This post is just to let you know that we have a new website at www.itsalivezen.org
I’ll be deactivating this website at the end of the month.
Come on over to the new site. There is new content and things.
This post is just to let you know that we have a new website at www.itsalivezen.org
I’ll be deactivating this website at the end of the month.
Come on over to the new site. There is new content and things.
Yunmen said, “An old buddha and a pillar embrace. What number is that?”
He himself answered, “It rises as clouds on South Mountain, it falls as rain on North Mountain.”
(Case 83, Blue Cliff Record)
Shishuang asked, “How do you step from the top of a hundred-foot pole?”
(Case 46, The Gateless Barrier)
The world is always inviting us to get down and dirty. It wants us to sink our hands into it, to acknowledge and consummate our connection. My cat stares up at me and meows demandingly. I think I smell a gas leak under the house. My gallbladder symptoms are back. How we respond to these invitations becomes our life.
A homeless woman at the traffic light walks along my row of cars, holding up a crumpled cardboard sign. Until seeing her, I hadn’t realized how hot it was outside, how dry my throat is. I can feel the sunburn on her skin and the hot wind blowing in her long, unwashed hair. She is an envoy from the world of lost things, bearing a familiar crisis: do I give her money or not? Make eye contact or not? What is my obligation here, as a human being? My mind tries to help out by offering opinions, “These people probably aren’t even homeless. They’re making more per hour than I am!” or “Our society is such a mess that people have to live this way.” I am drawn in, but pull away. (What number is this?)
The world reaches out in broader ways as well. A subpoena transcending time and place, it summons us to take a position, and perhaps defend it. The 2016 American presidential election was and is an example of this, drawing millions of women and men from all over the world into the streets in protest and mobilizing many Americans to vote who had previously lain politically dormant. Social media has had a particularly interesting effect on this process, making tangible the connections that before were only subliminal. Facebook and Twitter have become a way for the world to wrap its arms around itself.
A friend from my koan small group told a story about a recent skydiving trip. He talked about the plane ride up, being strapped to another person, how they tell you to tilt your head back and rest it on the other person’s shoulder, then out the door you go, the excitement of being free of the world for a few moments, even as it rushes up to meet you at terminal velocity. Spiritual practice is like this, too—with liftoff comes the relief and exhilaration of rising above the ordinary, a sense of freedom and expanded perspective; and then, as my friend said, it’s time to go whether you’re ready or not. So you might as well go willingly.
But we all resist the invitation of the world in our own ways, some subtler than others. We try to outmaneuver gravity by getting lost in our heads or our emotions, by improving ourselves or others or giving up altogether, by working too much or developing an addiction, by people-pleasing or practicing acceptance or becoming depressed or cynical. Both hedonism and asceticism are Sisyphus-approved recipes for eternal struggle, and one of the important points of the Buddha’s story is that he found both extremes insufficient.
All manner of spiritual paths offer a way out of suffering, promising eternal life and freedom from strife in this life or the next, and Buddhism is no different. This fantasy speaks to the part of us that secretly hopes the plane will just keep going up and up, carrying us away from this uncertain and frightening place. Meditation is often used as an attempt to sever our connection to the world, and in fact, exhausting this possibility is an essential part of the journey.
There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
(Buffalo Springfield, 1966)
Stepping into the world is inherently dangerous and can be confusing at first, since it requires us to leave our usual ways of understanding the world behind. Fortunately, koans make good jump-buddies. There are no guarantees that strapping ourselves to a koan will keep us safe, but guarantees of safety are like any insurance policy anyway: they contain long lists of circumstances that they don’t cover. Koans have a way of nudging us up to the door and pulling us out with them, whether we are ready or not. Not fully committing to the leap when it’s time can be dangerous: there are engines and wings and Earth to collide with, and if we flail around too much we could spin out of control, smashing into others in mid-air. But mistakes are a close relative of enlightenment and consequences may be the only means of navigation we have.
Another Zen person said in response to Shishuang’s question:
You who sit on the top of a hundred-foot pole,
although you have entered the Way, it is not yet genuine.
Take a step from the top of the pole
and worlds of the Ten Directions are your total body.
