Sometimes anger swamps me. Sometimes all the connections of this new world: the Face Book friends, the Tweets and Nodes and Noders can overwhelm my self’s switch board. And all I want to do is fight, or tear the plugs out, tear out my IV lines, tear out the eyes of my enemies. Tear and tear to tears and tears…
There’s a story Chuang Tsu* tells. I liked it so much I ripped it off and re-told it in my play The Ten Thousand Things:
So this old saint from forever ago said: if a man is crossing the river and an empty boat collides with his ferry, even if he is an ill-tempered man he will not become very angry. Things happen. But if he sees a man in the other boat when it rams him he will scream and shout and curse at the man to steer clear.
If you can empty your own boat crossing the river of the world, no one will oppose you, no one will seek to harm you.
This is the perfect man - his boat is empty
Okay. So back to my anger. I was angry this one spring day a couple years ago. Someone who I thought was a friend of mine, a critic if you must know, turned out to be less than a friend. (Yes, playwrights can be friends with critics, but it can be dicey, as this situation showed.)
See, this friend responded very poorly when I gently and jokingly critiqued his essay about criticism. If you’re really curious about the whole exchange you can read it here. But that’s certainly not necessary to this story. For this story, all you need to know is that I was angry and hurt and frustrated, and my so-called friend’s staunch, cemented refusal to grow a little in the context of an exchange of ideas. If that’s not possible for a critic, then how can a critic hope to help an artist grow?
So, in middle of the day, just before lunch, thusly burning with frustrated rage and spoiling for any kind of fight, I walked out to my bench next to Elliott Bay like I always do when the weather permits, and I bowed to it, and then I bowed to the world. And then I sat down to meditate.
After a minute or so, a fireboat approached. I could see it out of the corner of my nearly closed eyes. (In my lineage of Zen, one is instructed not to close one’s eyes completely, lest one fall into a dream state.) Just when it was about a hundred feet off shore, it let loose with all of its water cannons. The boat itself became completely engulfed in a cloud of pure white mist. The strong onshore wind blew the mist against me: soaked me through, especially my pants and my face and head, since my jacket protected my torso a bit better.
Irritation flared. I imagined the crew, seeing a lone office worker sitting on a bench on the edge of the sound, positioned their boat so that they could soak him when then tested their cannons. But because I was sitting zazen, and because the rules are that you keep sitting until the alarm goes off, or the Jiki-jitsu rings the bells, or whatever: you keep sitting until your sit is done, I kept sitting. And gradually I began to realize that my suspicion that the fireboat firemen were purposefully dowsing me was absurd. It was just me seeing conflict everywhere. And after all, what was the harm? That I was getting a little wet on a pretty spring day?
I realized, no, there was no consciousness soaking me. The fireboat was nothing more or less than Chuang Tsu’s empty boat. And as soon as I perceived things this way, the spray gently accumulating on me became a blessing from everywhere, and—at the same time, and deeper—nowhere. This baptism of salt water—I could taste it on my lips— was cleansing my sore heart somehow of all enduring wounds of victimhood, leaving behind nothing but a deep dawning conception of grace.
You can talk to me until you’re blue about apotheosis, about seeing God or “higher consciousness” everywhere, but there are other insights, maybe even diametric insights, that matter just as much, if not more. Sometimes we need our universe to be empty in order to absolve it, and ourselves within.
Chuang Tsu or “Zhuang Zhou” is one of the two great Taoist masters with which we are familiar with in the West; the other was Lao Tzu or “Laozi”. Lao Tzu was the almost certainly mythical Taoist master that wrote the vastly mystical Tao te Ching, Chuang Tzu was the almost certainly actual master who wrote the book that has his name. Where Lao Tzu is profound Chuang Tzu is pragmatic. His is the Taoism that gets you through the day.I use these Westernized versions of both Masters’ names, as they are how I was first introduced to them by the excellent translations:
Lao Tsu. Tao Te Ching, Feng, Gia-Fu and Jane English, (translators), Vintage Books (A Division of Random House). New York. 1972.
Chuang Tsu. Inner Chapters: A companion Volume to the Tao Te Ching. Feng, Gia-Fu and Jane English, (translators), Vintage Books (A Division of Random House). New York. 1974.