In this piece I want to complete my discussion of six gates into a life of deep and joyful interconnectedness, using Basho’s poems as examples. Let me review what I have a touched on so far. The first gate is longing.
Many of us give ourselves to spiritual practice because we feel a deep longing to move beyond our screen of incessant remembering, regretting, and rehearsing that keeps us feeling cut off, isolated, and even lonely. And as we dive into a meditation practice, we may begin to realize that our screen shields us from the second gate: unpredictability and uncertainty in our lives and in the world. As we deepen our awareness of how uncertain everything is, especially in times like these, may call us to enter the third gate: simplification of our external life, so we can simplify the space in our heads. A couple of more poems on the gate of simplicity:
alone, still able to chew dried salmon.
Here is Basho on a cold morning, aging, and alone. He is eating dried fish, commoner’s food, and yet expressing a deep satisfaction with his life stripped to its bare essentials.
the basho thrashing in wind
rain drips into an iron tub
a listening night
Basho named himself after the basho, the fragile and yet resilient banana plant/tree which grew right outside the door of his hut. The banana tree bends in the wind, but seldom breaks. We can imagine its bamboos leaves torn by a fierce typhoon—a huge sound and then the plink of the rain against washtub—near, precise—a sound so intimate that each clink includes all life within it.
Are you taking advantage of the limitations forced on us by this pandemic to have listening morning and listening evenings? I hope so! Do you find that you are more aware of the sounds, sights, and textures in the world around you than you were before the pandemic? I hope so.
You may be ready to enter the fourth gate: Saying Yes.
Here’s something the from the early 20th century Greek poet Constantine Cavafy:
“For some people the day comes when they have to declare the great yes or the great no. It is clear at once who has the yes ready within him and is saying it. He goes from honor to honor, strong in his conviction. He who refuses does not repent. Asked again, he’d still say no. Yet that no drags him down all his life. “
Say Yes Quickly
Forget your life. Say, “God is Great.” Get up. You think you know what time it is. It’s time to pray. You’ve carved so many little figurines, too many. Don’t knock on any random door like a beggar. Reach your long hands out to another door, beyond where you go on the street, the street where everyone says, “How are you,” and no one says, “How aren’t you?” Tomorrow you’ll see what you’ve broken and torn tonight, thrashing in the dark. Inside you there’s an artist you don’t know about. Is what I say true? Say yes quickly…. you’ve known it from before the beginning of the universe.
Both the first line and the last line of this poem reminds me that my second teacher talked about the positive energy evoked by saying “yes.” He referred to the two years he spent in a Zen monastery, where the expectation was that whenever he or any of the monks in training was approached about anything by a senior monk he would immediately exclaim “Hai,” or “Yes.” And the psychiatrist Milton Erickson, who worked with seriously depressed clients taught therapists to ask clients anything which would require a “yes” answer. Once they had answered “yes” once, they were very likely to begin saying yes to any number of things and this usually affected their state of mind. Erickson called this “developing a yes set.”
Here’s a poem by Basho on this theme:
For one who says “I am tired of children, there are no flowers.
I talked to a mother recently who is exhausted, because her two boys who would normally be in school and at camp, have been housebound for five months with no end in sight. The main feature of her spiritual practice these days is saying yes to them in the middle of her exhaustion.
Now I’d like to touch on the fifth gate, Intimacy.
The gate of intimacy is also the gate of meditation, since a meditative mind is the best tool for exploring a single moment’s precise perception and depths. If you see and hear for yourself, all things speak with and through you. As Basho wrote, “To learn about the pine tree, go to the pine tree…to learn about the bamboo, go to the bamboo.”
After Basho moved out of the Zen monastery he lived in while in his early 30s, he spent the rest of his life as a wanderer, concerned not about destination but the quality of attention—in other words, he practiced intimacy: If we were to gain mastery over things, their lives would vanish under us without a trace.
And here’s another one:
teeth hitting sand
He shows us how to be intimate and deeply appreciate the simple objects of daily living.
Here’s a final one:
deep rooted leeks,
We can imagine him pulling leeks out of frozen soil, washed them in icy streams—coldness in hands, whiteness of leeks penetrating his body and mind.
The sixth gate is: cracking open.
To enter this gate, we need to first enter the gates of longing, uncertainty. simplicity, saying yes, and intimacy. The basho or banana plant including the one growing outside his door is an example. Not only are they resilient, when the water from a storm penetrates the stem, water pours out from its roots. This cracking open of the ego shell happens when thelife force is no longer stifled by thinking mind.
As the Chinese Zen poet, Li Po, wrote, several hundred years before Basho:
Meditation on Ching Ting Mountain
The birds have vanished down the sky.
Now the last cloud drains away.
We sit together, the mountain and me
until only the mountain remains.
Here’s my favorite poem by Basho about cracking open:
On this road
walks no one
this autumn eve
Basho has moved beyond the personal self, beyond being sad and bereft. Even though he is alone, he is rooted in deep calmness of the autumn evening.
Once Basho said to one of his students, “The problem with most poems is that they are subjective or objective.”
“Don’t you mean too subjective or objective,” the student asked.
“No, I mean subjective or objective,” Basho replied.
We discover this for ourselves when we crack open beyond the limitations of “self and other.”
Here’s a second poem about cracking open:
Cutting a tree
seeing the sawed trunk it grew from:
We can imagine Basho cutting a tree, pruning away dead wood and seeing the moon right in front of him; a metaphor for the mind that becomes very quiet and suddenly cracks open, and experiences everyone and everything bathed in luminosity
We start by longing for something deeper, experience uncertainty, we simplify, we say yes, we practice intimacy and crack open as bodhisattvas, but this is not the end of our journey, since as my first teacher said, “There are no enlightened people, only enlightened activity,” a wonderful practice we can do for the rest of our lives.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher