Flowers Blooming In A Skull Vase
I'm going to do a series of talks and blogs over the next several months on the kind of doomsday narrative that seems to becoming normalized in the culture and how that intersects with our dharma practice, whether you hear it from an ecological perspective or geo-political affairs. It's going to have various elements ranging from the apocalypse of the self, to how people are feeling about world events, and how there's a collective anxiety under the surface, and eventually touch on what we might call a survivalist dharma. How, if we take these narratives seriously, would we practice? How does practice meet a dystopian vision? I don't subscribe to any particular narrative, actually. But i’m fascinated with all this and I want to enter these ideas ( or are they premonitions?) and unpack them with you.
So it's Spring and the air hums with Spring’s signature vitality. I'm here now in North Carolina and there's something very expanding about unfamiliar birdsong. I've been seeing and hearing birds I've never seen and heard before. To me, birds are an emblem of Spring, the pure expression of what Spring is. Flowers are appearing in lawns, Azaleas are bursting and trees are unabashedly leafing. And it feels like many of us are excited for the new sunshine and a pandemic that seems to be receding. And along with that, connections opening up with people that we care for, engaged with less fear.
Yet, there's a certain double consciousness that I live with, and I think we all live with it to some degree. In a walk around my neighborhood or even just sitting out on the porch, my body is intoxicated with the fragrant blue sky reaching all the way down. This intoxication is its own universe, a wholeness, it’s the only show in existence. This is presence. When we talk about presence, the present moment, its not some dot that we try to stand inside as it moves. I don't know if you've ever found yourself practicing with a kind of diligence and you wonder, am I present?, as if it's a moving dot you can fall out of. The presence of this moment is the only show in existence. The universe is expressing full muster and our presence is the medium for the universe to express full muster. And that full muster is this birdsong, this smell in the air, it's everything really. The whole show of existence is right here. A whole show. Each moment is the universe.
At the same time, there are echoes of the news I read in the morning. An image of lifeless bodies in a Ukrainian city, images of men drunk on power, wielding their insecurities on the poor and the defenseless. There's this simultaneity of Spring’s presence and these images. Of course, the reverse is true, too. At this moment, somewhere, someone is moving through the most painful human situation and yet there are glimmerings of beauty in that persons universe. Someone, somewhere is in some trying human experience that we wouldn't wish on anybody. But somehow there's a grace that they're embodying as they move through that. Somehow the deep is on their side, even in the midst of that. And it's simultaneous.
There's an archetypal map of the greater cosmos and of the personal, the microcosm, in Buddhism- the 6 Realms. This map basically says there's always heaven, there's always hell. There's always craving, there's always blindness, there's always joy. All of these different elements of existence are simultaneous and they all depend on each other. Because there's one, there's the other, because there's the other, there’s one. And they're independent, we might have had a time in our life where we went to hell, it was just hellish, or a time just gliding in bliss. But something about practice breaks down those barriers. Awareness doesn't have those barriers, awareness has a quality of simultaneity- things begin to bleed into each other.
In a way, we're addressing this double consciousness all the time as we talk about the relative and the absolute. The well known Zen chant Sandokai says that the ultimate truth of freedom, and the relative truth of conventional limitations and structures, alternate like the front and back foot in walking. Our experience in practice is touching some deeper kind of release and freedom, the unbounded, but then our mother in law calls and we're back in our ordinary limitations.
It's a little bit like those magic eye paintings or those drawings where if you look in one way, you just see these two faces, but if you relax in a certain way, you can see ‘oh, there's actually another image there…’ There's the content of a situation and all it's felt, very human, particular realities and at the same, that very same situation, we can have an aesthetic experience of it. The old teachers use the term suchness, the suchness of the moment, the isness of the moment. It's kind of like the beauty you might see in someone weeping. I don't know if you've ever noticed but sometimes someone is crying and you can resonate with the emotional reality and story from that person- your empathy is there, and at the same time, (or is it alternating?), that very crying-presence is beauty in itself. Saturated with being. Every moment is saturated with being, whatever its configuration.
One way to look at practice is, on one hand, moving between the textures of our experience in motion, simply that, textures of experience in motion: energies in space, energies moving through awareness: thoughts, body sensations, houses, cars, babies, cherry blossoms: this motion of textures, shifting between that- and, this here before me is a cherry blossom. This is my grief. Or whatever it may be at the level of personal narrative and meaning.
So we sit down to meditate and we we bring ourselves, selves which are very much an unfolding narrative with a past and a future. To some degree we exit that narrative, by not attending to the timeline, but just dwelling as the very texture of being. It's just breath. You can feel how how even those words are too much. We rest as this river of texture. And then maybe the next moment we're thinking about our mother in law, we're thinking about the birds outside the window. And we're back in the narrative experience. Like when you relax your eyes and the 3d image pops out. Or when you lose that relaxation, and once again, it recedes and it's just a field of of color.
We access this level of suchness, of isness, and our joy arises within the knowledge of suffering, the knowledge of loss arises within knowledge of joy. It's all overlapping, simultaneity. Suzuki Roshi said, “We don't care for too much excitement…” It's all present here. We don't have to go looking for the richness of life because we open it the place we stand. Space, motion, joy and pain, flirting, touching, blending. I think of the Yin Yang symbol. The circle contains the yin and the yang - that’s awareness. They each are what they are and yet they alternate. They each are what they are and yet they create each other in simultaneity.
So there's Spring and we're aware too of death and decay. Images and narratives of destruction are pouring through our digital windows, being sold to us non-stop. There's a practice of dharma where you either literally or metaphorically meditate in the cemetery. In India they would call it charnel ground practice. It's a thing you might do, intentionally to go and be among the endings, the cast off, the lifeless. There's a sense of wanting to make that intimate and not tiptoe around it. We live in a culture where most of us will never just encounter corpses lying in the open. Death is the back side of everything we see just as life is the background of all we witness decayed. We want to see the backside and the front. Flowers bring joy. Their fragility is right there in the blossom. We don't get super excited about plastic flowers, because those blossoms won't fall. Spring keeps returning and babies keep getting born and artists keep creating and all of this may keep us from dwelling one sidedly on death and loss. But in a way the Schools of Death are everywhere.
Everywhere are artifacts and emblems of the charnel ground, and I don't just mean dead bodies. I was talking with someone about grief and about how we grieve life stages, we grieve the completion of certain projects. we grieve the change in relationships of all kinds. We grieve previous versions of ourselves. There are roles that we have to let go of- there's a grief. For a time you are really into something and it brings you passion and meaning and then one day the ability to do that thing or the passion might go away and leave you bereft. No longer being able to lean on something in life for your sustenance. So the charnel ground is not just about human bodies dying, but seeing all the emblems and artifacts of loss. And we want to not avert our gaze, we want to see them. Embrace. Let awareness be big enough to hold that simultaneity.
The world is always ending, right? You come into my moment and as far as my world is concerned, you were born and you leave and until I see or hear from you again you don't actually exist. The world and its beings are always ending. And beginning. We can’t pin this down, we’re continually in the midst of birth-and-death. Looking around carefully at the field of loss that we move through is a means to optimize letting go, making the best of that. The times when we lose people, lose roles, lose identities, the deaths, retirements, closures, transitions, all these are among the most potent spaces for transformation and deepening into dharma.
We're loosened by loss. When we feel that we have something, identity tends to get woven into it, we fold it into our sense of self. ‘I am a mother with a teenage daughter still at home.’ And then she leaves home, and that thread gets pulled out and there's a looseness in the weave of identity. Habitually, we might grasp and try to reconstitute that and fill that space with something else. But as practitioners, we can let loss loosen us. Gifts within Apocalypse. Flowers bloom in the gaps. There's room for space and the brightness that accompanies space. Skull flowers of bright space, simply waiting for the cracks. Spring.