An interesting thing happens whenever I make what I perceive to be a “mistake” in a life situation. I tell myself that “next time, I’ll know exactly what to do.” That, in and of itself, isn’t particularly interesting… what’s noteworthy, however, is that it’s never true. There is no “next time.” Every situation that arises is unique. Maybe the circumstances are a bit different than they were in yesterday’s situation, or different people are involved… Always, my mind is different. All that I’m left with, then, is the ability (or inability) to respond spontaneously as each moment presents itself.
Zen Master Bon Haeng has said that human beings like to have a system. We want to see the blueprint for life, to have a template to lay over each situation so we’ll know what to do. We want to know that when Situation A arises, the appropriate reaction is Response A. Such a system doesn’t exist. The closest thing we have to it in the Buddhist tradition is a list of precepts, but the precepts aren’t really a prescription for responding to life. They function as guideposts along a path that allows us to respond instinctively to whatever comes our way.
One of the promises of following the spiritual tradition of 12 Step Recovery is that “we will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us.” There’s a reason why the Big Book of AA says “we will intuitively know how to handle situations” rather than “intellectually know how to handle situations.” A life lived on life’s terms isn’t something to be grasped mentally. If I’m trying to figure out a situation, I’m already baffled. “Already a mistake,” as Zen Master Seung Sahn would say.
Intellectualizing is ego’s cunning, baffling, and insidious way of inserting itself like an iron wedge between Me (over here) and The Situation (over there). There’s no way the arrow can hit the mark, and, surprise of surprises, koan practice is custom cut and sewn to fit this problem. There’s a reason why no one’s allowed in the interview room while I’m doing koan practice: it’s unsafe… there are arrows flying everywhere. The zen master, however, is safer than a baby in its mother’s arms; my arrows are going nowhere near him. I’m confident that, with practice, my aim will get better. Until that time, though, I’ll content myself with the delusion that the next time an old woman walks into the dharma room with a wooden stool, I’ll know exactly what to do.