I just recently finished grad school. Having operated in the world of adults for several years prior to re-entering school, I’ve been looking forward to returning to the consistency and tangibility of the working world. But instead I feel like I’m in free-fall, surprisingly unsure about my purpose. This is exactly the opposite of what I had expected. I find myself making unnecessarily detailed to-do lists to structure my ample free time: 1. Apply for jobs; 2. Meditate; 3. Read a book; 4. Take a nap (as needed). I emailed my teacher John Tarrant about this and he replied, helpfully:
My mother asked me yesterday what my dream job was. When I tried to answer, a few frustrated sentence fragments sputtered out. It seemed like a pretty innocuous question, but it asked me to step into the world to a degree for which I was unprepared. To have a dream of what we want means to invest something of ourselves in life, and to invest oneself in life means to risk failure, disappointment, death. But there is no real life without the threat of death, no real satisfaction without the threat of disappointment.
To fully take human form, we go all in. We wager our eternal spirit against the chance that we might feel the true substance of our being, which is perhaps what we have simultaneously wanted and feared all along. We love and fight and haggle over prices and struggle with whether or not to take the job or become vegetarian, taking the risk of appearing in the world as ourselves even though there is no way of predicting what will come of it. There is no cure for this condition, but there is a growing appreciation of the squirming in our guts and the feeling of our own weight moving through space. There are cats to pet and medical decisions to be made, and the strange consolation that everything we do has never been done before. And this might be enough.
Flower Power photo by Bernie Boston, 1967
This morning, it was raining when I woke up. I looked at my phone and read a friend’s email, my first indication of how the presidential election had swung.
I shuffle into the kitchen, where the cats are waiting for breakfast. We’re out of their regular food, so I scoop out some canned food. They’re like me: junk food is a special treat, something out of the ordinary.
I make my coffee and sit down on my cushion. Little snippets of Donald Trump flit through my mind, spurts of worry, disappointment and surprise mixed with mundane thoughts of the day to come.
Dizang said, “Not knowing is most intimate.”
I’m standing around feeling kind of useless when the young girl introduces herself to me. “I’m Ramona!” she says enthusiastically, sticking out her hand. I tell her my name and I say nice to meet you and we shake hands. She wants to show me her plot and so she walks me over. Everyone else is planting tomatoes, cucumbers, basil, but her plot is filled with flowers. “I love flowers,” she says, beaming.
About a quarter-mile down the road, I pull into a gas station. As I’m filling up my tank, I hear a commotion, so I turn to look. An older man wearing dirty, baggy clothes is pushing a teeming shopping cart across a busy four-lane street, and traffic has reluctantly stopped to let him pass. As they honk their horns at him, he mockingly makes loud, honking noises back in protest.
Bermuda grass—Cynodon dactylon, also known as dog’s tooth grass, devil’s grass, and wire grass—is fast-growing, aggressive, and very tough. It’s commonly used for golf courses and sports fields because it recovers quickly when damaged. It is remarkably heat and drought-resistant, grows a deep and extensive network of roots, and is invincible to most herbicides. To really get rid of Bermuda grass, you have to dig up the soil and pull it out by the root.
I find a place to park about a block away and pull my water jug and a few Powerades out of the car. My hands are even more anxious than I am, so I’m dropping things all over the place. I manage to get everything into a plastic bag and set off down the sidewalk toward the Handy Stop.
As he cleans up the mess, the tall guy remarks that they didn’t even bother to eat it.
We are all together now—mother, daughter, Lucky and Kona and I—as Kona and Lucky wash off the blood and dirt. They are gentle and concerned. We are all concerned. The damage is bad: a large patch of feathers is missing from his back and the skin has been peeled away. I cringe as a wave of empathy hits me. Occasionally, he lets out a string of what I imagine is the turkey equivalent of expletives, but other than that he seems remarkably calm. As Kona gingerly plucks ants from around the wounded area, the group discusses the turkey’s fate: will he be strong enough to survive, or will the wounds become infected? Lucky jokes that he has a friend who just completed training as a butcher. Kona finds a towel to wrap the turkey in and settles him in a box somewhere safe.
Here’s a koan for you:
Sickness and medicine heal each other. The whole world is medicine. What am I?
In day-to-day life, it seems like there’s a general consensus on certain things: getting into a car accident sucks, getting a raise at work is good, it’s terrible when someone you love dies. This koan offers the possibility that those assessments may not always be true, that life might be more interesting than that, and that if your world falls apart, it might not be a bad thing.
