When I think about time now, what with all my dreams, hallucinations & instances of deja vu, I can only conclude that everything that has ever happened is happening right now, in the present moment.
When in Good Health—Viễn Chiếu (990-1091)
Remember how the body decays like an old wall.
Facing death, it is natural to be afraid, but when
you are filled with emptiness, you will see that
the separateness of the ten thousand things turns
out to be nothing but another delusion & you
will be able to allow the law of change that governs
everything—visible & invisible–to run its course.
[Translated by Joseph Duemer]
We are taught in Zen that even change changes, but we never really believe it. Even in the midst of change we expect to be able to extract moments of stability. Even in the midst of a disease like cancer, which is always changing, I have become lulled to the idea that I will have a period during which things remain more or less the same. I guess, depending on the scale one applies, this is more or less true; but at bottom there is no standing still.
All this was brought home to me this evening by a new pain in my pelvic bones, this time on the right center rather than the left. That is, I have been confronted by the possibility that my disease is spreading away from its site of origin. Actually, it has already done this, way up into my sternum, but there has been little or no pain associated with that spread. Without the pain, that change has seemed unreal.
But this pain has the potential to make walking even more difficult than it is now, which would amount to a major degradation of my condition. Now, a bit of rest seems to have diminished the problem, but it has caused me an evening of distress. I’m going to take it easy & chart the changers tomorrow & over the weekend then make a decision about whether or not to see the oncologist sooner than my regularly scheduled check-up in two weeks.
In Zen we say that everything is empty, by which we mean that nothing exists except in relation to everything else–nothing has intrinsic existence. We also say that the path is itself the goal, but since the path has no intrinsic existence, we have nothing to stand or walk upon, or so the Diamond Sutra says. The challenge is to put one foot out after the other knowing that the path is empty. Or full.
I didn’t mention my relatively recent conversion1 to Zen in the previous parts of this account because, going back to the San Diego days at least, I knew a little bit about “cultural zen,” or “literary Zen” & had even tried to meditate a bit in order to address long-running problems with anxiety. But lacking a teacher or even a context, my approach to Zen remained theoretical.
But after I quit drinking a second time ten or eleven years ago, I still needed to deal with massive waves of anxiety. Funny thing about anxiety of this sort is that one is not anxious about anything in particular–that is, the anxiety is not a reaction to some particular event or situation; instead, the anxiety precedes particular events & simply attaches to this or that particular as necessary, though often enough it remains unattached to particulars, resulting in states of derealization. In my case, certain antidepressant medications helped to address this, but nothing was as effective as beginning a meditation practice that involved sitting up to two hours a day. At this point I was using Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s books on mindfulness as guides. For a while, I thought I could be a solitary practitioner, but the more I read & the more I sat, the more it seemed I needed an institutional context. That’s when I began looking around on the internet for a Buddhist group to join.
In the background of this search was my knowledge, however intellectual, of Vietnamese Buddhism as lived & practiced by the people I had lived among off & on since the mid-1990s, when I first traveled to Vietnam. I was attracted to the aesthetics of the liturgy & ritual practices, which seemed deeply integrated into the daily life of the Vietnamese in a way that I had never seen with Christianity in the US. I had been raised by fundamentalists, but had happily & mostly without trauma left it behind when I graduated from high school & went off to college. Even though I had tried as a kid to “believe,” Christianity as I saw it practiced was never as real to me as the “foreign” religion I saw practiced in Vietnam.
It did not actually take me long to settle on long to settle on the Mountains & Rivers Order of Zen, partly because it was reasonably close to home, partly because it seemed welcoming, but mostly because of the founder’s emphasis on the arts as an important part of Buddhist practice. This is not the place to go into detail about the Order where I have now been a formal student for four years, so I’ll just comment that the impact on my life & teaching were almost immediate. No doubt that for a while I exhibited the annoying habits of a recent convert among my friends & colleagues–another example of my hard-wired enthusiasm, I guess. As for teaching, I think the main shift that becoming a Buddhist precipitated was that it gave me a more spacious sense of time, especially in the classroom, where, I realized, there was always the right amount of time, if one could only find the right clock. I slowed down & fit more in. I forgot, even more than usual, the impression I was making & focused on the ten-thousand things of a particular class period.
