look at Japanese (zen-) buddhism as being centuries ahead of us, (because of the koans and the patriarchs) but sometimes I have an inkling that this might be a romantic notion too. Modern Japanese buddhism may not be what we dream about.

  3. You could write everything I know about Zen Buddhism on the back of a postage stamp and still have plenty of space for my home address, but I thank you for the dedication anyway. To show my appreciation, I include this haiku I just found:

    Five syllables here
    Seven more syllables there
    Are you happy now?

  4. Great post. I love this quote:

    “We harbor some inexplicable fear that if we start to enjoy everything about life without picking and choosing we might cease to exist.”

    That really sums up the power and threat of full acceptance. It also reminds me of a line in a Tao/Zen poem that went something like this: “Do not chase after truth; just cease to cherish opinions”. Maybe the entire path could be summed up in that?

    Regarding your being a romantic… on a related note, for long I wondered if skeptics, cynics or nihilists were just idealists in disguise, that maybe their attitude was a defense mechanism or reaction to so many bashed ideals? If one truly and utterly embraced cynicism for instance, wouldn’t done be comfortable with what is? Isn’t the stereotypical cynical attitude a sign that one isn’t REALLY a cynic, that there’s an ideal there that keeps bumping up against reality?

    • Thank you. I feel the same way about that quote.

      This is what I find so amazing when you talk about philosophy. You work on it and come out with highly original (as far as I can see) ideas. I’ve never thought of it that way, but suddenly I can clearly picture the ideal you mention. I do think you might be right.

      • Thank you. This idea had popped into my head a while ago, although like every other idea that’s bouncing around in my head, I can’t say if it’s something I experienced, something I thought through, or something I read and forgot, or even some combination of these.

  5. David Yerle says:

    Great. And the book sounds amazing. I’ll check it out.
    I feel really related to the idea of “being a romantic.” Yes, I’m a skeptic, but not because I don’t want to see gods and angels and revealed truths. I have transcendent aspirations. Since I was little, all I wanted to do was to know “the truth,” whatever it was, at any cost.
    The pursuit of truth has made me doubt almost everything, even the importance of truth itself. Being a skeptic, in this sense, is a consequence of being a romantic: of not pragmatically settling for the first set of beliefs that fits the bill, but persevering in the quest for something greater.
    Whether that will lead anywhere, we will see. But it’s a fun path to take.

  6. Thank you for your comment. I think it’s interesting: you mention being a skeptic as a consequence of being a romantic. Bloggingisaresponsibility says when you take being a skeptic to its extreme, you’ll find an idealist. Both of these statements seem true to me.

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