There are crises all around us. Even here, in one of the most developed nations in the world, single mothers raise children while living out of a car, floods kill hundreds of people and displace thousands more, and racial tensions cause violent social upheaval. There are smaller crises as well: a car breaks down in the middle of a busy freeway, someone shows up to the airport without an ID, a child gets sick with the flu.
I like to ask people what brought them to meditation. More often than not, their story involves some kind of crisis, a disruption in homeostasis. One friend realized that yelling at his young son for no good reason had become a normal occurrence; a college student suffered the unexpected death of a parent; a musician quit using drugs after years of addiction. The story of the Buddha starts in a similar way: a young prince is suddenly faced with the frailty of being human, leading to the discovery of an unexpected depth to life. What starts him on his journey is the disturbing realization that things fall apart: we get sick, we get old, and we die.
Of course, we all know that these things happen, but there’s a difference between seeing them on the news and having them barge into our living room. Crises have no respect for what is reasonable or fair or even possible. They take us out beyond the luxury of our usual resources and demand that we respond anyway. They bend us to their will and shatter our expectations.
We cannot know if a loved one will recover or how we will afford the car repairs. When our basic certainties desert us, we are forced to rely on reality: the smell of the hospital waiting room, hot tears on our cheeks, clouds crawling lazily across the sky. We are sustained, moment to moment, by very small things.
Although there is often chaos in the midst of a crisis, there can also be an unusual sense of clarity. We are given the opportunity to notice things we never noticed before, as though in the commotion, someone accidentally left a door open into the universe. We see the way things are in a different light.
While spending time with this koan, a friend received news of several separate family crises in one day. His usual response in these situations was to be the composed one, to warehouse his feelings at a safe distance so that he could be the hero. But this time, he felt a pull to meditate, to take his time with sadness and fear. It’s not that it wasn’t still painful, but he seemed to be genuinely enjoying it, in a way. The crisis and the koan had worked together to change his sense of who he was and how he responded to life.
Meditation is not a way to solve or avoid a crisis so much as a path to savor it fully. Just as children grow new taste buds that help them to appreciate more complex flavors, so can we more fully taste the complexities of life. We learn to love the sour and spicy as well as the sweet.
While I was on a recent trip to the west coast, a friend suddenly fell ill and had to be taken to the hospital. I spent the wee hours of the morning in the emergency department, keeping company with his family while they waited for news. We had just come from a wedding reception, so everyone was dressed impeccably. We looked like a cocktail party that had been blown off course. After the ordeal, the family apologized for the inconvenience, but I considered it one of the best parts of my trip. It was an opportunity to access the world just beneath the crust of my expectations, to be shanghaied by unusual circumstances and smuggled into real life. Having navigated a crisis together, I felt closer to all of them.
Crisis can simplify things. Unnecessary concerns drop away and we just do what needs to be done. Who we think we are becomes irrelevant as we are caught up in the flow of things. But sometimes the most painful parts of a crisis are when things have calmed down a bit, because they give the mind an opportunity to tell itself horror stories, a dubious attempt to recoup certainty. This, too, is an interesting moment: like the Buddha, sitting up all night under the Bodhi tree, we are assaulted by our worst fears, judgments, and delusions. If we can stick around for the show, we will see the house of pain constructing itself right before our eyes. We may or may not have achieved supreme enlightenment by sunrise, but at least we will have lived with a degree of compassion, just by not turning away.
The tricky thing is that a crisis isn’t any different than the rest of life—it’s just an unexpected arrangement of circumstances, really—but it can serve as a gateway deeper into life. That’s not to say that we won’t be sad or angry or terrified or even in danger of losing our health or our life, but we don’t have to refuse what we’re being given. And that might change the way we experience life in a very unexpected way.
A student asked Zhaozhou, “What is meditation?”
Zhaozhou replied, “It’s not meditation.”
Dumbfounded, the student asked, “Why is it not meditation?”
Zhaozhou replied, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what meditation is. I’m not sure why. It generates a series of questions that just seem to go around and around and contradict each other.
There are lots of meditation schools that offer very clear practice instructions: where to meditate, how to breathe, how to sit, what to do with your hands and your eyes and your mind. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t interest me all that much. It might have something to do with my allergic reaction to being told what to do, but also, when I do meditation like that it feels like there’s a bit too much of me in it, like I’m trying to run the show.
