Deep in the forest
There’s a cabin
It has a name
When I think of Shunryu Suzuki I think of frogs! In his talk To Polish a Tile he talks about how the frog sits; becoming one with its surroundings.
When you become you, Zen becomes Zen. When you are you, you see things as they are, and you become one with your surroundings.
To Polish a Tile Suzuki Roshi, Transcript of this talk given in 1967 and also found published in Zen Mind Beginners Mind, page 80.
In 2010 I had the honour of visiting the Founders Shine at San Francisco Zen Center where Suzuki Roshi is remembered. My companion and I made bows and offered incense and we couldn’t help but notice all the frogs on the various side altars! Frogs featured in a number of his talks during his short time teaching at SZC. Twelve years and what a huge influence.
I’m on Vancouver Island at the moment where there are numerous walking trails between housing estates. Yesterday I walked past a large pond with ducks cruising up and down. A sign announced this to be a sensitive area and to keep to the paths, so I did. There was a strange noise coming from the Bull rushes. Perhaps a frog!
Like so many others in the 1960′s, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind was my introduction to Zen. I remember the page with just a fly on it, page 69. That more than anything left a lasting impression. But I don’t know why.
This information and story came to me recently via an email. Make of the story what you will.
I’d like to share with you this old Japanese story. This is one of those children’s stories that generations of Japanese grandparents used to tell their grandchildren.
In Japan, the statues of Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha are commonplace, often at the roadside. They may be solitary, but often we see six of them, one each for the six realms (hell, hungry ghosts, animals, ashuras, humans, gods) in which Ksitigarbha is at work.
Once upon a time, there was a poor couple, an old man and a woman. The New Year’s Day was just around the corner, but they didn’t have money to buy rice cakes for the New Year. The old man had made five straw hats during the evening after a day’s hard work in the field. “My dear old lady, I’m going to the market to sell these straw hats, and I will buy some rice cakes,” said the old man. But he couldn’t find any buyers. It was snowing hard, and there weren’t many people in the market. He couldn’t sell a single hat. He was sad, thinking how disappointed his beloved wife would be. On his way home to the village, he walked past six statues of Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha. Snow was piling up on their head and shoulders. “They must be feeling cold in an evening like this,” thought the old man, and he put the hats on the statues’ heads. He had only five straw hats, and he didn’t have any hat left for the sixth statue. “I’m very sorry but I have only five hats,” said the old man to the last statue. Then, an idea came to his mind, “Well, please wear my old straw hat. I’ve been wearing this for some years, and it is a bit worn out, but it is better than nothing.” It was New Year’s Eve. The old man went home, without wearing his hat, and his wife greeted him at the door. “My dear, I’m glad you managed to sell all of your hats, but did you have to sell your own hat?” “No, no, I couldn’t sell any,” said the old man, and explained to his wife what he had done. His wife was very happy to hear what her husband did. “You did a very good thing, my dear,” said the wife. Just after midnight, they heard some singing outside. They opened the front door, and found some rice cakes at the doorstep. “How strange! Where did these rice cakes come from?” In the distance in the snow storm, they could see six statues of Ksitigarbha marching their way back, all wearing a straw hat and singing a song.
In another version of the same story, the old couple was visited by six monks wearing straw hats on New Year’s Eve. The monks brought them some rice cakes for the New Year. The old man recognised that the sixth monk was wearing his old straw hat, and then he knew that the six monks were not of this world but the six statues of Ksitigarbha.
This article was first published in October 2009. There were many helpful and appreciative comments left at that first publication. Since pain seems to have become a bit of a theme it seems good to draw attention to this Guest Post.
Introduction Due to orthopedic surgeries and treatments I have been dealing with long periods of excessive physical pain. Because of my body’s condition, being without pain is a rare thing in general. So training with pain is a necessity. The following is an excerpt of sorts, some bits and pieces on my personal dealings with pain. I guess what I am learning in the process is in essence applicable to any form of difficulty or adversary we may encounter in daily life.
