The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling

My husband and I were glued to the screen while watching this intriguing HBO documentary.  We both belly laughed and cried.  This is a documentary directed by Judd Apatow in two parts.  What has got me writing about it, right after seeing it, is that Garry Shandling was a Buddhist.  The whole documentary was quite moving.  His handwritten diaries were projected on the screen often with Buddhist aphorisms.  I found this documentary very provocative because I too am dealing with the intersection of being a Jew and a Buddhist.

One section got my stomach roiling though.  The narrator, in general, was very positive about Buddhism and even looked up to Garry for his spiritual side and aspirations.  At one point, the documentary projected his hand-written diary notes of some of the teachings of Buddhism.  There were notes about detachment and letting go of our desires. The narrator went on, in what is a common belief about Buddhism, that this teaching of detachment caused Garry Shandling to become reclusive, unmarried and withdrawn from relationships.  This made my heart sink.  Was this true or not?  Was this a misunderstanding of the teaching?

Perhaps this is true of the early teachings of Buddhism that advocated a withdrawal from life and the wish to “never-return.”  Perhaps this was my, and many other people’s, first attraction to Buddhism and what is commonly understood as the truth about Buddhism.  My original attraction to Buddhism, as I look back now, was a grave and destructive misunderstanding.  This misunderstanding is attractive to certain wounded psychologies that need to escape from the world and to distance oneself from people.  For many years, my misunderstanding of Buddhism helped, to a certain extent, my neurosis and fear of relationships.  I really liked going to the zendo and not talking to anybody.  I really liked the Noble silence of the community after having come from a yelling and critical family.

It amused me and horrified me watching the neurotic Jew going into Zen. Like watching a Woody Allan movie.   I have come to view the Jewish neurosis as a mind that has been handed down generation after generation which has its source in thousands of years of oppression.  It’s actually quite sad that we can’t seem to heal it enough, especially after the shattering of the Jewish soul in WWII. I can’t even imagine Garry Shandling’s experience during his lawsuit when he kept telling people he was being followed.  Or he would say, how does the opposition know exactly what my strategy is?  Everyone said he was making this up until years later. The lawyer of the opposition was exposed for wiretapping and illegal research behavior.  He was not making this up!  He was not just paranoid!  Some of his friends said that he never recovered from the time around his lawsuit.  It punctured his energy and his direction.  He stopped working.

Another very common misunderstanding is the common usage in the media and advertisements of “the Zen moment.”  This “Zen moment” implies a calm, relaxed presence.  This is a Zen that is stuck or attached to quietism.  But this is not my understanding of a Zen Moment.  My understanding is quite different and much harder to achieve.  Can we acknowledge our desire system of like and dislike and then hold a larger perspective?  This mindfulness allows us to let go of our preferences even as we welcome the moment as it is.  The moment could be difficult or easy, pleasant or unpleasant, calm or harassed, but we can still see it as the mystery of life itself.  We can honor this moment as it actually is.  That’s a Zen moment to me and it does not have the same adjective like “calm” consistently attached to it.  It’s free!

I must say that Katagiri roshi, my root teacher, NEVER supported the understanding that Zen withdraws you from life or that the goal was to change the moment to “calm.”  Often in my meetings with him, he would turn me around and kick me back into my life with my family, my marriage, my work and my problems.  I never felt that he viewed Zen as an escape from life even though I did.

Mahayana Buddhism and particularly Dogen Zenji’s understanding of Mahayana Buddhism is not an escape from life.  It is particularly not suggesting that we are individual units, that stand alone and can leave the world.  To the contrary, we are interdependent beings; that can never be escaped.  Our work is to be of service to others, others as an extension of ourselves.  I laugh when I think that Zen is isolating.  The more I stayed in a sangha, the more I matured, each temple officer position was more and more about interacting with people.  Much more than I wanted.  When I ended up being a teacher, my sole job was about relationships with many, many people. Surprise!

This comment about detachment struck a wounded place in me about Buddhism.  It has been my paradox with Zen.  The very difficult understanding of detachment but not escape.  This is a difficult paradox of reframing our suffering but not being able to escape our suffering.  There was, in my case, an unconscious desire to have my spirituality make me “better” than others, or to have it revolve around my self-improvement and achievement.  How insidious the ego is!

There is a big hole in Zen teaching around emotional healing.  Though of course we can find the teaching of character and psychology in Zen i.e. the precepts, awareness of emotions, the Abhidharma, etc.  However, these teachings are not particularly emphasized and sometimes, actually ignored, in the great effort to have clarity of mind.  Much of traditional practice energy is directed towards touching the dharmakaya, the body of the Buddha that is the great openness of no-form.  This type of practice does not encourage work on the cleaning up of our karma but it advocates just letting it go which to my mind doesn’t always work.

This is my Great Complaint about Zen Buddhism.  The practice doesn’t integrate enough for me the issues of dharma and karma coming together as practice. Oddly, the place I find this integration the most is in Dogen Zenji’s teaching – who would have thought? He calls it practice-enlightenment as one word.  Dogen appears on the surface to be one of the more orthodox of the old teachers. But I find him, as I study Dogen in depth, that he actually frees me from the orthodox teaching and adherence to concepts.  He lands me in the present moment, over and over. This is why in my older life, I am leaving the Zen orthodoxy and rituals.  I am trying to find an aliveness and expression right in this moment.  How shall I respond?  How can I integrate more my Buddhist understanding with my family, with my relationships, with the present moment of life.  I don’t want to leave my life anymore.  Soon, I’m going to die.  Even more reason not to leave my one precious life.

Perhaps, Garry Shandling understood this too.  What was very impressive was how deeply he was loved by friends and comedians.  The expression of the documentary was that he mentored a whole generation of comedians and film-makers, and that his support was loving and compassionate.

One of Gary Shandling’s jokes was:  I have emptied and cleared my mind but then who do I have to blame?