October has snuck up on me again.I didn’t know yesterday was my last day of September.I thought it was just a normal day—just one in a long series of days – beginning in ancient times (when did the first days start?Were there days when the earth was hot and molten?Or did they start with the oceans?Or with the first single celled organisms? Or with the first human to discern the pattern of alternating light and dark?) Beginning in ancient times and extending out to the incomprehensible future.
Of course there won’t be days after the sun runs down—when the photon blessings of that fiery orb no longer shower this blue green planet.Though by that time, after an unimaginably long period of imperceptible cooling, we certainly won’t be around to notice and this blue green beauty will long ago have turned to white. Entirely frozen.Forever frozen.Will there be traces of us left beneath the miles of ice.Will someone from a far distant planet earn whatever his equivalent of a PhD is by writing about the possibility of ancient life on the ice planet in the milky way revolving around a fading star?
Maybe with his super-tronic telescope he finds us one day.And the revolutions and limited light are just right in that moment.And he sees a brief shadow on his screen.He sees a faint shape – an irregular shape – or a regular shape – but something that gets him dreaming about not being alone in the universe.
The respectable people of his world encourage him to work on more productive topics – like refining time travel or improving holo-deck technology – but he is stubborn and refuses to listen. And slowly, over time, his impossible evidence mounts.Things that shouldn’t be there.A morning glory seed that was caught in the act of sprouting. A diamond on a metallic circle - with someone’s initials scratched in it.Or maybe a pair of dirty underwear encased in amber – that leads him to the astonishing conjecture that these life forms had tube-like protuberances hanging from the bottom of their heart chamber.His ridiculous persistence pays off and his theory wins grudging acceptance, though everyone knows it couldn’t really be true.
Yes, it’s October.Just another day and some new beginning.Leaves falling faster.Days growing shorter.Up in the early morning darkness.Dreaming of unreasonable persistence and of being discovered.
The other day I was complaining to a friend about my confusion and frustration in beginning to read the Diamond Sutra, one of the seminal texts of the Mahayana tradition.George and I are thinking of offering a study/dialogue group to explore this sutra and I thought I’d better get a head start.But as I started to read these unfamiliar words translated from ancient Chinese and Sanskrit, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of my own stupidity and dullness.These celebrated words of the Buddha lay limp and incomprehensible on the page, refusing me any way in.Then I realized that I must be a poor excuse of a Zen teacher – one who can’t even make sense of the basic texts of the tradition.
My friend quickly and cheerfully clarified the matter for me.She said “Oh, you must just be a stupid Zen teacher.”This made me laugh and breath a great sigh of relief.The burden of expectation was lifted.I quickly saw that I can easily be an excellent stupid Zen teacher – perhaps one of the very best.I just have to be myself.Then I know what I know and I don’t know what I don’t know.The words that make sense with my experience make sense.The words that don’t, don’t.
So I am continuing my investigation into the Diamond Sutra, but with a new perspective.Reading as a stupid Zen master, my incomprehension is not a problem, but rather a starting point.I can now notice whatever arises rather than invest my energy in self-judgment and striving.
I’m now on about the fourth line.I’ve settled down with the Buddha after he has come back from his daily begging in town.I’ve bowed at his feet, circled around him three times in a clockwise fashion, and begun to listen to his strange voice from across the centuries.Being rather dull, I don’t expect to understand much, but I'm hoping that just being here is enough.
I didn’t really want to come home.I wanted to stay hidden in the hills of northern Wales—to buy an old stone farmhouse nestled in the green but barren mountains of Snowdonia.With a view of the valley stretching out in front and peaks rising in the distance.Maybe some sheep wandering in oddly shaped stone bounded fields.And I would disappear into my daily routine – reading and writing and doing chores around the house.An occasional ramble on foot or on bike to explore the ancient landscapes – following the trails that lure me up and down the steep inclines.
But being a responsible adult, I didn’t honestly consider this.Honoring the path of the ticket already purchased.The sweet and sometimes sticky web of connection that is my daily life here at the Temple in Worcester.The ring of the doorbell 15 minutes before meditation.The friends and strangers that come – shyly or boldly to sit in silence – together.The sound of the bells and the familiar chants calling out for refuge.And the ten thousand pieces of plans and meetings, commitments and conversations that dance in the air.The ancient roads of community and practice – every bit as steep and dramatic as the rocky paths of Snowdonia.
Can I hide in these verdant hills?Can I disappear into the life that is already here?Just these dishes.Just this writing.Encountering each situation, each relationship as a new piece of geography – a new perspective in the wild and familiar hills of being human.To wander in this landscape of aliveness with fresh eyes and clear intention.
A slight chill this morning – morning glories blossomed on the railing – the palest blue.They stand erect and still as if they are looking for something – a lost lover.Or like they heard something faintly in the distance and are great ears listening with breath held to hear some new urgency.Or as if the love held captive in the seed and the vines and the leaves could contain itself no longer and has been shot forth.Delicate membrane unfurled. Silky as the finest Parisian blouse – a raiment softer than the fairest skin.
Only for a few moments, my whole lifetime is lived.Too fragile to last – this membrane of love – made only for giving and receiving.
Now the blossoms quiver in the imperceptible breeze.Too fragile to last – like a human being – defenseless walking upright with this delicate skin membrane holding it all together – not at all sturdy - like a rock or a piece of dirt.
But I am sure they are listening – tuning into the deep hum of the universe.Their only job is to listen – to receive – which they do perfectly.The ear-like sails – radio wave collectors – more powerful than the sonic telescopes lined up in the desert waiting to hear news of other life in far away places – to listen to ‘see’ what is beyond what we know.This place where listening and seeing are not separate.
And what IT is is not determined by what it is, but by that which receives.The softest blue is just a dance happening between the shaking fragility of these blossoms and the intricacy of the electro-magnetic impulses I call myself.
The morning glories that gloriously bloomed through most of the summer have not returned.In the spring, my intention was to repeat last year’s success.I followed the same steps – but decided to try some new colors.But May was so cold that the first seedlings I set out didn’t survive.But new seedlings sprouted quickly and eventually the plants began to grow with vigor.
Now in early August, the jute strings rising to the pergola are hidden in the tangle of the generously lobed leaves.The tendrils—having long since risen to the top—keep rising and fall to the sides.They twist and turn like puppies chasing each other for the sheer joy of the play.Arcing gracefully, they spray carelessly away from the support—into midair.
And today, the second blossom of the season appeared.Of course, it is a delicate miracle of blue. I do my best to appreciate it - to greet it with appropriate approbation and gratitude.But mostly my mind runs to questions.‘Where are your brothers and sisters?Did I feed you too much or not enough?How have I failed as a parent?How could you disappoint me like this?’These silly questions make appreciation difficult but seem to rise up unbidden from some endlessly deep well of dissatisfaction.
Meanwhile, in a pot on a nearby table, brilliant blossoms of crimson impatiens wiggle slightly in the morning breeze.They care not a fig for my fancy speculating, but call wordlessly with the endless song of beauty and perfect sufficiency.And I look over once again to the single morning glory blossom and think: ‘Maybe just one is enough.’
A cool breeze blows across the Temple grounds. This morning quiet will soon be filled with voices and bodies as we’re having a work-day to prepare for our upcoming sesshin. Earlier, the neighbors walked by as I was weeding one of the front gardens. We greet each other warmly and talk about the weather. They are wonderfully nice people, but we’ve only talked to them four or five times in the two years we’ve been here. The Temple is like that – somehow private even in the midst of the city.
But it’s the crabgrass I’m thinking about this morning. Over the past week I’ve pulled out grand patches of it from the mulched areas around the rhododendrons in the front and still it keeps coming back. I admire its easy tenacity and appreciate how it has filled in the bare patches in our nearby lawn. Each tuft I pull this morning from among the brightly colored nasturtiums comes up with white threaded roots clinging gently to bits of mulch. A shake or two and most is given back and I throw the slender green shoots into my weed bucket.
I feel quite productive when I’m weeding. Aside from the fact that it’s an unending task, I find a gentle satisfaction in clearing the space. I still don’t know how things grow – these trailing nasturtiums were round pea-like seeds and now manifest as crimson, orange, and golden flowers lurking amongst the pleasingly shaped round leaves. They seem to wander randomly from the root stem, as if they were out to escape the inertial pull of their beginnings. But I do sometimes know how to clear space – how to make room for what is yet to come.
I suppose this is what our meditation is about – clearing some space in the busyness of our lives to allow the aliveness of the moment to reveal itself. We can’t command it, but we can create conditions that seem to allow it to be known. Sitting still and following the breath, sometimes the clutter of the mind fades away and some enormously shy presence allows itself to be seen.
But too much talk of these grand concepts is like trying to tell the nasturtiums how to grow those delicate and tasty flowers. They already know. So I remind myself to appreciate the necessary little bit I am given to do and I go back to pulling the crab grass.
I’m in love with the Temple gardens again. It took me a while to find my way back in this spring. Being so caught up in the procession of retreats and ceremonies here at the Temple, I’ve only recently taken up my morning wanderings again. I set out the back door with as little intention as possible. Following my feet and remembering not to work, I am filled – heart and mind – with the subtle thrill green activity.