When in hospital, several times a day, you are asked to assess your pain level by giving it a rating between 0 and 10, zero being no pain, ten being unbearable pain. This made me reflect on the meaning of unbearable. There have been lot of times that the agony I was in completely filled the whole of consciousness, excluding all else, and I felt it was utterly unbearable. But having reached unbearable nothing much happens really, you do not drop dead, you do not explode to pieces, you do not vanish out of existence. Having reached unbearable you just continue to live, your heart simply continuing to beat. The truth is, despite the agony being unbearable you continue to bear it anyway. So however excessive, I though it would be contrary to the truth to rate my pain a level 10, since if it was truly unbearable I reckon I would have dropped dead. I think this is an important distinction to be aware of when dealing with all kinds of stuff; to see clearly how something feels, how your experience of it is and then how that relates to the truth of how things really are, the bigger reality.
Room for complaint
There is a difference in mild to reasonably severe pain and truly excessive pain in the way it affects the mind. With excessive pain there is no escape, it nails your consciousness immovably to a single point, that is, the now, The Reality Of Pain, that reality excludes all else. One has no option but to face it without flinching and to endure, whether you think you are capable of it or not. With milder forms of pain there is more room for distraction, room for escape in familiar forms like being grumpy, feeling sorry for oneself, complaining. When I catch myself complaining sometimes, I smile and think: actually, if I have room for complaint, I am doing not too bad!
I should say that the above way of differentiating is for internal use only. I don’t think you can reverse it to make inferences about someone else’s pain based on their “complaint level”. That would be trying to step in another’s shoes, which – apart from being impossible – does not really help and can lead to a judgmental attitude, which in turn is bound to heavily tax whatever is going on.
There is nothing that drains your energy more then chronicle pain that lasts and lasts without giving you a break. This can be quite exhausting and depressing. What helps me to get through bleak times is to find helpful distractions that lift the mood like watching movies and television or chatting to friends and ways of relaxing the body as much as possible to minimize the accumulation of tension and stress. But by far the main thing that preserves your resilience in a situation of ceaseless pain is to not give in to gloomy thoughts, to stay focused and to keep looking at the distinction between the feelings, the experience of the now and the truth, the bigger reality of how things really are. Not loosing sight of the bigger reality prevents the mind from getting into isolation where you feel all alone in your agony. I guess that loneliness is the most unbearable of all and can make you apathetic or spiral you down into the pits of depression and despair.
When dealing with pain, the nighttime forms the biggest challenge since for some reason everything is multiplied; the pain, the isolation, the loneliness, the arising fears. The nights in the first week after a major surgery for instance seem to last eternally.
I remember one such night about two years ago after a particularly extensive operation. I think it was the third night after the operation. By then the pain is not only from operation wounds and fractures but every bone, joint, muscle and tissue hurts after lying in the same posture for days on end because you cannot move and bedsores start to kick in. Any sense of time completely lost in the mist of the morphine haze from the two morphine drips, I spend the time subsequently by dozing off a little and then looking at the clock on the bedside table, hoping maybe it has advanced at least half an hour, but always to find that it is only a few minutes later then the previous time I checked. Time has become like a rubber band, every minute stretches and stretches and stretches, to infinity, making the dark night last forever. A little after 1.00 am, when the pressure on my spine from lying on my back for days has become terrible, I tried to shift, turn a little to one side, but impossible, I cannot move. I decide to call for the night nurse and see if I can perhaps manage with some help.
This human being
It takes a while before the nurse answers, must be a busy night. When she finally comes, she enters the room only halfway, staying at a distance from the bed. Not a good sign. It’s dark in the room, out of the corner of my eye I can only see her silhouette against the light from the open door, I sense agitation emanation from her, something is not right at all. Trying to over bridge the distance, I ask if she can help me to shift a little to one side. She snaps: “You are not allowed to turn!” This is not true, she knows it and I know it. She is flatly refusing to do something. I’ve been on this ward frequently due to the unending schedule of operations. Notwithstanding the understaffed situation that seems to be common for most health-care institutions, usually the staff here is friendly and helpful, including this nurse, but she has the tendency to become snappy when she is stressed. It is a big ward and there is only one nurse during the night, and lot of freshly operated patience at the moment, so gathering from her reaction things must be rather tough tonight. But right now this nurse is the only human being in the whole universe that I’ve got to be there for me in some small way in this dark night, and yet she is not able too. She is very stressed and annoyed; her agitation fills the single-bed hospital room like a dark cloud, intensifying the shadows. I remain silent; I know I am in no position to argue the situation. She hesitates, not quite sure how to read my silence, she then turns abruptly and leaves the room.
I am alone in a hospital room 900 kilometers from home in a foreign country, everything and everyone familiar is far away. It is just over 1.30 am, worst part of the endless night still to come. A feeling of utter loneliness and abandonment engulfs me like a huge wave. My mind is trapped like a caged bird in this terrible now without escape. I focus to prevent it from being hurled into dark pits of desperation and existential fear opening up all around. The flat rejection of the nurse in a situation where I am most vulnerable and helpless is spiraling my mind into withdrawal, into isolation from sheer panic. I somehow need to find my way back. To reverse the withdrawal I use all the willpower I can summon to focus and to expand my awareness. First to the hospital bed, I feel it’s size, it’s robustness, how it supports my body together with all the many tubes coming in and out of it, I then expand to feel the space of the room, it is pleasant and spacious, expand to its walls and beyond, to the ward, the fellow patients, lot of them no doubt in pain and without sleep like me, to the whole hospital, the city, to my friends far away. When my awareness expands to include it all, I become suddenly aware of this stream of love and care coming towards me from all those thinking of me, wishing me well. They may be far away and at sleep now and yet this stream is still pouring forth from them like a river of light. The stream simply leaves no room for feelings of entrapment, despair, loneliness, abandonment, such powerful emotions a moment ago, and yet where did they go? They have simply evaporated in the light of the stream when I was able to reverse the isolation and reconnected. The darkness that fills the room, where does it go when you turn on the light switch? Like darkness, these feelings, despite their all powerful and overwhelming appearance, don’t seem to have a real substance in the end.
Nothing has changed, the lonely hospital room, the excruciating pain, the endless night ahead, the terrible weariness and exhaustion, all still there. And yet my experience of it now is very different. There is a sense of being carried, being embraced, me and everything I am going through. It is all right to just be and endure without flinching or need to escape.
For one to be able to live one must either not see the infinite, or have such an explanation of the meaning of life as will connect the finite with the infinite.
Walking down a green lane with the birds singing and wild flowers in abundance. However… However heavenly life is there lurks the potential for the bottom to drop out of the bucket. Here is how it was for Leo Tolstoy when he had everything, and had everything to live for.
Shortly after turning fifty, Leo Tolstoy succumbed to a profound spiritual crisis. With his greatest works behind him, he found his sense of purpose dwindling as his celebrity and public acclaim billowed, sinking into a state of deep depression and melancholia despite having a large estate, good health for his age, a wife who had born him fourteen children, and the promise of eternal literary fame. On the brink of suicide, he made one last grasp at light amidst the darkness of his existence, turning to the world’s great religious and philosophical traditions for answers to the age-old question regarding the meaning of life. In 1879, a decade after War and Peace and two years after Anna Karenina, and a decade before he set out to synthesize these philosophical findings in his Calendar of Wisdom, Tolstoy channeled the existential catastrophe of his inner life in A Confession – an autobiographical memoir of extraordinary candor and emotional intensity, which also gave us Tolstoy’s prescient meditation on money, fame, and writing for the wrong reasons.
Finding Meaning in a Meaningless World, Brain Pickings.
For all those who find themselves in extremity – there is a place for you.