Saturday, December 22, 2012

Longest Night

Perhaps the Winter Solstice wasn't the longest night in our personal 2012.  Maybe it was when a loved one died, when a child was sick, when a relationship withered, when something precious was lost or broken.  For the residents of Newtown, their longest night came a full week before the official astronomical event.

The wisdom and the comfort of the Winter Solstice is that it's nature's own reminder of the intimacy of light and dark -- like the front and back foot in walking, says Sekito's poem.  We'd find it silly to believe that only the front foot makes progress, especially since the propulsion and momentum come from the back foot.  Just so, our lives don't move at all unless light and dark are both present, waxing and waning to their own rhythm regardless of our calendared highs and lows.

Zen Master Dōgēn said not to call winter the beginning of spring.  But maybe he was wrong.  For as much as winter's long night connotes death and decay, it also invites rest and surrender to the nourishment of the dark, rich earth -- without which spring's exuberant creativity couldn't happen at all.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Eighth Day, Twelfth Month

Rohatsu Sesshin ended Saturday.  The name means “eighth day, twelfth month” – the traditional date nearly 2,500 years ago that a mid-life Indian prince woke up to all those Buddhist mainstays that we now take for granted (whether or not we understand them): suffering, ignorance, impermanence, emptiness, no-self.
The temptation, borne perhaps of our acquisitive culture, is to believe that the prince got something, and that if we practice hard enough and long enough, we’ll get it, too.  After all, he was very clear that enlightenment is the birthright of every sentient being.   But if we read the fine print of the sutras, including the Buddha’s own words, they are equally clear on one important point that we tend to overlook in our effort to get enlightened:
A Buddha is an absence, not a presence. 
This doesn’t mean the prince ceased to exist on that morning so long ago.  And it doesn’t mean that we will cease to exist when we wake up -- which is, I suspect, a major fear we have about enlightenment, however much we want it.  I won’t be me anymore!
Well, of course not.  Because what’s absent from an awakened being is greed, hate, delusion and 105 other defilements.  And since we tend to overly-define ourselves in terms of our suffering, it’s our definitions of ourselves that are at stake.  We don’t get to keep them when we wake up. 
So, we do things like sesshins for two reasons:  to practice dropping our stories (delusions) again and again, moment after moment, for days on end.  And in the space thus created to imagine what we might be like without them.  Daring, perhaps, to believe that we actually are kind, compassionate, empathetic, tranquil.  Because we’ve made some space for them to move in.  Because we like who we are when they do.  Because they are what our heart calls “I”.