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Sunday Lecture: status games in conversation, hard-wired, power, humor, reversal of status, Marx Bros, Don Rickles, court fools, Dr Zhivago, improv. changing of roles, status of a church, hitting the han, value forms, getting put on the spot, koan - Chao Chou's stupid oaf, koan - nothing better than an absence of goodness, opening and closing of the sense of self, poem - Gymborska

AI Summary: 



I vow to taste the truth of the Tathāgata's words. Good morning and season's greetings. I almost stumbled coming up here. Which is very fitting because today I was thinking about talking about status.


Status. Our status. And what a shaky and sensitive subject that is to our ego. Of course, status, I think the definition of status is associated with the definition of state. A state, a condition of a person or a place, a thing in relationship to other people, places and things. So of course we have a personal status, and there's a status of our families, and the status of our jobs, and the status of our various positions in the world, the status of our country, the status of the world.


A state of being, a mode of being in the midst of ever-changing conditions. Our legal status, our financial status. Of course, we're all familiar with that, but what I want to really talk about, or explore, or trace out some of the vagaries of this subject today is our psychological status. If you've ever listened to conversations, if you've paid close attention to the way we talk to one another, you'll notice that we're always, almost always, playing status games.


There are really only two positions in a status game, a one-up and a one-down. I'm better than, or this story I'm telling you has more emphasis and is more important, or is less important than what you are saying. For example, four young men were sitting around not so long ago talking about that old TV show Bonanza. Remember that one? And one of them said, I saw every one of those, I never missed a one. They talked a little bit about that, and then the next person said, I bet you can't name the four actors who were in that. They played with that for a while, and somebody could finally name the actors who were in that particular show. The third person said, I don't watch that junk. The fourth one said, you know something?


I once watched the automobile of the star of that show. This is something you'll find yourself, oneself, doing all the time. I was down in, having lunch down at Jenny Lowell's Chinese restaurant here in Mill Valley not so long ago with Arlene, and there were a couple of women sitting at another table, and they were one-upping or one-downing each other's status in terms of their physical condition. They were old people, and one was saying, well, you know, I went to my doctor and he did such and thus to me. Well, do you know what the doctor did to John or what John's condition is? And so they kept adding to and subtracting from each one another's stories. Now this is a common thing we do, but we're not even aware of it.


Most of the time we're not aware of this. The status games that we play in our work, the status games that we play in institutions, whether they be institutions of confinement like jails and prisons, or whether they're institutions of public services or companies or even our monasteries, we are always engaged in the one-up or the one-down game. We're actually kind of, not kind of, but perhaps perfectly hard-wired to do so. Except, as I said before, we're not so conscious of it. Now the thing that we can say about status, the word that comes up to me around status is the word power, because power is inherent in our status. And because our status is constantly changing, the power of relationships,


the power inherent in our relationships is constantly shifting, as it is in our conversations from moment to moment. And thus, status is also the very basis of humor. Humor is usually based, broad humor is usually based on the fall from status, the fall from power, what I would call the banana peel syndrome. If you watch pictures by comics, I think what comes to mind are those broad comedians like the Marx Brothers, for example, who are always deflating high-status games. And one can also think of people like Don Rickles, for whom always deflating somebody's ego becomes the modus operandi of his particular way of comedic control and action.


We know that in the days of court life that the kings always kept a fool nearby, so that the king or the queen's pomp, and the deference that was paid to that pomp and power was at least subject, as far as the fool was concerned, to some deflation. If you think of some of the scenes in movies, as I was thinking about this subject, I was thinking of different movies that I had seen. One movie that came to mind was the movie years ago, Dr. Zhivago. Maybe you remember seeing that. But the scene that stuck in my mind was a scene that illustrates this point. In this particular scene, the country is on the verge of revolution.