I like to be surprised, I guess. That’s the best thing about jokes: the surprise. We think we know what’s coming, but we get sideswiped. It’s disorienting. It blows up our expectations and our perception shifts. We laugh. We feel happy. Enlightenment happens like that—out of nowhere, by surprise. You’re just minding your own business and
Okay, I’m back. Between the last paragraph and this one, I went looking for a good joke to illustrate my point and ended up spending an hour on Reddit and Youtube. I did bring one back for you:
Two older couples were having breakfast.
Old Man 1: We went to the best restaurant last night.
Old Man 2: What’s its name?
Old Man 1: Oh, I have such a terrible memory. What’s that red flower?
Old Man 2: Carnation?
Old Man 1: No, the one with the thorns.
Old Man 2: Rose?
Old Man 1: That’s it! (Turns to his wife) Hey Rose, what’s the name of that restaurant we went to last night?
Meditation imitates life. Or maybe life imitates meditation. I’m not sure. Either way, just like the rest of life, I never know what’s going to happen in my meditation (I think I like it that way). So I never know what my meditation practice is going to be—I just show up and greet whatever comes. It’s a kind of a DIY discovery process.
Sometimes my mind is wild, making plans for the future or gathering evidence to justify why I don’t like someone; sometimes it’s still and quiet, as empty and vast as outer space; more often, it’s somewhere in the middle. Sometimes I’m distracted and sometimes I’m focused; sometimes I have insights and sometimes I feel dumb as a brick; sometimes I have a lot of physical pain and sometimes my body seems to disappear altogether. I might plan a road trip, have an argument, or visit with dead relatives. I don’t think it’s my job to decide whether or not something should be happening. When I argue with The Universe, the score is always
But that’s OK, because actually we’re playing for the same team. So maybe it’s more accurate to say the score is
The point is that we don’t have to drag meditation into the tiny closet of right and wrong where we keep most things, because then it’s “not meditation.” We don’t have to know what good meditation looks like or how to fix crappy meditation. We can just fall into the aliveness of the process, because it’s really our own aliveness. And if we’re just in our own aliveness, then perhaps we can accomplish superhuman feats like hanging out with ourselves whether we’re angry or bored or sick or happy and meditation isn’t some special thing we do for a certain amount of time in a quiet room on a special cushion, but something that’s always happening whether we think it is or not.
Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
If you’ve got a few more minutes, comedian Norm Macdonald will upset your expectations:
Credits The older couples joke was posted on Reddit by user Mordeci00 The Norm Macdonald video was posted on Youtube by user Eva Griffin is sound
This is the stone, drenched with rain, that points the way.
One of the side effects of Zen practice that I enjoy most is a softening around my insistence that “This isn’t It.” When the universe serves me something unexpected, I am more likely to trust that it’s for me, even though it may not appear to be what I ordered. Maybe I think my eggs are too runny, I should have done college better my first time through, or that someone needs to change before I can love them. But rather than insisting on how I think things ought to be, I keep finding that it’s easier to just trust the way things are. Navigation is simpler that way and it sure beats paddling upstream all the time. Here is a story about not trusting.
For the past few weeks, I have been preparing to move to Texas. I never thought I’d live in Texas. In fact, I was pretty sure my next move would be back to the West Coast. But then, things just move in the direction they move, and it seems right to move with them. So I’m moving to Texas.
Moving is full of changes and, for a time, it becomes more clear that changes are themselves the material of my life. I wrap up some relationships with friends and colleagues and devise ways to continue others. The true intimacy of a relationship can become more clear very near the end, just as waves heave up as they begin to break. My relationships to things change also. I have much to sell or give away, and managing ads on Craigslist becomes a full-time job.
Out of all the things I intend to cut loose, my car feels the most pressing. It is no spring chicken and I’m anxious about the chances of selling it for a decent price in the little more than a week left before I leave Virginia. I spend hours scrubbing the car inside and out, and in the process I develop a deep appreciation for all the time we have spent together. (The true intimacy of an relationship can become more clear very near the end.)
I’m feeling pretty good about how the car looks and drives, but there are a couple of seemingly minor issues that need to be addressed before showing it to potential buyers. A leaky hose prevents the air condition from blowing cold and I have not yet installed an aftermarket stereo system given to me by a friend. In my excitement, I post an ad on Craigslist before they are addressed and almost immediately, emails asking to see the car start pouring in.
