Inside this new love, die. Your way begins on the other side. Become the sky. Take an axe to the prison wall. Escape. Walk out like someone suddenly born into color. Do it now. You're covered with a thick cloud. Slide out the side. Die, and be quiet. Quietness is the surest sign that you've died. Your old life was a frantic running from silence.
The speechless full moon comes out now.
(trans. Coleman Barks with John Moyne, The Essential Rumi, 1995)
I once had a teacher who was very adept at living Zen through his every manner. In fact, I became his student (in my mind, anyway) the moment I witnessed him practicing kinhin, at a memorial sesshin I happened to stumble into. He was full of that gentle grace that Japanese Buddhism is so great at portraying (think silk kimonos, and the tender blossoms of the plum tree). He also held a countenance of strict, solid determination, like the rocks that are so specifically placed in a meticulously-combed Temple garden.
Finding a teacher like this is like falling in love-- but what you are finding is what is possible with yourself, and falling in love with the hope of it. At least, it was that way for me. "I can be that too, I have that in me too" is what you think, and so down the lane you go, asking for a teacher to consider you his student, so that the love that lives within you might blossom into all that is possible.
What I did not realize then, and what has made me ache for so long since, is the simple fact that a teacher is meant to let you down-- again, and again, and again. There is no escaping the human condition; and if the conditions are just right, a teacher will show you that very plainly.
What is left for you to decide, as the student, is whether to remain with a particular lesson, or to move the lesson to another location. For me, I left a situation that I determined would get worse, given its pattern. I left in favor of finding another letting-down that would not, perhaps, get too ugly.
And what has been true of it now is that Teachers have come forth in the manner of Nature itself. It is a rough world, it is a determined world, it is a beautiful world. Learning how to make sense of it all-- in spite of the fact that such sense is not meant to be had-- remains to this moment the shell that supports and nourishes my practice.
So there was once an old Zen teacher who was very adept at letting Zen live through his bones: his fluid actions, his attentive manner, his artful grace. But in the day-to-day of his existence? Much of his life was very, very messy, and a lot of it came about because of his own fears, and confusions, and tribulations. I can't blame a guy for that, no. It is of the human condition, and it's the very thing we work so hard to understand, to triumph in spite of, in Zen.
There is a danger that lives in the practice of Zen that results from Too Much Thinking. So much of the philosophy, after all, relies on cracking the mind, so that just for one instant-- and for some, it's a longer instant than others-- a peep of Reality might shimmer in, might illustrate that this existence is much, much grander than any of us could think to imagine.
For it is quite beyond thinking-- though it does include thinking!-- and that I think is where many of us get stuck; batting about nonsense stories, to emulate the old Masters, or reprimanding each other when the real stick ought to point directly at our own selves.
When we think too much, when we get the idea that Zen is a philosophy that is meant to be cracked open, or understood, we lose the intention behind the practice of it. As I have seen it, we lose touch with the world-- with nirvana itself-- and the real knowing of our place within the web of the myriad of things that we live with, and through.
No, no, no.
There is no Zen.
There is living with a knowing that there is much beyond what can be understood, or grasped, within our very limited existence, with our very limited sensibilities. There is living with respect for those things we cannot see, or understand, through exhibiting kindness, through choosing to be as least harmful as possible, through managing one's life as though all others depended on each and every single decision one makes. For truly, that is the way of it. That is the Zen of it-- the act of this life, life into life into life.
That is including such silly mundane things as recycling, as cutting back, as not supporting agri-business and its harmful practices, and instead supporting a farmer who lives down the street. I once watched my old teacher drive a half-second down his driveway to dump wrapping paper and cardboard boxes in the trash. Never mind how he held a stick of incense-- I was incensed. Every activity counts, does it not? Not just the ones performed in a temple, or within the audience of a sangha...
Natalie Goldberg wrote a disquieting recollection of her great failure-- of her great disappointment. I'm not sure why today I write of mine... Other than wanting to plead, somehow, with all those beautiful, curious, intent Zen students out there who want to know the right way, who want to know the perfect teacher: The teacher IS you; the teacher is all things. Pay attention to your sitting, your posture, and the life you lead outside of the temple door: These acts are your teacher. Know nature for what it is-- not life for what you think it is. Be alive! Be free. Be truly, truly free.
I'll borrow again from Natalie's book: wife daughters friends this is for you satori is mistake after mistake -IKKYU
I've always had this strange sense of "inner company"-- as though my heart held within it two very oddly matched characters, one in the person of a very short zen- master- esque Japanese man, fairly long past middle age, and the other, this quite flamboyant, mouthy redhead eager to get on with the party. They like each other, s'far as I can tell, as they have since I first noticed them a number of years ago. Neither of them are "me" so to speak; I'm not nearly careful enough to be much like "Dojo-sama", and the redhead makes me blush. But they seem to sum up something within me quite nicely, in some symbolic way. Great characters in a story with a plot that I'm still searching for!
So on with the story, then.
Dogen Zenji, 13th century Zen monk made famous by his collection of Buddhist teachings, Shobogenzo, would say to students who realized his point of practice: "You have got my marrow." I've been doing a lot of Shobogenzo study these days, in an effort to connect a little more deeply with the founder of my Soto lineage. But it's ironic, I think, to spend so much time in study with another's spiritual orientation when I've quite lost sight of my own.
So, today-- with the cold firmly outside my front door, hot chocolate in my belly and the kid happily in a nap, I'll make that attempt to write my marrow.
Zen isn't really my worry. I began my sitting practice 18 years ago and have come a long way in understanding that there is nothing to understand in zen; instead, it is a matter of direct experience with reality-- and not the one propelled by my imagination. Even childbirth is easier than zazen, which is simply the practice of sitting (...though I'll admit the former is much more painful). How is it, just to sit? To experience zazen for itself, which is to say meditation, without any thought derailing you from that direct experience? It's freaking hard. And I love it.
A long time ago, I asked a little question: What is the nature of this world? And back flowed the answer: Magic! Oh, and such amazing magic, too. In the years that followed, I discovered an innate comfort and ability to plug in, ask, direct and affect change. It was brilliant; I had no idea this world was so...malleable.
But, it got boring.
Not that I advanced to any high levels of magick or however you would want to say it. Rather, I saw that one could go on and on and on like this, ad infinitum. Sort of like that scene in Sleeping Beauty, where the 3 fairy godmothers can't agree on the color of Briar Rose's dress-- and so they fight and as she's dancing, the princess turns and turns between 3 different colors. On and on and on we go, and no matter what spell is cast or incantation chanted, there's still suffering, heartache, the whole lot of human existence.
So, I asked a second question: What is the nature of magic?
And on that day, a copy of Alan Watts' Way of Zen landed at my feet-- literally, as it had fallen from a shelf in the used bookstore where I worked at school. And so back to the first paragraph: with nothing to achieve but seeing my mind and thoughts within for what it really is, I let go and let the gown turn from pink to blue to green again-- no worries.
So then, what the heck am I doing here? Wasn't I "done" with magic? A Zen teacher asked me once-- why was I wasting my time with the "heathen" gods of our redneck ancestors, when Shiva is so much more interesting? Ah, me. I didn't have the heart to tell him how closely related those gods actually may be...
Yet it seems I have asked another question of this lovely existence, and perhaps that was, What is the nature of Zen? As Master Dogen describes it, it is the myriad of things, of all existence, reaching a state of realization through you. And to get to a place where I can really experience that? For me, this involves a careful, inner study of relationship. For who are we but our relationships? Not just in those quiet moments of zazen, but when all of life raises a collective hand and says, "look at me!!" as I relate to mother, friend, sibling, journalist, blogger...and déithe.
Who are the déithe?
I am somewhat relieved to see in other friends' posts that this is one of those healthy questions that keeps one's faith alive and engaged-- I've seen it in beginner's notebooks, as well as in the works of those who have been practicing polytheism for a long time. It's an answerless question, and like a koan if you think you know the answer, well then... you clearly are thinking too much!
For the answer doesn't rely on thought, does it? They are who they are, and what they are, and their existence goes on and on, no matter what we think they might be. The irony here is that we cannot know them without asking the question, and not-getting-an-answer.
I wrote to another friend who is asking a similar question these days that I had such a powerful, unshakable interaction with Brigid once, and since then the question has been foremost in my mind: Who are the déithe? And what is our relationship? What is the proper way to relate, what is the proper way to understand? I'm chewing on this and experimenting with relating, hoping to find an answer where somehow I understand, there is none really to be found...
I read a post that one person understood them to be nature incarnate; I suppose that understanding is most relevant to my own, unorganized though mine may be at the moment. But it's even more than that. When I see it in my mind-- I'm a more visual person-- my sense is of a deep well, no root, spiraling very deep down & down & down, into the earth and into every single ancestor. It's frightening, how much history this world holds, and every "world"; powerful and unimaginable. And here I am, hugging the tree so to speak, hoping to come to know it.
That is what I think of when I think of Brigid: the ancestry of this Earth that involves every cell in my body, and how it relates to the Earth and Sea and Sky-- the realms we can see and have an intimate familiarity with, and those we cannot ever hope to truly know, for their knowing is for eyes beyond the ones we carry in our heads. And yet, we are not separate; we are totally related, connected, and without a doubt in my mind, inseparable. As the Zen saying goes, "not one, not two".
Does honoring the déithe conflict at all with my practice as a Zen priest?
I think that rather sounds similar to, "does calling your parents conflict at all with your practice as a Zen priest?" (Er, that may be a bad example, for a phone conversation of any length with either of those folks often leads me to breaking one precept or other...) No, Zen is like a very big cup that can hold all the tea in the world without spilling it. If I were to get the big idea that I need to achieve godhood, well, that would be problematic, sure. But then I'll bet that's problematic according to the practices of honoring those gods, isn't it?
Naw. To me, the surest route to understanding who I am and where I am from involves the déithe for the simple fact that (big inhalation...) these are the heart-heros of my grandmother's grandmother's grandmother's and all my grandmothers into that great stream of an umbilical cord into history, which would be into Eire, and by my experience, down a well and into the sweet Earth itself. And I don't know nearly enough about my grandmother, or her mother, or the one before her, or the one who brought her into life, and the one before that, and so on; and so I ask, who are the déithe?
I wish, though, that I had a daily practice of it. I read of other friends living far-away who say things like, "oh I include that in my daily devotionals..." erp. My daily devotional involves a coffee mug, grouching at my husband and shuffling through a cold house trying to find a sunny spot so I can check the latest on the internet.
So I am learning, learning the proper way to balance fire and water, to say thank you, and please; and learning, one hopes, to find time to include all of that on a regular basis.
Oisin G'Dea's mama, wife of an Ruaphok Gaiscíoch; lover of the creative life, nomadship and stewardship; zen priest, gardener, artist, writer, herb-crafter, counselor and dreamer... I've lived in the inspiring high-desert, mountain-punctuated New Mexico & Colorado ~ misty redwood-coated coastlines of Northern California ~ strangely elegant riversides in Southern Maryland ~ snowy, busy Greater Boston ~ lovely and welcoming Hilltown Massachussetts.