In my next pieces I am going to discuss gates through the fences our confined, often agitated self builds to protect itself from a world it views as threatening. I will use a revision of a framework proposed by poet and Zen practitioner Jane Hirshfield in examining the teaching poems of the 17th century Zen practitioner and haiku master, Basho.
These six gates are: 1.) Longing, 2.) Uncertainty, 3.) Simplicity, 4.) Saying YES, 5.) Intimacy, and 6.) Cracking Open.
In this piece I will talking about the first three.
The first gate into Basho is Longing.
In Basho’s The Narrow Road Within he speaks of priests, pilgrims, and poets who died on the road, practicing meditation and living close to nature. Here is his own poem about that:
I am resolved to bleach on the moors
my body pierced by the wind
This reminds me of Ramakrishna, considered by many to be the most deeply enlightened being in India during the last 150 years. He says, “Who weeps for God? People shed a whole jug of tears for wife and children. They swim in tears for money. But who really weeps? Cry with a real cry. Longing is like the rosy dawn. After the dawn, out comes the sun.”
If we replace “weeping for God” with “weeping to open beyond ego to heart-mind or Buddha nature,” Ramakrishna sounds like a Zen teacher. Basho elaborates on this longing by quoting Kukai,“Don’t follow the ancient masters. Seek what they sought.”
When you yearn for something, this can propel you to become focused and one pointed.
When I get a chocolate yearning, I become one pointed in my search for chocolate until I get it. I was so unfocused on my studies for a while in college that my roommate wondered if I was A.D.D. But when I began reading about the experiences of mystics in the east and west as they spoke of a peace which is deeper than the thinking mind, my yearning to experience this was so strong that I not only began a sitting practice, I could sit for long periods of time focusing, focusing, focusing, with considerably more one pointedness than my roommate did with his studying. Often, I say that the second step on the eightfold path, right intention or aspiration, is the most important one, since it propels us to move one pointedly along the path until the stillness which is beyond thought and yet surrounds it shows itself to us.
Latin spirare, to breathe. Whatever lives on the breath, Gate 1. Permeability
Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house.
Izumi Shikibu (Japan, 974?-1034?) The second gate is Uncertainty (one of the Three Marks of Existence Buddha spoke of).
How can we satisfy out spiritual longing when everything is so uncertain?
Here’s Stanley Kunitz’ take on it, written before his death at 78:
“There is something out in the dark that wants to correct us. Each time I think ‘this,’ it answers ‘that.’ Answers hard, in the heart-grammar’s strictness. If I then say “that,” it too is taken away. Between certainty and the real, an ancient enmity. When the cat waits in the path-hedge, no cell of her body is not waiting. This is how she is able so completely to disappear. I would like to enter the silence portion as she does. To live amid the great vanishing as a cat must live, one shadow fully at ease inside another.”
Basho lived in the late 1600s in Japan; a time of famine, flood, social turmoil, and desperate poverty. He wrote the following poem about a two-year-old child abandoned by the side of the road a not unusual occurrence during that time of great deprivation. Basho tossed him/her food, continued his journey and then was upset and even despondent. He wrote,
The cries of monkey are hard for a person to bear.
What of this child, given to autumn winds?
As I write this piece, our Covid epidemic continues unabated. Medical experts hoped there would be a reduction in cases during the summer. But instead, cases are increasing in most parts of the country and many hospitals are overflowing with infected people. Many people are anxious, because the future is so uncertain. We hope things will get better, but we have no idea when.
A question many of us have is how to keep the strengths of our friendships alive during this time, since we are generally confined to a two-dimensional world. Even when there is no coronavirus, maintaining deep friendships can be difficult and uncertain. But friendship is mutual give and take and it’s especially important in times of uncertainty.
Now being seen off
Now seeing off—the outcome--
autumn in Kiso
As a lifetime traveler, he deeply values his friendships even though he continually leaving his friends during behind never knowing if he will see them again.
As I sit behind my house in late September. I am surrounded by the beauty of the trees changing color, everything departing, not knowing when and even if I will see some friends more than two dimensionally and even wondering if the Zen center will be open again. Uncertainty, uncertainty, uncertainty.
But uncertainty can also give us the chance to relate in a new way. Instead of getting caught by before and after, we can just be with what is; loneliness, sadness, even anxiety. When we do this in a non-judgmental way, our emotional heaviness drops away quite naturally and we feel a lightness and joy that is not of time. In this time of isolation and uncertainty, we have more opportunity than usual to unburden our minds of thought.
This leads me to the third gate into Basho, Simplicity.
He says, “The works of other schools or poetry are like colored painting; my disciples paint with black ink.”
When your life is stripped of the wealth of responsibilities that you usually are juggling, the practice of doing one task at a time and fully giving yourself to it may be more much more possible. Whether I am washing the stairs with my wife or walking around the block, it is so much easier for me to be fully present when I don’t have an array of activities vying for my time. In Japanese Zen this is called the practice of “shikan” or “just to.” We may even find ourselves settling into a deep stillness right in the middles of our stair washing, a deep stillness that, as I said above, is not of time.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher