Helplessness as Practice

I recently saw two movies that reminded me of the value of spiritual practice and the importance of practicing immediacy in the midst of real concrete, true-to-life dilemmas. One movie, “The Descandants,” portrays George Clooney as the husband of a terminally ill wife on life-support. As he deals with business end of preparing for her eventual demise, he and his family learn of previously hidden aspects of her life which force each of them to confront deeply psychological and affect-laden issues which have ultimately to do with them, albeit triggered by an ostensibly random act (the accident that winds his wife in the hospital). The movie is about the them, not the deceased.

The other movie, “Extremely Loud, Incredibly Close,” portrays a young boy who tries to make sense of the sudden death of his father who dies during the terrorist attack on 9/11. Over a year after the catastrophe, we witness both the apparently unskillful (as well as occasionally seemingly brilliant) ways this young boy tries to make sense of this horrible tragedy.

Without analysing these plots– which I am sure can be explained on multiple levels– what struck me very viscerally were the portrayals of human beings in real situations for which no prefabricated answers, doctrine, or absolute value-system could possibly provide the answers. Both plots are, in fact, koan. Like the situation of the man hanging from a branch in one of the koans of the Gateless Gate,  these situations can only be directly experienced and lived rather than understood. I thought how often–and in either small ways or big–that this is the case as we live our lives from day to day. So many situations present us with double-binds, “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” moments where the only plausible thing to do is to stay where you are, experience the not-known, and then act from there (As if one really could do anything else.). What struck me, also, was watching the gut-wrenching emotions and actions of those involved as they tried to deal with their predicaments.  However unskillful,  valiant, and even ludicrous the efforts of these characters were (After finding a key left in an envelope by his father, with the name “Black” written on it, the boy decides he will find everyone in New York whose name is “Black,” look them up, and eventually find the lock that the key will hold.), they were actions and behaviors that were perfectly understandable and appropriate in their given contexts, and they triggered real empathy and praise in those who observe and try to help them. The supporting actors (and by extension, the audience as well) become part of the spiritual trip as they seem to work their way through and into their own self-constructed world of Samsara. In the end, nothing is solved and life remains thoroughly open-ended. But the participants gain the only one “real” thing that matters to any concrete, living human being:  the compassion and love of those who try to help; those who stay in the game, as it were. In a poignant sense, this, I think, is the true bodhisattva path. I would think Dogen would wholeheartedly admire their methods, however delusional they may seem,  the way he does in the Shobogenzo when he seemingly inverts the usual teachings by saying, for example, that painted cakes can, in fact, satisfy hunger (That’s all you got sometimes!) and that rubbing a tile (the activity of rubbing or doing zazen) can make a mirror: Perhaps all honest and authentic activity is a form of mirror-making, doing something with whatever you’ve got, whatever life deals you.

So maybe these characters’ actions are, in fact, manifestations of the Buddha-dharma, regardless of however delusional they may appear. Dogen states many times that all dharmas are Buddha-dharma. He states in the Shobogenzo that, even among the novice, there is no separation between aspiration, practice, enlightenment, and nirvana. As I become aware of my own practice, I’ve noticed that this realization of the emptiness of all activity and expressions has its own beauty and rightness, and this serves to engender compassion in everyone involved: both among those who act as well as those who seemingly just observe.  No one is left out in any given situation, which is always relational, whether this is perceived by the participants or not. As depicted in both of these movies, those who see this begin to mature and transform themselves, and always with the assistance of others who are also transformed in the process, a process that perhaps they, too, did not originally “sign up for.” What is beautiful and amazing is that all of this seems to occur spontaneously with letting go, leaving nothing to do or say except to invite the whole catastrophe in. What’s left is the ordinary magic of the moment, pregnant with possibility and love. Is there really anywhere else one can or choose to be?


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