Loving the questions

Long ago, after a day of early morning sitting, lecture, and work on the decrepit old porch of the Zen Center, Greg, a more experienced student and carpenter asked me, “So, has Zen practice sunk its teeth into you yet?”  He was asking about that moment when practice has you hooked.  I remember the excitement in this world of Zen which was beginning to open in front of me, how I loved getting a new book, or a new chance to hear another lecture.  Yes, hooked, but also awash in joy of study and learning. 

I remembered that this week, as it seemed Zen had again sunk it’s teeth into me.  I also thought of an old phrase from long ago days of psychedelic experimentation, (which is roughly around the same time as my conversation with Greg) and substituted one word in the old saying: “I think the koans are kicking in now.”

This was after a few days lost in reading the history of koans in “Zen Sand,” and a more modern but nonetheless telling of the history of the ancestors rich work, “Acequias and Gates,” by Joan Sutherland.  I seem to have fallen into the deep well of koan study, and don’t mind it one bit.

My beginnings were in shikantaza and Dogen, and that was where I remained, despite a lifetime interest koans–at least in reading them from a distance.  I was always drawn to them, but never had the opportunity until now to really work with them as part of my practice.  And I have to say though I was glad to finally have the chance, I remained cautious for a time.  I was afraid, perhaps, to fall into them too deeply.

Listening to a talk about Ummon’s four sicknesses this week by Subhana Barzaghi , I realized partly why that was.  She spoke of how we can get stuck in an opening, in a glimpse into our true nature.   We keep wanting to stay there, to return to it, or, or to recreate it.  I had a very small such opening years ago, and it was joyful and wonderful.  It made me want to dance around the zendo, and hang onto it as tightly as I could.  As Roshi promised it would, it informed and deepened my practice, and was always there beneath it.  But the fireworks, the desire to dance around, was hard to come by often.  Not the least I think because I was trying so hard to get back there.  For it was small, but just big enough and joyful enough for me to want more of it!

So I came to mistrust that experience.  Or at least classified it as a nice thing that happened that I wouldn’t want to do again.  Though I seemed on the surface to have moved beyond it long ago, to have left it behind, that very coolness betrayed the wish deep within me to have it again..

And I know that wish was a strong part of what was behind the desire to engage with koans—thinking, maybe this is the thing that will bring that joy, that feeling of knowing back to me.  Along with that of course were the defensiveness and protectiveness to not wish for too much.  To not want to say outloud that it was enlightenment I was wanting. 

But of course what I find all too often, is that what I think I want is not what I really want.  I understood that as I felt myself falling completely into koan study this week.  The dam bursting open.  Not the dam of understanding held within koans.  The dam with in me holding back from throwing myself into them.  The joy in studying them, in being able to hold one deeply inside myself.

There is the popular conception that koans are about solving the puzzle.  As much as I hear that’s not the point, as a human being I still approach them that way.  And as someone who loves puzzles, who loves getting the right answer, attaining understanding; I held to that idea that this was what the study of them is about.  Like one of those small wooden puzzle boxes you’d turn it over and over in your hand, wanting to find the spot just there where the panel would slide to the side or twist just so, and what was within would be revealed.  Failing that there is always a hammer to get to the inside. Image

I approach studying a koan that way too.  Instead I find when I throw myself into it, yes, there is a puzzle box there to be opened.   But it isn’t the koan–I am the puzzle box and it is the koan that does the opening.

I am enjoying simply studying the history and the development of koans, the fact that they are composed of two of my favorite things: words and stories and poety!  What’s not to love there?  I take such joy in that study, in being able to make friends with a koan and hang out with it.  I think of the friendship of teen agers, where we’d sit together and ask, “what do you want to do?”  And the reply was always, ‘I don’t know, what do you want to do?”  It’s just like that.  The koan and I can sit and don’t have to do anything but hang out.  I want to see all that is revealed, not to be done with it, but so I can make friends with the next, and the next. 

I find myself thinking, I wish I’d started this study years ago, knowing how long it can take to complete all of them.  Then I realize how wonderful it is that there are so many.  It’s a good thing to take up now, in that I can study them for years, probably for as long as I have, and not complete them. Who’d want to be done with them anyway?

I first thought it was enlightenment I wanted to find, and hoped to find it in koans.  But I was wrong.  What I wanted was enlivenment.  That feeling I had when practice was so new and fresh, and had sunk it’s teeth into me, and I was excited to begin the journey.  Koan practice has given me that again.  I think of Rilke’s advice, which is very helpful in this practice:  “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue.”

