It’s got to be the oldest Zen joke in the West . . .
There’s a barbecue at the Zen Buddhist Temple, and the Zen Master’s working the grill. A young monk reverently approaches. The Roshi looks up, smiles and says, “Wanna hotdog?"
The monk replies: “Please, Master, make me one with everything.”
Besides being pretty darned cute, this joke, I’ve always suspected, has something deeper to reveal about Western attitudes, toward Zen in specific, Eastern thought more broadly, and most generally of all, our poorly perceived relationship to each other and the universe at large.
I’ve been a practicing Buddhist for twelve years now (ironically enough, ever since around the time of the last war brought to you by the Bush family.) For most of that time, I’ve kept my mouth shut about my practice, for a couple of simple reasons. First and foremost, it’s just considered bad Zen form to prattle on about it. “Him who’ll tell ya, don’t know. Him who knows, won’t tell ya” (my hillbilly stab at Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching). Secondly, upon hearing that I’m a Buddhist, most people tend to react to the novelty of it, rather than the substance. “That’s wild!”. . . “That’s crazy!”. . . “Only you, Paul!”. . . “We’ll see how long that lasts!” Since Buddhism is decidedly not a religion of conversion, I see little up side in telling people I follow it. But in these darkening days of terror and hatred and waste, I’ve begun to feel that it’s incumbent on me to pipe up about a practice that has helped me face these things; and while it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it may just offer some unique and rarely considered perspectives on our world and our place in it.
So what’s the problem with make me one with everything? In a nutshell: you can’t make someone, even yourself “one”, any more than you can make yourself obey the law of gravity. You are one with everything, whether you like it or not, and that oneness necessitates inevitabilities and responsibilities that all of us as human beings ignore at our peril and the greater suffering of everyone.
For instance, some examples of the inevitabilities: you will die, I will die, everyone who will ever read this will die. Death is inevitable. Pretty simple stuff so far, right?
Here’s another inevitability, directly related to the first: you will suffer, I will suffer, everyone who reads this will suffer (though hopefully not because they read this).
And another: what you do, and don’t do, reverberates throughout existence. You can’t avoid this through hiding. You can’t wall off your section of existence and hope that all the awful and inevitable things happening on the other side won’t creep across. They will. Why? Because any wall you build is an illusion. Why? Because you are one with everything, whether you asked for it or not, whether you like it or not.
So that brings us to our responsibilities. And these are not Buddhist responsibilities, per se. Remember, one doesn’t become one with everything because one is a Buddhist; you just are, and because you just are, and because as part of the unique blessing/curse of being a sentient human being, you know you are, you have to acknowledge that your responsibility is to everyone and everything.
Americans love being heroes. We’re shocked when we hear that most of the world doesn’t see us that way. “Don’t these ungrateful bastards realize we saved their asses in WWII?” (I’ve said these very words myself on many beer-sodden occasions.) But from the one with everything perspective, storming Normandy and all the rest of it was less heroic than the Hollywood media machine would have us fool ourselves into believing. We saved ourselves by storming those beaches, just as much as anyone. And while there’s nothing ignoble about self-preservation, it’s not necessary to lord it over a bunch of people who happen to live in Europe, and who lost a lot more lives than we did.
Americans are very comfortable being powerful, because we are so convinced that we are right. And much of the time we are. Alas, the universe responds with an profound “So what?” For just as you can’t make someone “one with everything”, you can’t coerce someone to be free, and you can’t force someone to give up force. You can only force them to force you to use more force. The Buddha recognized such recursively misguided action as a trap. He compared it to trying to still the ripples of a pond by patting them down with your hand. (In the case of our recent actions in Iraq, I’d compare it to smacking an oar down on the water. These violent ripples we’re currently creating won’t go away in our lifetime.)
Regarding these actions, many Americans throw up their hands and say, “Better them than us.” But the point is: there is no “them”, only us. Some of our glibber war advocates say “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” I just wonder if enough thought and pause was given to the question, “Do we really need the omelet? Aren’t our geopolitical love handles big enough?”
From the Buddhist perspective, every bullet fired, is fired at your own head, or, if you find it more terrifying, your own child’s head. The upside of this is that every kind act-- every bow, every smile--is an action done for, a bow made to, a smile smiled for everyone. In our actions in the world, it is our responsibility to ask ourselves, very simply: are we adding to its suffering, or healing it? Every day we must ask the question, and every day, change the answer based on what the day gives us and what we give in return (though of course, we are the day, and it us.)
This is the Buddhist practice in a nutshell.
Call me crazy.