The question of how to deal with difficult times is fundamental for a spiritual practice, and really, for any human life. There’s birth and death, to start with, and then there is all the conflict and uncertainty that happens in between.
Right now the US, and the world, too, are dealing with a dramatic regime change and an upending of values that, while unevenly practiced, we’ve come to expect as foundational. Like many other people, I’ve been trying to understand what’s happening, prepare for it, and make a place for it in my life as woman, a Zen teacher, and a citizen. It’s important to be light on your feet in times like these, and that’s what Zen is about.
This is my particular story, yours could be different. -RB
(This essay was originally published on Rachel Boughton’s blog, Zen Notes. It was also given as a dharma talk at PZI’s winter sesshin, January 2017. A video of the talk can be found below.)
How to Use Koans to Navigate a Disaster
The World of Form, With a Vengeance
About 6 months ago (or longer?) I started to notice an apparent circus event, a bunch of men, and a woman or two, vying with each other to hold the spot of contender in what looked like it would be pretty clear cut presidential election. What followed you probably know. America got a president who is possibly the least qualified person to hold that post in history. In the process I became a born-again feminist, after having let others do that for me for a number of decades. I experienced outrage, complacency, fear, devastation, incomprehension, betrayal, and more outrage. I became somewhat politically active, more literate in domestic and world events, and talked about what I learned to everyone I cared about. I came to feel more and more certain that a massive mistake was being made and that there was a great deal of lawbreaking and bad behavior with a stunning lack of consequence.
Now the country has stepped through the dreaded doorway, accompanied by some early presidential actions that aren’t reassuring. I’m feeling edgy, angry, uncertain and determined. This is the world of Form.
The World of Emptiness
In the past few months in my Zen koan teaching I have tried to keep a place open for the political as well as the personal world, and I’ve discovered many koans are good for this. You can make the case that koans were invented for times like these, just in China a long time ago. The koan that recently got my attention goes like this:
Blue Cliff Case 46: The Sound of Rain
Jinqing asked a student, “What’s that sound outside the door?”
The student answered, “The sound of rain.”
Jinqing said, “People are upside-down. They fool themselves and chase after things.”
“How about you?” asked the student.
“I’m reaching not to lose myself.”
“What does that mean, reaching not to lose myself?”
“Being born is easy, the way of freedom is hard.”
I liked the koan because it stopped me, stopped my mind, let me look out and feel everything around me all at once, as not separate. It helped that it has been raining a lot recently, so listening to the sound of rain was right here at my door. Rain is so amazing, what a sound! But I notice when the rain stops, I’m still able to listen in that way and feel the space inside my experience, feel the sense of there not being a separate me, words dropping off, ideas and troubles falling away.
You can try it. Listen to the rain, or the traffic, or the dishwasher, or your heartbeat. Do it right now, since now is always a good time. Just listen, let everything come to rest in this.
Now back to our koan: What does Jinqing mean when he says we are upside down and fool ourselves and reach for things? It’s just that we’re always making problems for ourselves. We suddenly need to be different, we look to the future and are sure we’ll never get what we want, or we will never be who we want. It’s just suffering, and from the point of view of the rain, it’s not necessary. What we need is what we have.
But then the teacher says this poignant thing: “I’m reaching not to lose myself.” So the reaching is something we always do, anyway. And you can feel that it’s worth doing, too. Because I can feel, when I listen to the rain, that the mountains and the great earth, the sun and the moon and the stars, they are me. But I’m also just me, with my skin and my bones, with my loves and my disappointments, with my birth and my death. My self is both the emptiness, the vastness, and my specific humanness, which is the only expression that the vastness has ever had. “Being born,” says the teacher, “is easy. The way of freedom is hard.” To be born, to wake up into this beautiful infinitude, that happens. It’s as easy as falling off a log, or listening to the rain. But to navigate in such a way as to take that into account…that’s hard.
