Zen & the Arts - Field Notes

Every creature has an interest in getting out of the cage, the prison, the golden palace where their idea of themselves was formed. I have an early memory of learning how to walk in the backyard of a foster home and of staring at the vast fence palings and looking for a way through.

Meditation arose as an escape art. I’m still always looking for a new idea or wondering how to get rid of an old idea that threatens to possess me. When the mind is involved, the quest for escape has a special feature: the situation I can’t fix is on my side. Here is an example that begins with the weather, something you can’t do much about.

This summer, which is winter in the Southern Hemisphere, a great 100-year flood came to Launceston, Tasmania, the town in which I grew up. Up in the mountains, the waters gathered and they came roaring down the rivers, bearing uptorn trees, lapping against high bridges and overwhelming low-lying streets. Spiders escaped by spinning balloons, parachutes which lofted and lifted them up and away, and something amazing appeared in the trees on higher ground: sheets and waves of silk, gossamer acres of shining silk.

I grew up with stories of the previous great flood, which was in 1929. In those days, my mother lived by the port at the Marine Board where her father was eventually to become Harbour Master. That winter it rained prodigiously and kept raining, thirteen inches in one night in the mountains of the northeast. A dam broke. And one day, there was a sign that everything might be changing: the wharf rats came openly along the esplanade in more or less single file, up the street to higher ground. They squeaked, they plodded, they hurried, they jostled shoulder to shoulder. Hungry and soaked, they came on and on through the grey, persistent rain, an astounding sight.

Unlike the rats, my grandmother did not evacuate but waited for her husband to come home. The rising flood waters trapped her, and her two young girls, in the old convict-built brick house where they lived. After dark, my grandfather finally arrived and organized a rescue. He had occupied the last car to make it across the bridge, which was awash. The women climbed out of an upper-story window and into a dinghy by lantern light. Even as a child I noticed that in the telling of this story there was no condemnation of the confusion that led my grandmother to retreat up the stairs instead of up the street. Sometimes we really are in the power of forces beyond our capacity for clarity.

The bit that struck me, though, was about the rats. I had seen those blackish rats moving with boldness and intelligence among the forklifts and the thick splintered timbers of the wharves. I have heard stories of prisoners or children who befriend rats, but rats and humans are usually on opposite sides. The floods changed that, though, and I could tell that my mother still sympathized with those shivering creatures, covered in slicked-down fur, and I, too, felt their daring and loyalty as they fled in a group.

The animals had confidence in the arrival of the flood before the humans did, but that is not really unusual since we already understand that they have better knowledge of such things. The exciting feature of the story lies in the discovery that things might not be as we thought.

My thoughts appear without consulting me and a surprise makes a kind of space in the tumble of this process. A surprise then can be a shift toward some sort of waking up, a release from the cell of conclusions.

But we don’t necessarily need rats and spiders and floods. The elegance of strangeness is available even without the benefit of a disaster. This elegance lies in wait in our ordinary lives. In considering the rats, I could tell that some moments shimmer as if they will always be here.

If I’m looking for a gap to pass through, or wondering what life is about and how it all goes together, the answer isn’t likely to come from something known, since that is where I would have already looked. It is more likely to come from nothing, or from something humble or repulsive, from a place I wouldn’t think to look.

This is the reason I work with koans: they depend on the unexpected, and the uncertain, on opening a space inside the expected. Which is why Zen conversations don’t unfold in a predictable way. Here’s a Q & A from a koan set in China:

A student asked a teacher, “What is your state of mind?”
The teacher answered,
“Clasping their young to their breasts,
the monkeys return beyond the purple mountains,
holding with flowers in their beaks,
the birds alight before the blue grotto.”

The question is along the lines of “What is it like to be you?” and it has been asked of a Zen teacher, a person who might have something to say about consciousness. The answer has a bearing on how we can be creative and happy, on the nature of mind and the tidal pull of sorrow and all that. And instead of explaining something, the teacher just gives a few lines of poetry, an image of the unfolding of a bright moment.

Issa wrote,

Little girl
You’ll never teach that cat to dance
Spring rain.

The thing that opens everything up is already present, even if overlooked before you even leave the house. That little girl only lived another year and the cat is dead and Issa is also long dead but the little girl is still dancing in the spring rain.

And a friend whose husband was dying wrote.

Orange blossoms and cinnamon rolls
will not save me.

Even the act of describing loss has its beauty. A snatch of a poem, a snatch of a koan, a moment of sorrow, a moment of amusement about a child, all of these moments have an everlasting quality.

The question, “What is it like to be you?” is ultimately about, “What is it like to be me?”

Our questions are directed to the ways the world surprises us and, even more, to the ways in which we surprise ourselves in our responses. And that’s probably enough for a creative life. This is the splendid thing: to amaze ourselves, to be able to inhabit the entirely ordinary lives we already have.

The transparence, the luminosity, has to be inside the here, inside the thickness of every event happening now, the thoughts, the weather, the drifting spiders and, especially, the wet rats.

Field Notes

“Every dewdrop manifested in every realm is a dream. This dream is the glowing clarity of the hundred grasses. What requires questioning is this very point. What is confusing is this very point. At this time, there are dream grasses, grasses within, expressive grasses, and so on. When we study this, then roots, stems, branches, leaves, flowers, and fruits, as well as radiance and color are all the great dream. Do not mistake them as merely dreamy.”

– from Dogen, Enlightenment Unfolds (edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi)

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