the work of practice

Standing at the han every morning of Rohatsu was a practice of noting the preferential mind.  This is a North-facing door and when one side was open the wind ripped through the little room.  Thankfully, I was protected by the door directly in front which kept the wind from blowing onto me.  I’m not sure I really noticed the cold anyway; I was so focused on the sequence and timing of the strikes that a troop of marauding yeti would have got pass me.  One morning, one of the teachers came by and gently closed the door  saying, “It doesn’t have to be open all the way in this cold.  It’s too cold for you.”  I bowed gratefully and stood there as the wind bounced off the door and funneled directly onto me.  Good intentions.  I did open the door fully when the teacher left and later we had a good laugh about helping hands.

Kornfield explains in Bringing Home the Dharma that we can get stuck on the pleasant aspects of our experience.  Freedom only comes when we fully experience and then release whatever is present, “no matter how beautiful or how painful.”

As we stay present with mindful and wise attention, we notice three things will happen to our experience: it will go away, it will stay the same for a while, or it will get more intense.  Which of these occurs is none (of) our business! Our job is to allow the experience of the phenomenal world to unfold in all its infinite richness — to see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and think, to rest in mindfulness and freedom at the center of it all.  (pp. 88-89)

This is really helpful, when I’m stuck in these awkward or painful experiences, to know that the shifting is not my job.  Or more correctly, preventing the shift is not in my job description.  Staying present to it is, and while you may wonder at the wisdom of standing in a North wind, being present allowed me to “think” calmly and act skillfully.  A rare moment, I’m sure will not shake up the universe too soon again.  But seriously, my other bag of tricks is to get angry or frustrated or to wish everyone could see how much I’m suffering and for them to launch a rescue effort.  It was just so much easier to note that the teacher was trying to help and that I could simply open the door again – close it fully.

Choices.  Just a quiet way of not giving away my power.

enter the rhino

We’re back with the rhinoceros-horn fan.  The fan in the picture is special; it is dyed peacock feathers and was my grandmother’s.  That’s the story anyway though I have serious doubts about the material.  The feathers are lush and I recall drawing the tip of the fan over my face, relishing the soft tingle.  In my grandmother’s hands, the fan was a material expression of her moods.  By turns, it would project coyness, affect joy, arrogantly dismiss, or capriciously summon.  The fan was special and she believed that by extension she was too.  I, as a child on the other hand, only worried about the butt-naked peacocks running around in the jungles.

One of the learned men in Yen Kuan’s presence, upon hearing Yen Kuan’s call for the rhino, said, “The rhino is still there.”

Hsueh Tou’s prodding is fascinating; he reminds us that the rhino is right there in the room.  The horn, cut away from the animal, is no less a rhino than the beast itself intact with horn.  But we are so very willing to cleave things off and pretend that cutting away generates a whole new thing, separate and unique to itself.  In fact, it’s this very willingness to cleave off things we deem as special that has resulted in the extinction of the Northern white rhino and the Western black rhino.  Soon I suspect we can add polar bears, frogs, sharks, seals, elephants, bears, lions and tigers – oh my!

It happens in relationships too.  I enshrine those parts of my relationships that I declare special.  By that I mean those parts that declare ME special.  Like my grandmother’s peacock fan, these disembodied chunks of interactions serve to draw people closer, hold them in some purgatory, or (and?) dismiss them with a flick of a wrist.  And it’s all enabled by a deeper delusion that these portions of my relationship have nothing to do with the flesh-and-blood, heart-and-soul sentient being in whose true presence they were born.

I wonder what would happen if the rhino entered the room.  What might happen if we were able to see the whole being, the entire gnarly, smelly, grumbly beast?  The whole body crevassed by skin, hair spiking out of pores, stinking of  life and death.  Would Yen Kuan look into the eye of the rhino and see the unreality of his fan?  If we bring the whole smelly mess of our lives into the room and look into its eyes, would we too see the uselessness of the bits and pieces we hacked off to prove our worthiness?

Roshi Enkyo said in dokusan that shikantaza is the most difficult practice.  I took away the understanding that it is an unrelenting awareness of the entirety of my life moment-by-moment, not just those moments on the cushion.  It is the whole rhino lumbering kinhin through the halls and rooms of my being, leaving behind it a trail of poop and pee.

Not a comfortable thought.  But it beats visions of all those butt-naked peacocks in the jungle.