There comes a time in our life when we sense a change coming over us. Something we read, a casual remark, the birth of a sibling, the death of a loved parent or grandparent, the coming into the world of one’s child, holding an injured bird in the palm of our hand or as in the life of Dogen Zenji, watching the curling smoke rising from a stick of incense at his mother’s funeral.
At this moment, we may find ourselves choking back tears, trembling with joy or anguish as if we have been taken over by some kind of inexplicable force. And often there is a sense of being almost overwhelmed with feelings. We then find ourselves asking "What is this"? "What is going on here"?,
"Why am I so disoriented/ confused/ fearful/ anxious, and of course variations on the same theme.
Somehow there can seem to be so much emotion, fear, sorrow or even hurt all around. Yet, now the questions begin to allow spaciousness, at least a little light at the end of a dark tunnel. And then one day, if we are extremely fortunate as I was ( and continue to be) we may hear or read about the Dharma,s I did, as many of us reading this newsletter have. We may then ask as I do almost every day, how do I respond to this suffering. Whose suffering is this anyway?
Our shared suffering maybe? And how do I contribute or lessen this?
Rev. Bill Kwong one of Suzuki Roshi’s first students said each morning as he awoke: "How much suffering am I going to create today"?
And Kobun Chino Sensei, a Japanese priest who helped in the establishment of Tassajara remarked: "Once we realise our true responsibility, we simply find ourselves "just sitting”. “Just Sitting", becomes our natural response. In this respect I think lay practice is not too different from that of a priest. We are all investigating, looking into just how we might respond appropriately to “what arises in our life".
Suzuki Roshi much appreciated the quality he described as ”Beginners Mind" where there is a sense of purity or freshness to our practice, the moment to moment awareness that we haven’t quite got it all figured out. The exact opposite of being dogmatic, inflexible, too sure of ourselves. And so as lay practitioners we are instructed to sit upright in stillness and in silence and to be with what arises, from moment to moment. Neither running away from our fears nor getting too involved with those intensely joyful states that come along to entice us. And if we are tired and weary and it’s all a bit much, loving ourselves even if we do get overly involved in it all. For myself, practice is: "Relaxing into this growing sense of being at home, of not being on the outside looking in, estranged, unappreciative, uncaring, but rather it a confidence that it’s all O.K., that life in all its mysterious and magic workings is unfolding in ways I cannot and will never understand"
So, even now as I write these words, I’m aware of an unease arising, an unease that no matter how much I may try, this miracle of life and my responses, can never be pinned down, satisfactorily explained, and categorised. My, our, suffering arises because it’s almost unbearable to "just be "with this "not knowing"
Our daughter Natasha lives in Osaka, Japan, (not overly near the Fukushima Nuclear Power installations), dearly cares for her Japanese fiancée and loves her life there. And yet those fatherly, instinctive, protective voices clamour for recognition, trying to "set up camp", take prime location, cause havoc in my natural order of mind. News filters through of the large inland lake of fresh water being in peril of contamination were there to be further accidents and I give thanks for practice, for Buddha, Dharma, Sangha.
Our son Pascal lives in Cairo, Egypt where we recently went to visit. The revolution is on-going. People killed almost on a daily basis (not as many as in Syria, still...). Fear, anxiety, concern is etched deeply into people’s faces, their eyes dulled by worry. Pascal is advised daily by the British Council to avoid certain areas of the city, possible flashpoints It’s a high risk environment, even crossing the road carries a possible death threat. Once again my mind presents a numerous number of tempting pathways to follow. Should I follow? Would they lead to a greater sense of compassion for not only our son, but for all beings that live in such danger? Or, would following such a pathway to its destination, speak to me only of despair, sadness and of being emotionally overwhelmed?
With such questions, daily I try to sit upright, over and again take refuge in the Three Jewels, and give thanks for this precious life we all share. Acknowledging that such questions in one form or another are continuously arising for us all, I try to share time in silence and stillness with others who "sit & practice". Is this of help to those with financial problems, marital concerns, and serious health issues? I don’t know. Does it in some small way make a difference? I hope so but really I don’t know, taking comfort in Tenzin Reb’s counsel that we are saved not by the results of our actions but in our vow to save all beings. Sometimes, often, the question arises, is "just sitting" enough? Could I do more especially for Dharma friends who perhaps struggle with the early life issues of neglect, abandonment, bereavement, matters left in the shadows of the mind, unresolved until slowly/ sometimes suddenly breaking into awareness after years of practice. For many of us, and I most definitely include myself, Zen Buddhism and Sangha was unconsciously a place in which I hoped to find a sanctuary for my personal wounds. One day if I “just sat", I would be zapped by this thing called "Enlightenment" and I would have no more problems. It soon became clear that this was not the case and some kind of on-going remedial work would be needed to address and heal the past.
And so a part of my "lay practice" where I am not in close proximity to a teacher (a disadvantage indeed), is to quietly admit to my imperfections. This is not to say that a teacher is without imperfections, but that any confession is preferably shared rather than done alone. Presently, our fledgling Sangha lacks the experience and therefore the resolve to incorporate a ritual called confession before the community "whereby individuals could publicly recite the precepts, and admit in some discreet fashion their shortcomings. Perhaps, the past can only be changed by allowing our confession and contrition to transform and heal (our ancient twisted Karma born of body, speech and mind) as we continue to sit together In this way my faith, if not always my practice, is in the "Prajna Paramita" of upright sitting, the importance of Precepts and the confession of my shortcomings recited in the Purification. This, together with my dedication of any merit to all of our Ancestors and to all beings, in my understanding, completes the circle.
Ultimately for me this practice has brought blessings I would never have thought possible and more than enough surprises that I sometimes struggle to integrate.
May all beings live in peace and harmony.
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