That phenomenon in the classroom–of time expanding to encompass whatever really needs to be accomplished–can be generalized & applied anywhere. It is perhaps the practical essence of Zen. Surely, may final years in the classroom were made more spacious by my Zen practice, as my life continues to be. Indeed, I cannot think how I would go about understanding my current illness without my Zen practice–not Zen as an institution, just my day to day understanding of what presents itself before me, including even pain & boredom. To say nothing of the satisfactions I have been finding in my recent writing. My Zen practice needs to be big enough to encompass the whole spectrum, which only practice will accomplish. How’s that for a Zen tautology? I tell ya, I got a million of ’em!
Following on from my post about rebirth, it seems necessary to comment on the very great differences between Western ideas of “reincarnation,” in which coming back again & again into samsara is seen as an endless amusement park ride, and the Eastern view (which is not at all monolithic, it should be noted), in which the whole point of rebirth & the accompanying theories of the functioning of karma is to get off the wheel of samsara & enter nirvana. (These are subtle ideas & come in many variations across Asia & now the globalized West as well.) Zen, specifically, drives up the level of difficulty by asserting that samsara & nirvana are one & the same thing. (The hell realms are right here with us, as well as the paradise of the gods & the animal realm, etc. Moment by moment we choose which realm to inhabit.) There is also a split within Buddhism itself as to the desirability of nirvana, or extinction, as the final goal of religious practice. The split is both historical & philosophical & manifests along the Theravada / Mahayana fault line in the history of Buddhism, with the Theravada emphasizing extinction & the Mahayana emphasizing the Bodhisattva ideal of continuing rebirths for an enlightened being until all beings are liberated. This is the Zen way & it involves being deeply engaged with the world as it is as part of one’s practice. The reality of actual conditions needs to be confronted in a spontaneous moment by moment experiencing of the various realms of existence as we traverse them in our lives.
Extinction, then, in my practice, has not been central, has not been a motivating factor; rather, it has been the bodhisattva ideal of helpfulness that has motivated my practice. Neither has my practice been worried about tracing out my “past lives”–if such things can even be said to exist.1 If the Buddha experienced his past lives at the moment of liberation, it was clearly not in narrative form. He may well have come through his enlightenment experience with the sense of his eternal aliveness, but just going over the narratives would have taken much too long, & he had other things to work out that were far more important to the initial turning of the wheel of the dharma he was about to undertake than whether he had been a lion in a previous existence, or a snake. (See the post on Reincarnation.) As for future lives, I have no senses that another “life” awaits me, as I have already said, though I leave room for the possibility of some bardo state I cannot even conceive of here in my human form.
So if nirvana is now & samsara is now, how should we comport ourselves in carrying out the Four Bodhisattva Vows? The Five Remembrances might be a good place to start. As of today I am incorporating them into my daily liturgy along with the Heart Sutra. In Thich Nhat Hanh’s version:
- I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
- I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.
- I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
- All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
- My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.
These are not morbid unless reality itself if morbid. They stand as a reminder for everyone–not just sick folk & old folk. You can recite them in sunlight & in a driving rain. They stand up to scrutiny either way. What I particularly value here is the way the Remembrances reinforce the simultaneousness of nirvana & samsara. They are equally of use in sunshine & in rain, in suffering & in pleasure. Sun-faced Buddha, Moon-faced Buddha.2 I do not know how extinction will happen or if anything follows it. I know that it follows naturally from all that has gone before it, that it should be met with equanimity. And that is my practice now, to go down into the cave of despair without despairing.
- The Buddha is said to have experienced all his past lives at the moment of awakening, but the narratives of those lives are clearly a later addition to the canon. ↩
- This is a famous koan in both Soto & Renzai schools of Zen. Here is one taisho on the koan. There are many others on the internet, including one by my own teacher, Shugen Sensei. ↩