If you’re following along with my “stuff,” you’ll know I have several books on the go, each vying for the “supremacy” of which will get done, and therefore published, next. I’ve gotten to the point of a fairly regular writing schedule, and this story popped out today, (it’s included in my Zen stories book, entitled, Half Asleep in the Buddha Hall)
In the Moment
A Zen monk, walking along, was chased by a tiger. He ran, and came to the edge of a cliff. He jumped, catching hold of a root sticking out from the cliff face. He looked up, and saw the tiger, licking his lips.
He looked down, and saw another tiger, licking his lips.
The root started to pull lose.
He looked at the cliff wall. There, in a small hollow, was a strawberry plant, with one perfect strawberry. He picked it, and ate it.
Simple presence requires that we be — well — simply present. Not an easy thing, when confronted with a myriad of distractions. Or perhaps better put: when we endlessly obsess about the myriad of things we distract ourselves with.
In Zen, the essence of the teaching is Zazen, or “just sitting.” It is not quite just sitting-it is finding the spaciousness that exists when one does not follow a thought.
Our normal waking time is a mental game of “one damn thing after another.” We think and plot and plan and name and offend ourselves. This game is played between our ears, in the great churning cauldron of our minds. As we discussed above, the thoughts themselves are not the culprits. The culprit is our clinging to the meaningfulness of our thoughts, processes, games and our selves.
So, Zen seeks to use “just sitting” as a way to observe our thoughts without attaching to them. Thoughts become as clouds against a blue sky-ever moving, ever changing, ever depleting, reforming, and drifting. Clouds become leaden only when we focus on one and try to make it real.
Eventually, just sitting leads to an essential quietness and below the quietness lays a pool of emptiness. Our ego structures, ever invested in creating meaning and especially importance for our “ego-self,” hates it that what lays beneath is emptiness. Formlessness. Egolessness. That which is, and is not.
We scare ourselves with the emptiness-with the sense of self, falling away. The existentialist philosophers declared that our fear (our angst) was of death, or non-being. This is not the message of Zen.
I have come to see that emptiness is an emptiness of assumptions. Definitions. Meanings. When we see our selves as constructions, stories-in a sense, the lies we tell ourselves of a history that never happened, there is, paradoxically, freedom. The freedom is from the stories we tell ourselves.
Beneath the sense of self, beneath the stories we tell ourselves, is a vast pool of emptiness, in which all things “simply are.” Now, if you are into Quantum Physics, or into cosmology, you will know that scientists see that everything is the same thing. Everything we are is the same thing everything is, and it all came from “source.” I am you, you are me, and we are all the same as everything else.
And within the system are vast arenas of emptiness-spaces between what is, balancing it with “what isn’t.” This is captured in the symbol of the yin/yang, which graphically demonstrates that there is “is” in “is not,” and vice versa.
As the amazing Sufi poet, Rumi, put it,
We are the mirror as well as the face in it.
We are tasting the taste this minute of eternity.
We are pain and what cures pain.
We are the sweet cold water and the jar that pours.
(Barks, Green, and Jalal Al-Din Rumi p.111)
This is a lot to get your head around, but essential to see and feel. As we let go of attaching so tightly to our invented ego-selves, we begin to develop a sense of humour. We see how often we make messes for ourselves, and the basis of the mess is our clinging to our version of things.
Instead, there is a place where all that is happening, all that “I am,” is found in this moment. It is the monk, the tigers, and the strawberry. Rather than engaging in a mental drama of relative importance-making, the monk sees, appreciates and eats the strawberry. The tigers are still there, and the root is still letting go. Neither thing is under the monk’s control (nor is the existence of the strawberry ;-)) The monk has two choices, really. He can make up stories about his dire circumstance, or he can mindfully eat the strawberry.
Notice that the story leaves our monk hanging. We do not know how it all comes out, and that is hardly the point. This is also the condition of our lives. No matter how much time we spend describing how we think it will all come out, what actually happens is what happens. This is best captured in John Lennon’s line, “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.”
Our focus needs to simultaneously soften and sharpen. Soften-by taking ourselves with humour and non-seriousness. Sharpen-as we courageously look at the emptiness that lies beneath the surface of the stories we tell ourselves.
In this spacious place, we see the importance and the fleetingness of this moment.
This, alone, is enough.