Zen & the Arts - Field Notes

Cloudy but bright inside, like a moonstone.

Beethoven’s original score for Piano Sonata Op. 15

We are always trying to know, but it’s not knowing we depend on. We try to expand what we know, and to work with what we know, but everything that we love comes out of a place of not knowing.

Where do ideas come from? What about songs and art? And how do we know what we love? One way we discover what we love is that little bits of the universe speak to us. The bits don’t have to be beautiful—a corner of a building, a patch of sky, the rhythm of a child’s feet running—any piece of life will do, and what makes these little pieces appealing is entirely mysterious.

Serendipity is a helpful idea here, because it refers to finding, by accident and sagacity, things that you are not looking for. The need for sagacity indicates that you have to be paying attention to notice a good idea when it occurs. Serendipity indicates that life is larger and stranger than we imagine, and that there might be mysterious and invisible connections between things.  When we notice connections between the separate bits of life, they make us happy. In stumbling on connections, we learn to rely on what we don’t know.

The important thing is to make discoveries that you are not looking for. If you find what you are looking for, you are still a familiar person in a familiar world, doing routine things. The Chinese knew about this problem, and invented koans as one solution. In the Zen tradition koans are little stories and questions that lead into uncertainty and depend on not knowing. Silence and stillness are interesting because they allow the mind to settle until the right course of action appears. When I am quiet, life reveals itself to me, and who I am begins to change and open. When I find what I’m not looking for, I become unknown even to myself.

When we are not doing things to acquire something, we are not manipulating the world to get things or people to get love, then we are just living, and freedom appears.

People call sitting in silence ‘meditation’, but meditation is really just listening to your life. You ally with the forces of serendipity by getting out of the way. In the midst of doing, there is a way of non-doing. It has silence and waiting in it. The Chinese told the koan stories and said that even hearing such a story might change your approach to life. Everyone knows the way a chance remark or snatch of song can change your mood. The koan stories shift your feeling about who you are.

“Moonlit Road,” by Edward Steichen – 1910

I live in Sonoma County, among the vineyards North of San Francisco, and at night I hear great horned owls calling. When the sound enters me, and I really hear it, everything else disappears and there is a feeling of being at home in the world, of having my place in the larger story. The current of life carries me along. I can’t use this great current for any purpose, but at such a time there is no limit to the joy of being alive. Even reaching for peace is itself a kind of peace. Entering these moments is caring for life, not just my life but all life.

One time, I woke in the night as I often do and sat in meditation looking out at the garden. The dog sat beside me. It was a foggy night and the moonlight had penetrated the fog and was reflecting back from it with a diffuse glow—as in Marianne Moore’s poem, “The Magician’s Retreat.”

Cloudy but bright inside,
like a moonstone

The pale flagstones and vines were softly visible, along with the shoots of the lime tree. Everything was quietly alive. I was not clear about the edges of things or even my own edges and noticed a koan, which I had been dreaming about during sleep, was continuing to repeat itself now that I was partly awake.

The story was the koan of the sieve, here it is:

A small group of people met every week to talk about koans, they kept company with koans. This seemed to work well enough. Then they invited a teacher to instruct them. The teacher told them that they could have a regular practice, develop a feeling of tenderness and appreciation for everything alive, and not be so caught up in their reactions to things. The explanation of meditation was like this: “Realize the light that runs through all things. Realize this wherever you are and whatever you are doing, so that meditation becomes seamless and you can’t tell the difference between meditation and anything else that’s happening in your life. It’s not hard. Fill a sieve with water.” Then the teacher left.

They followed these instructions as best they could, different people being affected in different ways. Their lives changed and most of them were happier and less troubled by their thoughts, more open to what came to them. But there was one woman who was deeply touched by the image of the sieve and of the fairy tale task of filling it with water, and the story wouldn’t leave her.

So after about a year, she traveled the day’s journey to the coast to see the teacher. She arrived late in the afternoon and told her story. The teacher said, “Well, it’s late. Why don’t we let it rest here, you can stay the night, and in the morning, we’ll look into this.’” She spent the night in the guest house, hearing the seals barking, and the next morning, the teacher said, “Come with me,” and they went for a walk. On the way they made a detour through the kitchen where the teacher picked up a large sieve. They went down to the beach; it was a calm morning, small waves ran up on the grey rocks and fell back. Silently, the teacher handed her the sieve. She was excited and confused, as if something were trying to be born. Impulsively, she knelt down and her jeans got soaked and she scooped the cold water into the sieve with her hand. She was happy doing this and the bottom of the sieve glistened, but the water ran right through and back into the sea.

She stood up and passed the sieve back. The teacher took the sieve and threw it out as far as he could into the waves where it floated for just a few seconds and sank. At that moment her heart opened, tears came, and she understood that she was at home and could be happy.

So that’s it, we thought we were separated from the world and we are held in it, and saturated with it. We’ll get what we want whether we get it or not.

The koan of the sieve is a journey; it draws the heroine along to the shore of resolution. We accompany her and as the images transform, they take the material of our lives and bring about changes in us. A woman who heard about this koan told me that it brought recent grief to mind, all her watery losses—the marriage, her sister, her brother, her dog. And then something else happened, in her meditation, the sieve became a red colander which rose up in the sky and the bright sun shone red through it.

There are two fundamental conditions: In the first, I’m separated from myself, desolate, uncared for, far from home, trying to fill a sieve with my hands. In the other situation I’m immersed in the world; everything I see, hear, taste, smell, and touch, comes bearing its own meaning and beauty. When we experience this, it’s as if we were always inside the world and playing our true part in it, but we don’t necessarily notice this. Whether we strive for outcomes, or whether we are touched by sorrows, the external circumstances are not themselves the main thing. To be carried by life, to be saturated with it, is itself a kind of song.

Each life is complete but sometimes it’s hard to let it be so. It is the strangest, most difficult truth that life gives us what it gives us, without regard for our intentions, our kindness, or our devotion. We can accompany each other on our journeys, but there is no real protection, and there is nothing we can know or hold onto. We are always sinking into the ocean, and though our schemes are part of life, they don’t protect us from it. And in the midst of this nakedness we can be at home.

There is no life without holes; even if we try to fill the sieve with our hands, the starlight, the wind, and the sea pour through us. The little bits, the sights and sounds that appear, each one comes out of the not knowing and contains all of life. It is ours, it’s for us and if we say “No” to one part of life that “No” gradually seeps into everything.

As I sat with the Border Collie that night, the great horned owl called, and when she went hunting, I heard and felt her wings inside me. I had the feeling that something had already arrived or was here even before I’d finished wondering if it were here.

And I remembered some lines that had come into my dream shortly before:

The sieve is in the sky now,

and filled with the stars.

The dog and I continued to look out into the garden, the fog, and the moonlight.

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