In fact, a whole large part of the army is breaking up and is going over to the revolutionaries, to the red side from the white. And the officer got up on a, I think it was a barrel, got up on top of a barrel and was exhorting the troops, and very eloquently and very powerfully, not to be swayed by the urge to overcome authority, but to, as good soldiers, to continue to practice for the Tsar. And as he's doing this and shaking his fists, the top of the barrel bursts, breaks from under it and he falls. And at that moment, because he literally lost his stature or status, he lost his position and all of these troops, of course, broke loose and massacred, and the massacre begins. And in such little moments, in such things as that, our life turns,


the history of the world turns, in fact. I'm trying to think of another case in which a man who had been much maligned and denigrated for, maybe misunderstood for his actions, comes out on a stage. I don't remember the name of this particular movie, but the scene came to mind again. And as he stands there, everybody throws something at him, like garbage and old vegetables, eggs and so on, but he stands and takes it. He just keeps landing on it. He stands perfectly still until, little by little, the insults and the physical garbage and so on that is being thrown at him decreases until that, finally, silence descends over the entire scene. And he regains the moment to explain to the people and their arrangement what has actually happened from his point of view.


And again, another incident just came to mind as I'm even saying this, in a book I just read about an artist, a well-known artist, who went to a lover's house, and the child of this particular woman was enraged to see him in the space of the child's natural father, usually occupied, and came at the artist with both fists flying, a little boy, around the age of four, maybe. And he just allowed it to happen. He said, Empathize, don't criticize. And again, by not reacting to his status as a father or as a lover or as a grown-up in that particular situation, by relinquishing his power, in a sense, at that moment at least, under those conditions, he regained the inherent dignity of the scene


and the friendship of the child. Now, there's a theater game that we can play, actually, and if you have ever worked in improv in a theater, maybe you've played it. It's actually called high status, low status. For example, you have two actors, and you'll say to one, you play the queen, and Eileen, you play the part of the servant. And you can just improv it, but play it out. And so the servant will come before the queen and say something, and the queen will play the high status, like, do this and do that, and the other person is obsequious, and so forth. Now, change the situation in which you, still the queen, play low status, and you play high status as the servant. And again, you play the scene.


What's interesting when you play this game is that some of us, at least some of the time, find out that we cannot play one or the other roles. Maybe we're always used to playing high status, in which we're always in command, and maybe that is to say we like to stand out. We like to be in command. Others of us play a low status role. We like to be more behind the scenes. We like to whisper into the ear of power, rather than being out in front. In a sense, we like to be more modest and retreat. By playing this game back and forth, we can begin to determine or begin to feel exactly what is more carefully, or exactly what our modus operandi in such a situation is. You could play it comically. This person is the king, and this person is the queen, or this person is the servant, and the king can play very low status.


The servant can come up and say, All right, hang me. I don't care. Here my neck is. The king says, I'm really sorry. It's going to hurt you more than me. I don't mean to hurt you, but I am the king. Stop your crying if you are the king, and so forth. You can play these scenes out. You can even do this at home. Try it sometimes. The next time you get in a fight with your lover, mate, child, and so on, notice who's playing high status and low status, and how you can shift from high status to low status in the midst of the conditions as they arise. Once we were doing an improv down here at Yvonne Rand's house,


and Keith Johnstone, I don't know if some of you have ever heard of Keith Johnstone. Keith Johnstone is a well-known improv director. He set up this scene in which he whispered a mantra into the ear. No, I'm sorry. He first set up this scene. The scene was, there's a man and a woman. The man is sitting and the woman is standing. He says to the guy, to the person playing the part, he said, you say to the man, I think I'm going to sit up for a while, and you as the woman say, well, I'm going to turn in. Just do that. So they ran those two lines. And then he whispered into the ear of both of those people. And the mantra was either I hate you or I love you. Now run that mantra in your head. I hate you, I hate you, or I love you, or I love you, or I love you. Now do the scene again, but when the man gets to the door,


turn and say something. I'm not going to tell you what to say. Turn and say something to her or him as the woman. And you as the man waiting by the fire answer with a very short, make it very short and brief. Okay, play the scene. So they sat there for a long time. She stood there for a long time looking down at him. And he kind of had a half smile on his face looking at the water. And then he says, I think I'm going to stay up for a while. Well, I think I'm going to turn in. And then she walks over to the edge of the room and then she turns and says, oh, by the way, I know about Sally. And he sits there for a second and he says, tough. I mean, at that moment, because the mantra both of them had was I hate you. He played it from that aspect. It was very interesting to see whatever mantra, whatever feeling,


