Saturday, January 22, 2011

Following the pathless path

Jizo in the snow, photo by Tom Tucker
This morning I read Open Buddha's review of Footprints in the Snow, an autobiography I also like, and noted that Sheng Yen wrote a book on the Chan form of koan work.  My first response to this news was, I'd like to get that.  Next, I remembered that I have mostly lost interest in formal koan study, which was very good for me when done with Ama Samy, whose method is unique, and good for me in altogether a different way when I worked with Daniel Terragno, whose traditional method was guaranteed to arouse my striving and thus my frustration.  There's a book in that sentence.

Koan work appealed to that in me that longed for mystical, intuitive engagement with the truth.  In fact, the beginning of my work was in a dream after I got home from my first retreat with Ama Samy, one of whose books is titled after the koan, Why did Bodhidharma Come from the West?  I dreamed a deeply felt answer, woke up briefly to write it down that night, and the next day wrote to him about it.  This was in 1999.  He wrote back to me with another koan, "Who is that one?," and I carry that koan to this day, realizing more all the time that this one is compiled of a thousand thousand bits that shift constantly - the truth of no fixed limited self.

During the years that I worked with Ama Samy while on retreats, I also worked with the first book in the Japanese tradition, The Gateless Barrier.  I worked with three copies of it, in fact, by three teachers, studying each koan hard, thinking about nuances.  I embraced this study gladly, finding it much more fulfilling than the graduate studies in literary theory I had recently completed.

It made its way into Zen-flavored humor written by Sherlock, my cat, which I intended to collect as The Sound of One Paw until I got felled by one real-life koan after another.  I also read and reread John Tarrant's marvelous collection, Bring me the Rhinoceros.  In all this, each koan worked its way into my mind.  It's something Tom and I share in that intimate way of the long-married, casual references to something we both did and that we understand.

Well, this is a shorthand description of a few years of journey.  My interest in koans tapered off - I couldn't say when.  At the time, I felt like I was failing.  But now I notice that I carry all those koans, and they often pop up in response to some event.  My practice has become more flexible, is changing all the time.  I'm about to pick back up yin yoga, taking advantage of Lulu Bandha's online site, recommended by the best and most generous yoga teacher I've ever known, Kit Spahr.  I am again interested in poetry, writing my own, reading others'.  On retreat, I was very moved by the visible world, and took photographs, including a sequence of a sunrise and one of a sunset that I'd like to turn into mini-slideshows and publish.  And, well, going to the health club - I have never been attracted to exercise - is a way of recognizing the basic principle of cause and effect we call karma.  Practice is all over the place, if you think about it.

I suspect all serious practitioners think deeply at times of throwing over the householder's life and entering residence, spending more time on formal practices like meditation and calligraphy.  I don't, anymore.  I'm too bonded to Tom, my neighborhood, my home, my church.  Besides, I'd drive them crazy.

1 comment:

  1. Though late to the table, I feel your post deserves at least one response. Your comment about koans coming back to you at moments in your passing life rings true. I'm post-transplant (liver), now two years and something ago. Because of complications, I have been on pain meds for several years and am only now getting off them.

    For the last several days I have found the koan about coming down off of the hundred foot pole grinding away in my mind. Working with it, I realized that it was I who had set this situation up as a hundred foot pole with my anxiety before the event. Connecting with this self-origination reminds me of the Buddha touching the earth beneath him with is hand, dispelling delusion.. Now firmly on the ground (for the moment, at least) my anxiety is gone.

    I enjoy reading your blog and usually manage to get around here once a week or so to follow it. All the best!