Despite the pain, there is also a sweetness and a tenderness in our story of abandonment. A decision is made. The journey is taken. The moon rises, and we return. Then, we journey back home together.
“Eventually, all things merge into one,” wrote Normal Mclean, “and a river runs through it.” I have been feeling immersed in that river lately.
I broke my favorite coffee mug yesterday. I had set the empty cup on a cabinet in my office, it fell on the carpet, and when I moved my chair to pick it up, the chair crushed it. I felt like the dopey Emperor Wu, who his whole life regretted not having known that Bodhidharma was a great sage.
In a dark, early morning Los Angeles zendo some years ago, a couple of monks came in late for the first sitting. The teacher spoke into the room: “When you hear the morning bell, just get up! Nothing more. Just get up! It is so simple.” Words I tell myself as my alarm goes off for our morning Open Temple…
The koan above, from our Miscellaneous collection, is utterly simple, and that is its grand beauty, its infinite generosity. The koan is not just about getting to the dokusan (private interview) room. It is also about the miracle of how we arrived; at this place and this time in this life. To get to this life, how my steps did it take? How much effort expended?
This koan was offered in Pacific Zen’s Open Temple sitting a few mornings ago, and immediately it resonated with some thoughts, dreams and emails regarding teaching that I have been exploring over the past weeks. This exchange between Dongshan and his teacher was all the more touching to me because it was their last; Yunyan died soon afterward. Traditionally, a teacher would give his student the teacher’s portrait when he formally recognized the student as his successor.
Susan Murphy Roshi is the founding teacher of the Zen Open Circle in Sydney and for two decades has served as its guiding teacher. She also guides the Melbourne Zen Group and Mountains and Rivers Zen, Hobart, in Australia. Susan, who has been affiliated with Pacific Zen and its associates since the mid-1980s, received transmission as a Roshi from John Tarrant in 2001. She works as writer, freelance radio producer, and film director, and previously served as a university lecturer in film studies. In addition to several books on film, Susan is author of Upside-Down Zen, A Direct Path into Reality; Minding the Earth, Mending the World: Zen and the Art of Planetary Crisis; and Red Thread Zen: Humanly Tangled in Emptiness.
But in waking life, the next few days became more difficult for her, she spiraled down into a thud-bounce. At her low point, she sent me an email asking for advice: should she stay and participate, stay and not participate, or leave the retreat altogether? I suggested: “Stay and participate for no good reason.”
Though we are on break this week, two koans have melded together and begun to soak deeply into me: the 9th-century Chinese master Dongshan’s exchange with another monk and a piece by the 20th-century Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska.
Shitodo ni nurete is the expression used in the above poem to convey the image of being completely soaked. This mortal life is a messy one, it is soiled and wet with fluids of the body, the emotions, and the environment. We often expect awakening to be about the clean and dry part, the holy and sacred part. But awakening is not about some idea of purity, some idea of clean. “Don’t love the sacred,” said Linji, “’Sacred’ itself is an empty name.”