this field of boundless emptiness

Botataung Pagoda

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

window on Burma

The past week has offered a number of events worthy of comment and I admit to having been too caught up in dukkha of my own creation to make it to the blog window and write about them.  It’s not so much a callousness or numbness to the tragedies unfolding in the world – though I feel the ironic edge of numb creeping up – but rather a preoccupation with several emotional encounters that may or may not signal another koan window to leap through.

A Zen koan poses the question of why the tail of an ox can’t get through a window when the entire ox can.  Lately compassion (for all beings including myself) has this feel.  So much pours out as though the window is vast and boundless and then I get stuck.  Interestingly, I might be able to lay the blame at the feet of Western philosophers for this one.  According to Paul Gilbert, author of Compassionate Mind, our philosophical roots lead us to be more likely to feel compassion for those whose suffering we believe is undeserved.  That may explain why we donate freely for victims of disasters but hesitate for the homeless person in front of the liquor store.

Well, the world has no end of opportunity to show compassion for those who did nothing to deserve their suffering.

On 2011 March 24, an earthquake of 7.0 magnitude hit northeastern Burma in the Shan State.  The effects were felt in Bangkok and Hanoi.  The Irrawaddy (click on photo to the left) reported 150 dead and significant damage.  The government of Burma, of course, has a different story.  Apparently this isn’t enough of a photo-op for the generals so there hasn’t been any ego-feathers flapping as there was with Cyclone Nargis.  Likely as not, the generals aren’t expecting the same volume of Western goodies to be delivered that they can spirit away for themselves.

Ah, such cynicism.  It is expected, I suppose, and not just because of the lack of effort on the part of those in charge of Burma.  There is scant news available on the earthquake and its impact and even fewer calls for aid.  Perhaps we’re all too shaken by the intensity and danger of what is happening in Japan.  I know I am.  Perhaps the people in a mountain region of a country constantly beset by mind-boggling cruelty – natural and man-made – is too much for us to absorb.

But here it is.  One more tragedy in the long list of things happening at the end of the world.  I sadly point you again to the list of humanitarian agencies on the Ways to Engage page of this blog.  Please do what you can… again… and again.

Thank you for practising,