Without noticing it, I have drifted into dangerous territory. I am advertising something I do not have. I’m getting ahead of the universe and hoping that it won’t notice that there’s nothing behind the curtain. Looking back, it seems like it could be the plot of an episode of I Love Lucy.
I parry my way through a melee of emails while the car is in the shop, waiting for the A/C hose to be replaced. Of course, the parts dealer’s computer system is down, so the mechanic doesn’t know when the repair will be finished or how much it will cost. (Only later do I realize that I have not factored the potential cost of the repairs into my asking price.) Then there is the aftermarket stereo I advertised, which has not yet been installed (did I mention I’ve never installed a car stereo before?).
It’s strange to experience the elation that comes with each interested buyer mixed with the stress of having to manage what feels like a lie that is becoming less and less white. I push suitors out to the next afternoon, hoping the car will be finished by then. I schedule the first one for 6:00pm, the next for 5:30pm, 5:00pm, 4:30pm, and I can feel the pressure mounting between present and future as I bet more and more on cards I can’t see.
I am getting out of hand. My mind is swirling. I’m short-tempered with my fiancee, who is only trying to help, I’m pushy with the mechanics, and I’m frustrated with myself for putting us in this position. I am the poster boy for dogged willfulness, and it seems the only strategy is to continue digging to save face and a sense of control. (As I’m writing this, I notice my breathing has become shallow and I am gently grinding my teeth.) There is some faint voice reminding me periodically about trust and koans and my practice, but I shut it out because it’s not useful for manipulating things in my favor.
The time finally comes to show the car to the first suitors and the A/C hose has still not been replaced. There is a whole separate mini-drama surrounding the installation of the stereo, but that’s another story. The suitors arrive early and are walking up to my door as I give the new stereo the final push into the dashboard (it works great, by the way). They seem like very nice people and they test drive the car and tell me they’ll think about it and I say of course.
Lost in my fog of obsessions, I have not eaten in several hours. I make a quick trip to a fast food joint up the street to grab a snack before the next showing, and as I’m turning into the parking lot, a car zooms up and collides with mine. In the split second before impact, I have just enough time to say, out loud to the universe and anyone else listening, “Are you f***ing serious?”
After all that trouble, all those hours of scrubbing and polishing, of agonizing over details and organizing suitors and nagging the mechanic and struggling to get the stock stereo out and trying to understand wiring harnesses…Are you f***ing serious?
As Governor Wang arrived at Zhaoqing Temple, they were making tea. When Elder Lang held the kettle for Mingzhao, it turned over. When the governor saw this, he asked the
elder, “What’s under the little tea stove?”
“The spirits that hold up the stove,” replied Lang.
“If the spirits are holding up the stove,” asked the governor, “why did the kettle turn over?”
Lang said, “You can serve as a high official for a thousand days, and then lose it in a morning.”
The governor shook out his sleeves and left.
Mingzhao said, “Elder Lang, you’ve been eating the food here at Zhaoqing Temple, but you’re straying across the river chasing after junk.”
Lang asked, “What would you say?”
“The humans lost.”
The other driver and I pull into the parking lot and exchange information. A kind police officer is nearby and comes over to check on us. In situations like these, there can be a strong drive to decide who’s in the wrong. Though I notice that I’m a bit shook up, I’m not actually angry, and placing blame seems totally uninteresting. The other driver apologizes profusely and I find myself saying, “It’s okay, it’s okay.” She is sweet and I like her and we chat while we’re exchanging information. She laments that she’ll catch hell when she gets home and I laugh and say me, too. I am delighted by the sheer irony of the situation. I stop on the way home to show my mechanic what has happened and I am pleased by his look of genuine astonishment. He covers his face and shakes his head and suggests that, considering my luck, it might be safer to just park the car and walk home.
Sometimes we are rescued by something terrible. As I look over the damage of the car, each new injury adds to a faint but growing sense of relief. (Ah, the fender is ruined! Ooh, the frame is buckled! I smell antifreeze!) It begins to sink in that, for all my willful scrambling, the bottom has dropped out of the situation. The stress of managing car repairs and dealing with potential suitors has been completely wiped away by the accident. The ship may have been commandeered by pirates, but at least I’m no longer sailing us straight into a sandbar.
