June 11, 2008

Fair and Foul

Crazy Jane Talks to the Bishop

I met the Bishop on the road
And much said he and I.
“Those breasts are flat and fallen now,
Those veins must soon be dry;
Live in a heavenly mansion,
Not in some foul sty.”
“Fair and foul are near of kin,
And fair needs foul,” I cried.
“My friends are gone, but that’s a truth
Nor grave nor bed denied,
Learned in bodily lowliness
And in the heart’s pride.
“A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.”

(William Butler Yeats)

Contemporary lay Zen students are frequently troubled by all sorts of thoughts and behaviors that they perceive as standing in the way of their spiritual progress. They complain of being given to bouts of anger, fear, doubt, or error. What students invariably want to do with these traits is get rid of them. In their quest for improvement, it rarely occurs to them to rid themselves of their self-dissatisfaction. They’re convinced that they’re not okay, and won’t be until they rid themselves of their faults. One young woman came to dokusan complaining of how “wimpy” she was. “I lack courage,” she said. “I’m afraid of my own shadow.” When I suggested that perhaps she wasn’t fearful enough, she replied that she could hardly rid herself of fear by indulging it. “You’ve tried to get rid of it,” I pointed out, “and it hasn’t worked. If it keeps hanging around, it might have something to tell you. It might want to be your friend.” She left the session with my encouragement to invite fear into her life. As she did so, she came to realize that she wasn’t such a “fraidy cat” after all. “When I got acquainted with it, fear taught me a lot,” she told me. “I discovered that most of my fears weren’t that scary once I quit resisting them, and some of my fears were warranted, like not walking alone through the student section after dark on a party night.” She sat across from me grinning and pleased with herself. What she said next revealed the depth of her recent insight. “I wanted courage,” she said, “and I found out that there is no courage without fear. You don’t get one without the other.”

Students are typically disappointed when I counsel appreciation of their “faults.” But in doing so, I follow a central teaching of Zen, the classical expression of which is attributed to an exchange between Chinese Zen master, Chao-chou, and a monk whose concern was like that of my own students. Chao-chou told his congregation that Buddha causes passion in all of us. When a monk asked, “How do we get rid of it?” Chao-chou replied with a provocative question of his own: “Why should we get rid of it?” Chao-chou reminds us that we never get anywhere by trying to leave ourselves behind. His response suggests that we might do well to consider what we’re throwing away.

Crazy Jane said it best of all. In William Butler Yeats’s Crazy Jane Talks to the Bishop, the Bishop takes the ragged, aged Crazy Jane to task for the life she’s lived. The Bishop’s system of ethics draws a sharp distinction between spirit and body, holy and profane, pure and impure. His view of the world is like old parchment, sucked dry of anything that’s lively, disordered, or subject to chance. He dismisses Crazy Jane’s life of unrestrained sensuality as foul and unworthy. Because he seeks to avoid life itself, he has no better defense against the intrusion of life than to trot out the usual righteous cant about the sins of earthly indulgence, accusing Crazy Jane of having lived in a foul sty and urging her to opt for a heavenly mansion before it’s too late.

Crazy Jane owns up to his accusation, but insists that fair and foul are in fact inseparable, complimentary qualities of life. For Crazy Jane, life’s a matter of risking the heart, and the Bishop’s prudish discretion is utterly foreign to her. She’s in this world for love, and is unimpressed by the Bishop’s antiseptic injunctions against the heart’s affections. She counters the Bishop’s call to live in a heavenly mansion with the reminder that “Love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement.” For Crazy Jane, love is not selective, but inclusive and whole. Speaking from the wounds of a life fully spent, she tells the Bishop, “Nothing can be sole or whole that has not been rent.”

Yet for all his ethical rigidity, the Bishop’s point is one that lies at the heart of the Buddha’s teaching of the Four Noble Truths: namely, that clinging to sensory desires is a source of self-imposed suffering. Most who have set foot on the Buddhist path will recognize from personal experience the ways in which unchecked passions can lead to harm and suffering. I can’t argue with the Bishop that such greedy indulgence is unworthy and a source of eventual disappointment and suffering. We do well to exercise reasonable caution, knowing when to say “no” to the very thing we most want. There’s a touching and inherent modesty in putting one’s desires aside for the sake of mutual harmony and the common good. The Bishop’s mistake is in assuming that Crazy Jane is wrongfully clinging to worldly desires while he is not. He’s wrong on both counts.

The Bishop has split his world into a simplified polarity consisting of the sacred and the profane, and believes that he can have one without the other. This position won’t discourage clinging, because it relies on cultivating aversion as an antidote to attraction. We can’t break attachments by trying to eliminate them, because the basis of exclusion becomes selective preference. Since such selection is clinging, detachment arises not from keeping things out, but from letting things in.

Crazy Jane, on the other hand, has learned to take life as it is, knowing intuitively that it would be pointless to split reality into opposed preferences, as the Bishop has. What Crazy Jane offers the world is the wisdom of “bodily lowliness,” a mature and loving acceptance of the ordinary human circumstance with all its inherent limits and messy contradictions. Rather than try to sort it all out, she has chosen to live with it. Crazy Jane expresses this very quality of inclusion when she tells the Bishop that “Fair needs foul.” In doing so, she speaks a truth recognized by Buddhists everywhere: that the living dharma is one indivisible whole, that the many are one, and that this moment, exactly as it is, is the heart’s sole refuge.