Approaching love

Driving to a meditation group this morning, I heard a report on the radio about the Beatles.  It was 50 years ago today…the Beatles made their first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”  They played the live version of “I Saw Her Standing There,” and suddenly I was right back in those days.   Even if those days mean being 8 years old for me.  Still, even at that age I can remember the first time I heard that song, the sound of those chords, the high pitched ooooh, and the lyrics.  How they promised that moment of love, seeing her standing there, taking her hand, “my heart went boom.”  Much gets said about the clichés of love songs, how they paint a picture that’s unattainable, and fantasy.  But something that the Beatles could do so well was to encapsulate that simple idea of love, a pure expression of it.  Love is all you need.

They were such poets of the truth and mystery of love.  And love may be a cliche, may be a crock and a created fantasy, and whatever else we choose to call it.  But it’s also something very real.  We know it when we see it, like they also say about pornography, oddly enough.  The world might be just fine without the word, but without the thing itself?  It’s one of those words like God, or Zen, or beauty–hard to define, and yet so important.  So useful precisely because it’s so big, and can hold so much.  And the way they were able to speak of that truth to me makes them sort of the Rumi of rock and roll.

So all this went through my head in just the time it took the song to play.  The thought that love is a good metaphor, or a good substitute for what we’re looking for in Zen practice, or in any spiritual search.  It’s a way to be in the world.  I remember years ago my teacher Dosho Port giving a talk that began with his saying “I’d like to talk some about love today.  It’s not something we mention very often in zen.“  I laughed out loud at that truth.  “See, Phil knows what I’m saying” he added.  And further back I remember the only other time I heard it mentioned…a lecture when Richard Baker was at the Zen Center in Minneapolis, and talked about the power and magic of Zen practice, of the search for enlightenment.  “It’s more compelling and important than any love affair you might chase after,” he said, making me feel ashamed for the love affair I was in the middle of, and my thoughts of perhaps moving away from the Zen center to pursue it.  (Of course not that long after we’d learn of the love affairs he pursued at the expense of an entire Zen Center.)

Dosho told that day of the story of Yuan Wu’s enlightenment:

A thousand years or so ago, Yuan-wu had a glancing encounter with the ancient mirror, but his teacher Wu-tsu felt that it was too slight and that if Yuan-wu took this to be a true awakening he would be prey to deep self doubts later – blown about by any passing wind, at the mercy of the words of others. So he told him to stay with his koan. Yuan-wu took this as a snub and left his teacher in a huff, but before he departed Wu-tsu said to him, “Remember me when you are ill with fever.” Years later, Yuan-wu indeed did become desperately ill and finally decided to return to his teacher. Wu-tsu sang him a little song popular at the time:

“She calls to her serving girl, ‘Little Jade’

Not because she wants something

But just so her lover will hear her voice.”

And said, “That’s very much like Zen, isn’t it?” and Yuan-wu awoke to her calling. Listen! Listen! She is always calling – not because she needs anything but only so her lover will hear. And you are her lover when you ask, “Who is hearing?”, or “What is Mu?”, or “What is the source of consciousness?”, or return to one in your breath counting, or open to the night sky and the rain shaking the trees, or to your dry tongue. She calls unceasingly to let you know she is near. Better than near, actually! Much better than near?

The metaphor of the lover calling to her maid so her beloved knows she is there is lovely and ripe.  It contains so much regarding love….the call and response, the joy in another’s presence, one might even say the dependency and need?  For that’s the quality those of us in a practice, or soured and cynical, use to pass our judgment on love…it’s attachment, dependency, selfishness.  And yet, and yet….

The important stuff I find is always in that “and yet, and yet. “  I think of another earlier Rumi of popular song, Ira Gershwin.  Unlucky in love himself, yet possessed of a unique and beautiful understanding of it, and the ability to communicate it as well.  And perhaps what those like Lennon and McCartney and Gershwin can do, that sets them apart, is their ability to hint at more, what is behind the cliché of love.  What is calling from the other room.   Gershwin set out to write a love song that never mentioned the words love, and gave us “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”  A song that catalogs seemingly small, minor things about the beloved.   The way she wears her hat, holds her knife, sips her tea.  The essence of love, it seems, is as the essence of Zen has also been described.  Attention, attention, attention.

