Pick a Precept, any Precept…

During Ango we Zen students studied the so-called Precepts, and were encouraged to make an extra effort to follow one or two of our choosing. I was drawn towards number six: not talking about others’ faults — to accept others as they are. For years I have been increasingly uncomfortable whenever I hear myself speaking about the faults of someone who is not in the room, and indeed have even made a modicum of effort to avoid it. I thought, let me not talk shit about anyone for a month.
That quickly proved to be harder than I thought, as I discovered that bashing people is a staple of our conversational diet, at least in my world. I think A and B speak ill of C in a misguided effort to strengthen the bond between them. We are cool, he’s a jerk. Misguided, because of course criticizing and gossiping about C strengthens nothing.
With heightened awareness, I learned to see it coming just as surely and inexorably as a train coming down the track — an other-bashing on its way out of my mouth. Sometimes I found I could re-phrase and spin a thought away from judgement and closer to objectivity. Thus, instead of “the guy who installed the windows in my apartment is an idiot,” perhaps “I am dissatisfied with the workmanship of the guy who installed my windows.”
Still, a month was unrealistic, so I made the goal more modest: let me not talk about another’s faults for one day. I go into work and within a couple minutes someone comes up to me with a piece of paper with some names on it and says, this guy is an idiot. Yeah. I say, and that one — indicating another name — isn’t the sharpest tool either. Boom, just like that. Why? It wasn’t even true. The guy on whom I was casting aspersions is actually perfectly competent and decent. I think I had once seen him turn in a performance that I found underwhelming, so I participated in the aspersion-casting. Try again tomorrow.
The following day a group of us was gathered around a table on which was a newspaper with a photograph of George W. Bush. He is such a piece of shit, I sighed to no one in particular. Why? What’s my point? Everyone already knows my politics, and furthermore, knows the President is a piece of shit. Perhaps the photo caught me unprepared. See how hard this is?
In the ensuing days I think I did make it through an entire day, unless I spoke ill of someone unawares. In any case, the exercise was illuminating.
During the last few days of Ango I had some fun with another of the Precepts, Number Nine: not being angry — to see things as they are and not as they should be. One of the teachers at our zendo gave a talk in which she said, when you are displeased with things because they are not as you want them to be, take your attention — and with a sound effect like a creaking, recalcitrant old machine, she made a gesture of hauling something from over to one side to straight ahead of her — and drag it over to what is rather than what ought to be.
I discovered that just a little effort in this regard yields interesting results. I was leaving my apartment for work, running late as always, when I decided to take out the garbage. As I removed the container from under the sink, splat goes a little blob of garbage onto the floor. Wet tea leaves and such, a nice little mess. The immediate reaction was: you incompetent fucking moron. Then I thought, ah HA! There ought not to be a pile of garbage on my floor, I ought to be sure-handed, nimble, mindful, not a klutz. Yes, but there is garbage on the floor. Clean it up and go to work. End of story.
It’s easy with petty things like the garbage incident. But you have to begin to train yourself somewhere. The next opportunity posed a greater challenge: have a phone conversation about something delicate with my estranged wife without having it erupt into warfare, in the all too familiar old dynamic. She came out with a couple of rhetorical flourishes that one might consider provocative, but I managed to stand my ground without being drawn into combat.
It’s satisfying and fun to practice not acting like a dick.

On the practice of Zen

I make a remark to my teacher and he says, you should write this stuff down. You don’t have to tell me twice, for I love to write stuff down. So here is the first of what I expect will be a series of observations about the practice of Zen.
It is said that Zen is above all a practice, not a theory or philosophy. Experiential, not academic. And therefore one is supposed to do it rather than talk about it. And yet here I am talking about it, and planning to continue to do so. Oops.
OK, enough talk for now.