I like how Zen talks about the need for a "great ball of doubt." It seems like I should have enjoyed a satori by now, my doubt is so balled up.
Some days more than others. This was a good doubting day.
I just had an interview with my Zen master, who, conveniently, is myself (makes it easy to get appointments). He reviewed the enigmatic koans that life presented me on this Sunday, along with my responses.
I think he was pleased. But I can't say for sure. That doubt thing, you know.
Sundays usually follow a fairly predictable routine for me – breakfast at home, coffee at Starbucks with friends, exercising at athletic club, napping and chores. Today was way different.
Which got me to thinking: if it's so tough to figure out what's going to happen moment to moment here in this material world, how the heck can anyone believe they've got the afterlife figured out?
When I walked into Starbucks and didn't see anyone familiar there, "Mother's Day" popped into my mind. My mother being dead and gone who knows where, I'd forgotten that spending the day with Mom is what this May 11 means for a lot of people.
Including, apparently, my usual coffee klatch group.
Well, no problem. Starbucks still was pleased to sell a skinny venti vanilla latte to me, along with a New York Times. A third of my way into the latte an older woman walks over to my chair. Sort of eccentric looking. With purple fingernails.
One bit of small talk from her: "Nice shirt." "Thank you." Then: "Do you have a phone?" "Yes." "Can I borrow it for a local call?" "Sure."
Never happened to me in Starbucks before. But then, lots of things happen that never have happened to me before. Well, everything, in fact. Same for everybody. We just get lulled into the illusory quasi-predictability of life.
The woman went back to her table. She fiddled with my phone for quite a while. At one point she asked, "Do you have a watch?" "Yes." "What time is it?" "12:15"
I never heard her actually talk to anybody. I pictured her putting my phone into her purse and walking off with it. I wondered how I'd get it back. The way it happened was, she walked over and handed it to me. So predictable, it surprised me.
Turned out I needed the phone again, a few minutes later. A barista steps out from behind the counter and yells, "Anyone named 'Brian' here?" "Yes."
She walked over. "Your wife just called. Some sort of water emergency. She wants you to phone home."
Laurel and I never turn on our cell phones except when we need to make a call. So she found me via Starbucks. Another first.
After talking with Laurel I knew that the day was going to be even less predictable than I'd already found it to be. Gigantic bursts of air, and not much water, was coming out of our pipes.
Living in the country, with a well connected to a complex mass of water treatment equipment – softener, iron filter, ph adjuster, ozonator – we're used to dealing with water problems. This one, though, was beyond Laurel's ability to handle herself.
The man of the house was needed. I fired up the Prius and headed home.
Where I spent the next four hours dealing with mystery after mystery, aided in my quest by a couple of phone consultations with the guys who installed our water treatment system.
My usual fix for air in the pipes (disconnect ozonator solenoid; dislodge debris with paper clip) didn't work. More drastic measures had to be taken, stretching my minimalist plumbing skills.
Another trip into town to the hardware store to buy an O-ring became obviously necessary when water sprayed into my face after turning the system on, expecting that I'd solved the problem, only to find that the original problem had morphing into a fresh form.
Throughout, I was surprised at how serene I remained.
My churchless soul didn't see this, as it once would have, as: karma to be gone through, an opportunity to practice detachment from worldly concerns, or a test of my ability to perform selfless husbandly service.
It just was life. Stuff happens. Unpredictable stuff. Stuff with no meaning other than the need to deal with it.
A few weeks ago the Religion columnist in our local newspaper, Hank Arends, quoted Salem's Unitarian Universalist minister, Rev. Rick Davis. Davis likes to break out of conversational ruts. Recently, when he checked into the church office by phone he'd ask the office administrator, "What is the meaning of life?"
She ducked the question for several days, then answered: "To reflect the Divine Light into Earth's dark places." Here's what Davis said in the newsletter.
This answer provides a good 'purpose' for life but dodges the question about the 'meaning' of life. Seems to me that question is an imposition of a human concept upon a universe that doesn't operate according to our limited frameworks of understanding.
That's for sure.
We strive to find meaning in events because their unpredictability threatens our humancentric position at the center of existence. There's got to be some purpose, some master plan, some reason behind a malfunctioning water treatment system that consumes my entire afternoon, right?
No. Life can just be what it is. Arends continued:
By getting so involved in studying for the meaning of life, one could consume years of time and thereby miss life itself. Davis pointed to those who questioned Buddha with abstract metaphysical questions.
In response, Buddha said in essence: "Knock it off. You can endlessly speculate about such matters but that will not add to the quality of your present condition. Be aware. Pay attention. Wake up."
That's all we can do, really. Moment to moment, life is a mystery. The afterlife, infinitely more so, since we don't have any history, any regularities, any experience to base a prediction on.
Driving home after picking up the O-ring I tuned to the Oregon State baseball game with UCLA. OSU won the national championship the past two years, but the team has been slumping recently.
They were behind 7-4 in the top of the eighth. Bummer. Oregon State needed a win to take the weekend series and bolster their chances for post-season play. I figured I'd open up the paper tomorrow and read about another disappointing loss.
I turned on the radio on my third trip into town today, finally getting to get to my Sunday athletic club workout after mastering the mystery of the ozonator problem. First words I heard were…
"One of the greatest baseball games I've ever seen. And I've seen a lot. Unbelievable – a grand slam home run in the bottom of the eighth with one out. Then a double play in the ninth to seal the win."
Life. Who can figure it? When religious true believers say they can, don't believe them.
Unless they can reliably predict the outcomes of baseball games with one out in the eighth. And whether, when I'm sitting in Starbucks peacefully drinking a latte, I'll soon find myself playing with plumbing.