Catch and Release: part 2

So instead of holding on, I let go. Letting go seems to imply that we stay in one place, and the beloved person, or object we were holding on to moves away from us. Like planets and the very universe itself, we are always moving away from each other, aren’t we? And when we let go, we let go of what we thought anchored us, not what we kept anchored to ourselves.

I saw the movie Spiderman with my son (who being 14 at the time, let me come with him and his friend, but made me sit in another row. Moving away, moving away.) In the movie Spiderman begins to lose his powers. He is climbing a wall and loses his grip. We see him falling, panic on his face, bouncing off walls and landing on top of a car.

That is what letting go is really like—it isn’t what I grasp which falls away, since I could never hold it to begin with. It is my self who is suddenly falling through the vastness of space, bouncing into a few things here and there, headed most likely for a hard landing. I don’t hold on to things so that I can keep them, but to feel I am on solid ground; to feel that as everything rushes by me, I stay unmoving. I am in a rushing river, and clutching the roots of a tree on the shore, rather than letting go into the flow of life.

But unlike dreams where we are falling, the goal is not to learn to fly. No, it may simply be to learn to accept falling, to see that there is no firm hold anywhere. Or perhaps with practice we learn, as they put it in “Toy Story,” another movie I watched repeatedly with my son: That’s not flying—it’s falling with style.


Catch and Release

Have you ever watched a fisherman release a fish they have caught back into the water? Many summers ago I used to watch my nephew Shawn do it. He was never rough or careless with his catch. First, he would carefully remove the lure from its mouth. By then, the fish was usually calmer in his hand. He’d hold it very lightly between his palms, and return it into the water. Moving the fish back and forth, he’d allow water to flow through its gills, and then turn it upright into a swimming position and be sure that its fins were moving. Opening his hands and pulling them back, he’d let it go, watching it dart off quickly into the shimmering waters and shadows again.

During the whole process Shawn always was very attentive and gentle. He showed respect for the life of the fish, the struggle it had been to bring it in (especially the big ones) and then finally a wistfulness at letting them go.

I think of that act when I return to the lesson of letting go. For me the hardest letting go is with people. Again and again I am given this opportunity– with friends, parents, lovers, children. As I struggle with it, I wonder what it means to let go, and what it is I let go. It surely isn’t anything outside of me–I don’t and can’t hold or possess another person in the first place. It seems it is some part of myself I let go of, that I release back into those cool waters with tenderness, as I make sure it can return on its own to its deep home.

I also let go the struggle and the catch, the dance I did with the other. I let all that go, while honoring it. Relationships are beings in themselves, and to hang on after one has changed or ended is as dangerous to me as it is for that fish to remain out of the water. So I return that person to the stream of life. I hold loosely, feeling the cool currents, the clean way it gives life, and with that wistful, bittersweet feeling I let what I shared with them return to its source. I let that silvery gift go, as I would a fighting salmon, and watch it slip back into the current of time.


releasing the fish back into cool waters
the hand opens
and movement and life return in a jolt
the fish disappears into the shadows
a flash of diamonds as it goes
like the glint when it first took the hook.

Buddhism before it was cool

At the risk of sounding like cranky old guy, I have to say it…I liked Buddhism before it was cool. Not in that “I liked this band years ago when they were playing in little clubs, not big arenas now where everybody goes to see them.” Or in that everything was better in the old days. And harder too. (“When I was first sitting zazen we sat for 30 hours at one time, not thirty minutes like kids do now.”) Though my friends will tell you I’ve certainly said the former, and my son will tell you he frequently hears the latter.

No, this isn’t a good old days story. Those good old days when you could hardly find any books on Buddhist practice, and few real teachers, and seldom someone you could talk with about Dharma. In those years it would occasionally cross my mind how wonderful it would be if Buddhism had more of a foothold in our culture, and you could see movies that took the Buddhist viewpoint, and more writers and poets deeply grounded in it who weren’t just using it for novelty’s sake. Or that it would be nice if you wore your hair shorn close, people wouldn’t assume that you were either fresh out of the service, prison, or chemotherapy. And you didn’t get those blank stares when you tried to explain why you were going on a meditation retreat. And didn’t have to explain for the thousandth time Buddha wasn’t that fat guy in Chinese restaurants.

But then Buddhism got cool. Celebrities eagerly talking about it, hanging out with the Dalai Lama, dropping references in interviews. Drinks, teas, soaps, music players were suddenly all zen. It seemed everything was zen, even song titles. And like the nerdy junior high schooler who found themselves part of the popular kids, it made most Buddhists lose their heads, to one degree or another. Like that same nerdy high schooler, we tried to analyze why we suddenly had that new found popularity, and what we could do to hang on to it.

I know that each culture has changed the teachings, so that Buddhism plus Taoism led to Chan and Zen Buddhism, or when mingled with Tibetan Bon teachings became the Vajrayana we all know. And I’m sure during those changes there was someone sitting around bemoaning the fact the teachings had been diluted, too. But it seems to me that it is accurate to say in these nearly forty years I have watched it, there have been great changes in the practice and teaching of Buddhism.

It will remain to be seen.  Perhaps in mixing with Western, and particularly American culture, Buddhism practice will adopt elements of feminism, democracy and populism; that it will become more egalitarian and barriers will break down. But sometimes it seems instead it has mixed with the worst of American culture, and that shadow has been cast on it: the fascination with celebrity, the quest for more and better methods, the impatience and desire for easy answers, the need for being comforted rather than challenged. Buddhism used to be a challenging and difficult path, “against the stream.” Now it is merely one of many in the American lineage of positive thinking and personal success. Where it used to deal with “the great matter”, questions of suffering, and life and death, it can now help you be healthy and skinny and rich and happy. “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, I’m Buddhist enough, and doggone it people like me!”

There are more Buddhist books published every day. But how many add anything to our real understanding? There are Buddhist magazines that are nearly Dharma porn, with celebrity interviews, glossy pictures, fancy ads for the right mala or pants—a cross between a Buddhist “People” and a Buddhist “Playboy.” There was the recent film on the life of the Buddha on public television, which had much to offer, but did so with the bias of using celebrity authors and actors to teach us. We watch movies and tv and see other more attractive people living more interesting lives than we do. Now we can also see people more successful and yes, also more attractive, leading more enlightened lives than we do. It relieves us of the effort of having to take any steps ourselves. And sells us the idea that we can be happy and fulfilled through them at our leisure. It’s a long way from Buddha’s last words: “All conditioned things are impermanent. Work ceaselessly for your salvation.”

Maybe I am just a cranky old guy after all…but I still liked Buddhism before it was cool.