After events such as this one, the mind often sprouts thoughts about how things might have been different–if only I’d gone somewhere else to get a snack, if only the car showing had taken 5 more seconds, or 5 less seconds, or the mechanics had repaired the air conditioning–but these explanations are always based on what we know, and any given moment is far beyond our understanding. In World War II, Royal Air Force flight crews “blamed gremlins for otherwise inexplicable accidents which sometimes occurred during their flights. Gremlins were also thought at one point to have enemy sympathies, but investigations revealed that enemy aircraft had similar and equally inexplicable mechanical problems. As such, gremlins were portrayed as being equal opportunity tricksters, taking no sides in the conflict, and acting out their mischief from their own self-interest” (Wikipedia).
The actual state of things in each moment is something I can rely on. Blame is not something that can be proven because there are always gremlins or stove spirits who are pulling strings backstage, silent partners with mysterious agendas. As I was writing this post, the repair shop my car was towed to–one I have never had dealings with before- called. They wanted to let me know that they’re backed up and would not be able to begin assessing my car’s damage until 2 days before I leave for Texas. And what of that? Well, that’s the gremlins’ business. As for me, I’m going to remove a tiny splinter from my toe and go have lunch with a friend.
Credits The first koan about the stone is a haiku written by the Japanese poet Santōka Taneda. It appears in the Pacific Zen School's Miscellaneous Koans collection and is translated by John Tarrant and Joan Sutherland. "U.S. Troops Surrounded by Holiday Mail During WWII" (1944). Unknown photographer. Presented by Smithsonian Institution, downloaded from Flickr Commons on May 8, 2014. The tea kettle koan is Case 48 of the Blue Cliff Record, translated by John Tarrant and Joan Sutherland. The wonderful flying animals art piece was done by Hannah Curry, a 3rd grade student in Cyndi Marchetti's art class at Elmont Elementary. It is presented here with her permission. "Gremlins Are Floor Greasers" (1942-43). Unknown source. Lovingly archived by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Downloaded from Wikipedia on June 2, 2016. All other images were produced by the author.
Many people think koans are mysterious and hard to understand. Well, in this post I’m going to explain to you how koans work.
Here’s a koan:
I don’t know if you can tell at this resolution, but there appears to be a tear coming out of her right eye. At the bottom of the poster is a caption that reads, “SAVE US – Contrary to popular belief, the slaughter of harp seals continues.” I truly love all kinds of animals and seals are pretty close to the top of the list. Still, when I look at the poster I kind of grimace at the bleeding-heartedness of it and make sarcastic comments to myself (“Is it really ‘popular belief’ that the slaughter of harp seals has stopped?” “Is that really a tear in her eye? Gimme a break!”).
I’m currently having some kind of friction with a coworker who I consider a friend. I apparently did something that really offended her, but she won’t address it with me or even tell me what it is. Having people mad at me is not one of my strong suits and, being the doggedly accommodating individual that I am, I have carried around an appropriately weighty brick of guilt and a remorseful sadness for a few weeks now.
This evening, I went into the restroom at work and, as I often do, looked at the poster with the harp seal on it. This time, instead of ridiculing it, I realized that the tear in the harp seal’s eye was for me. I felt a rush of forgiveness and relief. Of course! I’m no perpetrator, I’m just me! I laughed and said aloud, to the seal poster in the bathroom, “Ohhhhhh, thank you buddy.”
Now you know how koans work.
(P.S. Just for the record, I find the modern killing of baby harp seals for their pelts, or for any other reason, absolutely heartbreaking and repugnant. For more information on seal hunting, this is a pretty good (and graphic) article)
Presently my life is a delicate honeycomb. It is composed of compartments of circumstances which I have meticulously arranged in order to make them perform in concert with one another. Work, school, internship, exercise, food, vacation time, sleep, relationships, art, income—each one rests on all the others gently, precariously.
But then there was a single moment of less-than-optimum attention, a slip of one nanoscale gear tooth, which threatened to send those carefully contrived components grinding against each other in a melee of desperate uncertainty.
It’s only a small mistake in my work schedule.
It’s only the keystone to the entire kingdom.
Step by step in the dark,
When my foot is not wet, it has found the stone.
I do not know how this is all going to work out—this is certain—but it doesn’t stop my mind from whipping out in all directions like a cartoon octopus learning to ice skate. Guanyin is here but she is floundering, countless confused hands thrashing about and the eye in each rolling in nystagmic ecstasy. Will I get enough hours at work? Will I lose my health insurance? Have I damaged my relationship with my supervisor, who I respect and admire? Does she hate me? Do I hate me? How will I survive this colossal fuckup?