There is a koan that speaks of two monks who roll up the blinds in the meditation hall. They do it in exactly the same way, but one is right and one is wrong. Form and emptiness in our lives are like that. They are exactly the same, but in any given moment, one is right, and one is wrong. I am both infinite and finite. Sometimes I have to feel something in my heart and my body, be taken apart by it, by grief or anger of love. It’s right to feel things like that, until it’s time for emptiness. One way to get there is by way of metaphor and humility, what’s out there is also in me. This fixed self of mine gets tired and longs for kin, for the infinite light that’s its birthright.
Complex and Uncertain, Very.
Another thing to say about apparent disasters is this. On a cosmic scale, I’m possibly a speck. Even on a global scale I’m lucky to be an ant. I’m just not capable of any grand perspective. The movement of countries and landmasses and multinational corporations have their own agendas that are way beyond the human scale. So, like with the weather or with ecological systems, there is astonishing complexity and uncertainty. I just can’t predict, no matter how hard I try, or how many newspapers I read, what will happen.
Ecological Interlude: The Re-Wolfing of Yellowstone
As I was despairing recently, a friend told me about a trip to Yellowstone to see wolves. The story is this: In the 1930’s hunters and ranchers reduced the number of wolves in Yellowstone National Park to zero. In 1995 a few packs were reintroduced and have steadily been increasing in number and health ever since. Although some of the local ranchers weren’t thrilled, the effects were unexpected and surprising and complex. The first thing that became apparent was that the beaver population in the park had greatly increased, even though beavers could be prey to wolves. It appeared that the moose and elk, who had done so well without predators for 65 years, had grown sedentary and were eating all the willow saplings so the beavers couldn’t build dams. When the wolves appeared, the elk ranged much farther, and the willow biomass grew by 85% in just a few years. So with more willow there were more beavers, and with more beaver ponds, there were more fish, and more birds of all sorts. The far ranging herds of elk lead to carrion that was shared by other predators, lynx and bears among others. Biodiversity increased unpredictably, leading to a healthier and more resilient ecosystem.
While it may not be a fair analogy, when things get more chaotic, biodiversity increases, systems become more robust, nature gets creative. The elk, it turned out, were remarkably adaptable, too.
Exercise: In the interest of being light on our feet, our personal identity is good to investigate. It is a place where we have the capacity to grow and adapt. So, complete the following sentences in a number of ways. Don’t be too picky, don’t let embarrassment censor you. Pay attention to how it feels in your body as you write each one.
- I’m the sort of person who…
- I’m not the sort of person who…
- I’m good at…
- I could never/would never…
Do this with a friend or two and when you’re done, share your answers. It will make you laugh and possibly cry. Insight will come, especially if you’re really curious about your responses and don’t judge or coerce yourself. Just see what happens. There is no correct thing to discover. Discovery itself is good.
In all times, but especially in tough times, our practice is this reaching, not to lose ourselves. And in reaching we get stronger, more resilient, smarter, funnier and kinder. While I don’t know what we’re going to be called upon to do, or what courage we may be asked to find, or what work might become ours to do, I can tell that this is the way we’re going to do it: with humor and patience and vulnerability and confidence. And in this way we find out how a spiritual practice matters, and that what we do in this way makes a difference, perhaps even a disproportionate difference, in the way things will go in this world.
This essay was originally published on Rachel Boughton’s blog. It was also given as the talk below.
Whereas the world is a house on fire;
Whereas the nations are filled with shouting;
Whereas hope seems small, sometimes
a single bird on a wire
left by migration behind.
Whereas kindness is seldom in the news
and peace an abstraction
while war is real;
Whereas words are all I have;
Whereas my life is short;
Whereas I am afraid;
Whereas I am free –despite all
fire and anger and fear;
Be it therefore resolved a song
shall be my calling – a song
not yet made shall be vocation
and peaceful words the work
of my remaining days.
– Kim Stafford (2005)