Lately I have felt like I have been living under and endless stream of clouds. Winter has certainly taken its toll. But clouds unlike the light which shines behind them, are impermanent, no matter how long they may linger. But more importantly they are deceptive, and when we look up and only see cloudy skies, we must keep looking until we see the whole truth. The Sun does not go up or down, in or out, it is always shining, always bright, always in its appropriate place in the Universe. The light is never dispelled, only hidden at times by obstructions both natural and manmade. No matter what direction we look, if our vision is big enough, wide enough, high enough, we must and we will eventually, discover the light.
“The key to the path to enlightenment lies in the seekers motivation, and a single minded devotion: apart from which, no enlightenment.”
Every year since 1985 it has been a tradition that on the first or second week of September, depending on how the calendar falls, the Monks of Pine Wind and the truly devoted gather for the annual period of Zen Training known as “Ango.” It is essential that prior to beginning, both the monastery and the “seeker” is prepared to begin. A period of reflection should precede training, wherein a conducive environment is established both within the walls of the Zendo where the monks and the truly devoted will train, and within the hearts and minds of each person.
Not too long ago I wrote, “Apart from transformation their can be no enlightenment. Apart from renunciation their can be no transformation.” Webster defines “transformation” as, “a thorough change in form, appearance, nature, or character.” (It is written that when Moses descended the Mountain, and Jesus resurrected, even those who knew them for a lifetime did not recognize them.) Spirituality was never meant to be a supplement for life but rather, a means toward a complete transformation, a kind of metamorphosis. We cannot and will not ever know the faith and freedom of the butterfly for example, unless we undergo our own metamorphosis, discarding what we have come to believe we are, in order to become who we truly are.
Every morning whenever I enter the Zendo (meditation hall) at 4:00 AM, I enter a “sacred space,” but not for the reasons that may seem obvious to some. A Zendo and a Zen Monastery for that matter is a reflection, an outer representation, of the hearts and minds of those who occupy it. While it is designed to be a place for training the mind-body toward “awakening,” and “transformation,” those in training already possess everything needed to achieve this lifetime, sometimes arduous challenge, even though they may not know it when first entering.
Zen spirituality, including meditation and mindfulness training is about what I call “creating space”. It has very little if nothing at all to do with transcending or escaping the world’s problems, stresses, and anxieties. Quite the opposite, it has everything to do with creating space or to “Hold Space” for oneself and the world, including all the stuff our ego prefers averting and avoiding. The Buddha taught that, the heart and soul of the Buddha-Way is “friendship.” Authentic Spirituality is about “making friends with ourselves, with others, and with the world,” as we; and they; and the world is, rather than some idealistic notion about the way the world should be. This does not exclude engaging in efforts toward making the world more loving or kind. For me the question surrounding our efforts is always about, “How do we best do that?”
I have spent more than half my lifetime inquiring about and observing the space I occupy and beyond. Science teaches us that the very material which makes up the known Universe can be found in a single human cell. With that I have always felt that the journey has always been one within and, if I cannot find it within me I cannot expect to find it anywhere out there. When I do find it within me, I will then find it everywhere out there.
“Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere. They’re in each other all along.”
― Jalaluddin Rumi
Several years ago I wrote an article titled “The Love which Never Dies,” it was during the worst period of my life to date. I had yet to experience then the two heart attacks and several bouts with pneumonia which would follow in the years ahead. This was a battle of the worst kind of ailment or disease possible – “A Broken Heart”. Eventually I did have those heart attacks, I did battle with pneumonia four times, and as some of you know a wrestling match recently with a virus that landed me in the hospital for a few days. I continue to fight the good fight of staying alive and well, I still know of no other battle more painful than when the heart is broken and left to make its way from the battlefield and thereafter.
Yesterday we all woke to one of those strange “climate change” effects, “Summer in February”. As I too enjoyed the day with my daughter and friends, (who had not been to my home in a very long time, a kind of “reunion” of friendship), like so many of you I was impressed by the budding of trees and the presence of daffodil’s breaking through the winter soil. Perhaps like me you thought, “How Strange, how mysterious.” Well, later that evening I would conclude it was Mystery, the greatest one of all, and it was speaking to me, to all of us. Perhaps you may have heard Its voice as well.
“A Tree gives glory to God… by being a Tree.” – Thomas Merton
Each of us are Spirit, manifestations of the One with our own signatures; Authentic Spirituality is the means by which we awaken from a lifetime of ego delusion to realize our True-Self and to manifest our own enlightenment in the world. “In setting off in search of true identity, one steps into a labyrinth, a maze, a tunnel of love, a hall of mirrors, a derelict graveyard, a long-neglected archeological site.” This “awakening” is not easy and results as a function of entering a process, a kind of “path” which takes us through a “hall of mirrors” and challenges us to confront our many false identities we have accumulated.
Authentic Spirituality, Zen is life-it’s our life, and our journey begins right where we are, with our lives exactly as it is and as it isn’t. One of the barriers presenting us from entering the path and liberating ourselves from our suffering is the myth that, “I’ll start when…”, or “I need to wait until…” There’s never going to be any more appropriate time to begin your journey than now. There are no required preconditions or circumstance, just the desire to be free and the willingness to make the journey no matter the circumstances or situations ahead. Even if you have begun and failed to continue, start again. As Jesus taught, “Pick up your cross and follow.” As the ancient masters would ask, “If not now, when?” Even if you lack the courage or the strength. You know how many people in the world are weakened by life’s challenges facing and confronting life every day. Hospitals and cities are filled with such people.
As a youth I grew close to the parents of a friend of mine from high school, we kept in touch for many years after graduation. “Mr. Fitz,” as I called him was much like (the famous 70’s sitcom character) Archie Bunker type personality with smoother edges. “Mrs. Fitz,” was indeed much like Edith Bunker, Archies wife, without pretension, beautiful, sweet, and with that quiet wisdom overshadowed by her humility. I remember one occasion when I stayed for dinner, afterwards the news with Walter Cronkite came on the television. The “Fitz’s” made it a point to sit together on the “davenport” or the sofa together, sometimes holding hands if she wasn’t knitting. At the end of the news broadcast Walter Cronkite would always say, “And that’s the way it is.”, to which Mr. Fitz would respond, “No it isn’t Walter, no it isn’t.”
“C. S. Lewis taught, if the devil were to succeed in England, he would need to wear a three-piece suit and speak with the Queen’s English, and surely never appear as a red demon with horns and a pitchfork.” This morning like most Americans I woke to the news of yesterdays current events, a practice I have limited now to approximately 3 minutes at best, only to hear the same news from the day before and days before that. Nothing much had changed. Hatred, distrust, accusations, true or false, blaming, promising, hopes, doubts, more hatred, more accusations, and more promises that have been made for decades by others who, hated, suspected, and mistrusted someone other than themselves or their party or particular group. Like the saying goes, “The more things are supposed to change, the more they stay the same.” I immediately observed my muscular skeleton retract in pain with the kind of feeling you get when you’ve tasted something that always turns your stomach. My reaction was to pick up my aging and almost near dying dog sitting near me and hold her close to me telling her, “I love you girl.” I needed to find refuge in my humanity and something that was real, my dog.
“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief…” – The Talmud
The words of The Talmud and the words of my dear friend I shared with you in my last meditation, “We are not to be absorbed by the suffering of the world…,” continue to dominate my thoughts and experience these days. When I add Chardin’s words which point to our true identity: “You are not a human being in search of a spiritual experience. You are a spiritual being immersed in a human experience.” – This is where I must always continue my journey in this temporary existence we call “life”.
What does it mean to “not be daunted” or “to not be absorbed”? Given the horror of global current events and its consequences, the uncertainty about the future which dominates all our lives, the reality of a way-of-life we all were told was a “dream” only to discover it’s really a nightmare; is it at all possible to practice these two essential teachings? And when I move from out there to right here in Shamong, NJ and even closer to home in my own heart and mind, “What’s a Monk to do?” “What can anyone do?”
“When the student is ready the teacher will appear.” I’ve thought a great deal about that and how it sounds a little like a saying that showed up in the 70’s, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” – And everyone I knew began procrastinating. The previous quote is actually a koan. Like all koans it is designed to “not make any rational sense, and are used to ‘blow the minds’ of trainee monks in order to trigger their enlightenment.” If you read it and interpret its meaning as it is, the problem with that is that after forty-one years teaching it is my experience that, “The student is never ready,” and that any lesson of any value, any lesson that is really transformative always appears as a kind of “inconvenient truth”. God knows we don’t like to be inconvenienced.
The way most of us live our lives, making choices, or committing to anything is usually a function of how we feel at the moment. If I were to do much of what I do let’s say just in the course of one day, according to how I feel, I wouldn’t accomplish much. The first thing to realize is that our “feelings” about the moment are often unreliable and have nothing to do with this present moment. They are almost 100% of the time connected to some past (unresolved issue) experience. Relying on my feelings and I would include my opinions and points-of-view, as well as the beliefs I have formed about my life, is like relying on the other person to change before I can be happy.
Certainly the student should “be ready to learn,” but what does that really mean; To “be ready” to learn? When are we “ready”? Again I have found that we are never really ever ready for those transformative lessons in life. Those lessons are either always heaped upon us at any unexpected and sudden moment or, we decide to apply what I always call “Nike Buddhism” or “Nike Zen” if you prefer: We learn to “Just do it”.
“It’s Up to You! It’s Always Been! What Do You Want?”
In his book “A Monk in The World” Wayne Teasdale makes reference to one of several versions of a story told to me many years ago. When I first heard it, it defined for me what I call “The Difference,” that one ingredient which separates novelty and authenticity. My version tells the story of an encounter between a Zen master and one of his students. The student in a rare opportunity approached the master challenging him about the notion of enlightenment. “How is it possible to be truly free?” “To live an unencumbered life, free of the mind’s distractions, worriments, and fear?” The master invites the novice to walk with him and together they enter the forest surrounding the monastery. The young person continues probing the master while he remains completely silent offering no response. They eventually arrive at one of the lakes on the property and it is then the master speaks inviting his companion to join him as he cools off in the body of the lake. No sooner they are waist deep in the lake and suddenly the master grabs the student and pushes him under the water, holding him there. You can imagine the surprise and eventually the fear rising in the novice’s body. It is almost to the moment when the student would naturally pass out and only then does his teacher lift him out of the water. Gasping and kicking, obviously angry and afraid, he screams at the teacher, “What was that about?” “How could you do that to me?” The Zen master walks to the shore with the screaming novice, shakes himself off and turns to the student saying to him, “When you truly want enlightenment as badly as you wanted your next breath, then and only then will all of your questions be answered and you will know the answers in your very body just as your body knew to choose life.”