I had dreamed the future with such eloquence, but now I’m watching the gossamer filaments of my certainty hiss and crackle as they collapse.
Blaming emerges as a possible navigation method. It offers a simple storyline, something to hold things together. There is a momentary feeling of exhilaration. I am rising, but these sudden wings feel chintzy.
First, this fuckup is someone else’s fault: The world is chaotic and I succeeded in bringing it into focus, but in the end I was betrayed by someone else’s incompetence. This is a well-ordered world, but as with most well-ordered worlds, inside it I feel angry and impotent. That environment is too extreme to support life and so I rocket to the opposite. Now it is my fault: I am narcissistic and careless and in my hubris, I have brought chaos and suffering on innocent people. This world makes sense too, and is very familiar, but living there makes me feel guilty and hopeless. I begin to settle into a dubious compromise: perhaps it is both our faults–a little bit hers, a little bit mine. I know that won’t do either, but at the time I cannot see a way out. Those very filaments of certainty that had once cradled the promise of a bright future are coming to life again, this time to bind me.
Days away, I am at work and my body feels sluggish. My eyelids hang heavy like plush velvet draperies. A lump has made its burrow halfway down my throat and the corners of my mouth plunge downward in a persistent frown. My breath is shallow and sometimes I wonder if it has disappeared altogether, fleeing the kaleidoscopic churning in my gut. My body knows it is adrift in foreign waters and yet my mind pores over familiar charts, hoping to stumble upon a friendly constellation.
I don’t much feel like eating but I know I’m hungry so I order a pizza. The nurse I am working with eggs me on, assuring me that I deserve the indulgence. The pizza fills me but also gives me heartburn. I go outside for a walk and it is cold, dark, and snowy-quiet. I convince myself for just long enough that this unease could be related to giving up smoking again, so I have a cigarette. I catch a buzz that’s frosted with shame. I peer up at stars through spare winter branches, chase the sweeping gaze of headlights, pursue a blinking jetliner.
They are all crystal clear and aloof.
That is not the thing that will save me. Nor that. Nor that.
I have 25 minutes left on my dinner break, so I grab my meditation cushion and take over an empty office. I can feel that the action is inside, so I feel fairly confident in giving up on reaching outward. I sit down, close my eyes. I gingerly tend the supernova that is whirling quietly inside me and my mind does the octopus thing again, this time flipping manically through its rolodex for a koan that will turn this shit into gold: scorn, stone crypts, an enlightened person in a well, branches of coral, crimson threads, mistakes on pilgrimage, spilled tea, rolled up blinds, standing on needles, wars, stone buddhas, clay buddhas, wooden buddhas, homeless people, the light, dogs with or without Buddha nature—they all fit and none of them offer a way out.
It is still night and somewhere inside this hard, dark fog, I begin to feel that my feet and the ground are negotiating, remembering me from the bottom up. It’s a conversation I’m not equipped to contribute to, so I gratefully surrender the helm. This brings the familiar twinge of relief as I begin to rediscover my powerlessness, our powerlessness, the glorious inevitability of things. All those doors to other versions of me and other ways that things might have worked out simply disappear, like scattering roaches in the sudden light. I do not know where they go to hide. I just feel the simplicity of my body, no longer an octopus, as it lolls gently, undulating with the deepest currents. I could stay here for a while.
(Photo credits: Egg Balancing Act: Joseph Janney Steinmetz, 1939)
Here’s a koan:
One day at Nanquan’s monastery, students of the eastern and western halls were arguing over a cat. When he saw this, Nanquan held up the cat and said, “If you can say the right thing, I won’t kill it.” No one could respond, so Nanquan cut the cat in two.
Recently, I was with friends for Christmas. They have a young child, a happy, bright boy about one-and-a-half years old. From among his many presents, they carefully chose one in particular for him to open on Christmas Eve. That night, the grandparents came over for dinner. Through some misunderstanding or miscommunication or some peculiarity of human will, the grandmother brought her own gift for the boy, one that she had chosen especially for him to open on Christmas Eve. Not long after she had walked in the door, the parents noticed this and a power struggle ensued. The parents were angry that the grandmother had not respected their wishes. The grandmother claimed ignorance and protested that the parents were too controlling. The argument went on in this way for some time. Meanwhile, the child stood between them, looking confusedly back and forth between parents, grandmother, and the offending gift. In their desire to have their way, both parties had forgotten about the child altogether.