This slow garden saunter is the true pleasure of gardening. These gardens of our lives are never finished. Always weeds to pull, plants to rearrange, new spaces to create. Walking at leisure, I allow the ideas of the future to be part of the pleasure of this moment. The only true place of appreciation is in the middle of it all – joining in as part of the endless arising and falling away. In this perpetual becomingness each blossom is separate and complete while only arising in the full support of the earth and the sky and the sun and the stars.
I willingly take my place as the slowest one in the garden. I am the younger brother tagging along with his beautiful older sister. Hopelessly in love, I am happy just to be in her presence though I only dimly understand the necessities of her world. But the garden is patient with me – not demanding any more than I give – but meeting me joyously wherever I show up. The bricks on the path rise precisely to meet my foot with each step. The shape and hue of each thing gives itself with abandon to the heart of my senses – with no effort – as if it were not a miracle – as if it were just a wooden bench in the morning sun. Such a clever disguise for God. Who would have thought that she was here all along?
The seeds I put into peat pots last week have sprouted.The tiny dry brown flakes and little roundish bits of nothing have produced bits of tender green waving about on the slenderest of stalks.To really look at what has happened from any kind of reasonable perspective is to witness the utterly preposterous.But my mother taught me to plant gardens and watch closely.I expected this all along.And still, I’m unreasonably astonished and delighted.
Each time I pass the glare of the grow light in my office, I pause to greet the tiny fellows lined up in their trays.Each one is clearly committed to its path toward a summer exposition of beauty.
I pause and smile to myself.Here it is - the unspeakable – the grandeur of God – the one true way.Right under my nose all the time.At last, I can call off the search and get down to business.I go into the kitchen and make a cup of tea.
In the early morning dark I sneak outside for a few minutes after I make my tea.It’s been a night above freezing for the first time in months and the damp coolness in the air feels alive to me.Standing out on the porch swinging my arms in random directions, my body remembers spring – the dirt and possibility lying silently beneath the seasons accretion of snow.
Yesterday, it was nearly 60 and I spent part of my day digging in the snow bank that the plow has pushed up against the Temple.My intention was to create a channel away from the foundation for the melting snow water to follow.It wasn’t strictly necessary – a good idea – but no water in the basement yet.Preventative.Prophylactic.But mostly for me.To be outside – to be pushing the world around.A shovel full of snow thrown out over the parking lot to melt.A careful channel of water through the ice and snow.
When I was young and it rained really hard in the summer, the water would come down the gutters of our suburban street in torrents.My mother let us – I suspect even encouraged us – to play outside.Or was it that we were out playing and got drenched before we could get home and asked if we could stay outside? Either way we ended up totally wet.Then, fearless of the rain, we walked up the street –delighting in the our freedom and wetness.
I do want to be included in this world - to escape this persistent dream of separation.I want to wait for spring sprouting with the dignified patience of the bare trees.But mostly these days I feel like an impatient sapling – dancing quickly in the breezes like a squirmy child:‘Are we there yet?Is the winter over yet?How much longer?’
Schools are closed again today.Even long-time New Englander’s are beginning to complain about the white stuff.A headline in the Boston Globe reports ‘city officials’ as saying ‘Enough is Enough.’Apparently this is not true.Enough is not enough.
Here at the Temple, our parking lot is growing smaller with each successive snowfall – the snow banks higher and thicker.Soon we’ll have a walled parking lot – maybe it will become a secret garden – we’ll keep it a private place that only certain people can find their way into.And perhaps inside, the season will change – the falling snow will become a soft mist that the morning sun will burn off.And we’ll all take our jackets off – though we won’t let anyone know.We’ll take off our jackets and maybe even our shirts – to dance slowly in the warm sun.We’ll dance with the sweet currents of energy.Sometimes we’ll even fly – become birds and fly though the sky with a wild freedom.Ahhhhh – that’s better.
But this morning, there is freedom and grace of snow shoveling and snow blowing to be done.Bundle up, start the engine, make a lot of noise and do some real work.As I head out, I hear the voice of a friend’s father – now confined to bed and near death.He was sorry to be lying in bed, was sad to not be out shoveling.So I remember to be grateful for this body that still has the energy and strength to rise out of bed and to go play outside, I’ll get my morning exercise clearing moving the white stuff from here to there.
This year, I am determined to be more unproductive. My goal is to do less and less – to move slower and slower until everything stops. I and the whole world will come to a sweet and silent stillness. And in this stillness, a great shout of joy will arise. We will all be free – free from the advice of ancient ages, free from the whining voices, free from the incessant objections of the responsible ones.
In this new world, it will be abundantly clear that the bare branches of the winter trees are our teachers. In their daily dance of moving here and there, we will see once again the true meaning of our life. In the wind song of their being, we will hear God’s unmistakable voice. We will follow what appears before us - what had once been difficult will now unfold with ease.
*Ox and Window by Zen Master Hakuin Ekaku, 1685-1768