Dharma talk delivered at the Village Zendo, January 10, 2019.
I got home on New Year’s Day from our meditation retreat, and it was sunny and 45 degrees in New York. On the one hand that’s horrifying, because it’s supposed to be cold in January here. But it was beautiful. So I put on shorts and a T-shirt and went to go for a run.
Coming down from my apartment, I was sharing the elevator with a woman. She was maybe 70 years old and unusually short—four feet and a bit. Every inch of her was embroidered and beaded and pearled, and she smelled like Chanel, and she was wearing a big, white, silk hat with an iridescent feather.
She peered up at me and said, “Well, we made it through the first day.”
And I said, “It’s only four o’clock. Don’t be so sure.” Then I said, “It’s beautiful out, I’m going for a run. I’m going to start off the year right.”
She said, “Good for you. I’m going to a party.”
So there you have it. Two attitudes about the New Year. I think hers is probably the wiser one: enjoy, appreciate. Whereas I was already on some kind of obligatory self-improvement kick.
This is how most Americans treat the New Year, of course, as a time for self-improvement. We don’t generally treat it as a time for gratitude. And if I ask you to think about being grateful for 2018, that might be hard. If your head’s in the news a lot, 2018 might have seemed like constant crisis and chaos. It’s the same for me. When I ask myself if I’m I grateful for 2018, I think: This was the year my nation separated children from their parents and imprisoned them in freezing cold detention centers. That is among the four or five worst things that my nation has ever been responsible for.
But from a global perspective, a lot went well. Poverty, disease, violence—they’re still in decline. But my gratitude, it’s not about that. It’s not about my opinion, of totting up the good and the bad and doing the arithmetic, and then deciding whether I’m going to be grateful for existence or not. Existence is a gift no matter how beautiful or horrible or kind or evil. And the new year is a good time to honor that miracle of just existing, of being part of all of this.
But this is not the American way. The American way is to just throw out the past and really refocus on the thing that matters, which is improving ourselves and being better.
I go to a gym right across the street from my apartment. It stinks in January. All of that striving, desperate sweat of the resolvers. The other 11 months of the year, the staff does a great job keeping up but January is hopeless. There’s too much. And it makes me wonder, where did this all start? What is this karma of self-improvement?
The United States was founded partly by Puritans—a branch of Calvinism which is a sect of Protestantism. And in the 1600s, the Calvinist attitude was that to be holy is to be somebody who is efficient and hard-working and diligent and frugal. It’s our duty to improve God’s creation around us by improving the world and making it ever more efficient at serving human purposes. By doing this you can prove to your neighbors that you’re one of the people God chose to go to heaven.
So an upright businessman of that time is supposed to be rich and successful but also a bit ascetic. Most of this is gone and corrupted, but we can see it even today—think of Steve Jobs up on stage, a billionaire in a turtleneck and jeans, or Mark Zuckerberg in his hoodie. We still admire this image, even while we admire Donald Trump, say, who has a different model of wealth.
So this Calvinist ideal of the successful businessman who makes a lot of money but doesn’t spend it on anything, who invests in the future, is one of the founding ideas of this country. And also every common laborer, even a craftsman, ought to take his job not as a 9-to-5 paycheck, but as a calling, as something to which he should devote his whole life. (And I’m saying “he” and business “man” for obvious reasons, because these were just unbelievably sexist people.)
I’m taking a lot of these ideas from a German sociologist named Max Weber. He wrote a book in 1905 called The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism which I’ve read and re-read a few times because it seems to explain so much. Not many of us here today are actually descended from these 17th century Puritans, but I think that our culture inherits a lot from their attitudes.
Calvinist believers were psychologically isolated. Their distance from God could only be precariously bridged, and their inner tensions only partially relieved, by unstinting, purposeful labor.
These were a bunch of isolated, self-denying, anxious strivers. And although their religious zeal kind of faded into the background, that striving instinct has been passed down through the generations.
So, Ben Franklin—generations later, not a Calvinist—he wrote:
Remember, that time is money. He that can earn 10 shillings a day by his labor, but sits idle one half of that day, though he spends but sixpence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has really spent, or rather thrown away, five shillings besides.
If you didn’t follow the math there: If you can earn 10 shillings a day but you waste half the day, it’s as if you spent five. This is totally obsessive. This is crazypants. Wasting time or wasting money is a sin because God has left the room and the only thing left is efficiency and striving for its own sake.
This striving becomes an end in itself—it is simply irrational, contributing nothing to the happiness of the individual. People are oriented to acquisition as the purpose of life; acquisition is no longer viewed as a means to the end of satisfying the substantive needs of life.
People in possession of spontaneous, fun-loving dispositions experience this striving as an absolutely meaningless reversal of the natural condition. Incomprehension of this new situation characterizes all who remain untouched by capitalism’s tentacles.
So if somebody’s untouched by capitalism’s tentacles, they’ll find the striving incomprehensible. I have to take Weber’s word on this because I really haven’t met anybody who is untouched by capitalism’s tentacles. I am certainly touched by capitalism’s tentacles.
This meaningless striving for its own sake touches every aspect of my life. I even bring it into Zen, where it entirely does not belong. Like, “This year I’m going to sit more. I’m going to sit harder. I’m going to pass more koans. I’m going to improve myself as a Zen student. I’m going to be better at it.”
Check yourself. See if you have been touched by this tentacle also. Even if you can recognize right now how ridiculous it is, check in again tomorrow. Are you sure? Don’t be confused. Zen is not a program of self-improvement. It’s not a mind gym. There are mind gyms these days, and we are still not that.
It’s not about improving the self because a self is not a thing that can be improved. We are this. All of this beauty. All of this horror. I am the woman in the elevator who smells like Chanel. I’m the dad in the gym who stinks working off 10 pounds. I am the child in the cold prison. All of it. What could possibly be improved?
This person that Weber imagines, who is possessed of a spontaneous and fun-loving disposition, untouched by the tentacles, reminds me of the monk Ryokan.
This spring we’re reading a book of poetry by the Japanese monk Ryokan, who was born in 1758. And Ryokan really saw the meaninglessness of the structures and the incentives of his society of that time, and he turned on, tuned in, and dropped out. When he was 33 he quit the monastery and dropped out of that whole ambitious career path. He wasn’t going to become a big head honcho priest, abbot of a monastery, client of the local warlord. He spent the rest of his life wearing a tattered robe, living in a drafty little cabin with practically nothing.
He was a great poet, but he made no effort to have his poems collected or published. He was a superb calligrapher but, unlike most calligraphers, when he made a work he didn’t stamp it. He made no attempt to establish his authority over his work. He just let it fly away.
Compared to the sort of “mind gym” way of doing Zen, Ryokan’s Zen is just to bring all of this into his heart, and accept it, and surrender to it exactly as it is.
New Year’s is a traditional subject for Japanese poetry, and he wrote a few poems about New Year’s. You’re not going to find Ryokan saying, “It’s New Year’s and I strive to improve myself. I’m going to sign up for Equinox and lay off the saké.”
People make elaborate offerings to the Buddha.
In my hut I dedicate a painted rice cake.
Partly, he’s saying that he doesn’t have a rice cake to spare as an offering. So he’s going to draw one. He’s also referring to a dharma talk by Dogen from hundreds of years earlier that references the image of a painted rice cake. A painted rice cake is made with the same paper and ink as a painted landscape, a painted portrait. They’re not so different as they appear. They’re all part of one existence. Your life, my life, Ryokan’s life—all painted rice cakes, all made with the same ink.
So that’s what he has to offer on New Year’s to Buddha. And there’s no need to improve on his life to make it a worthy offering. It’s okay that it’s not the elaborate displays put on by the townspeople. That would just be a painted rice cake. My life improved—if I were in better shape, if I were richer—still just a painted rice cake. And yet still equally a sacred offering, if we do it with gratitude.
I’m inspired by Ryokan to approach the New Year the same way: as an opportunity to be awake, as an opportunity to accept my life as it is, as an opportunity to really make an offering of my life. But it’s not easy to do so, in this society, right? Karma is powerful.
Or, as Weber says:
The technical and economic conditions of machine production today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them, until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt.
Pretty far-sighted for somebody writing in 1905. I think he just underestimated how fucking bloody determined we were going to be. We were going to burn through the coal and then move on to the oil and then frack everything and burn everything until there is nothing.
Our society imprisons our minds, too. Weber wrote:
Who will live in this steel-hard casing?
He’s wondering about the future. He asks,
Will entirely new prophets or a mighty rebirth of ancient ideas stand at the end of this prodigious development?
Maybe there are some ancient ideas worth reviving!
Or perhaps a mechanized ossification, embellished with a sort of rigidly compelled sense of self-importance, will arise. The “last humans” will be narrow specialists without mind, pleasure-seekers without heart. Yet this nothingness imagines it has climbed to a level of humanity never before attained.
Seem plausible? It does to me. I feel like we have to wake up urgently, before it’s too late, before we become all “specialists without mind, pleasure-seekers without heart.” I can feel it.
Ryokan could feel it too in 18th-Century Japan. He wrote:
I watch people in the world
Throw away their lives lusting after things,
Never able to satisfy their desires,
Falling into deeper despair
And torturing themselves.
Even if they get what they want
How long will they be able to enjoy it?
For one heavenly pleasure
They suffer ten torments of hell,
Binding themselves more firmly to the grindstone.
Such people are like monkeys
Frantically grasping for the moon in the water
And then falling into a whirlpool.
How endlessly those caught up in the floating world suffer.
Despite myself, I fret over them all night
And cannot staunch my flow of tears.
What a bodhisattva, not to judge these greedy people like us, but to weep for them at night that they suffer like this.
So let’s not do it. Let’s drop out. Let’s not torture ourselves. Let’s stop. Stop this meaningless striving. Stop this attempt to be better versions of ourselves, to improve existence. Let’s wake up instead.
And it’s okay if you’re not awake.
It’s okay if you are.
Make New Year’s resolutions.
Don’t make New Year’s resolutions.
Keep them, break them.
One, two, three, four, five.
The ocean is the ocean, if you’re awake to it or if you aren’t.
But let’s be awake to it. On a cold night, let’s hit the bell. Let’s chant together.
Image: “Ryokan” by Yasuda Yukihiko