During Rohatsu retreat this year I took several turns as time-keeper (Doan) for the morning sit at 6:00 am, in order to lead the sangha in the morning service, as a training example to those attending who are not as familiar with the chanting protocols, accompanied by drum and gong.

At one point, as happens every morning, my sinuses started to drain, and I realized that I had forgotten to tuck a tissue into my sleeve as I usually do to accommodate this daily ritual. While sniffling as silently as I could until the opportunity arose to leave the zendo to retrieve a napkin, it occurred to me that at some point Buddha would have had a similar problem. While he taught about the accumulation of merit, and warned against the accumulation of possessions and too much wealth, he surely experienced the accumulation of mucus in his sinuses as well. In fact, his descriptions of the true nature of our physiological being are near scathing in their directness and unflinching honesty about the various fluids and organic matter, including waste material, that make up what we fondly refer to as “me” or “myself.”

So I began to wonder just how Buddha would have handled a runny nose, sitting, as he was, in front of hundreds or thousands (myriad kotis, etc.) of his ardent followers, hanging on his every word. We can be pretty sure that the culture of that time had long since figured this out, and had a customary way of dealing with such exigencies. But they apparently did not have paper, certainly not a handy box of Kleenex tissues, and the cloth that they did have was not only hand-woven, but hand-everything, and so would have been relatively expensive to use as a hanky. We are told that they reused scraps of fabric recovered, laundered (in the local stream) and stained with dye to hide the uneven coloration, for their patchwork robes (J. Okesa).

Naturally my curiosity turned to other, more extreme matters, such as the delicate issues of defecation and urination, so I turned, as we moderns do in matters such as this, to Google. I found to my delight and amazement that indeed the ancient precursors in India to Buddha’s time, a civilization that once held forth in the Indus valley, had, not indoor plumbing, but a kind of outdoor plumbing. That is, archeologists have discovered, and you can see the photos online, that they had crafted toilets of stone, which were positioned over streams, a kind of continuously-flushing toilet. They look much like my grandparents’ outhouses in my childhood. This basic technology was also a characteristic of other civilizations, such as that of early Greece, but in India had been lost to history by the time of Buddha, so the practice of going on the ground, or directly into the river, had re-arisen; and is in fact still common in many of the less developed locales in the world today.

When Baba Ram Dass visited some mutual friends in Chicago in the 1960s, I invited him to give a talk at the University of Illinois, where I was teaching at the time. He told his classic tale of traveling to India, meeting his guru, and in passing, remarked upon various cultural differences he found there, for the benefit of our less well-traveled students. I remember his mentioning that they did not use toilet paper, but water instead, for cleaning themselves after using the toilet. I believe that was when I learned also that one hand was used for eating, while the other was reserved for cleaning duties. This makes a lot of sense in a world where there is no TP to use, let alone for blowing one’s nose. The transmission of disease was of course known in earlier societies, though often attributed to forces other than bacteria.

This raises a point that I think is crucial to our understanding of Zen and Buddhist practice in the modern world, that is, that it originated and developed in a very different world from what we have today in terms of social norms, culture, hygiene, and, above all, technology. One theory of the dominance of humanity over all other species attributes this to the acquisition and use of language, of course; but also to what is sometimes referred to as cultural evolution: the ability, and propensity, to transmit technology to the next generation; and for them to improve it and pass it on to their children. The example of a kayak is sometimes used, to illustrate the unlikelihood of any one person inventing and developing such a sophisticated item in one lifetime, over against the greater likelihood of its becoming progressively more elegant and efficient over generations of incremental improvements in design and function.

So, when we look at the design of Zen practice, with its irreducibly simple meditation, along with admittedly more complicated ritual protocols surrounding that central method, we can usefully take into consideration the context in which it originated, and those in which it was refined over some 25 centuries of practice from India, through China, Korea and Japan. There is a built-in bias in our current worldview — which may also have been characteristic of cultural prejudice and opinion throughout history — that the arc of cultural refinement bends toward ever-increasing sophistication. In other words, that our way of living today is highly advanced over the civilizations of the past, and with each generation gets better and better.

