At the height of Chinese Zen’s primacy from about 650 to 1100, monks and nuns traveled on foot from one monastery or teacher to another, which is where the verse "To drift like clouds and flow like water” comes from. And, of course, clouds and water do not know where they are going or what will happen to them; they just move.
And a little over a hundred years later, the Zen teacher Dogen broadened this emphasis by saying that external travel is not necessary at all because the true nature of pilgrimage is within, and our original place is always right here, even though all of our thoughts and feelings inside are also always moving or traveling. Dogen suggested we can be like “Nanyu, who, one by one and episode by episode, encountered the myriad delusions, and saw through, and beyond, to the flesh of the teacher’s face.”
If we follow trails within our body/mind, we come to realize “The whole Universe in the ten directions” is the whole human body.
Even though it is unlikely that John Muir, the American 20th century trail blazer was exposed to Dogen, he wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe. Keep close to Nature’s heart... and break clear away, Wash your spirit clean.” And in the 19th century, the Japanese Zen poet Basho wrote about traveling into a wild part of Japan seemingly untouched by humans and hearing songs being sung as farmers planted rice. As Basho listened, he wrote, “rice planting songs in the innermost part of the country.”
If we go farther and farther into the innermost part of our being, letting go of any attempt to get anywhere, we may be surprised to discover a song of its own emanating from our heart-mind.
But we can only do this through the “stupid zazen” my second teacher talked about. Stupid zazen is all about walking the trails of feeling and sensations inside you, letting yourself be turned sideways, upside down, or even inside out. The trail into the center of heart-mind is not linear.
As serious pilgrims, each of us can move deeper than the limitations of our conscious mind. The best way to do this may be, as Dogen said, “letting our fists and noses take the lead. Once the fists and noses have all taken up residence in the halls of the monastery, they hang up their traveling bag in their place for the duration of the retreat.”
Can we allow our fists and noses to fully explore the wilderness we encounter below the surface chatter of our minds? Even when there is no cairn, no trail marker at all, can we marry ourselves to our breath as it courses through our body? When Aristotle coined the term “good spirits” in Greek, he must have been well aware that the word for spirit is also the word for breath.
As I write this piece, folks are engaging in Zen center’s longest annual retreat, Rohatsu, honoring the historical Buddha’s final phase of pilgrimage. At Zen centers/temples all over the world people will be sitting silently doing absolutely nothing except following their breath/spirit for a week. This process of allowing the crust of our ego and defense mechanisms to crack open inevitably results in tapping into our deeply joyful heart-mind, the heart-mind of the universe. Due to my illness, I will not be joining but I will be in good spirits anyway, as each of us is, whether we realize this or not, as long as we are breathing.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher