Zen Practice, Paradox, Part 2: Ghosts

“Haunting is a constituent element of modern social life. It is neither premodern superstition nor individual psychosis; it is a generalizable social phenomenon of great import. To study social life one must confront the ghostly aspects of it.” Avery Gordon, author of Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, 2nd ed. 2008.

This is part 2 of the paradox of studying the self. And a first segue to a brief discussion of Buddhism, self, and subjection. And race. Forgive me for what might at first blush seem academic—it is rooted in direct experience. This entry makes the general point about the paradox of studying the self in zen practice: to study the self is to study subjection, our ghostly pasts.

How then to unbind? And this may not be the most important question. Rather, perhaps, how we talk about this may be our first question.

Sometime in 2001 or 2002, shortly after the publication of her first book, Being Black (2000), Angel Kyodo Williams visited Santa Cruz Zen Center. The closing line of her talk went something like (sic) “The dharma cannot stay the same, it has to change.” There it was—a small crack of light into an abyss. A few weeks later, Katherine was still thinking about that message. From the teaching seat, she paused her lecture to ask me directly, “do you feel different, do you think it matters” and moved on. The point was not for me to answer.

This is not about what Katherine said or what she was thinking. Or what I was thinking or saying. We had spoken earlier of it. My life, like yours, has a complicated past, and such a past cannot be simplified into one thing or one vector.

*Subject (and selfhood) and subjection is the topic of interesting if heady discussions in philosophy, cultural studies, feminist studies, and other related disciplinary conversations. I have always been inspired by the provocative brilliance of my colleagues in the academy. Judith Butler (author of The Psychic Life of Power) and Avery Gordon (author of Ghostly Matters) come to mind today.

Photo, D. Takagi. Public Art, Battery Park City, Tom Otterness’. THE REAL WORLD is a fanciful world—whimsical figures of people and animals doing ordinary things.

Photo, D. Takagi. Public Art, Battery Park City, Tom Otterness’. THE REAL WORLD is a fanciful world—whimsical figures of people and animals doing ordinary things.

Sometimes I hear us zen priests say the world is “like a dream,” meaning our minds are unreliable arbiters of reality. Or perhaps the real world, or what we think is the real world is not that real. I get it. Dogen and others, the yogacara tradition help us to unfix our fixed views.

How does one treat subjection as a dream? Is it a dream as in fictional? Fictions matter, in my view.

Ocean Vuong writes in his poem, Almost Human, “I made a killing in words & was surrounded by ghosts.”

Whatever shall we say about the ghosts? However are we to talk about this? The point is and is not about pain, the past, subjection, the external and historical patterns that have factored in to this one life, this almost human life.

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