The often-told tale of two monks at a river crossing illustrates how a selective aversion invites its own opposition. The story goes that two monks came to a river crossing and found a beautiful young woman standing on the river bank, perplexed as to how to get across without soiling her shoes and clothing. One of the monks, seeing her plight, simply lifted her up in his arms and, wading into the river, carried her to the far bank. Hours and several miles later, the second monk could no longer contain his dismay over what his fellow monk had done. “We’re monks,” he declared. “We’re not supposed to touch women. How could you pick her up like that?” His friend replied, “I set her down on the river bank, but I see that you’re still carrying her.”

How compelling and threatening an attraction becomes when you try to exclude its existence from your mind. If the monks wanted to be celibate and yet retain a chastity of mind, they could never hope to do so by relying on resistance alone. A chaste mind is not a mind at war with itself; a chaste mind is an undivided mind, intimate with the range of its own natural feelings and accepting of its temptations. We need to recognize when we feel angry, frightened, lustful, and so forth. But even more, we must become intimate with these feelings if we are to have any hope of acting wisely—a result that can never be achieved if we are at pains to banish anger, fear, and lust. It’s only when we accept the situation as it is that these previously unwanted feelings can help us to find our way. In the end, the monk who held the living flesh in his arms remained chaste, while his traveling companion could not. His world was not split into poles of attraction and aversion, leaving him free to let things be as they are.

Since attraction and aversion are one and the same, one cannot exist without the other. The idea of the Middle Way as a safely negotiated route between polarities is a crude duality of human thought. As strange as it may seem, Buddhist equanimity is achieved not by trying to position oneself midway between extremes, but by allowing things to be as they are—extreme or not. All preference is in opposition to something, and this selectivity puts us at odds with the moment and results in lives that are habitually out of kilter.

I was indiscriminately excitable as a youth, given to passionate outbursts that took hold of me in unpredictable ways. I was sometimes driven to extremes by an exaggerated sensitivity to injustice. I expected the world to be fair, and when it wasn’t, I found it intolerable. Both my parents and teachers were intent on calming me down. I did my best to rid myself of the excitement that sometimes overtook me. This restraint wasn’t an altogether bad approach, but it made little allowance for the possibility that my passionate faults might come to serve a valuable purpose.

At fourteen, I read John Hersey’s Hiroshima, and I was filled with a deep sadness and a lingering sense of shame over the degree of inhumanity my species was capable of. Hersey pictured ordinary people -clerks, merchants, librarians, plumbers, teachers and school children- who were engaged in perfectly blameless activities at the very moment the bomb descended on the city. Reading of these things, I was left with a desperate desire to make right again what had gone so terribly wrong. The injustice of such violence weighed on me like a penance, and I began to write articles about it for the school newsletter and give talks on nonviolence for my speech class, even carrying a speech I’d written on nonviolence all the way to the national finals in a contest sponsored by the American Legion. And in private, I would tell any of my classmates who would listen the details of what happened at Hiroshima. I was driven to do these things, and to try to feel otherwise, or to feel less, was like trying to get rid of myself. I’d been given a passionate nature, a trait that went too deep to be ignored or discarded. Instead I began to regard these “excesses” as a sort of fortunate fault, and found it possible to cultivate a behavior that, though emphatic in its condemnation of violence and injustice, was more thoughtful and measured in manner. I’d finally found the restraint my parents and teachers were after, but I’d done so by way of inclusion rather than exclusion. When I quit trying to get rid of my “faults,” I was given a gift that wore the sharp edges of my temperament away. I found a passionate sympathy, not only for the victims of violence but for the perpetrators as well. Like Crazy Jane, I’d learned to quit arguing with my feelings and work with them instead.

When Crazy Jane says that fair and foul are near of kin, she acknowledges that fault and virtue are intricately enfolded. Truth is known by the presence of error, courage recognized by the strength of one’s fear. Furthermore, anger can serve to strengthen resolve, fear signals necessary caution, and doubt rescues one from unwarranted certainty. Before I clamp the lid down on the trashcan, I try to look first for the value in what’s about to be discarded. Besides, there’s something unkind in rejecting one’s own nature. The Bishop’s eschewing of the life he has been given exemplifies his particular ingratitude, while the “foul sty” the Bishop would have Crazy Jane discard is precisely the site of her great strength and beauty. It was there on the messy ground of her actual life that she gave birth to the love that can only be conceived in bodily lowliness. Such love is a modesty of spirit utterly unlike the pretentious purity urged by the Bishop. Crazy Jane chose to be sole and whole rather than merely intact; if this left her a little torn and broken, so be it. She didn’t argue with the cost or negotiate for better terms. Without reserve, she gave herself to life completely.
In Robert Frost’s poem “Birches,” he writes about those times when he’s “weary of considerations, and life is too much like a pathless wood”:

I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over,
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

Earth is the right place for love, and as far as anyone knows, it’s the only place. It’s the place where “Fair and foul are near of kin / And fair needs foul.” And if it’s love you are after, then it’s useless to argue with these earthly conditions. Love is not interested in spiritual ascent and makes no distinction between the sacred and profane. Love is the simple giving of oneself to circumstances without reserve or regret, and without quibbling over the consequences.

Love is a risk one takes for the sake of being fully alive.

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