Each Friday, we share three topical longreads in our Weekend Reader newsletter. This week, Buddhadharma deputy editor Koun Franz looks at what it all means, and what it doesn’t. Sign up here to receive the Weekend Reader in your inbox.
In the monasteries where I trained in Japan, everything was very precise. We’d hit certain bells at certain times in certain patterns, and it had to be just right. Much of this we had to learn by observation, but occasionally someone would actually explain it, and when that happened, there were two common responses: one was to furiously write notes and ask questions about timing or about how to hold a bell striker; the other was to listen to the whole thing and then, when it was finished, ask, “Yes, but why?” So there were the howmonks and there were the why monks.
The why monks drove the senior monks up a wall. “But why do we hit it three times? Is that for the three treasures? Or with each ring of the bell, are we actually addressing one of the three poisons? I notice we hit the next bell just before the first dies out completely—is that about nonduality, how the two are not really separate?” The senior monks would patiently listen to the question, nodding, then grab the striker and just demonstrate it again: “It’s like this.” A standstill.
I think most of us, deep down, are why people. If we know the why, then we know what things mean, and if we know that, then we know our story. When I first moved to Japan, I thought about it constantly: what does this mean, that I’m living here while my friends are still back home, getting married and starting careers?
When I got married, and when I had kids, my mind again naturally asked: what does this all mean about me? How does this alter my narrative? Whatever the situation, the instinct to hold on to what it all means does nothing to benefit the more immediate project of how. How do I say “good morning?” How do I hold this baby? How do I make this work? And, if I get it wrong, what then—not “What does it mean?” but “What do I do now?”
In “Letting Go of What It All Means,” Josh Korda advises us, the next time we feel the need to “figure it all out,” to come back to the body. Charlotte Joko Beck, in “A Sane Life,” reminds us that joy is something we find when we move past evaluation. And in her heartbreaking essay “The Blue Poppy,” Kathleen Willis Morton relates the raw beauty of letting go, completely, of how her story was supposed to go.
These days, I teach people to sit or bow or chant, and it’s the same old story: they inevitably ask me what it means, and I do my best to show them how. After all, what if it doesn’t mean anything? Isn’t that the most interesting place to begin?
—Koun Franz, deputy editor, Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly
Searching for hidden messages and significance in life’s encounters provides us with an illusion of control that we need to release if we want to fully feel our experiences, says Josh Korda.
Over reliance on and identification with the “figuring it out” impulse leads to a repression of the physical manifestations of our reactions to life, and a delusional belief that every situation or encounter has a simple, hidden message that needs to be uncovered. We’re drawn towards these conclusions and interpretations for the illusion of control and power they represent: If we understand what a painful rejection means, we’ll never have to go through it again.
In this teaching, the late American Zen pioneer Charlotte Joko Beck reminds us that having a sane and satisfying life comes from having a sane and balanced practice.
Enlightenment is not something you achieve. It is the absence of something. All your life you have been going forward after something, pursuing some goal. Enlightenment is dropping all that. But to talk about it is of little use. The practice has to be done by each individual. There is no substitute. We can read about it until we are a thousand years old and it won’t do a thing for us. We all have to practice, and we have to practice with all of our might for the rest of our lives.
A blossom’s beauty is undiminished by the true, sad fact that it won’t last forever, maybe not very long at all. When Kate Morton’s baby dies, she learns to appreciate the flower-like beauty of his brief life.
Knowing our son could die at any moment, there was an actual physical feeling that all the cells of my body were exploding and flying out from me. Every face and flower and song had more than one meaning; the universe was telling me a story, life had a narrative of its own. Every dream told me a new secret, and I was trying to take it all in to make sense of this catastrophe so utterly awful it was absurd. That obsession with interpreting the signs around me transformed everything I saw from then on; it still does. I guess I was desperate to find meaning and reason in that unreasonable situation; I sought it out and saw meaning and symbolism everywhere, obsessively.