Tuesday, January 24, 2012

When Arrow Points Meet

During the week of rohatsu sesshin, I had what I can only call an experience of "the sound of one hand clapping": that moment, or maybe even pre-moment of unformed potential before each hand hits the other.

It was a concept I'd concluded a few months before, but experiencing it was unexpected. I thought I knew what 'the deal' was before. I'd had insighful experiences before as a result of my practice but this was completely different. My insights had served a purpose, but this was just 'there.'

I could go on about how wonderfully mindblowing this was, but it wasn't.  Or I could be lame and avoid describing it at all by saying "just to depict it in literary form is to stain it with defilement."

But that experience isn't what this post is about, it's about what happens after those moments are over.

This particular moment was just that. There was no lead up or denoument, no beginning and no end. How can there be an after to something with no end?

I've felt what I could only describe as echoes of this sound, mostly now in the gap between everyday mind and diligent mindfulness, but it's gone as soon as it's there. 

I'm sure many of us that have had any sort of transcendent experience have felt the pull of wanting to 'go there' again. The interesting thing about it is that we didn't go anywhere; when it happened we were right 'here' at the time. Our mind may feel somewhere else, but we don't actually go there.

For me it happened between the two ritual claps that begin and end our aikido class, but for me to walk around clapping hoping it'll happen again is about as ridiculous as handing someone a tile so I can watch them try to polish it into a mirror, or sweeping pebbles hoping to bounce one off bamboo.

This is where arrow points meet. Our practice controls one arrow, constantly putting it out there in hopes of hitting something. As in kyudo, form and intention are more important than the target. But that second arrow is out there and no amount of skill will let us hit it.

The Song of the Jewel Mirror Samadhi says, "a hairsbreadth's deviation will fail to accord with the proper attunement" so it's just as much a matter of right place at the right time. But it's also not about luck. Without practice or even trying, how can we hit that other arrow?

We have to remember that our calm mind is what allowed us to see the clear reflection but if we try to stir up the water trying to find that reflection it will never reappear. It's the most important ingredient in that recipe and nothing will come of it without calming practice.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Farmer Zen

(This has been a harder habit to resume than I thought it would be)

So a few months ago, we moved into a house which has a lovely but needy yard. There's a nice plot that was bare of grass I decided would make for a nice vegetable garden. 

Never having had one myself, I used the garden we have at the Zen Center as an example and thereby joined in the humble tradition of the Soto school as a Zen farmer.*

For those of you that don't get the reference, in Japan, the Rinzai school was embraced by the samurai, leaving the Soto tradition to farmers and peasents who had time to patiently sit and wait for enlightenment to come. The samurai on the other hand needed to cut through the matter of life and death "now" since they may face their last opponent in battle at any time.

While I spent quite a lot of time enjoying the outdoors growing up, it's fair to say I did so as a city boy. The most farming I'd done was an herb garden that didn't turn out so well. This is a little larger scale.

I used an axe and a shovel to turn the dense Houston soil and ringed the rough plot with plastic border. It was a lot of work but each moment I did my best to stay with what I was doing and treating it as practice.

By now nearly all the seeds have sprouted and their little leaves are poking through.  It won't be too long before I'll have to thin them out.

For me, this idea of nuturing our practice like growing plants really stikes a chord. My first emotional experience concerning impermanence had to do with a flower. I've also seen the similarities between the momentary effort and patience needed in both practice and planting. My dharma name  (Heavenly Born, Magnificent Bloom) even references the growth and blossoming of my practice.

When we plant a seed, we begin the process, but that's all we're doing. We nuture it by watering and providing sunshine and wait. We can't pull the little sprout out to make it grow faster, we have to wait. The character my teacher has translated as "born" is the same used for "exit" or "protrude" as a sprout comes from the ground. Depending on who you ask, it even originates as a sprout coming forth ( 出).

So we have the sprout which grows and strengthens into a hearty plant over time. Eventually its roots become established and its branches grow strong. When the time is right, a bud forms, and once again we have to wait; there's no forcing a flower to bloom.

Some may see the beautiful opening of the flower as the culmination of practice, for some it may be. But does beauty actually accomplish anything lasting? For nourishment we need fruit so we wait again, and then again for the fruit to ripen.

The fruit bears seeds for the next generation and the dharma continues.

So the seed is hope, looking at it it's hard to discern what it will grow to be. Maintaining the growing plant patiently we only see change over time. The flower rekindles our hope and shows us the precious beauty of our efforts. But the flower's beauty is fleeting and only the fruit of our labor and patience will nourish us and those to come.

*I've also been revisiting the samurai aspect of my spiritual practice, which rather than confusing and complicated things has actually clarified quite a bit for me right now.