whatever psychological state we're in, how much we want to win, how much we want to win over the other that charges up our language and our exchanges with one another, particularly in tense situations and heated situations. Now, another interesting aspect about status from an institutional and religious point of view is the status that a church has in a society. Because it's a kind of paradox at work. Churches in general, if they're establishment churches, whether they're Buddhist or Christian or Muslim or whatever, enjoy in society, for the most part, a high status position. However, the high status position, at least in a lot of the religious


traditions, is to take a low status position. In other words, humility, modesty, those virtues of humbleness, and to play those roles, to play the role of having been a prelate or a Zen teacher in which so much power is conferred upon either the church or the person in charge, in whom power has been given, how that person can handle the role. One thinks of the Dalai Lama, for example, who has a very strong power position in the world, but who comes from a place of very humble and a very sincerely simple position.


But at the same time, does not weaken his position by kind of an overweening meekness or by abdicating the responsibilities of that position. And this is something you'll find as a parent, it's something we find we're doing as bosses in our jobs and so forth, all the time with one another. What happens to the status of a moment when there's silence? Once one of the teachers came in here and simply sat down on a Sunday morning like this and sat for ten minutes, fifteen minutes,


what was it, twenty minutes, Charlie? Something like that, until somebody threw a Zafu up on stage. The thing is we feel that we have to fill each moment, to feel what our status and our position and our identity is, because you can't think of status, our status, our position, without thinking of or without feeling what our identity is. So, I remember when I came here, here's another little anecdote, some of you have heard this of course, when I first came here a little over twenty years ago, through a practice period, one of the things I was looking forward to doing was playing with what we call the toys or the bells, the big block of wood outside called the Han, that you have heard being hit for a fifteen minute Han to draw people to the Zindo.


We were in the practice period, it was a small practice period at that time, maybe ten of us, and we were all doing these positions and learning how to do them, and I could not, I was looking forward to my evening Zazendo in which I could hit the Han. But, about one minute before the Han started and I came down the stairs to go outside, it was in front of the Wheelwright Center in those days, somebody else was hitting it, striking it. Well, I rushed over and I said, you're hitting my Han. I said, I'm supposed to be doing that. And the practice leader at that time, a rather eccentric fellow, looked at me like this, and he says, well you're not, now are you? Now, what I learned in that moment was that the indignation,


the near anger, not rage exactly, but anger, the humiliation and so on, all of the negative emotions that were arising, were not arising about something that had lasting consequences in our economy or even in my personal economy, it had nothing to do with the political situation in the world that I had raged at with the same feelings exactly. It had to do with hitting one piece of wood with another piece of wood. A little, a small thing, you see, a very small thing. And yet all the emotions were evoked by that, hitting my Han, my bell. And then I began to realize that the value of having forms in our Buddhist monastic practice was precisely for this reason. That it's not a category, how we bow, how we enter a room, how we sit down and fold our robes, how we pick up a teacup with two hands.


The attention that is paid to the forms, the particular forms of doing anything, however small or large, how we brush our teeth, how we drive our car, the day-to-day activities, the rituals around us, brought to the fore, brought to consciousness, the sense of form and the sense in which the ego, the status of the ego is involved. Particularly, of course, when we're doing it with other people in a formal situation. So the forms that we do here, the forms that we do here, meaning in our day-to-day practice in this particular room and environs, Soto Zen practice, actually a lot of those forms have come down from court life. In the court life of the East, as in the court life of the West, forms were developed so that each person knew his or her place


in any given situation. How you approach the king, how you approach the queen, how you defer in this situation, how you express yourself in a situation where you have some authority, the degree of style in which you do that, the degree of detachment with which you're able to do that without clinging to your ego, was constantly brought up, when it was appropriated by our practice, was constantly brought up over and over and over so we could feel this contraction that we call ego. And if anybody has ever practiced with these instruments here, for example, the way we do the bells, and so on, you soon learn how deeply involved our sense of face, our sense of status is, and how they are done if we make mistakes. Because it's not a category of experiences like driving a car,


or taking a driving test, as I've said to people before. If you fail that, if you make a mistake in your driving test, you could have some serious consequences to your health and other people's health, or to property. Here, if you make a mistake on the bell, if you hit, you know, once I tried to hit the bell and I missed it altogether. Boom. It was dark. And my sight was not so good. Or the time that one of us, instead of doing the bells nine times for the bows, continued to do it until 18 or 20 bows went on, and finally the reb, I think it was, finally said, maybe we can go on with the service now. The blood rushes to your face. You're feeling this sense of being on the spot. So practice actually is, the forms of practice are actually to bring the sense of our status from moment to moment, put us on the spot. There's a famous koan here.