You can see the effects of human will struggling against itself everywhere: politics, relationships, work, family gatherings, in ourselves. When politicians impose their own wills against each other, the nation suffers; when partners impose their own wills against each other, the relationship suffers; volunteers called court appointed special advocates are needed all over the country to ensure that foster children don’t become victims of the very systems created to protect them.
It’s not hard to find someone who is willing to fight to defend a position. (The progressive rock band Tool wrote an awesome song about this called Right in Two.) When we get lost in our own will like this, we cut the universe in half. We split ourselves into pieces that shout at each other from opposite ends of a vast schism. How can we hear each other like this, let alone touch one another? It is easy to get trapped in stances of right and wrong–defending loot, pride, beliefs–but Nanquan asks for something even easier than that: is there anyone who can put the universe back together again? Although this was difficult for the monks, it doesn’t have to be for us.
If we just keep company with a koan, it will begin to show up in our life. We might notice it in our relationship with our partner, at work, at the grocery store, or watching the news. Even when we think we’ve lost it, we can trust that is working hard for us all the time.
The koan is always offering us the fundamental aliveness in our situation, and yet we can cleverly find ways to avoid it. Perhaps we ignore the aliveness because we think it’s in the wrong place. Maybe we think we need to figure out the situation before we respond or that we have no power. Either way, the cat dies. But it seems that we can become less and less adept at ignoring our suffering, at playing dumb, and we can fess up to what is required of us: to invest something real of ourselves. And while it likely won’t involve anything as dramatic as saving a cherished pet from being dismembered, in a way our very life hangs in the balance.
Koans can help us to fall out of the character we usually play, which can fortunately also mean forgetting our strategies for avoiding life. They shuffle our scripts around so that we can no longer be sure of who we are going to be in any given moment. This might be unnerving at first, but sometimes freedom is like that. When you have fallen out of character, whoever you already are might be the right you. As the koan presents itself in your life, you might suddenly find yourself inhabiting the role of various characters in the story. Perhaps you are a monk of the east or west hall, or Nanquan, or the cat, or even the blade that cleaves precious things in half. Perhaps you are the room where all this took place. Wherever you are invited to enter can be the right place.
Here’s another favorite koan that has been echoing around as I write this post:
One day when Dongshan and a monk were washing their bowls, they saw two crows fighting over a frog. The monk asked, “Why does it always have to be like that?” Dongshan replied, “It’s only for your benefit, honored one.”
In this situation too, you might be anyone–the monk, the crows, the frog, even the bowls being washed. Being the frog might be interesting because it can easily be overlooked as a supporting actor whose only role is to set up the punchline. But if you are the frog, you might find out what it’s like to be fought over or pulled apart by something in your life. Maybe you are a live frog and it’s terrifying, or maybe you are a dead frog and so you don’t mind. But even in that case, what is it like to be a dead frog in your own life? In this way, we can enter anywhere.
This process of falling into a koan happens naturally as a byproduct of spending time with it. We do not need to decide who we are, because we are already. We can feel our way into who we are like trying on a new coat (where are the pockets? What happens when I move my arms this way?). We can become intimate with it and discover something. We can ask, “What is it like to fully inhabit this role, in my life?” As the cat in the koan, I notice that my allegiance is not to the east or west hall, but to the warmest lap. As the child in the story, I don’t care whose gift I open first because everything already belongs to me. As one of the monks, when Nanquan holds up the cat I feel a great shouting desperation well up in my chest and I forget all about laying claim to anything.
There is a second koan that wraps up the cat story and offers us an intriguing role model:
That evening, Zhaozhou returned from a trip and Nanquan questioned him about what had happened. Zhaozhou took off a sandal, put it on top of his head, and walked out. Nanquan said, “If you’d been here, you’d have saved the cat.”
Someone told me that putting a sandal on top of one’s head used to be a sign of mourning in China. (Poor, poor kitty.) Others claim he’s saying something about turning things upside-down or that he’s just making a silly gesture to point out the absurdity of the situation. Either way, Zhaozhou’s response comes from outside the tug-o-war of human wills that began this episode and Nanquan seems to approve of it. But the fact that Nanquan approves of it doesn’t mean that we have to, and our task is to discover our own true response to whatever situation we find ourselves in.
So, when Nanquan threatened to kill the cat, what would you have done?