In my first piece on Black Elk and Buddha I talked about the importance of the circle, which includes all life within it, as both the Lakota and Buddhist traditions teach. The Zen teacher Dogen uses particularly beautiful imagery in evoking the circle. He says:
“All existence is one bright pearl…. One bright pearl contains the inexhaustible past, existing throughout time and arriving in the present. The body exists now and the mind exists now, but nevertheless it is one bright pearl. A stalk of grass, a tree, the mountains and rivers of this world are not only themselves — they are one bright pearl.,,, The whole universe is one bright pearl. There is neither beginning nor end, and all space and all time is condensed into this one point. This body is the one body of Truth. This body is one phrase. This body is bright light. We cannot help but love this one bright pearl that shines with boundless light like this.”
This reminds me of a Chinese Zen story from the Blue Cliff Record. A student asks his teacher, “What is the essence of prajna?” The teacher replies, “The oyster swallows the bright moon.”
The Sanskrit word prajna means wisdom in Zen, but a deep wisdom that precedes knowledge. Pra (like our prefix “pre,” meaning “before”) and knowledge, jna, which is a dividing up of things. The wisdom of undividedness.
This reminds me of the wisdom that the Lakota elders teach emanates from “the unbroken circle.” How is an oyster swallowing the moon being wise? Maybe that’s how it produces its pearl.
When I was a kid, we used to ride our bikes to the yacht harbor not too far from my house. Along the edge of the water were scores and scores of small oysters which we pulled out of the bay and tried to pry open. But their shells, were incredibly thick and difficult to open. Like us, oysters are resistant and strong. Yet, unlike us they have no eyes or ears to protect themselves, so they need to “clam up” just to survive. But something wonderful is happening inside that shell. As pieces of sand accumulate, the oyster can’t break them down or get rid of them, so instead she creates a beautiful case. She would like to get rid of them, because they are abrasive and cause her to suffer. But if she does absolutely nothing about them, just stays still, encasing them, they transform themselves into a pearl. Any of you who have sat for hours in meditation retreats, know how difficult it can be to do this without repressing or indulging whatever constellation of thoughts and emotions have lodged in your psyche.
We want to just cast off the shell of ego, just get rid of the abrasive piece of sand and open to the great interdependent circle of like the Zen and Lakota elders tell us about. But paradoxically, we can only produce “one bright pearl” by spending time doing nothing at all. The only way to grow the pearl is to quietly remain immobile in our shells. To transform sand takes grit; the patience and persistence of the second and third paramita, which are so important in meditation practice (or accomplishing anything, for that matter). Can we do this in periods of adversity like many of us are experiencing now?
Angela Lee Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania has been studying self-control and grit to determine how they might predict both academic and professional success. Her research suggests that grit is a better indicator of success than factors such as IQ or family income. This is not at all surprising to me. As I tell my students over and over, all you need is patience and persistence to grow your own bright pearl.
In her TED talk Duckworth says, “Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
Angela’s research suggests that grit is not related to talent. She refers to the growth mindset, proposed by Carol Dweck at Stanford University which I have talked about in Dharma talks over the years. Growth mindset is the belief that the ability to learn is not fixed. It can change with an individual’s efforts. Dr. Duckworth is saying that grit definitely matters much more than intelligence or any factor when it comes to succeeding at something.
The most important factor in success at anything is continuing your efforts without giving up even when you’re faced with failures, regardless of how many times you fall down.
I have supported many students at Zen center over the years. And each one who has an aspiration to open up to their still natures, I encourage to sit, sit, sit, sit. If someone attends even half of the eighteen retreat days that we have per year, or spends an equivalent amount time doing hanblecyas or vision cries, the rough piece of sand within them invariably loses its edges and becomes round and smooth. And at some point, the oyster swallows the moon! As Black Elk said, “I saw the sacred hoop of my people was one of the many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children.”
Or as Dogen said, “The entire universe in the ten directions is one bright pearl.”
Perfect, without corners, formed by fully digesting whatever suffering enters into our psyche. Can you do it? No, the pearl can only create itself as you quietly sit quietly and non-judgmentally, cradling the piece of sand.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher