The Tyranny of a Single Description II
This is my second and last piece on moving from the tyranny of the single description to a feeling of connectedness with the larger whole. Through our meditation practice it is quite possible to welcome each thought, each note, as part of a melody which makes up a wonderful song- the song of life, or even better, of life/death.
Years ago, I sat in meditation every morning at the Zen Center in San Francisco which was on a very busy one-way street with traffic rushing by toward downtown. I found the cacophony of noise quite distracting and even distressing as I tried to stay focused on my breath. Then I happened to read something by the avant garde musician John Cage. He talked about listening to a series of talks D.T. Suzuki had been giving at Columbia University. Suzuki had a very soft voice and many of his words got lost as the frequent sound of planes overhead interrupted Cage’s ability to hear. But at some point, Cage was able to let go of clinging to Suzuki’s words and just enjoy the way in which the words he could hear, and the sounds of the planes complemented each another. He reported that this experience informed the way he made his own music for the rest of his career.
Zen meditation is simply about being present to whatever occurs, so that the voice of the inner tyrant no longer drowns everything out or dominates our life. When this happens, we are no longer consumed by “before and after” and are able to marry ourselves to each activity. When I mentioned this in one of my dharma talks, somebody said, “but aren’t before and after important?” “Of course, they are,” I replied, “They are vitally important. The key is to learn how to relate to the past and future without being consumed by them. So, when it’s time to plan, we just plan!”
“Bare awareness” meditation is the key to developing this skill, which means paying non-judgmental attention to each skin (or layer of thought, feeling, emotion) referred to by Meister Eckhart from last time:
Thirty or forty skins or hides, as thick and hard as an ox’s or bear’s, cover the soul.
Go into your own ground and learn to know yourself there.
If we just open to each, with no judgment, evaluation, or commentary, these skins fall away so we can deeply enjoy our lives. Zen master Lin Chi, the founder of Rinzai Zen refers to this as “letting the person of naked red flesh come forth.”
This shedding of skins or liberation from the tyranny of the single description manifests itself in Zen art and writing in three major ways. The first is the collapse of the dichotomy between the sacred and the mundane (or even the profane), as in Zen master Yunmen’s “Buddha is a dried shit stick.” The Buddhist tradition, with its proliferation of paradises scenes, lofty bodhisattvas, elaborate and ornate mandalas is replaced by deep appreciation of everyday items and ordinary beings. Here are four examples from Japanese poet/teachers:
On the temple bell, perching,
sleeps the butterfly
Out of the hollow of the great Buddha’s nose
A swallow comes
He who appears before you now-
the toad of this thicket
A Burglar failing to carry off the moon,
It shines in from the window
The second feature of this skin shedding has two parts. We develop an ability to concentrate or be one-pointed through persistent meditation over time, as in the Chinese Zen quote, “In order to paint bamboo, you must study bamboo for 10 years.” Then we are able to move on to the second part, “completely forget bamboo, and paint it in an instant.” This is the hallmark of the Zen visual arts as they developed in Japan, departing from the Buddhist emphasis on meticulous academic expression, whether using ink or clay. The best works have a freedom, a spontaneity, a directness, as in raku pottery, in which the flaws are baked into the final piece. This reminds me that our best jazz musicians develop their ability to improvise only after hours upon hours of practice.
The third feature of this skin-shedding is an appreciation or valuing of what the 12th century Chinese Zen teacher Hongzhi referred to as, “the empty field,” or what my first teacher called “big mind.” Chinese and Japanese Zen influenced art emphasizes the background as much or more than the foreground. In landscape paintings, tiny humans are generally dwarfed by their natural surroundings which are supported by a background of vast space on paper or silk. Ink paintings of frogs, persimmons, even mushrooms, and a variety of ordinary objects have this feeling of lightness and space as well.
I am looking at an enso on the wall in front of me- a calligraphy circle, which is done with only a single stroke against a background of whiteness which permeates the stroke. It is reminding me that all particles are merely waves, and all waves are expressions of the ocean or “big mind.” As our meditation matures, we are able to let go of all our strategies to get somewhere or accomplish something and instead learn to dip into this big mind. As we allow its vastness to penetrate us, we may settle into a deep stillness which is not of time. If this isn’t freedom from the tyranny of the single description, I don’t know what is.
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Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher