Conduct and observance

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Monday, March 19, 2007

Edges, food, mud, and weeds



Take a look around you.

Here we are again in this condition that is constantly different, yet perpetually manages to appear the same to us. We are in front of a computer. Odds are, 90% or more of us is invested in the head. We have little, if any, sense of our bodies.

Try to change that just for a moment. Sense yourself right now in your body.

Then keep reading.

This thing called life is a perpetual state of feeding. The three kinds of food are the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the impressions we take in. Taken together, these three things feed what we call our being. Their rates of vibration are different; food is coarse, air is finer, and impressions are the finest food. Attending to these foods as they enter us, and attending to the differences between them, is part of the work of discrimination which leads to inner development.

I've spoken before about the fact that we live in what I call an edge condition: an intersection, the place where different forces meet. In biology, these are the places where the richest foods are found. So in finding ourselves where we are in life, that is, in an intersection between two worlds, an inner one and an outer one, we are in the ideal place to feed ourselves. But in order to do so we have to to become aware of both worlds simultaneously. Having a connection between more than one center helps in this effort.

Forming that connection takes time. I liken it to the process of growing roots. A plant occupies the intersection between sunlight and the darkness of the soil; it draws nourishment from both above itself and below itself in order to form itself. As organisms, we are not that different, except that it is the soul itself that engages in this enterprise.

The enterprise itself requires structure. It requires diligence. It requires years of effort. In an era where everyone wants to obtain everything as quickly as possible, it seems difficult to me to instill in any one a comprehension of how serious one has to be about spiritual work in order to achieve anything real. For the most part, all of us are disorganized and somewhat inept. We are stumblers and dabblers and babblers; we don't stick to things and we are easily distracted. The idea of spending 30 or 40 minutes every morning without fail in meditation is too daunting. Even then, the idea of a structured meditation with a specific aim does not perhaps appeal to people. "Too goal oriented," they say. "Speaks of attachments."

Nonetheless, without this structure, nothing is possible. One must have a specific inner aim, or one has nothing at all. This is another thing it seems difficult to get across to people. I have spent a great deal of my life in a work where everyone professes to be entirely serious, yet when I listen to the seekers around me I see that many of them have failed to understand this principle of aim, even as they hear about it and discuss it. They are middle-aged folk of great accomplishment in life who still cannot seem to find something satisfying and permanent. Everything about life, up to and including their spiritual path, is confusing. They are having difficulty finding an aim.

They are still grasping for some kind of an idea of what this life means with their minds.

I do not say this intending judgment; these are people I love. They are wonderful people who have supported my effort and who deserve every consideration and all the support I can muster. Nonetheless, it distresses me to see them still struggling to find the right approach. And I dare not open my mouth; God forbid I should tell them what to do. Each must find his own way.

Perhaps the greatest irony I encounter in my own work community is all the talk about silence. People who want to work in silence should shut up and go work there. For the rest of us, everything is needed.

On that note, here is an excerpt from Dogen.

"Those who haven't entered the inner chamber regard the World-honored One's retreat in the country of Magadha as proof of expounding the Dharma without words. These confused people think "the Buddha's closing off his chamber and spending the summer in solitary sitting shows that words and speech are merely skillful means and cannot indicate the truth. Cutting off words and eliminating mental activity is therefore the ultimate truth. Worthlessness and mindlessness is real; words and thoughts are unreal. The Buddha sat in a closed chamber for 90 days in order to cut off all human traces."

Those who say such things are greatly mistaken about the World-honored One's true intention. If you really understand the meaning of cutting off words, speech, and mental activity, you will see that all social and economic endeavors are essentially already beyond words, speech, and mental activity. Going beyond words and speech is itself all words and speech; going beyond mental activity is nothing but all mental activity. So, it is a misunderstanding of this story to see it as advocating the overthrow of words, speech, and mental activity. Reality is to go into the mud and enter the weeds and expound the Dharma for the benefit of others; turning the Dharma and saving all beings is not something something optional. If people who call themselves descendents of the Buddha insist on thinking that the Buddha's 90 days in solitary summer sitting mean that words, speech, and mental activity are transcended, they should demand a refund of those 90 days of summer sitting."

