Zen... is nondoctrinal, concrete, existential, and seeks above all to come to grips with life itself, not with ideas about life, still less with party platforms in politics, religion, science or anything else.
(Thomas Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite)
Merton's description of Zen fairly well sums up the point of Brad Warner's latest book, Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate. Brad uses himself and the chaos of his life in 2007 as a visceral example of the ways in which Buddhism, Zen specifically, is misunderstood. Now, I should say off the bat that Warner's writing is not for everyone. Near the end of the book, Brad describes himself as "too shy and indirect." That may be so in person, but his writing is blatant and direct, sometime vulgar, and very often goofily funny. His books tend to hit you like a Three Stooges poke in the eyes. After you rub the shock away, you can't help but see things differently.
Now, for that misunderstanding. I'll admit, I immediately fell for the neat little myth that Buddhism brings an all-encompassing calm to one's life. I mean, heck, folks like the Dalai Lama and Pema Chodron are always shown with happy, almost impish, grins on their faces. That's how we're all supposed to end up after enough time on the cushion, right? Wrong, at least where Zen is concerned:
The Middle Way was not some kind of spiritual path designed to make us all holy with shiny pink halos on our noggins. It was a way to live a life that wasn't a piece of shit. It was a way to find happiness and stability in an unhappy and unstable world. That's really all any of us are looking for, when it comes down to it. The stability of the Middle Way comes in our practice of zazen [meditation], which is the actual physical and mental practice of stability and happiness. A bit of zazen... radiates throughout the rest of the day and night and makes everything better. That's all there is to it.
You may be wondering why, with all my Zen training, I would still feel this kind of tension. If you are, I understand. When I first started all this meditation stuff I also believed that it would fix me so that I'd never feel a bad feeling ever, ever again. It doesn't work that way, I'm afraid.
The practice does make this kind of stuff easier. But no amount of enlightenment will eliminate all stress and tension from your life. We all have a certain amount of karma to get through, and nothing can change that... The best you can do is learn how to add as little new garbage to the pile as possible. But this in itself is a very significant thing.
Sound a tad contradictory and confusing? What it all comes down to is expectation. Ultimately, the source of all our dukkha, all our squirmy dissatisfactions and outright suffering, is that we expect the world and our lives to be a certain way. We expect to be happy, to never feel emotional anguish or physical pain, to never be divorced or lose a job, to never break a leg or get cancer, and for the sun to always come out tomorrow. But we never see that the problem is the expectation itself. We become so caught up in the contrast between what is and what we were hoping for that just dealing with the situation as it is becomes unbearable. We forget to "...on every occasion ask thyself, what is there in this which is intolerable and past bearing?" (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book VII, 36. Those Stoics sure had a lot in common with Buddhism.)
In ZWiKDiC, Warner clarified this for me succinctly, yet indirectly. In describing the questions he was asked during a sesshin dharma talk, he mentions that one participant asked how to avoid expectations in Zen practice. Brad's answer speaks specifically to all that crap I babbled about above:
...anyone doing this practice is going to have expectations. You expect to achieve peace of mind. You expect to deepen your understanding. You expect to get enlightenment.... There's no way to stop having expectations. The best you can do is understand that your expectations will never be realized... Just know that your expectations are only thoughts in your head, and keep on doing what you do.
And speaking of chocolatey goodness, I need to find me some chocolate-covered Pop Rocks. Fizzy popping chocolate. Sounds like awesomeness.