This is my third and last piece on my teacher’s statement, “to get a letter from emptiness is to get a letter from home.”
Last time I sent you a letter from my home, which is also yours, quoting the young Kiowa warriors who went into battle singing, “I live but not forever; Grandmothers, you alone remain forever.”
It may hard for you to imagine that right in the middle of the confusion and anxiety we are feeling during this time of social unrest, is our quiescent, supportive, and nurturing heart-mind, what Dogen calls “grandmotherly mind.” But whether you can imagine it or not, it is always here at the center of being.
I wonder if you would like to take three breaths right now and settle into it. It is so very, very close… closer even than your own breathing.
Here are three more letters I am sending you from home, the first inspired by Bob Dylan, the second inspired by Basho, and the third by my teacher and my daughter, followed by a poem by Mary Oliver.
First, Bob Dylan:
“My love, she speaks like silence without ideals or violence.
She knows there’s no success like failure and failure is no success at all.”
Last time I talked about staying with my grandmother in her house by the Pacific Ocean.
The first few times I stayed there I had her to myself, but after a while my little sister began staying with us too, and she did all kinds of things to make me mad; things that monopolized my grandmother’s attention.
When my grandmother saw that I was upset, she would take me aside and hold me in her lap close by the bay window in her dining room. “Let’s listen to the ocean, dear,” she would say, giving me a gentle hug and I’d immediately feel safe and calm.
Sometimes, all we need is a very few words or a gentle touch, or even sounds of nature to help us return to our grandmotherly mind, our heart-mind. When we do this, it’s important to do it without expectation. The more we cling to an ideal we have about returning to our own still center, the more internally violent we are and the more we overlook what is here inside of us. Instead, remember that, “there is no success like failure and failure is no success at all.”
If we’re not caught by evaluating our success or failure, it’s pretty easy to act from emptiness, anchored in our mysterious grandmotherly mind or “Don’t know mind.”
Second, a number of Basho’s haiku have called me home over the years, including
rice planting songs
in the innermost part
of the country
… which may call you home as well.
We can imagine Basho in one of his many journeys to the far reaches of Japan hearing the distant singing of farmers in the wilds, as they planted their rice and falling into a deep stillness himself. Every day when we sit in meditation, we are planting seeds in the wilderness, in what is called the tathagatagarbha in Buddhism, the “womb of awakening.”
If we keep planting these seeds day after day, sooner or later one or more will germinate and grow into a vibrant plant. At this time, we may wake up to a deep and timeless stillness. When this happens, we are ready to begin sending letters from home ourselves. We call sometimes call this “dharma transmission” in Zen.
Third is my teacher’s comment when I was trying to choose the best monastery to practice at as I planned a trip to Japan. We were about to drink tea together in his kitchen and I was pausing to choose a cup. He commented, “If you try to find the best cup, you will not appreciate any of them.”
This reminds me of an experience I had with my daughter. When she was about four, she liked to collect rocks of all sizes and shapes during our regular strolls to the lake, including rocks that were nothing more that were nothing special to the discriminating eye. We brought them home in my backpack and she arrayed them on her windowsills and around the room. Her older brother scoffed at the unevenness of her collection, exclaiming, “Erin, some of your so-called rocks are just pieces of cement.”
“I love them all,” she replied.
If you are going to come home, you need to stop evaluating and judging your experience and just be present with and for what is. Then, you may have a sudden realization as I did that morning in my teacher’s kitchen, that whether you travel somewhere or not, your home is always right here.
Finally, here is a poem by Mary Oliver, which I will make a few comments about:
A Letter from Home
She sends me news of blue jays, frost,
Of stars and now the harvest moon
That rides above the stricken hills.
Lightly, she speaks of cold, of pain,
And lists what is already lost.
Here where my life seems hard and slow,
I read of glowing melons piled
Beside the door, and baskets filled
With fennel, rosemary and dill,
While all she could not gather in
Or hid in leaves, grow black and falls.
Here where my life seems hard and strange,
I read her wild excitement when
Stars climb, frost comes, and blue jays sing.
The broken year will make no change
Upon her wise and whirling heart; –
She knows how people always plan
To live their lives, and never do.
She will not tell me if she cries.
I touch the crosses by her name;
I fold the pages as I rise,
And tip the envelope, from which
Drift scraps of borage, woodbine, rue.
This poem seems to be about a couple things:
1. The loss of a loved one and the regret we feel. As I read this poem, I remembered that my teacher died of cancer not too long after he sent me his letter. It makes me wonder, was he ill when he wrote me, as Mary Oliver’s friend was?
2. It is also about the joys of everyday life; appreciation of the simple things in the midst of pain and even imminent death. The simple things- glowing melons piled beside the door, and baskets filled with fennel, rosemary and dill.
Our lives are pretty paired down these days after sheltering in place for more than two months. Maybe we can enjoy the simple things even more when our activities are so limited. It is so simple and so wonderful that I can be with each of you online during this time, that I can be with you just like my teacher was with me even though he was 3000 miles away, sending you a letter from emptiness, sending you a letter from home.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher