Today at work a very talented tattooer that Cara and I will be sharing a booth with in next months Baltimore tattoo convention came to visit us. In the past year or so we have become friends with J and it’s always nice when you can say that about a local tattooer, far too often we (as in “we tattooers”) see everyone else in town as the competition, as potential enemies at the worst or as someone to compare ourselves to at best. The longer ive been doing this for a living the more I appreciate that in some way each every person “pushing the pins” has a role to play in our chosen field. It’s certainly more productive to consider all these other tattooers my colleagues than it is to consider them my foes. Which brings me to my next point.
This artist who visited our shop today works with another artist who I apparently was extremely rude to in the past. I used to be the typical mediocre tattoo guy who was so insecure that anytime some other person would come in and talk about learning (or wanting to learn) to tattoo I would gruffly dismiss them and their dream, regaling them with stories of how hard it is, how difficult they would find it, and how there was already “too many of us in this town already.” This was years before I became a Buddhist and years before I felt any sort of confidence in my own abilities, the result was a whole lot of tough guy bluster and a whole lot of hoping that folks didn’t notice how poorly I actually tattooed. So I was embarrassed to hear that now that this artist still has some hurt feelings over the matter, she has since gone on to become a very good artist (and in far less time than it took me to be even passable). As I talked with J today he mentioned that one point he too had come into the shop selling his first set of flash and talking about his dreams of being a tattoo artist, and , you guessed it, apparently I was a douchbag to him as well. Of course the irony is that not only have both people gone on to become really talented (through years of hard work) but that both remember at a pivotal moment in their tattooing careers that I was an asshole to them.
I d0 feel guilty about this and I certainly wouldn’t approach the conversation in the same way today (even if I believed the same things, I have learned better ways to say it). Im not losing sleep over it or anything, but i do believe that everything has a lesson in it. In this case the lesson I have drawn from it is that some thing I had done in an off the cuff manner, something I have no recollection of, has had ripples that at least these two fine folks remember. I’m not suggesting that they are traumatized by it but it has made an impact to the point that they remember it while it is long gone from my memories. That is not an inconsequential thing to consider. We all bear scars in our memories of childhood, of school, of important moments when our lives were altered by another even if it is only the slightest bit. Being one of the few creatures with a conception of the past has down sides as well as numerous upsides and one of these is that we don’t just remember the past, we relive it.
It’s a good reason to be a little more careful with how we treat other people.
When people begin studying Buddhism they often stumble on the idea of Karma. Everything else seems to logical and straight forward in Zen and yet here are all these otherwise level-headed Zen masters asking us to be aware of something that sounds like magic. I sure did and the cause of my confusion is, like everyone, I had my own ideas of what words mean and to me karma meant some magical hand of justice punishing people (sometimes in another life, but we’ll get to reincarnation in a different long ass blog) for their sins in the past. The more I did Zazen though the more I began to realize that all the ideas I had in that sentence were based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how the world works. I didn’t need to believe in a magical force because the results of Karma happen naturally, as naturally as the fact of you pushing a ball makes it roll. In this case I realized that 1)I had hurt some folks back when and it has caused 2)me to feel bad about it when I learned that it had made them feel bad. There it is, Karma right there with no magic or outside force necessary.
So, you might ask, if Buddhists don’t really believe in a past or future then why do I feel bad for something that happened in a mythical past? In other words, if Im so buddhisty then why can’t I just say to myself “all that old stuff is just an illusion and doesnt matter”? It would be nice, but I can’t because all that bad stuff from the past is happening right now.
Just kidding, I wont try to dodge the hard stuff that easily.
What I mean when I say its happening right now is because each moment contains all the past and all the future right in it. It sounds weird but all this is occurring countless of times per second, the universe is formed and destroyed over and over and we live each moment as a moment. Dogen once used the example of firewood. Firewood is just firewood, he said, it isn’t a tree anymore, and it isn’t ash yet either, however it does contain both “being a tree” and “being ash” in it. So even though I’m the guy who isnt-a-dick-to-beginning-tattooers anymore, I still have that guy-who-is-a-dick-to-beginning–tattooers in me. I’m both at the same time even though one happened “a long time ago”. Yes its as confusing as it reads but if you do something to help you live in this moment a little more (like say, Zazen) it begins to make more sense than the commonsense notion of existence does.
Think of it like a piece of movie film, each individual frame is just a picture, a still life of a scene. If you were to run film, through a projector at 4 frames per second it wouldn’t look like a movie, it would look like a very confusing series of flickering stills and you would also see the black lines between frames. But if you speed that up to 24 frames per second all the sudden it looks like continuous motion. Our eyes , it turns out, don’t work in one continuous stream, rather they take a whole bunch of pictures per second, in fact it takes less than 24 pictures per second or else it film wouldn’t look like it was in motion, get it? Once you get up to a high enough series of flashing frames the effect is of continuous, flicker free motion even though the reality of film is that it is always just a series of still images. Life occurs in moments, each one unique and complete in and of itself.Its one of the many things that seem like a contradiction in Buddhism but that in reality works without needing us to “understand it” with our brains, intuition is the proper tool for that job in this case.
Whatever action we make contains its results already within it. It’s why no one ever really “gets away with it” and why Karma doesn’t require a guy on a throne with lightning bolts in his hand. If you kick a dog the seeds of that dog biting your leg in return are already within that action, if you treat people poorly then the fallout from that is in your action as well. The interesting thing is that the more deluded we are the longer the effect seems to take, we don’t perceive it because we are acting under the ignorance of rule of cause and effect, the more you sit with it however the less and less lag you see between acting and its fruits. Theres a reason Zen masters don’t go around kicking dogs and stealing porno mags from the corner store and it isn’t because they are “nice guys” (though they may indeed be nice, that’s incidental) once you become aware of karma and its inevitable-ness it just doesn’t make sense from a self-preservation standpoint to keep setting yourself up to get run over by Karma (my karma ran over my dogma. . .. har har).
So yes, the past is an illusion, and I’m paying for it now.