One could say that to be enlightened, or to be at least fully present in the midst of the world is to be in love and relationship with the ten thousand things.  I love that one of the words we use for describing that relationship with the world, with dharmas, with our teacher and the ancestors, with our koan, even with our body and mind, is intimacy.  That word (another big enough to contain all kinds of meanings) that is a euphemism for sex in our day, and a metaphor for love too.

Love goes both ways of course.  Much like how Dogen talks about the two ways of being: the 10,000 things advance and enlighten us, or we advance toward the ten thousand things and enlighten them.  And perhaps both can occur at once.  It is a dance.  It takes two to tango.  There may be nothing harder than unrequited love, and the ideal is when there is the yin and yang of loving and being loved back.  For to be loved is to feel at home in the world.  To feel that one is understood, known, that one can stand naked before your lover and still be accepted and wanted.  It is to be supported and wanted in this world.

And to be in love with another–that love may or may not transform the other.  But it certainly transforms us.  There is a poem, Gate C22, by Ellen Bass.

Gate C22

At gate C22 in the Portland airport

a man in a broad-band leather hat kissed

a woman arriving from Orange County.

They kissed and kissed and kissed. Long after

the other passengers clicked the handles of their carry-ons

and wheeled briskly toward short-term parking,

the couple stood there, arms wrapped around each other

like he’d just staggered off the boat at Ellis Island,

like she’d been released at last from ICU, snapped

out of a coma, survived bone cancer, made it down

from Annapurna in only the clothes she was wearing.

Neither of them was young. His beard was gray.

She carried a few extra pounds you could imagine

her saying she had to lose. But they kissed lavish

kisses like the ocean in the early morning,

the way it gathers and swells, sucking

each rock under, swallowing it

again and again. We were all watching —

passengers waiting for the delayed flight

to San Jose, the stewardesses, the pilots,

the aproned woman icing Cinnabons, the man selling

sunglasses. We couldn’t look away. We could

taste the kisses crushed in our mouths.

But the best part was his face. When he drew back

and looked at her, his smile soft with wonder, almost

as though he were a mother still open from giving birth,

as your mother must have looked at you, no matter

what happened after — if she beat you or left you or

you’re lonely now — you once lay there, the vernix

not yet wiped off, and someone gazed at you

as if you were the first sunrise seen from the Earth.

The whole wing of the airport hushed,

all of us trying to slip into that woman’s middle-aged body,

her plaid Bermuda shorts, sleeveless blouse, glasses,

little gold hoop earrings, tilting our heads up. 

So what I want to ask is: Would you rather be the woman, or the man waiting at the gate?  The poet says pretty clearly, that she thinks everyone wants to be the woman.  But I read it and thought, I want to be that man.  And maybe thinking one can only have one or the other, be either the lover or the beloved, is a faulty question, though in this human realm it’s usually true.  But how wonderful to be seen as she is seen, as the mother sees the child.  We can feel that kind of love sometimes for another, and maybe it’s as rare and unlikely as having someone feel it for us.  But I know I’ve felt it in my life and when you feel it, it fills and warms your heart so, that perhaps you don’t even need to feel it back.  To feel it is to see the whole world as new, it’s a kind of enlightenment, it is for that brief moment to be as God.  And realize even God often looks at his or her creation in total amazement and wonder.  One of the lessons of love is not necessarily about being loved back.  Again, it is about what loving does to us.  How it can transforms us.  And the whole world as well.

Before leaving for that meditation group this morning, I’d walked out to warm up the car.  There’d been and still was some heavy winter fog, leaving thick hoar frost on everything.  And a seemingly happy and stubborn chickadee on a branch right next to me refused to be scared off as I walked by, standing his ground and singing his heart out to me.  I tried to answer him, but could not match the beauty of his song.  I had to settle for my croaking whistle, and he didn’t seem to mind.  And I felt the joy both of love for the trees and the bird, but also as though they were loving me too.  I mean, after all, the trees had put on their finest gown of white for me.  And the bird, well, I can choose to believe he was singing to me, can’t I?

Driving through more beauty, I arrived at the building where the meditation was.  And there, on a dry erase board someone had drawn a wild drawing, 4 feet high with a heart in the middle and filigree all round it, and in the center the single word “Love.”  What do they say?  That love is finishing each other sentences?  It seemed on this day the world had the same thought as I did.  Which can only happen when we are one and the same.  To love is to not know where I begin and the other ends.  Which sounds a little like enlightenment also.

One could pick a worse teacher and a worse path.