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The Zen of..

The structure reveals itself in its failings as well is what it aims to accomplish, though the aim is certainly under question. For instance, what are we doing?

 

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I came to Korea to ordain as a Zen monk, but there are things that need to be mastered first, namely, learning the Korean language. All of the foreign monks are sent to Dong Guk University, where they must pass the first two courses before the ordination ceremony. The classes are tough, a steady diet of humiliation under a powerful tide of young Chinese students. Unexpectedly this has given me a strange kind of peace, a long view that will take some time to establish. Do you have a minute?

I’ve never learned another language. High school for me was a schoolpocalypse: nearly all survival skills, homemade nunchuck skills and, well, humiliation. After 35 years of forgetting what I knew, I was thrust into the Korean language course. The classes are filled with Chinese students, from high school mostly. All of them have different stories, but it’s largely a tide from China’s backlog of university entrance exam flunkies waiting it out for the next round. The language classes are intense, with 12 to 15 exam crushers crammed together four-hours deep, an ever-escalating torrent of grammar, scenarios, puzzles, strange words that sound like dying frogs… nearly every day I’m up in front of the class with one of the bright elites struggling to recall the bizarre mix of words and particles that form the neural pattern of this alien race. I always fail.

I watch them all the way through, struggling at first to pronounce the strange characters – to their knitting together all that we learn, the pieces I could never sort out for them flows as it should. Every day I’m humiliated. They help me. It goes by, but the language remains elusive. I’m now weathering my third time through the level one course, and my test scores are too low, again.

The life is only study and training at the monastery, which these days is dominated by a schedule of cleaning and preparing for the formal meals, which we serve to the resident monks. A few days ago I spilled soup down the front of my jacket in front of everyone, and it was… nothing. It didn’t spark any emotion worth recording. I realized then that the year I’d spent with the über Chinese had made me nearly impervious to humiliation, but it was deeper than that.

Zola Jesus has a new album coming out. Taiga. It was written in isolation on Vashon, the same island where I did my first 100-day solo. It’s a good place to deconstruct. I was thinking the other day how my favorite works – like Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire or the seminal game Half Life 2 – have abandoned places in them that allow you to lose yourself. It’s very important, for us. This resonated through my morning rounds, as I searched in vain for the forgotten phrase, again. Pacing the monastery grounds, I plugged in to the same abandoned feeling. It was there in the centuries-old courtyard, in the heavy robe of the Zen master who half-listened from a precipice – that I let my mistakes tumble freely. They belonged in that forgotten place, grating in the ears, in the rusted metal and weeds and old statues groaning with wind and time. It possessed my soul. It liberated me, continues to do so. I’m sure you can hear it in my voice, a glint of gold at the bottom of the grimy hole of my language studies. It isn’t hope, it isn’t the end of hope. It’s finer than these.

As for music, there’s been a resurgence, a collaboration of devils and outsiders that speak, in broken pieces, broken songs held together with static and moaning, what I take to be the natural sound of society melting under itself, something we’ve paid dearly for. I use their careful recordings to buffer the mental anguish, just as they intended.

My brain was formed on the noise of blown out amps buzzing and squealing tone, howling frequencies too dirty to be defined. Dripping from me, these songs, this sentiment, I have some difficulty listening to the Korean talk radio that I need to ingest, to learn the language, as it’s bathed in music that… it’s strictly confined to the A major safe zone; Milli Vanilli and Zamfir play Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. It requires listening in the third person, as one would watch a Steven Segal film, for example.

I tell the new haengjas struggling with the scale of the drum we are to attack every morning, with some precision:

“To play the drum you have to lose yourself.”

This too is a product of the abandoned place in me.

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In dim light, darkness the only beauty, my life hangs. The sound of an empty barrel grown into the ground, a place long abandoned, reflects nothings, attracts nothing. In the heat of practice the place where all things come from quietly reveals, obliterates. There is only her appearing, everything communicated in a moment of seeing. Nothing can be said of it. No one knows.

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A friend recently jibed that I was obsessed with being great and death. I agreed, laughing secretly, but the laughter rang on the hollow wall of half-truths, and so was ultimately unsatisfying. There was an enormous rift between the jibe and my obsession, which isn’t even the right word. Much closer to the open canyon of truth, spoken by the very true and noble Iggy Pop, “People hate it when you’re being creative. They hate it.”

It’s not simply that I withstand the dogpile of hate, even more onerous now that I’ve magipiled into the form of a Zen monk, but that the body of work must be sound, elemental, formed of atomic bonds so enduring even dharma trolls would have no effect. It must make sense, thrown down whatever hall.  If it wasn’t an all-consuming, do or die catastrophe of a work, I’d be cut down in a storm of swords. Death, it’s the work. It’s formed of it, imbued in it. What else?

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I realized this morning after looking into some recent events – small as they may be, a significant current that runs through my life, its great gift.
I’m studying the Korean language at Dong Guk University in Seoul with a group of 8 others from around the world. The course is very difficult, with an 80% failure rate among the non-Chinese speaking students. We’re doing this because it’s a requirement for entering the Chogye order (Korean Zen) and acquiring a long-term visa.
Into this environment the human strain – what ferments and boils to the top? There aren’t enough of a certain book to go around – the one that contains all the words we are to memorize for the semester. I’m the one that didn’t have it. After a few weeks I finally wrangled one out of a previous student, but the point – no one was willing to share theirs. What does this say of our young candidates?
But that’s not what came to me this morning. After waiting my turn to use the broom – of course I was at the end of the line – and waiting for a chance to use the mop – again – same – that I realized the pattern was long and deep – all through my life – the result of my own relinquishing, that it was the key to my liberation.
I’m not so desperate, clinging to whatever the situation presents, that I lose hold of my humanity. I’ve never been interested in THE THING. But it isn’t possible to be liberated, not cleanly. We are a tribe of winners. There is no place outside the turmoil that isn’t consistently and thoroughly dismantled. The quiet wind that blows here is all that remains.

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In the course of editing THE ZEN REVOLUTION, many scenes were cut. This is one of those pieces, from an earlier version of TZR titled THE PERFECTION OF A LEAF:

The smile draws you in, to a familiar repeating of slogans, clichés, things overheard on the bus, other people’s songs, simple transitions from boring notes played without conviction, warbling chromatic shifts of no discernible melodic distance or contrast, other than the close proximity of one fret to the next. If it doesn’t clamber and stifle one! Instantaneous birth, clap of amatol, clappity-clop of a wooden hand hammered to the board like automatic writing as the soul is trammeled flat, opaque, a small token of what it was moments before, given freely to the currents, an abandonment of life and thought, wild, void of meaning save the string of notes that breathes into life white hot. The soul is magnetized by this sort of convection, this channel through to the surface.

What about this “musician” who has nothing compelling him to the edge of the known? Are we the same? There is no thing in him that will catch fire. It is the vessel alone, without a soul – not fully human. There, I said it. He is not yet of the race: malformed, unfocused, doubtless risen with little thought to the enormous task of becoming so, and how quickly the line is drawn, the cage formed. The crab retreats into its shell, its nightmare world – when the onslaught, the source of breath, is so compelling in its razing through the forests just outside, out there. What is the point of protecting against it? To endure a tattered daydream life that begs to be snuffed out? From sheer exhaustion!

Yet how much meaning can there be? How much frenzy is optimal here? The years are few, perhaps too many, but the end is certain, and so what use these observations? It’s hard to judge any part of it, so transient and illucid. Who is the victor, the one who clamors to the top of attainment to see into the tangled cord of life, or my simple-minded friend with his guitar? If it comes to the same result, the struggle would seem a charade, except for the small matter of civilization and passing on the torch. Would life be so deeply intoxicating for either without the great luxury of our conveniences? How many images pass through their cortexes? And yet without the careful work of the mother, of raising the child in the bosom of modern society, the hard work of our forefathers, the human strain would turn feral in a single generation.
Beyond this “passing of the torch”, what is the value of human life? And why this constant striving for more? I’m pressed to divine it from every glimmer of an eye, every hot breath. It’s difficult to convey what I’ve seen, for the answer is such a long equation one has to detach completely from the world before it can be discerned, and it passes like lightning! If there’s such a thing as knowing with the whole body, that is how this thing must be perceived, as it rings and pulses and sings through every aspect of creation. How a mind is lost in it, and held lovingly, sweetly… there is the mystery, the press forward, the wellspring, the magnetism of the atom, the dark matter that takes us farther from the known, as far as life can contain, to the point that the mind is extinguished.

 

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I love Wim Wenders, but the line from one of his first films, Alice in the Cities, has bothered me for some time — while talking with a lost girl, he remarks, “I like to stay at the hotel closest to the airport.”  I’ve never digested this sentiment, as airports are never located near anything interesting, save security fences, acres of concrete, restricted fields of burnt grass… Why fly to a new place only to remain in a sterile environment? What beauty? Is the height of luxury what he was implying, to stay aloft, or nearly so? I’ve come to see this line as unimportant, necessarily so – that it was written without much thought, or to suggest something else, which escapes me. For instance, his remark was that they had many airports to fly between, so desire this convenience or, maybe, that the neighborhood was unimportant, though, as someone who has lived in Manhattan long enough to be indoctrinated, this would be inane. As brilliant as Wenders is, I can’t see him not caring where he is, who he’s interacting with. Was it meant to be funny? Though I haven’t seen the film in more than a decade, I still remember the affable look Wenders had when he let loose this bomb. Impossible to glean anything here – Yes, it was sort of half-smilingly funny, for him. Was he proud of the line? Did he secretly know what he was unleashing? Was he, like Robert Downey Jr in Tropical Thunder, playing a version of himself playing himself somehow lost in the role? Is this some sort of anagram? Did he work at an airport before he became a famous director and had some sad, undefined nostalgia?

“I want to stay in the hotel closest to the airport.”

Damn you Wim Wenders. Why won’t you return my call?