Zen & the Arts - Field Notes

In the Buddhist cosmology there are six realms. One is entirely inhabited by gods who are angry. They like to break things, and they are perpetually at war. Another realm contains ghosts who are always hungry, but have tiny throats and can barely eat and are never satisfied. At the level below the ghosts there are demons, whose lives are tormented by fire, water, ice, shame, their own attempts to ease themselves. The other three realms are separately populated by their own creatures, too. There are gods who move like sleepwalkers through bliss, happy in their fashion but unconscious in their mansions. There are animals, who reside in the world of their original innocence and live without the self conscious suffering that is the beginning of a spiritual practice. And then there are humans, the in-between creatures, capable of spiritual discovery, of suffering and of theories about suffering, and of wondering who we are. There are also a few other hard-to-categorize creatures such as dragons, who don’t seem to fit into the six realms, and who, like humans, can have a spiritual practice.

So you can try to struggle up the ladder of the worlds, but there’s something boring, heartless, and corporate about that. The other possibility is just to step directly into the unknown.

Shenshan was mending clothes when Dongshan asked, “What are you doing?”
“Mending,” said Shenshan.
“How is it going?” asked Dongshan.
“One stitch follows another,” said Shenshan.
“We’ve been traveling together for twenty years and that’s all you have to say?” said Dongshan. “How can you be so clueless?”
“How do you mend, then?”
“With each stitch the whole earth is spewing flames.”

It’s true each moment there’s a wild fire burning. Everything could turn upside down, it is turning, it has turned and the life of a minute ago has gone up in flames. And in each cell, and in the mitochondria that power each cell: flames. It’s spring here, the daffodils are singing white and gold, and the yearning inspired by apricot blossoms is impossible to solve. Everything has the light and is reaching for the light. This is meditation.

The fire in each heart is a democratic fire, available to all the creatures merely for existing, it’s the luminous force that gives life. It’s obvious that dogs have it in their glance and in the fold of their legs and the way they seem to review their lives when they get very old. And demons have it too, in their fangs and anger and in the sorrow deep inside their eyes. And so we must include our own confusion, and our repulsive and disgusting moments as well as our slivers of joy. We came here to include them too: the dogs, the demons, the hungry ghosts, the angry gods, and the cluelessly rich and ignorantly blissful.

This is what imagination means in the world. Koans encourage this embrace. The vessel of consciousness enlarges and we feel more of what, even more basic than who, we are.

We step from story to story and in each of these little worlds, life has us. The things I don’t like all yell out “Ha!” as if I’m in a martial arts dojo, and their yell goes through me. So it’s not as if I do something with my life. Instead, the universe is doing something, with me. It is always taking me into the unknown.

Doubt about what to do next is a gate. Nothing is known about what comes next. To step into the unknown, you just have to hear about the unknown. You are already through a gate, you forget who you thought you were.

Most of all the gate is this question: “What is it like to be me, now, when I don’t know?” And then you find that the material you’re always reaching past, the material that fills your mind, your daily delusion, is itself a part of the shining quality of life.

We’re always thinking “Oh, there’s the light over there,” but the light is not in what’s being reached for, it’s in the person who’s reaching. And so if you do something as simple as say “What’s it like to be me right now?” you’re actually revealing the whole secret.

We notice the vastness inside the liveliness of the situation. That it’s here, that it’s right here, in the job you didn’t get, the messy divorce, the tenderness of caring for someone whose body is giving out. The simplification of meditation allows us to experience the richness, in the way that grabbing things doesn’t, and catching and accumulating stuff doesn’t.

I like it when the aliveness turns up in unexpected places. This is a few years ago: We are in SFO on a long haul jet, going to Sydney. Everyone has boarded. When the crew comes around closing the overheads, the overhead next to me doesn’t close. They call Maintenance and Maintenance is busy on another plane, so: “We might be here for a while.” Then a well-dressed, polite, Australian in the seat behind me stands up and looks at the overhead bin for a few seconds, and says

“Can somebody give me a hand?” And the man in the next seat pops up.

“You hold that,” the first man directs the second. The neighbor applies force as told and the man from Sydney presses with the heel of his hand, and the bin closes. We take off.

I turned and asked, “How did you do that?”

“Oh, I used to be a car thief,” he said. “Really just for fun.”

He wasn’t making any elevated claims about himself as a professional. “I’m not really that good at it,” he indicated, his modesty holding us in his spell. He was like the samurai in Kurosawa who practices his martial art just for the sake of the art. So his car thievery was a kind of practice, like meditation, like Shenshan mending on a casual night. The whole earth is spewing flames.

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