There are several contrarian strains of thought that would argue the case for flattening this curve, recognizing so-called advances as merely variations on themes that are not central to living fully, but merely peripheral. Some would even hold that in many ways we have gone backward, rather than forward, in our endeavors to enhance the lifestyle and refinement of humanity. Recent power outages and mass migrations have illuminated this idea to millions.

In the case of Zen practice, in the midst of whatever set of social circumstances it finds itself, I think the utility of this line of thought points to what is most central and important in life. It is difficult to come up with something more compelling and elegant than Buddha’s definition of the most salient problem of existence as aging, sickness and death.

We have done a lot to mitigate the ravages of the first; to prevent and cure the second; and to forestall the third, but we have not eradicated them, notwithstanding the musings of science fiction, and our most hopeful prognostications. One could even argue that the unseemly emphasis on the accumulation of wealth we are witnessing around the world is based upon some sort of belief that if you have enough money to throw at such a problem, you have a fighting chance of solving it. And it does seem that the haves are trying to have it all, even at the expense of the have-nots, who do not have enough to even stave off the predations of the unhealthy conditions threatening their lives, which are largely the corporate effluents of the wealthy class. We know that those deceased denizens who have invested in cryogenics, as one example, had more money than they knew what to do with. And even if their investment pays off in a future resuscitated incarnation, Buddhism asserts that in fact, all future lives are a form of rebirth to begin with, and so would cast a jaundiced eye on a retread consciousness that had long ago reached the end of its shelf life. Wisdom does not necessarily accumulate with age and experience.

When we listen to the recorded teachings of Buddha and the Ancestors, it is important to remember this context, to “contextualize” them socially as well as technologically, to get a more practical inkling of their true meaning. If instead we forget that these great and incisive minds did not have the benefit of the kind of vaunted education and access to technology we enjoy today, we are likely to miss the deep import of their teachings, such as the line from “Trust in Mind” (Hsinshinming) reminding us that:

Here, thought, feeling, knowledge and imagination are of no value.

At some point in our understanding of Zen, ordinary understanding is useless. However, we cannot take this as an absolute obiter dictum limiting our practice path in getting there, as earlier in the poem, Sengcan warns:

To move in the one way, do not reject even the world of senses and ideas;
indeed, to accept them fully is identical with true enlightenment.

If, however, our practice leads to a point where knowledge and imagination are of no value, it is obvious that such cultural considerations as lifestyle and technology become largely irrelevant. Not rejecting even the world of ideas, however, means that as part of our worldview, as well as in the practical implementation of our practice, the impact and implications of scientific advances suggests that the ideals of Buddhism may be realized in the real world.

One of my many mentors, R. Buckminster Fuller of Geodesic domes fame, pointed out that in spite of the negativism promoted by politicians and their paymasters, there is enough and plenty to go around, in terms of meeting the physical needs (Maslow’s hierarchy) of the population, but the barriers to distribution are largely political. And political resistance is always conditioned by the philosophical or ideological underpinnings of those resisting sharing the wealth, bolstered by the same psychological fears that impel them to amass great wealth in the first place.

Remember that in Buddha’s time, if the historians are to be believed, it was not that different. The caste system was firmly in place in India; birth was destiny. If you were born into the Brahmin class, you were at the top of the heap for life, as would be your progeny. If, on the other hand, you chose your parentage from the “untouchables” caste, you had no upward mobility. In the Order of monks and nuns, however, all such bets were off, according to the story. Proto Buddhism opened the big tent, under which all could enjoy the benefits of community, as long as they were willing to leave behind the perquisites they enjoyed in the outer society. But the teachings were not spared only for those who joined the Order.

Nowadays we do not literally have to leave the world of lay people in order to follow Buddhism, or Zen; nor did lay people in Buddha’s time, only the monastics. We have the more difficult task of integrating a practice into life as we know it, the “world of senses and ideas.” Most of the ideas about the senses promoted by the society we live in are on the side of indulgence: “Everything all the time” (Hotel California). The ideal of being or becoming wealthy is tied to an ever-expanding sphere of possibilities for how to enjoy your wealth, from second homes, to why not dozens of homes, all over the world. The stubborn parameters that are resistant to this kind of power over our future fortunes are the aforementioned aging, sickness and death. Even the wealthiest person in the world cannot buy off these debt collectors when they come calling, though many seem to be spending a lot of time and treasure on the futile effort.

We are dazzled by the prospect of technology, whether for its life-extending potential, or simply because it makes life so much easier, interesting, and more productive. When we use a term like “productive,” however, we have to consider what it means, as in producing what? Time-saving devices, such as the word processor I am using to write this essay, have made it much more readily doable, compared to the typewriter of the last generation technology, the rice paper and ink brush of our Zen Ancestors in Japan and China, or the prior technologies for recording information (on broad leaves) in India. But what am I, what are we, to use all this time we have saved for, exactly?

Many would say, well, travel, for example. Which seems to have an unquestioned value for those who can afford it. But Zen, according to Master Dogen, points out the futility of traveling to foreign lands to find enlightenment (Fukanzazengi). Or study — reading or writing that book we have planned to do for so long. Or any other of a number of worthwhile and interesting projects. But Zen would ask, as the old monk-chef (J. tenzo) did with Master Dogen in China, when they discussed Dogen’s earnest studying of the Chinese texts, “What’s the use of that?” Then, concluding the discussion, “No, I mean, what’s the long-term use of that?”

When we consider this term, “long-term,” we must think of the short-term as well. How long, exactly, is the long term, in my life? Is my study of buddha-dharma good for today, or this week, in that it entertains me for now, and occupies my mind with something more worthwhile than, say, a murder mystery? Or science-fiction? Or is it a longer-term benefit, in that the next time I am lecturing to an audience on Zen or Buddhism, I will be able to refer to what I am reading as a quotable quote, perhaps enabling me to more clearly elucidate a subtle point? In other words, what is the long-term use — the utility, or futility — of any or all of our present behavior? Are we wasting our time in futile endeavors, pursuing useless knowledge? Or preparing ourselves for some imagined future, where this information may be useful to us?

A quote from Seikan Hasegawa, from his book “Cave of Poison Grass” will serve as an example of the above, while simultaneously illustrating the ambivalent nature of the very activity of researching Zen in this way. Paraphrasing from memory, he said that most people wait until they are on their deathbed to confront the fundamental issues of life and death, remarking that this is like trying to “eat soup with a fork,” if memory serves. The implication is that we can look back on a long life of striving, only to realize that we were putting all of our efforts into marginal or useless endeavors, looking for love in all the wrong places, et cetera. How do we avoid this existential regret, no matter how much wealth we accumulate, or how many honors we receive? What is the long-term use of anything, or any activity?

Zen asks something very simple, yet extraordinarily difficult, of us. It asks us to see beyond the relative conditions of our present existence on the one hand, and to eschew our opinion of the absolute significance of our life, at the same time. While thought, feeling, knowledge and imagination are of no value at this far remove, they can be helpful in getting to this point. What are we doing, when we are sitting in zazen? We are unlearning. We are learning to let go of our opinion of our own existence. In this case imagination can be useful, but not in trying to imagine the truth.

We instead can imagine, for example, what it was like for Buddha to blow his nose. I could have said, “picked his nose,” but that would be disrespectful. But only in our culture, not necessarily in his. How would that simple act of humanity have affected his followers? Were they critical, or impressed with his dignity? How does it affect you, the next time you blow your nose? How does it inform your appreciation of the homeless, the extravagantly wealthy, the ordinary person? Why is Buddha-nature defined as a dried shit-stick? Or a snot-rag? And how does it achieve its status as the most precious thing in the world? Where is it in yours?