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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Wright’

Consider, if you will, the peculiar status of the word special. Whether employed as adjective or noun, the word means distinctive, uncommon, out-of-the-ordinary. Yet the word itself could hardly be more common. On what seems like a weekly basis, retailers announce their Special Offers and Special Sales. For breakfast, some of us eat Special K, which presumably is superior to Regular K. When we go out to dinner to celebrate a special occasion, we are likely to hear at length about that evening’s specials. In some contexts, as in “special needs,” “special effects,” and Special Counsel, the word’s function is chiefly descriptive, but more often it serves to praise, sell, or persuade. If someone calls you a “very special person,” you can safely take it as a compliment. With rare exceptions, both the literal meaning and the connotations of special are reliably, if vaguely, laudatory.

Not so in the Zen tradition, where the word special and, more broadly, the concept of specialness, occupy a more ambiguous position. On the one hand, the Zen tradition is based on what its founder, the fifth-century Indian monk Bodhidharma, called a “special transmission outside the scriptures,” which is to say, a special understanding of reality and the nature of mind, engendered by communion with an authentic teacher. Yet Zen is probably unique among spiritual disciplines in portraying its practices as “nothing special.” “My miraculous power and spiritual activity:,” wrote the eighth-century Buddhist practitioner Layman P’ang, “drawing water and carrying wood.” More recently, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi (1904-1971), founder of the first Zen monastery in America, explained to his students that “Zen is not some fancy, special art of living. Our teaching is just to live, always in reality, in its exact sense.” And the American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck (1917-2011), author of Everyday Zen (1989) and Nothing Special (1993), insisted that the practice of “living Zen,” as she called it, was nothing exceptional or out of the ordinary. Coming from realized masters who devoted their lives to Zen, these characterizations may seem curious or even disingenuous. Yet they point toward the paradoxical nature of the practice.

The true spirit of Zen, it may be said, resides in ordinary life. Although committed practitioners, lay and monastic alike, spend long hours in silent sitting, releasing thoughts as they come and go, and though advanced practitioners may experience those transformative moments of illumination known as kensho and satori, the primary aim of Zen practice is not some special vision or attainment that will elevate the heroic, solitary practitioner above other, unenlightened beings or convey some special authority. Rather, it is to train us to be mindful in all of our activities and to perform them in full awareness, whether the task at hand be washing dishes, cleaning a bathtub, or driving a car in heavy traffic. Grasping for some special experience or state of mind, we distract ourselves from that central aim.

And all too often, we delude ourselves as well. In his book Why Buddhism Is True (2017), the evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright asserts that a “sense of specialness,” applied to ourselves, our families, our tribes, and our species, may be hardwired into our brains. Such a predisposition, he suggests, is natural selection’s way of ensuring our survival and the propagation of our genes. Be that as it may, our conferring of special status upon a person, place, or spiritual practice may have little or nothing to do with objective reality. As the psychologist Robert Zajonc has written, “[A]ffective judgments are always about the self. They identify the state of the judge in relation to the object of judgment.” If our overarching aim, as Zen practitioners, is “just to live, always in reality,” and to align ourselves and our actions with things as they are, the notion of specialness and the imposition of that notion on our immediate experience are likely to be more subversive than constructive.

Zen is a non-dualistic practice. It encourages us to see and accept the whole of our lives, rather than rank one moment of consciousness over another or compartmentalize our experience under such rubrics as “sacred” or “profane,” “trivial” or “profound.” By labeling a particular experience “special,” we imply that our other experiences are “not-so-special” or perhaps “non-special.” As Zen masters from Seng-ts’an (d. 606) to Thich Nhat Hanh have warned, dualistic descriptions slash undifferentiated reality into separate parts. Such discrimination is necessary for navigating the world, but without the balancing forces of awareness and holistic intuition, our powers of discrimination can immure us in our bubbles of dualistic thought and blind us to the realities beckoning our attention. All the more reason to abandon our notions of specialness, or failing that, hold them in abeyance. By so doing, we will not only cease to delude ourselves. We may also restore our sense of the wonder, beauty, and boundlessness—the specialness, as it were—of every moment of our lives.

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Photo: Meditation hall, Dai Bosatsu Zendo

The translation of Layman P’ang’s lines is by Stephen Mitchell. See The Enlightened Mind (Harper, 1993), his anthology of sacred writings.

The comment by Robert Zajonc is quoted by Robert Wright in Why Buddhism is True, p. 236.

 

 

 

 

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