Back in the ancient days of leaded gasoline, there were a number of cars that elicited a raised eyebrow, a shake of the head, and the mutter of “What was Dad thinking?” when certain cars showed up in the family driveway. This reaction didn’t happen only in the United States, world-wide there were more models to weep about. For every East German Trabant or Soviet Lada, there were the American Pinto, Vega, Aires K, and maybe the tartest lemon on the lot, the Edsel. It didn’t belch smoke, it didn’t explode, it didn’t flip at the suggestion of a curve, it was just...an Edsel. The name Edsel has entered the lexicon as vehicular Kleenex, a generic term for a failed car first, and ever after, something that just didn’t work out the way it was planned. So far as transportation goes, it was a Lesser Vehicle.
The Mahāyāna (Great Vehicle) schools of Buddhism hold the Bodhisattva in great reverence. Historically, the Bodhisattva postpones entry into Nirvana for countless rebirths until all beings are saved; while the personal quest of becoming an Arhat so as to achieve nirvana and no further rebirths is paramount. The Edsel wasn’t even going to enter the stream, let alone provide some transportation to the other side of the river or Nirvana.
Ostensibly Zen, being Mahāyāna, would be up to its collective ears with Bodhisattvas, a downright a glut of Bodhisattvas. There’d be so many that it would be a Great Cosmic, “After you...No, after you...Oh no, no, no, I couldn’t possibly go first, after you.” What I’ve seen however, is that the Bodhisattva ideal is sometimes met with a collective “Meh,” rather than going through the gate and joining in the glut. Maybe it’s because it’s very easy to be exposed equally to traditional teachings as it is to Mahāyāna or Zen teachings, maybe it’s the lack of strict Zen teaching, or as likely a shotgun approach where there is no teacher at all to provide direction.
Lest you think this piece is denigrating any of the school’s thought of as Hinayana, I’m actually more concerned with Zennists/Mahayanists who deep down really only care about their own salvation/Enlightenment. We often focus too much on the shiny new Edsel of Enlightenment rather than the Bodhisattva Vow to save all beings. In Zen, Enlightenment is by and large an afterthought. There’s a lot of beings to be saved in “all,” and the assembly line of doing so can be a rather long one. Then someone comes along and says, “Oh by the way, there are no Edsels/beings to be built/saved, and no one to do the building/saving,” and that the assembly line has been an illusion all along. Then someone else says that Edsels are Mercedes.
“Sudden vs Gradual” or “Just Sitting” vs Koans vs Huatou practice happen every now and then in “Zen” discussions, but it’s it’s not unlikely that debating the Four Noble Truths and the Three Dharma Seals rather than some Zen-specific subjects come into play. In this Short Attention Span Theater era, sometimes we take what we can get, and hope a seed is planted, and that may serve some purpose, unlike the Lesser Vehicle, the Edsel. Every now and then something might come out skillfully, the teacher sensing the capacity of the student and teaching in a way that’s fitting for the student’s capacity to understand, unlike the Edsel, whose virtues virtually no one could understand. It may not be Perfect, but at least it gives the idea of what a teaching is.
The Edsel must have seemed like a really good idea at the time. Henry Ford even named the car after his son. But whatever it was, despite it not exploding or flipping over, and even having some innovative features, it failed within three years as an automobile line. It just didn’t match the needs of the car-buyer, and it wasn’t rolled out skillfully. There was a lot of hype, a lot of mystery, just awaiting a collective “Oooh” and “Ahhh,” in the way that talking about Enlightenment gets Oooh’ed and Ahhh’ed over.
All too often we’ll hear phrases like, “Before enlightenment, carry wood chop water, after enlightenment, carry wood, chop water.” Like Kleenex or Edsel, these are empty words, dead words (I even phrased them backwards, just to see if you were paying attention. In a mid-century version, it might have been “Before Enlightenment, go to work, sell no Edsels, after Enlightenment, go to work, sell no Edsels.”
Regardless, not settling for the Lesser Vehicle of Edsel Enlightenment, we work toward the Greater Vehicle of saving all beings. We let someone into our lane of traffic, even when they don’t signal beforehand. We don’t take up two spaces in the parking lot. We help the guy on the line who’s installing the brake drums, we make sure the lift doesn’t crash down on the guy installing the oil pan.
So is Enlightenment a Mercedes, an Edsel, both, or neither? Is it the mundane world, our assembly line of life is our daily work is daily work, it’s just what we do. whether we’re building Edsels or saving all beings? Nothing special, no Oooh or Ahhh, and maybe at the end of the day when the work is almost done, instead of a spare tire or lug wrench, you get a Transmission. Then the next day, it’s install the brake shoes, put the tires on the rims, help all beings. That makes for a Great Vehicle.