“So, to dream of a bright future does not mean turning away from the dismal present. It is where we are, where we sleep, live and die, and where we are to do the work. I hope that your practice of Zen will help you in this regard.
At year’s end it is tempting to fall into the clichés of reviewing transition points of the past year, and projecting hopeful visions of the coming year. It is also traditional to accentuate the positive, in assessing events in the context of a progressive model of history. But I would beg your indulgence to take a different tack, one that directs our attention to our personal practice, in the midst of our social milieu.
After the Rohatsu retreat in December, and remembering the basic teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha around those events, I feel it important to go to a dimension explored in the story of the Buddha, as well as others in the lineage, and which should be an aspect of our Zen practice. We might call it the Twilight Zone of Zen. Or a perhaps less contemporary analogy, Through the Looking Glass.
This will take us on a bit of a deep dive on the dark side. In Buddhism, the “Six Realms” include the upper realms of Tusita heaven; the Asuras, Titans, or angry gods; the realm of human beings; and the lower realms of animals and insects; hungry ghosts; and the denizens of Avici hell, unrelenting suffering. Hells, as well as heavens, are regarded as self-created, in Buddhism. Reality is neutral.
It is natural that we would prefer to look at the bright side, when approaching Zen practice in the context of the chaotic culture of modern times. But “In the light there is darkness, but do not take it as darkness; in the dark there is light, but do not see it as light” according to our Chinese Ancestors. We don’t find the bright side by ignoring the dark side. Instead, we are encouraged to confront our demons.
This premise is not exclusively Buddhist, of course. Each year during the holiday season we are treated to Christian-oriented homilies ranging from archival film of the original “Scrooge” by Charles Dickens to the more contemporary “Scrooged,” starring the inimitable Bill Murray. There is something comforting about these tragedies-turned-comedies-turned-epiphanies, as they all predictably achieve resolution, in the span of an hour-and-a-half, of some of the most stubborn and recalcitrant anxieties and fears we all feel. Would that real life were so simple.
In the earlier black-and-white film, the ghost of Jacob Marley asks Scrooge, "Why do you doubt your senses?" Scrooge scoffs that "...a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheat. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There's more gravy than grave about you, whatever you are!" (Wikipedia)
Which bravado on Scrooge’s part is immediately demolished by Marley’s knee-buckling scream. While this exchange may represent a contemporaneous interpretation of dreams—or more specifically, nightmares—it also reflects our entirely human tendency to explain the unexplainable in sensible, physical terms. To “explain away” an otherwise unacceptable, frightening reality, a tendency that may explain the underlying motive, and provenance, of all religious belief.