Well, I don't know how famous it is. Maybe you've never heard of it. But in the Blue Cliff Record, the Hikigaroku, which is, you know, one of the seminal Zen, particularly Renzai Zen koans or public cases that were compiled in the 9th, 10th, 11th centuries. In fact, most koans, if you study the koans or the public cases that have come down to us, it has something to do with our sense of status. In fact, we even, in some of our chanting in the morning, say that enlightenment can be brought about by a fist, a banner, a finger, a slap, a shout, and so forth. This one is called Zhaozhou's Stupid Oaf. Zhaozhou's Stupid Oaf. This is the case. A monk asked Zhaozhou,


the way or the ultimate path has no difficulties, just avoid picking and choosing. What is not picking and choosing? Zhaozhou said, in the heavens and on the earth, I alone am the honored one. The monk said, that's still picking and choosing. Zhaozhou said, stupid oaf, where is the picking and choosing? The monk was speechless. Now, the ultimate path or the way has no difficulties, avoid picking and choosing is from a famous Zen, not a sutra, but a writing by the third patriarch of Chinese Zen, called the Xing Xing Ming. The way of the heart, the way of faith in the heart,


the way of the faith in our Buddha nature. And the opening line of that is, the way is not difficult for those who have no preferences. And Zhaozhou answers with a famous line that comes from the sutras that when the Buddha at a point said, when he was, I think a baby, wasn't it when he was a baby? Take seven steps. He raises his finger, one finger up and one finger down, and says, above the earth and below the heavens, I alone am the world honored one. So, the ultimate path has no difficulties, just avoid picking and choosing. What is not picking and choosing? Zhaozhou said, in the heavens and on the earth, I alone am the world honored one. The monk said, that's still picking and choosing. Zhaozhou said, stupid oaf, where's the picking and choosing? The monk was speechless. Now, I'm not going to talk about this, but consider the force of language.


Consider the force of words on our sense of status. Consider the desire that we have to step out of the force of language that it imposes on us in our view of ourselves and others. And, it says here, and I could read this to you a little bit, the monk questioned Zhaozhou about the saying, the ultimate path has no difficulties, just avoid picking and choosing. The third patriarch's inscription of the believing heart, that's this thing he's talking about, starts off directly with these lines, there are quite a few people who misunderstand. How so? According to them, the ultimate path is fundamentally without difficulties, but also without anything that's not difficult. It's just that it's only adverse to picking and choosing, if, if, if, you understand in this fashion, in 10,000 years, you won't even see it in your dreams.


If you try to understand this koan by simply thinking about not choosing, giving up choosing, having preferences and so on, and you think this is what that koan is about in 10,000 years, you will not understand what it's about. So, in some sense, you have to realize that we're practicing here in a way that has to transcend the power that words have upon us. And is there an us without the language? What is that us that is not reacting to the force of the descriptions and the explanations that we have about who we think we are? Another famous koan in the same vein that comes to mind is one in which a monk comes to his teacher, trying to think who it was, but it doesn't matter at the moment. But apparently a monk that had been practicing for years


and had been diligently applying himself to this struggle of trying to release the ego, or the clinging to the separate self sense. And he says to the teacher, I've had my head shaved, and I've taken on the robes and the precepts. Why am I not considered a Buddha? Now, we don't know why he said, why I'm not considered a Buddha. Maybe because the teacher had been giving him a hard time. Why am I not considered a Buddha? The teacher said, ah, there's nothing better than an absence of goodness. There's nothing better than an absence of goodness. Now, when you hear such a line, you may think, you may take it literally, thinking that you'll find your mind is falling on one side or the other of these questions. But obviously, what these koans are trying to do, are trying to alert us to, is our tendency, our ever-present tendency,


