Every Sunday my family began the day with an early morning Mass at the Sacred Heart Cathedral. Latin Mass. The rafters resounded with the Credo in Unum Deum and Kyrie Eleison thankfully absorbing my screechy accompaniment. I lived for those moments of transcendence which set into all of my ten years a deep yearning for total devotion to prayer. Unlike my peers I needed no bribery for surviving the never-ending chants or the choking scent of the incense censer (interestingly called a “thurible” and for a stunning display of one version check out the last scenes of the movie “The Way” which is about a father’s journey along El Camino de Santiago). Besotted little Love Dog of the Teachings, I was only too eager to be there front and center absorbing the ceremony and answering back whole-heartedly.
In the afternoons my parents would have their poker parties. Don’t get me wrong; they were every bit as devout as a good Catholic couple would have been in the wild 50’s of post-war Burma. But they also knew to feed their attachments to good liquor and cards. The house would transform into a speak-easy of beautiful men and stunning women navigating around tables of cards, dice and other games I can’t recall. In the background the strains of Dorsey, Miller, Nat King Cole and the Andrews Sisters erased all trace of the resonant Latin chants.
That was when my grandmother stepped in. My father’s mother, a cheroot-smoking, shoe-throwing devotee of the Buddha, was not impressed by the exposure I was getting to the three poisons. Though I doubt she actually thought of it that way. Perhaps it was more an issue of trying to neutralize the Latin Mass. In order to marry my grandfather (who was Catholic), she had to agree that her children would be raised Catholic. So my father, although his devotion to the mystery of being expressed its way in both forms of worship, lived his life a staunch Catholic with a worldview shot through by a quiet Buddhist thread. And I, swept off to the Botataung Pagoda each Sunday, lived out both their hopes of the Buddhist lineage.
But I didn’t know that at the time. Sundays were simply, complicatedly, a day of Latin chants followed by the shedding of frilly dresses for the tomboy pants and a walk along the railway tracks that lead me and my grandmother to the pagoda’s turtle pond. There she bought large compressed balls of popped corn which I fed the turtles, watching them wait semi-submerged and then rise lazily to break off a piece of the chunk I threw into the broad lotus leaves. I still can’t eat popcorn without thinking “turtle food.” These interwoven rituals became my practice roots. Not grandiosity of the Mass, the priests or monastics, the genuflections or prostrations , the soaring Kyrie or monotonic memorized recitations of the suttas that floated in the background of the pagoda grounds. These were the forms of religion, vaguely activating in the heart but not captivating enough for devotion.
The turtle pond, however, was a different bright boundless field. At its edge I learned the early lessons of transcending sights and sounds, of leaving no trace and reflecting mirror-sharp reality. This became and continues as the center of my circle of devotion.
The field of boundless emptiness is what exists from the very beginning. You must purify, cure, grind down, or brush away all the tendencies you have fabricated into apparent habits. Then you can reside in the clear circle of brightness. Utter emptiness has no image, upright independence does not rely on anything. Just expand and illuminate the original truth unconcerned by external conditions…. The deep source, transparent down to the bottom, can radiantly shine and can respond unencumbered to each speck of dust without becoming its partner. The subtlety of seeing and hearing transcends mere colors and sounds. The whole affair functions without leaving traces, and mirrors without obscurations…. With thoughts clear, sitting silently, wander into the center of the circle of wonder. This is how you must penetrate and study.
The Bright, Boundless Field. In Cultivating the Empty Field: The silent illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi, translated by Taigen Dan Leighton with Yi Wu