Thursday, March 31, 2011


Lest one think that I am humorless–well, maybe I am, who knows?–I am going to be a bad boy in this post and say many naughty things.

Be forewarned.

I was reading a popular Buddhist magazine today–names will not be mentioned, in order to protect the innocent–and a number of things struck me.

First of all, the magazine was slick and beautiful. All the advertising photographs showed beautiful people in beautiful environments, meditating beautifully, with beautiful things beautifully organized, folded, and/or arranged on altars. It takes serious money to meditate like this, let me tell you. Go through the photos and add up the retail value of all the paraphernalia if you don't believe me.

Second of all, the magazine relies on "famous" Buddhists (the Dalai Lama is of course the ultimate celebrity, and nowadays mentioning him on the cover of Buddhist magazines is almost mandatory, in the same way that Cosmopolitan has to somehow mention sex on just about every cover) to spread the message. Hence my offhanded and cynical term for the whole deal, “celebrity Buddhism.” ( My apologies to all you Buddhists. I love you, and I subscribe to your magazines.)

Third, most of the essays (some of which, in my opinion, were pretty darn good) are positively filled with explanations and instructions. It's like this. It's like that. We are like this and like that, we need to do this and that.

All of this bothered me, especially coming from the Groovy Buddhists.

Where's the sense of mystery? The ineffable void? ...Maybe the ineffable void doesn't sell magazines. I daresay it's not part of an overall strategy for more effective living (which seems more or less to be the aim of today's Buddhism.) Think about it.

Then I began to wonder whether I am not guilty of the same didactic, explanatory type things, even though I don't have celebrities to put in my blog, or groovy photographs of groovy people meditating.

Am I jealous? Am I clueless? These thoughts occurred to me.

I suppose that the salient difference between what I consider to be active Gurdjieffian practice and all of this instructive, formula based text being laid out in other religious practices is our emphasis on questions.

Now, I will be quite frank with you. The emphasis on questions itself has become a formula. How often have we sat in rooms and heard people say “my question is...?" It becomes positively irritating after a while, at least for me. We also have the annoying habit of prevaricating with everything we say: the stock disclaimer before many statements is “it seems to me.” So we have our own formulas, habits. (It is an interesting exercise in awareness to sit in a group and intentionally try not to use any of these habitual phrases, but to find entirely new ways of saying things. Try it sometime.)

All this being said, I think the emphasis on questioning is ultimately a defensible one. We need to keep, I find, a constant question in front of us. The idea of perpetually wondering whether or not we know anything at all–seeing where we are right now–asking ourselves what is going on–this is an active stance.

I don't really know anything. I sling around opinions quite vigorously, but whenever I come up against reality–whatever little slice of it I can sense–I see that I don't really understand anything about it, I don't know anything, it's always new and quite unusual. For example, turning once again to what is right in front of me as I dictate this text–a motley assortment of gemstones, fossils, civil war buttons, and dried insects, all of which dwell under my computer monitor–every one of these objects has tremendous depth and dimension in terms of its existence, context, and line through time, which I routinely manage to edit out of my awareness.

I don't have enough questions about things, that is all there is to it. It's possible to question everything–and yet, instead, I bring a presumption to everything I do. And oh, how different the world does look, if I shed that presumption.

I've mentioned before that aesthetic has nothing to do with the object that is perceived, and everything to do with the perceiver. Art is an action, not a thing, and it is located in what sees, not the object itself. In the Western world, we mistakenly assign the value to the object. This turns art into a thing, and an answer. It is a formula, an instruction.

If we invert this relationship and see that it is in the perceiving that the art exists-- and above all, experience the receiving of the impression as a question, an open ended suggestion that creates a new possibility (isn't that the whole point of art, after all?) we discover that practice is a question. Aesthetic is a question. Art is a question.

The standardized formula for approaching spirituality seems to be to state a problem, analyze it, and come up with how one should be in relationship to it. Even Gurdjieff and Jeanne de Salzmann's teachings run their ship onto these rocks. Maybe there isn't any other way to do it–but maybe there is.

“Notes on the next attention” seems to manage it somehow. It's terribly practical, and it keeps asking questions about how I am right now, and what my relationship to myself and the energy in my body is. It reminds me powerfully of exactly the way that Henry and Betty Brown, who led our group for many years, asked us to approach inner work.

There are times when I think I need to throw out every other little piece of garbage and just try to come from there. There are no instruction manuals for that practice. There is just a work of presence.

And that is engendered by this simple act of questioning.

May our prayers be heard.

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