the inevitable tendency we have to constantly feel the force of experience either opening us up, because it is inflating our sense of self, or collapsing that sense of self. And what practice is about, is going to be willing to go through this opening and closing almost endlessly, with the teacher, with the forms, with the way of life. The world is doing that to us anyway. It's just that when we use the forms in such a way as to bring it forward into our consciousness, a kind of, you might say, speeded-up trip, a kind of speeded-up way of understanding ourselves, a kind of condensed way of practicing with this ever-present sense of inflation or contraction of ego and status. We become acutely and painfully aware of our sensibility


around this question. And the willingness to continue to do it, the willingness to continue to come in front of the teacher, whether that teacher is the world at large, or is concentrated in a person who has more experience around this question than oneself, so that we can feel that exquisite sensitivity, and still say, you stupid oaf, and still not be distracted by or away from our original nature. The freedom that we have over, the original freedom that we have before any of this becomes into play. The last time I talked about status was years ago in Tassajara. And the day after I talked about it, maybe because I was unskillful in using certain examples closer at hand,


many people came to me to complain that such a talk was not helpful. And I've often been curious about that reaction, because I should think that listening to one's conversation and how we play the one-up and the one-down game back and forth should be a way of actually arousing our bodhicitta, our desire to become free of our self-clinging. And of course there's a whole sense of poetry and kind of a social practice in the world in which, for example, in certain cultures, what do you call it, kind of like slamming or wrapping one another, kind of denigrating the other person, kind of getting one-up. It's a whole game. But when you play it as a whole game, it becomes gamemanship.


It's brought forward as gamemanship, and then people can laugh and enjoy it. A monk came to another monk and said, My name is Joe, which was the other man's name, let's say. And the other guy said, Well, no, that's my name, but if you're Joe, then I'm Tom, or Dick or Harry. And according to the koan, at which point they both laughed uproariously, because what is in a name is everything. If you usurp somebody's name, if you take somebody's name away, what's left to us? What's in a name? Everything is in a name. The power that we have is in our name and how we name one another. But these monks were playing with their names. That's my name. Well, then I'll take your name. In other words, I'll take your power. I'll take your position. But instead of going to war over it, they laughed uproariously. In other words, the sense of the individual's uniqueness


in the social milieu or the social conditioning is always a struggle. How much we yield to the common denominator or to the common good, to the demands that society places on it, to the degree that we can keep our own sense of self and integrity. What is that line? What is that balance? That's what our practice is about. Always feeling that. How much we can give, how much we can take back, how much we are attached to the different positions and postures that we assume. And there's a wonderful poem here I wanted to share with you before I get off this platform, by Ustala Zimborska,


the famous Nobel priest, poet, woman, Polish woman. And it's called, No End of Fun. No End of Fun. Now she uses he, but the gender is not so important, I think, here. So he's got to have happiness. He's got to have truth, too. He's got to have eternity. Did you ever? He has only just learned to tell dreams from waking, only just realized that he is he, only just whittled with his hand a flint, a rocket ship, easily drowned in the ocean's teaspoon, not even funny enough to tickle the void, sees only with his eyes, hears only with his ears, his speech personal best is the conditioned, he uses his reason to pick holes in reason.


In short, he's next to no one, but his head's full of freedom, omniscience, and the being beyond his foolish meat. Did you ever? For he does apparently exist. He genuinely came to be beneath one of the more parochial stars. He genuinely came to be beneath one of the more parochial stars. He's lively and quite active in his fashion. His capacity for wonder is well advanced for a crystal's deviant descendant. And considering his difficult childhood spent kowtowing to the herd's needs, he's already quite an individual indeed. Did you ever? Carry on then, if only for the moment, that it takes a tiny galaxy to blink. Carry on then, if only for the moment, that it takes a galaxy time to blink. One wonders what will become of him since he does in fact seem to be,


and as far as being goes, he really tries, he really tries quite hard, quite hard indeed, one must admit. That, sorry, quite hard indeed, one must admit, with that ring in his nose, with that toga, that sweater, that sweatshirt. He's no end of fun for all you say. Poor little beggar. A human, if ever we saw one. Thank you.