It is so easy for us to fall into a train of delay and re-schedule in our lives: waiting for all the ducks to line up. I was planning to replace my leaky roof, but then the stock market crashed. The market recovered, but the architect was taking too long. He finally finished the plans and then the pandemic took hold, causing supply chain delays. The delays exposed the open roof to rain, which was six times the average for that month. The roof leaked, doing some damage to the ceiling. We patched the ceiling, but then the drought returned, and with it the threat of wildland fire. Endless are the conditions conspiring against our roof repairs. Endless are the conditions conspiring against making ours a perfect life.
Before the pandemic, we would come together in a remote location and form a cloister away from our daily lives. With our Covid-era virtual retreats, however, the borders of the cloister have been re-drawn and now wrap around and include our everyday lives. In our screen community, we see cats and couches, pajamas and coffee cups. For some reason, in this past retreat, one landscape feature that caught my eye was the number of children running through the community: toddlers being held, kids getting ready for school, and grandkids peeking into office doors to see what grandma was up to. It was a wonderful reminder of when my own children were small.
Abandonment and alone-ness. There is a beautiful backstory to the above haiku. In pre-modern Japan, as in many poor agricultural and hunter-gatherer cultures, societies practiced senicide. In Japanese, it was called “ubasute” 姥捨, abandoning to die an old woman who can no longer work.
I want to make a confession: in working with students on hundreds of koans over some years, I have developed a few favorites in the curriculum. And I also have a couple that I have struggled a bit to embrace. One of the koans I have come to deeply appreciate for its warmth and humanity is the well-known “Dizang’s Intimate” from The Book of Serenity. Dizang asks Fayan, “Where are you going?” Fayan replies, “Around on pilgrimage.” Dizang asks, “What is the purpose of your pilgrimage?” Fayan responds, “I don’t know.” Dizang tells him, “Not knowing is most intimate.”
Two years after the attack on the World Trade Center, I was transferred by my company to New York to help run its financial research department. As part of the move, the company put us up in corporate housing for a bit, which turned out to be only a block south of Ground Zero (the cheapest real estate in Manhattan at the time).
When we first visited the apartment, I opened the door for my wife and two little girls. Rose, who was five at the time, immediately ran across the living room, wrapped herself in a sheer curtain, and said, “Look Daddy, I’m a ghost!” Later, when we put them to bed, we had to shut the curtains because the construction lights in the pit, which by then was clean of debris pile, were too bright.
Seeing the Tracks, Seeing the Ox, Ox Forgotten, and Self Forgotten are all varying degrees of emptiness. With the ninth Oxherding Picture, we return to the world of form, but only after having experienced the vast emptiness described in the eighth picture, Both Self and Ox Forgotten.
This week we are looking at verses four and five of the classic Ten Oxherding Pictures, which for me, together represent the question: “How do we practice?” It is a most basic question in Zen, the Buddhist school of meditation, and yet, we find little guidance in the classic koan texts.