Sunday, September 16, 2012

Being Bewildered: Silence, Zen, Words, Burning Man

It was my first experience of Burning Man, surrounded by the sounds of over 50,000 people. Bands played atop buses, competing with the house music a few camps over. A constant rattle|buzz| hum of generators provides the background soundtrack, and the rather rude camp across the road boasts a boy who uses his megaphone to share his snarky commentary with passersby, simultaneously hoping they'll stop for a drink and further abuse inside his bar. A city of noise, fire, and spectacle rises in the desert, a space that is usually surrounded in silence. Dust storms that blow free, unnoticed for 300 odd days a year, suddenly disrupt, slowing down the days.

In the midst of this, I found community and oftentimes shared silence within my camp.  A few other book-people and I would take refuge beneath the shade of the make-shift kitchen tent, protected from the wind by one wall of tarp, open on three sides to the desert dust, tents and RVs.  Drowning out the drum beats and passing chatter of burners on their bikes, I delved into Sara Maitland's A Book of Silence.  Maitland, a woman known for her witty discourse over dinners, an intellectual writer who discovered socialism, feminism, friendship and Christianity at Oxford in the 60s, chose to embrace a life of relative silence in the Scottish highlands, and writes eloquently about that life. 

Describing her experience within a Zen monastery, Maitland writes, “Zen silence is an oppositional silence. You are silent in order to escape from the self, and the dualisms of the world, to ‘protest’ against the veils of illusion and transcend them. Zen philosophy, and zazen (the Zen method of meditation) as the practical working out of that philosophy, sees all differentiations of the world as delusion. As [Douglas] Hofstadter explains it:

‘At the core of dualism are words – just plain words. The use of words is inherently dualistic, since each word represents, quite obviously, a conceptual category. Therefore a major part of Zen is the fight against reliance on words.’ -from Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

“The famously confusing Zen Koans are meant to confuse. Being bewildered allows the mind to operate non-logically* and getting outside logical systems allows you to make the leap to enlightenment. Zen is profoundly anti-dualist … it urges people to stop categorising – there is no I/thou; no here/there; no differentiation, no categorisation; no autonomous self – there is only Buddha-nature and all the rest is illusion. Words create categories.” (A Book of Silence)

Gasp. As a writer who often spends long, drawn out minutes, eyes unfocused, cast up and to the right, where it seems my words reside, I wait for the perfect one to float forward from the recesses of memory. To find enlightenment, I have to let go of words? The word “logical,”* Maitland reminds us, derives from the Greek logos, which means “word.” “Logical thinking means thinking amenable to the conscious processes of language.”

Going to Burning Man was part of my life's work to let go judgment, to observe others and what makes them tick, to live more in the grey.  To accept a state of amused bewilderment that might lead me to greater understanding of life.  And while burners hugged me hello and welcomed me "home" to the playa, I don't think I'll go back. And while art, sculpture, the communal offering of morning coffee and bacon, and the moonrise above the desert mountains spoke volumes to me in silence, I cling tightly to words, and wish desperately to find Buddha-nature in them.

Speaking of, does the term “Buddha-nature” spark a trigger for you, either negative or positive? Sit with that feeling, explore what story you were told that created such a reaction. “Buddha” is just another word, used to categorize, meaning “awakened one.” If it is troublesome for you, and you understand being awake, aware, and present as “God,” substitute “God-nature.” If “God” is troublesome for you and invites visions of an angry white man, choose your own term for that awakened state.

Growing up in a Christian community, “Buddha” was the equivalent of danger. The road to heaven was narrow, and eastern thought was a gateway philosophy – to HELL. Odd, since Christianity began in the Middle East. Thankfully, I was raised in a smaller circle of influence by my mother, father, and Madeleine L'engle (via bookland), who all encouraged me to explore and question. Once I began exploring eastern philosophy with an open mind / heart, Christian texts made SO much more sense, mostly as metaphor. (I recommend A New Earth; Eckhart Tolle helped me understand the connectivity, to let go of the differentiation I was taught.)

But words are how we communicate. So, surrounding the silence that you choose, space and time carved out to practice zazen (derived, Maitland writes, from the Japanese words for ‘sitting’ and ‘absorption’) there are moments of connectivity through words. Burners who share their experiences of freedom in the giving society of the playa. Poems that pry open your small, busy thoughts to a greater understanding of the world. Stories that embrace you and walk you into a different world. Koans that tease you out of your set way of thinking.

What is the way? asked a curious monk.
It is right before your eyes, said the master.
Why do I not see it for myself?
Because you are thinking of yourself.
What about you? Do you see it?
So long as you see double, saying “I don’t” and “you do,” and so on,
your eyes are clouded, said the master.
When there is neither “I” nor “You,” can one see it?
When there is neither “I” nor “You,” who is the one that wants to see it?
(from Gödel, Escher, Bach)

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