Conduct and observance

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Friday, March 9, 2007

Bridges and lakes

In keeping with the landscape theme, this morning I got up early and took a sunrise walk around West Lake in Hangzhou.

The lake is world-famous for its genteel, magnificently landscaped shorelines, with picture-perfect gardens, elegant classical bridges, long winding causeways and grassy paths. Every step along the path reveals a new splendor: one can barely draw breath without encountering glory.

The landscape manages to achieve the highest Chinese ideal of the “Middle Kingdom:” it creates a superior vision of the space between earth and heaven, with the qualities of each blending harmoniously into one another. It is a poem, a song, a brush painting: time itself seems to be contained and distilled here. The paths are still fresh with the footsteps of emperors, concubines, scholars; the earth on the tombs of the courtesans and poets and warriors is newly turned, the flowers just planted.

This carefully manufactured landscape exemplifies the richness of “edge conditions” in a special and particularly human manner, exploiting the intersections between water and land, earth and sky, to create a sublime food of impressions. Japanese Zen Gardeners, stand aside: the Chinese got there first, and their skills are formidable indeed.

The allegorical idea of the “middle kingdom” is nothing less than the folk version of the same esoteric understanding we have reviewed many times together in this blog: the idea of man as a bridge between two levels.

Every human life is an elegant definition of the meeting place between earth and heaven. In fact, every manifestation of reality has that quality: As the dragon (vibration, male) meets the phoenix (matter, female), what we call classical reality emerges from the quantum state and explodes in all the glory of the known universe. Individual consciousnesses- including our own- stand in place like countless armies ready to receive and participate in the eternal, ever-mutable arising of this state.

It is up to us to see where, and when, we can participate in such a way as to enhance the value of this cosmic exchange,. By improving the quality of our relationship to ourselves, we cultivate the inner landscape, and it becomes more sensitive, more receptive to the outer world. Within the careful attention to the outer landscapes we read a lesson: attend, attend, attend to the flowers within, to the places where earth meets air and lake meets sunlight.

In the midst of these inner and outer dialogues, form and formlessness engage in an endless dance. Much is made, in religious work, of the superiority of formlessness, but I think there is also a strong argument for form. Personally, in the midst of my own search for the formless, I am ever-drawn to form: I’d rather give a formal bow than kiss and hug. I think it shows more respect.

Perhaps we could argue that Zen practice, Christianity, Hinduism, with their elaborate and care-ridden formal rituals, are no more than codpieces: offering their brightly colored outer shells as a coarse substitute for that ultimately subtle, real, and intimate sexual congress of the higher with the lower.

Still, the lower must meet the higher- it is only by the very existence itself of the lower that the higher can define its place- and the lower must express itself, if in no other way, through form. Where else but within form can this level find its own place, and show a real and appropriate respect for that glorious truth that lies above us?

Let us cultivate our landscapes with the same care and understanding the ancient Chinese aesthetes lavished on the West Lake shoreline-

Here, perhaps, we can help that living God we seek to find us.

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