Dropping Arrogance

Today, we’re using a famil­iar Zen sto­ry to help us to see ways for drop­ping arrogance 

This topic is described in my book, Half Asleep in the Buddha Hall. You can read more about it here

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A Few Ways to Get Over Yourself

This is a Zen sto­ry about Today, we’re using a famil­iar Zen sto­ry about drop­ping arro­gance that most peo­ple know:

On the sur­face, this is a sim­ple sto­ry. The schol­ar thinks he knows some­thing, and is there­fore unteach­able. Yet, this is entire­ly too sim­ple an explanation.

A schol­ar went to vis­it a Zen Teacher. The Zen Teacher offered the schol­ar some tea. While it was brew­ing the schol­ar began to expound on all that he knew, what he had done, and how bril­liant he was.

The Zen Teacher made tea.

The schol­ar con­tin­ued blath­er­ing on. The Zen Teacher hand­ed him a teacup and began pour­ing. He poured and he poured, even­tu­al­ly fill­ing the cup, then over­flow­ing it.

The schol­ar yelped, “It is over­full. No more will go in!”

Like this cup,” the Zen Teacher said, “you are full of your own opin­ions and spec­u­la­tions. How can I show you Zen unless you first emp­ty your cup?”

Speak­ing of drop­ping arro­gance, I saw the oppo­site enact­ed at the Buf­fa­lo Zen Cen­ter. There were a cou­ple of guys there, in their 20s, who said that they’d stud­ied Zen and Bud­dhism for a while and had not been able to find peace and a calm center. 

They thought that some zazen (sit­ting med­i­ta­tion) might help.

They then spent bet­ter than an hour telling every­one all the things they’d done in Japan, Korea, etc., about all they’d stud­ied, about all they knew.

Except they had started the conversation by saying that nothing they had learned actually worked!

I used to see this in ther­a­py all the time — peo­ple told me what was wrong — what wasn’t work­ing, what wasn’t hap­pen­ing in their rela­tion­ship, and then they’d blame their partner! Then they’d try to per­suade me to teach them how to make their part­ner behave.

The thought that they just might be clue­less elud­ed them.

My job is nev­er to per­suade some­one that I am right and they are wrong. My job is to help them to notice how full of them­selves, and how full of their arro­gant assump­tions, they are.

My job, if you will, is to hand them a pitchfork and point them to their internal manure pile.

In Bud­dhism in gen­er­al and in Zen in par­tic­u­lar, there is great empha­sis on “empti­ness.”

The Zen teacher in the above sto­ry is not sug­gest­ing that the schol­ar emp­ty him­self of his own judg­ments, under­stand­ings and thoughts — so that the Zen teacher can fill him up with his. That would be silly.

Most think this way, though. Peo­ple end­less­ly seek the right answer, the cor­rect answer, the final answer. It’s as if they think that one size fits all. West­ern think­ing and edu­ca­tion pro­motes this idea.

Uncertainty, for most, is uncomfortable.

Our prob­lem is exact­ly the one faced by the schol­ar. He knew a lot. He had filled his head with learn­ing. So, in keep­ing with what he knew, he showed up on the Zen teacher’s doorstep, look­ing both to show off, and to cram in more learning. 

His learn­ing had got­ten him nowhere in terms of his per­son­al life sat­is­fac­tion and focus, so he decid­ed to do more of what had nev­er worked.

Now, this is not a con­dem­na­tion of learn­ing. I’ve got a cou­ple of Mas­ters Degrees myself, and I con­sid­er myself to be pret­ty smart. 

What I do know is that all of my intel­li­gence has nev­er helped me under­stand myself, or oth­ers. What it has done is giv­en me the abil­i­ty to argue, fight, and try to prove oth­ers wrong.

A load of intelligence is a dangerous thing.

Emp­ty­ing one­self, drop­ping arro­gance… is scary. I remem­ber my ther­a­pist telling me to “Spend 6 months not know­ing.” I real­ly freaked out over that one. I wasn’t sure how to approach life in a state of “not knowing.”

What I’ve come to under­stand is that, even in “not know­ing,” a part of me does know. I know what’s up for most peo­ple, and I know what’s up for me, most of the time, and with fair accuracy.

What I’ve real­ized is that know­ing some­thing doesn’t change anything.

What I mean is, I might have an insight about myself or anoth­er, and it might even be accu­rate. The oth­er per­son, upon hear­ing it, might respond, “Yes! That’s exact­ly what’s up for me!” 

Now, from an ego per­spec­tive, I might get quite full of myself and con­grat­u­late myself for my wis­dom and insight. The prob­lem is this. 

Knowing what I know, and stating it, has no effect on the actual situation.

My per­cep­tions, insights and intel­li­gence are only about me. When, for exam­ple, I write some­thing about Dar­bel­la, I am not describ­ing her. I am describ­ing my ver­sion of the Dar­bel­la sto­ry I have in my head. 

So, you learn about me, not about her.

Empti­ness requires that I let go of cling­ing to my beliefs — or bet­ter, to the right­ness of my beliefs. 

Empti­ness requires that I under­stand that how I see the world is how I see the world, and noth­ing more. Empti­ness is let­ting go of the need to get oth­ers to agree with me. Empti­ness is liv­ing in the ambi­gu­i­ty of know­ing with­out knowing.

As soon as I think you need to change some­thing so I can be hap­py, I am in deep trou­ble. Empti­ness is this: I can let go of think­ing that the world is sup­posed to co-oper­ate in a “make me hap­py by agree­ing with me” project. 

I can let go of think­ing I have all the answers, I can let go of valu­ing my judg­ments (instead, I can just have them), and be open to per­ceiv­ing the sit­u­a­tion at hand, while notic­ing my fil­ters, prej­u­dices, or pat solutions.

Tall order, drop­ping arrogance.

The Zen Teacher offered the schol­ar some­thing pre­cious — com­pas­sion­ate dia­logue. In order to thus engage with some­one, I have to be will­ing to sus­pend my ego-dri­ven search for the right answer.

Most peo­ple waste their lives in search of this elu­sive ide­al — the right part­ner, the right reli­gion or belief (philo­soph­i­cal) sys­tem (actu­al­ly the same thing…) the right polit­i­cal par­ty, the right approach to self and others.

At the end of the day, all I can know is how I choose to act in this moment.

The Zen Teacher and the schol­ar met over tea, and in that moment, each had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to open up by let­ting go. Each had some­thing of him­self to share; each had some­thing to hear and to learn of the other.0

The schol­ar blocked his side of the oppor­tu­ni­ty by pre­sent­ing what he knew, as opposed to let­ting the Teacher see who he was, in that moment.

The Teacher did not blame, crit­i­cize or judge. He poured tea, and when asked, explained his actions, with­out ran­cour or judgment.

Let­ting go of the sto­ries we hide behind is the work of a life­time. Trust and patience are required. And openness.

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