A Teaching Career (Coda: Zen)

I didn’t mention my relatively recent conversion1  to Zen in the previous parts of this account because, going back to the San Diego days at least, I knew a little bit about “cultural zen,” or “literary Zen” & had even tried to meditate a bit in order to address long-running problems with anxiety. But lacking a teacher or even a context, my approach to Zen remained theoretical.

But after I quit drinking a second time ten or eleven years ago, I still needed to deal with massive waves of anxiety. Funny thing about anxiety of this sort is that one is not anxious about anything in particular–that is, the anxiety is not a reaction to some particular event or situation; instead, the anxiety precedes particular events & simply attaches to this or that particular as necessary, though often enough it remains unattached to particulars, resulting in states of derealization. In my case, certain antidepressant medications helped to address this, but nothing was as effective as beginning a meditation practice that involved sitting up to two hours a day. At this point I was using Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s books on mindfulness as guides. For a while, I thought I could be a solitary practitioner, but the more I read & the more I sat, the more it seemed I needed an institutional context. That’s when I began looking around on the internet for a Buddhist group to join.

In the background of this search was my knowledge, however intellectual, of Vietnamese Buddhism as lived & practiced by the people I had lived among off & on since the mid-1990s, when I first traveled to Vietnam. I was attracted to the aesthetics of the liturgy & ritual practices, which seemed deeply integrated into the daily life of the Vietnamese in a way that I had never seen with Christianity in the US. I had been raised by fundamentalists, but had happily & mostly without trauma left it behind when I graduated from high school & went off to college. Even though I had tried as a kid to “believe,” Christianity as I saw it practiced was never as real to me as the “foreign” religion I saw practiced in Vietnam.

It did not actually take me long to settle on long to settle on the Mountains & Rivers Order of Zen, partly because it was reasonably close to home, partly because it seemed welcoming, but mostly because of the founder’s emphasis on the arts as an important part of Buddhist practice. This is not the place to go into detail about the Order where I have now been a formal student for four years, so I’ll just comment that the impact on my life & teaching were almost immediate. No doubt that for a while I exhibited the annoying habits of a recent convert among my friends & colleagues–another example of my hard-wired enthusiasm, I guess. As for teaching, I think the main shift that becoming a Buddhist precipitated was that it gave me a more spacious sense of time, especially in the classroom, where, I realized, there was always the right amount of time, if one could only find the right clock. I slowed down & fit more in. I forgot, even more than usual, the impression I was making & focused on the ten-thousand things of a particular class period.

That phenomenon in the classroom–of time expanding to encompass whatever really needs to be accomplished–can be generalized & applied anywhere. It is perhaps the practical essence of Zen. Surely, may final years in the classroom were made more spacious by my Zen practice, as my life continues to be. Indeed, I cannot think how I would go about understanding my current illness without my Zen practice–not Zen as an institution, just my day to day understanding of what presents itself before me, including even pain & boredom. To say nothing of the satisfactions I have been finding in my recent writing. My Zen practice needs to be big enough to encompass the whole spectrum, which only practice will accomplish. How’s that for a Zen tautology? I tell ya, I got a million of ’em!

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  1. It was nothing less than a conversion experiences & Zen is not mere philosophy, but religion.

Hanoi Spleen (Another List of Five)

  1. The ugly cathedral really is ugly, a cement monstrosity deposited by the French, who, when the were driven out of Hanoi in 1954 razed the 1000 year old One Pillar Pagoda, an architectural marvel. It has since been rebuilt. Now the city is infested by twenty-something French hipsters smoking their execrable cigarettes in the coffee shops.
  2. The German hipsters are a little less annoying, perhaps because Germans have no history in Vietnam.
  3. There are hardly any American hipsters–just a few fresh-faced college students with almost no awareness of their country’s history in Vietnam.
  4. The Vietnamese word for tourism is du lịch; for history the word is lịch sử. Because the unbarred letter “d” is pronounced “z” the two words sound & look like mirror images of each other, at least to my insensitive Western ear. I know nothing about Vietnamese etymology, but I don’t think lịch is the same word / syllable in these two words, Vietnamese compounds working differently from those in Germanic languages. The joys of false etymologies & strained analogies!
  5. Compared to traffic in HCMC or (from what I have been told) Bangkok, traffic in Hanoi is not so bad, but it is bad enough. For my first four weeks here I was able to join the dance–and it is a dance–but the last few days it’s just seemed chaotic. Usually, at a major intersection, when the light changes there is a liminal period during which the more aggressive motorbikes continue through as the bikes from the perpendicular direction begin moving out. Usually the side with the red slows & stops, though individual scooters will continue to dart through along the edges or go up on the sidewalk to skirt around. It’s hard to describe. Sometimes the liminal period of one direction goes on so long that it overlaps with the period of the other direction, which is when you have chaos, the dance broken down. So, now, go cross the street to get to your favorite coffee shop on the other side.

Eating & Speaking

I’ve been a little careful about what I’ve been eating the last couple of days. This means choosing somewhat more bland restaurants, often ones designed specifically to appeal to non-Vietnamese tastes, even if the food is Vietnamese. Whether this makes any real difference is difficult to say: It’s equally possible to eat something off in one of these places as in a street stall, maybe more so since the best Vietnamese street stalls turn over a lot of food very quickly. In any case, since I still feel a little wobbly I have been taking care.

The waitress in the tourist place seemed, at first, utterly bored. She was a little surprised when I placed my order in halting Vietnamese, then went back to what she was doing at her computer on the little desk at the side of the restaurant. I sat next to a window looking out at the street & sipped my lime juice & Schweppes soda. After a little while, she went to the back of the room then brought me my clay pot chicken with rice. I had to ask for chopsticks: “Xin cho Bác cái đũa.” The five-word sentence brought a flicker of smile to the young woman’s face. She went to get them, lay them on my table, then retired again to her computer.

The chicken was tasty but salty. About halfway through the meal I asked for another soda. When it came, I said, “Mặn quá!” (Very salty). She looked concerned, but I said, in English, “It’s okay, just salty.” At this point, something clicked, I think. What I had taken as boredom was perhaps diffidence. A bit later, when she took my plate away, she asked me in Vietnamese how long I had been in Vietnam. I have a kind of standard answer to this question that simplifies reality somewhat, since my language skills are not up to the temporal details. “I’ve lived here a year,” I told her, and have studied Vietnamese in the US; that I’m a professor & work with a publishing house as an editor. I can get this all into choppy Vietnamese without too many problems. The young woman looked at the chair across from me & I nodded for her to sit down. At this point we had to begin moving back & forth between English & Vietnamese: “You understand a lot,” she said. “I don’t hear the language very well, though,” I told her. My hearing is really not up to any sort of fluency in a tonal language. “I think you understand a lot about Vietnam, though,” she said. I don’t really know how she could know this, except perhaps by accepting my attempt to speak her language, or maybe by not dragging all my cultural assumptions into the restaurant with me. We talked about various things, mixing our languages, and then I went off into the night.

When any two speakers converse, whether they share a birth language or not, there is a moment of assent, fraught with vulnerability, right at the start. They agree to speak in good faith. (Most encounters are not actually conversations, of course, but instrumental exchanges–that’s how we get through the day.) Sartre calls bad faith a kind of self-deception, or play-acting.1  When the young woman in the restaurant glanced at the chair across from me, she was asking, even if she was herself not fully aware of it, that we drop the play-acting. We were then able to have a conversation, however halting, across our languages. Such encounters are rare at home or abroad, but perhaps being forced out of one’s habitual bad faith, in Sartre’s sense, increases the possibility that real conversations may occur. The barrier between speakers who have only bits & pieces of each other’s languages actually creates an opportunity for openness.

I can’t really reconstruct or recall the details of that conversation–it was mostly concerned with small matters. I asked a lot of questions about the names for things, I remember. Near the end of our talk, the young woman (I’ll have to go back now & learn her name: it didn’t seem important at the time) asked, “Why do you keep coming back to Hanoi?” Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? I wonder what the answer is, of if there is an answer. Or maybe it’s actually simple: I keep returning so as to lift of the corner of the curtain & to remember that it iOS possible to have a conversation with someone–or with one’s self–in good faith.

 

 

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  1. See “John Paul Sartre on Bad Faith,” Neel Burton, M.D. Psychology Today, 2012.

Why Vietnam?

Every time I take a trip to Vietnam–averaging every couple of years since the mid-1990s–I’m asked what it is about Vietnam that draws me back again & again. It’s a reasonable question & one to which I have a set answer, but it’s an answer that doesn’t fully satisfy me. I usually say that, given my age, I have an inescapable historical connection to Vietnam. But that doesn’t explain, really, why I’m sitting in Logan International waiting for a 1:30 a.m. flight to Hong Kong, jumping then to Hanoi. And it doesn’t explain why I’ve now made twelve (I think) extended trips to Vietnam since 1996, including a Fulbright year in 2000 – 2001. It must be love.

I feel comfortable in Vietnam, especially Hanoi, which is less frenetic & less Westernized than HCMC. It’s not as if Hanoi is like home–I don’t feel “at home”–but I am attracted to the particular kinds of difference I experience there. And it certainly is different–the interpersonal expectations can take some getting used to. Social life is based on relationships of hierarchy, but also of trust, however paradoxical that may seem. Then there is that long sweep of history that gives weight to both social interactions and the arts, though much of this historical weight is being eroded by the forces of globalization.

Why Vietnam? What is it about going far from home that feels so lively & rewarding? Over the next few weeks I’m going to keep coming back to these questions, though I know in advance that whatever sort of answer(s) I come up with will be protean, shifting, unstable.

A Calm Dog in the Old Quarter

Took a walk around the Old Quarter yesterday evening. Lots of dogs, as I noted earlier, but this one struck me by his self-possession. It’s hard to tell from the photo, but he’s sitting in a narrow alley where motorbikes regularly whizzed by six inches from his nose while he practiced a Buddhist sort ofequanimity. Perhaps some old bodhisattvaradiating peace & quite in a noisy city.

Dog in Hanoi
A calm dog in an alley in the Old Quarter of Hanoi.