I closed my last piece by saying that it is not too difficult to embody Dogen’s “one bright pearl that shines with boundless light.” Surrender is a key component to this process. I am not talking about surrendering your personal power to a deity or even another person. I am simply talking about surrender to what is. This is entirely different from collapse, which is a breakdown of vital energy.
This type of surrender involves staying present for whatever pain you are feeling regardless of its emotional power, instead of allowing yourself to be swept away by it. This is bringing alive the Bodhisattva of Great Activity, Samantabhadra, who is generally pictured riding an elephant, steadily, deliberately, with a relaxed composure.
Suffering can feel like defeat. Maybe you’re not going to have the child you have been yearning for or the kind of relationship you want. Can you surrender to your sadness about this?
Maybe you have allowed yourself to face backward on the elephant, reviewing over and over again what you or someone else has done or should have done or might have done. Can you change your position from facing backward to facing forward, choosing to commit yourself to what you want to be rather than what has been? When you wake up in the morning can you take two or three breaths and choose to be present for the day’s unfolding, regardless of whether things go well?
It takes courage to give yourself to each activity without focusing on an outcome, but this is what Zen practice is all about.
It takes courage to give your all to something and at the same time surrender or let go of an outcome. Basho understood this well when he wrote:
A cicada shell;
it sang itself
When we “sing ourselves utterly away” we are opening to what the Zen master Hongzhi called “the empty field.” All we need to do is see clearly whatever single dimension we are caught on and open beyond it. Whatever thought or feeling we have; we can let it be absorbed into the field that lies beyond the conscious mind.
If we surrender to this field, out of it arises a new way to experience and express ourselves beyond the limitation of a particular pattern. Here’s my first teacher’s comment: “If you want to tame your sheep or your cow, give it a large pasture.”
This means moving beyond the “either/or” mind, opening to the empty field where there is ample room for “both/and.” If that’s not surrender, I don’t know what is.
When we are unlocked from a single pattern of feelings or thoughts, we realize that both sides of each situation are always true. When this happens, we discover a creative energy we didn’t know we had.
When I was very young, my mother had my I.Q. tested and proudly announced to me and whoever she could, that I was a “gifted child.” And for the first few years of school, I dazzled everyone with my academic prowess, as a gifted child might do. But at some point, I felt confined, even stifled by the label and under incredible pressure to perform in a “gifted” manner. After getting a bad report card in the 7th or 8th grade, I felt so guilty and confused that instead of going home I rode my bike to a hotel in my hometown and ran up the stairs to the top with the idea that I was going to jump off and kill myself. Even a positive label can be incredibly stifling.
Often the problems we are stuck on are based on fixed ideas that dominated our childhood experience. Both of my parents made it clear that smart people were important, and others were not of much value and, quite naturally, I believed them.
But then I had been meditating with my Zen teacher, Suzuki Roshi, for a while, when he suggested I radically change my approach and “just do stupid zazen.” When I told him I often didn’t understand what he was saying, he added, “It doesn’t matter. Just listen!”
At some point I was able to let the craving to understand what he was saying entirely fall away. With a sigh of relief, I realized that I didn’t have to be smart after all! As my meditation practice continued to deepen, I even learned how to frolic in Hongzhi’s empty field, including sometimes being smartly stupid and other times stupidly smart. Not long after that I returned to school with a sense of freedom that I had never imagined possible, a freedom which was no longer constrained by label like “smart” or “stupid.”
More than a decade ago, I worked with a student named Helen who was suffering from chronic fatigue. Whereas my family of origin’s core value was being smart, her family’s core value related to continually working hard. I helped Helen hold in her heart-mind both the value of working hard and the equally important value of deep rest. As she explored with her bare awareness both sides, her chronic fatigue gradually diminished and then vanished. In a meeting with me she glowed as she exclaimed, “I can both do great work and relax deeply.”
I wonder how you might make room for both what you are stuck on, whether it be a desire, emotion, or repetitive thought, and its opposite, in your own life? Maybe you can approach both with curiosity. Maybe you’d even like to shift from one side to the other and appreciate their interplay, such as, stupid and smart or hard work and easy play. I would not be surprised that as you open your locks, you will feel like Dogen’s words are your own: “The whole universe is one bright pearl. We cannot help but love this one bright pearl that shines with boundless light.”
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Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher