Sunday, August 28, 2016

Publication: Return to the Source at Zetetic

I've got a new story out at Zetetic: A Record of Unusual Inquiry called "Return to the Source: being an account of the enlightenment of Wei San".

I wrote it specifically with Zetetic in mind, they're an online space for writers and poets to do things that they might ordinarily not, things that other markets might reject outright for being too unusual.
They deserve everyone's support - they're a great market.

I wrote and submitted this piece quickly -- probably too quickly because Zetetic's Managing Editor, George Wells, picked up and corrected at least two horrendous errors and still accepted the piece (thank you!).
I mention the speed of the composition not simply to excuse my errors in my draft, but rather to stress that if I'd thought about the piece for too long, I may not have submitted it at all.

My biggest worry was, and still is, the charge of cultural appropriation. It's clear that I'm both referencing Chinese culture and language as well as Buddhism.
The thing is, despite it's being a fairly simple little story, this is possibly the most personal thing I've ever had published - it is, in a way, a letter of appreciation to my friends and teachers, and it references them, it references my personal experiences. The cultural references are a part of that, a consequence of the context in which I learned about Buddhism. Had I learned about Buddhism from the people at the Lam Rim centre, or from the New Kadampa Tradition, the story would have been quite different. I must stress, though, that my invoking Chinese Buddhism, Ch'an, and the Pure Land are always with the utmost respect.

Story time.

When I was 19 a friend of mine leant me a copy of Paul Reps's "Zen Flesh, Zen Bones", a compilation of several important collections of Zen texts. I was deeply impressed by them. I'd never read anything quite like Koans, but I was deeply attracted to their playful paradoxical nature.
A year or two later, I attended my first meditation retreat. I hated it. HATED it. I was bored out of my mind and my legs and back hurt.
Forget meditation and forget Buddhism, I thought.

When I was around 25/26 I went through a pretty rough patch. From the outside, everything looked good, but inside I was struggling. No need to dwell on this part, but it was, up till that point, the worst period of my life, psychologically speaking.

One particularly bad evening, I went through all of my books to find anything that might help shake me out of whatever it was that I was experiencing. I came across my copy of D.T. Suzuki's "Essays in Zen Buddhism, First Series".

I had been studying philosophy via correspondence and had just finished up my first degree, so when I read Suzuki's discussion of how "Zen" solves the "problem of problems", it resonated with me. I'd been trying to think my way out of a hole, which clearly wasn't working, and Suzuki was offering what seemed to be an alternative approach,  namely that, a way of inquiry (insofar as "inquiry" is the right way to conceive of it in the first place) that "does not rely on the intellect for the solution of its deepest problems", but rather helps us try and see/experience our nature directly.
This was more than a decade ago, so I can't quite remember exactly what I thought I was after, and my understanding of all of this has changed dramatically in the interim.

I do remember that I felt that it offered me some hope, and I needed that.

My wife had been asking me to visit a therapist, but my previous experiences with psychologists hadn't been great (looking back, visiting a psychologist would have been the right first step). So I told her that I'd first try checking out Buddhism, doing it "properly" by throwing myself into it, unselfconsciously, without irony, to see if it would help.

To cut a long story short, it did help.

I went back to where I attended my first meditation retreat, Nan Hua, in search of someone to teach me about Buddhism and meditation. There I met my teacher, Venerable Hui Re. He agreed to help me.

Me (second from left) at Ch'an/Pureland study group with Ven Hui Re (far right)

Along the way, I learned a lot about Buddhism, about myself, about boredom and how important it can be, I made friends, I learned to enjoy really strange breakfast food combinations, I sat through many Dharma talks, I learned to prostrate properly, I learned why we prostrate. I learned about humility. I learned about faith. I learned about the Pure Land. I learned about what I could believe without giving up on rationality, and I learned that there are places where rationality can't help me.

I spent thousands of hours with my ass on this.

Return to the Source

I've been wanting to write a story about Nan Hua, Buddhism, my teacher, and my Dharma family for ages.

I was looking at my copy of John Daido Loori's "Riding the Ox home" and came across the following:

I thought it might be fun to take a swing at writing something that takes "the source" to be computer code, and the story fell out in a single sitting.

The long drive that Wei San takes is analogous to the long drives I'd take from Fourways to Bronkhorstspruit for our Sunday Morning classes. The frustration that Wei San feels when his teacher won't let him examine the machine is analogous to the frustration I felt when Master Hui Re -- who is a Ch'an master -- chose to teach us Pure Land Buddhism rather than the kind of thing I expected to study (Zen/Ch'an). Wei San, like me is a programmer, although I never snuck into the Buddha hall to take anything apart. Neither have I ever "attained enlightenment" (whatever that is, I think I've begun to see the wisdom in Seung Sahn's assertion that "wanting enlightenment is a big mistake").

I've clearly tuckerized my teacher's name. But also my own.
On New Year's Day, 2009, I took refuge in the triple gem, where I was given my Dharma name, Wei San1.

Me (second from the left in the second row) at my Precepts ceremony, January 2015.

1. Hey, I couldn't let the idiot protagonist be anyone else right?