--"practice period," as translated by Norman Fischer and Kazuaki Tanahashi ("Beyond Thinking," p 120-121,Shambala 2004.)

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Amaryllis, and chili peppers

My wife elected to grow a large mass of Amarillys this winter. This picture, taken today, celebrates the results.

I had a hard time getting to this post today. Blogger was not working well as of an hour ago, and I had software issues in other areas which prevented me from posting the post that I planned to. In one of those hideous glitches all too familiar to regular computer users, the entire post was lost, and now exists only as a set of fading vibrations in some other part of the universe.

Long years of computer use have taught me that it is pointless to get upset about things of this nature. It is a case of dog bites man.

Today we took the famous dog Isabel out into the woods. There was a fierce snowstorm that ended with a coating of ice yesterday; we trudged out into virgin territory in Tallman State Park, shuffling gingerly along the top of snow-encrusted embankments, stumbling delightedly as the crust broke, falling and laughing, try to become more weightless than these bodies will allow.

At lunch, over a bowl of tomato soup spiked (by my own habitual hand) with chili peppers from New Mexico, I spoke with Neal about how I am beginning to lose my taste for hot foods.

This seems inconceivable: anyone who knows me will tell you that I have a craving for hot foods, and an excessive tolerance for them. Lately, though, I have been feeling more sensitive towards the taste of foods, having different experiences of them, and hot foods do not seem so interesting to me anymore.

This bothers me a bit; it reminds me of how I lost my taste for doing visual arts some five plus years ago. I have written about that before; the wish to do that still hasn't come back all these years later.

Those of you who read Mr. Gurdjieff's work, or who are at least familiar with some of his ideas, will know that he spoke often of the difference between essence and personality. Today I had an insight: I see that the differences that arise in me today are differences that are probably ascribable to the growth of essence.

We spend most of our lives enslaved by our personalities; as they grow, they decide what we will do and how we will do it. They decide what we will like and dislike; all along, we are willing participants, and unwitting victims. Our personality makes decisions for us that may have nothing to do with what we are actually like in essence.

After years of work, as we finally reach a moment when our essence begins to grow, things in us are bound to change. Of course this is bewildering; in actual fact, although we all profess a wish for change in our lives, we prefer the change to be superficial, that is, one of circumstances, not of what we perceive to be our overall character. Sacrificing anything from our exitsting state, that is, our personality, is a scary thing. It represents the death of something we are.

Everyone talks a good game, but no one wants this.

So here I am, finding out that essentially I don't like hot food. Not that much, anyway. This is quite a shock for someone who has crammed himself full of chili peppers for years. I am not quite sure who I am anymore. Or, as I put it to Neal, it is not a case of "I am this person," or, "I am not that person," but rather, "who is this person?"

So here I am, once again searching for who I am and where I am in this life. Once again I discover I don't know much about that. What I assumed was true is not; things that appeared to be certain and permanent turn out to be questionable and temporary; the earth, which looks solid, turns out to have fault lines in it. It may start shaking at any time and the buildings that I have erected over the last 51 years could come tumbling down like my art career.

I suppose it is fair enough discover that in our search for who we are, we find we are not who we thought we were.

What is even more sobering is to discover that we are not what we think we are. In these fleshy bodies, bags of skin and bones, as Master Dogen would put it, we fall victim to the cravings of the senses and they convince us that they are all there is. The fact that there is another world touching us at all moments, one we cannot see, and rarely, if ever, sense, escapes us.

If we open the vessel, and let the world flow in, everything changes. No matter what our reactions, what our prejudices, our irritations, if we practice, in this ordinary life, in this ordinary sense,we come to these three principles:

Accept, accept, accept.

When I come back to this over and over, it is possible to begin again to try to experience my life in more than just a superficial manner.

The sun has been streaming through my studio window as I write this; filtered through blue white reflections of snow, it blooms into the fiery red of the geraniums we have nurtured here all winter. I was going to post a picture of that for you, but the Amaryllis trumps them so handily- in digital format, anyway- that there was no contest.

Go with God, my friends. May we all remember to step lightly as we tread on the moments of this life, lest they break under our clumsy feet like a thin crust of snow.

And may we breathe in enough of that which feeds the soul to lighten us as we make our way through this thing called life.

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