26 February 2011

Patient Attention to Detail

As part of a course for all 1st-year college students I once had to teach A River Runs Through It.  I had not read it before, and I had not seen the movie (still haven't).  I was totally captivated by the descriptions of the art of fly fishing in the book.  I'm not a fisherman, and I'm sure I would find other things to do were I in that part of the world, but the patient attention to detail Maclean evidenced was nothing short of astounding to me.  Most of the students lost patience with it after a few sentences.   I told them that I, for one, would have been just as enthralled with that kind of description of various concrete mixes, if the author could have pulled it off.

A few years back I was taking some naturalist classes, and I had gotten fairly good at identifying trees and birds, mastering both their scientific and common names, favored habitats, etc.  My (Zen) teacher at the time made some quip about losing sight of reality in the midst of all the detail and the terminology.  I came back that there is nothing anti-Zen in knowing the tanager as a tanager and a robin as a robin.  Just saying, "Bird," misses the mark, too.

And really, isn't that part of our training all along?  Both the light left on and the light turned off manifest absolute reality, but leaving it burning needlessly is inappropriate.  Both the straightened mat and cushion and the wrinkly mat and unfluffed cushion are Buddhanature, but one is the unskillful way to leave the zendo, and the other is not.  There is a proper, and an improper, way to play the han, and the teisho riff on the drum is not the sesshin riff. 

Giving oneself over to patient attention to detail seems to me a very fine way of coming to realize the non-dual nature of self-and-other.  Painting monochrome everything in the world that is not oneself strikes me as a very fine way of maintaining that insidious dualism that lies at the heart of our personal and collective suffering.

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