At This Very Moment, Just Sitting

It’s 4:15 in the morning and I‘m moving smoothly down the cloister of the Shasta Abbey toward the Buddha Hall for the first meditation period of the day. The stars are pulsing in the crisp air, a temple bell tolls softly in the distance. My body and mind are thickened and distorted in a jetlag-like discomfort. I could be miserable. Instead, I feel like a transparent jewel sinking slowly into some welcoming oceanic depth.

I slip through the door of the Buddha Hall with a bow and enter into the candle-lit darkness. There is the delicate swoosh of robes as monks move about setting up the Hall. Crossing the room, I bow to the altar and stand, pausing for a moment to take it all in, to be just here. Even rushing to my sitting place would be a distraction.

I am before my sitting place, bowing, and suddenly I feel I am bringing where I truly sit to this particular spot. Nothing more, nothing less, nothing to think too much about. The jewel continues sinking.

Settling further into the stillness after the meditation bell rings, there is the sound of Rev. Master Jiyu’s grandfather clock ticking, the sensations of my body settling in, the noticing of thoughts thrown up like graffiti on a wall that then slide away. Emotions bubble up, some with images, and go the way of the graffiti-thoughts. I notice a smoothness to it all, a gentle and seductive pleasure. I notice that the clock’s tick has disappeared and returns at the moment it’s loss is noticed. How easily I am pulled from my sitting place by small pleasures, little absorptions. It’s helpful to have the tick-tock and to hear each tick and each tock.

The bell signals the end of the meditation period and the bowing helps loosen up my spine and open my heart. As we begin walking meditation, the slow and deliberate steps work to further align my body. The tick-tock returns as I find my internal “sitting place” while taking each step, every step.

Two tings of the inken (signal gong) end walking meditation. A bow in the walking meditation circle, a bow to my sitting place, a bow to the sangha in front of me and all beings, and I am back in my sitting place. Tick-tock….tick-tock…

I notice now that I am waiting for something. Oh, I’m waiting for the seven morning beats from the huge drum in the Buddha Hall. Roaring beats that vibrate the body and brighten the mind – or wake me up if I’ve drifted into dozing. I used to resist waiting, which of course turned waiting into impatience. Now waiting has more openness to what might show up next. And that translucent jewel wordlessly says go ahead, you wait, I’ll just keep dropping deeper.


It’s mid-afternoon. I’m on my way to the kitchen for meal preparation. Fatigue is showing up and I’m containing it with a sort of “Zen sternness”, a bit of a frown, stiffer movements, a serious bearing. This doesn’t feel right. I want to loosen up but I don’t know how. That little unspoken voice now says smile into your heart! And it happens just like that. No method, nothing really to do other than notice. I’m every bit as fatigued, but lighter somehow. Now people are smiling back at me as I near the kitchen.

An animal funeral. Fritz the schnauzer has died. As I make an offering, I remember his vitality even when he was deaf and blind. I reach for gratitude that his suffering is through, but stumble instead over my own anticipatory grief at losing our aging dog. I touch Fritz’s body to scratch his ears and I am shocked by the lifelessness of his corpse. I have touched dead bodies before – parents, work mates, strangers – but this throws me. I am not pulled off of my sitting place, I am yanked off and thrown down. I am split open from head to toe, a schism opens in the universe.

A flood of questions arises: how can Fritz be so dead when he was so alive? If alive and dead are so different, what to make of this discontinuity? How can his corpse have Buddha Nature? Is all of this ceremonial a sham to make us feel better? These questions come not as words but as flashes of deep emotions of fear and sadness, a spiraling down to a core abyss of vacuity and meaninglessness. The heart-smile is frozen in ice.

I stand by the grave-site in the animal cemetery, reciting the Homage to the Buddha’s Relics with the monks and lay sangha. With the others, I put a shovel of dirt in the grave and join the procession back to the cloister. The fissure continues but to a lesser degree. I ask for help, a quiet internal cry. The little unspoken voice says you’re being given everything you need exactly when you need it, you don’t need to reach for more. I find myself talking back with some defiance: “but I’m not reaching, I’m resisting”, and the tears flow.

Sitting in meditation again, looking at that resistance. Just looking at it. No manipulation, no resistance. A quote, possibly from Dogen, comes to mind: When a piece of wood burns, don’t confuse the ashes with the wood. When there is wood, there is wood. When there are ashes, there are ashes.
I’m walking to the kitchen to join in the food prep. A monk smiles at me and my heart thaws.


This heart-smile is carrying me through my tiredness, through aches and pains of hours of sitting. It helps me see through my arising defensiveness when being corrected for tasks I misunderstood and provides the space to just simply bow. It helps me not resist the clouded mind-states or bristling memories that show up from time to time. There’s lucidity to this heart-smile that is not to be looked at but to be looked through; the lucidity of the jewel, which now spreads in all directions.

Manjusri’s Great Vow

Here is some text which was chanted during the Festival Ceremony for Manjusri Bodhisattva back in October. Note the utter expansiveness within this piece. Listen to the heart within the words. It speaks of compassion does it not?

Now, in the presence of the entire assembly, I bring forth Bodhicitta for the sake of all sentient beings.
I vow to involve myself in samsara countless times to bring great boons to living beings until the end of the future.
I shall cultivate all the Bodhisattva’s deeds to save living beings from their sufferings.
From this moment on, if I break my vow and become greedy, miserly or resentful, I shall be deceiving the Buddhas in the ten directions.
From today until the day I realise enlightenment, I shall always follow the Buddhas in cultivating pure conduct; I shall observe the pure precepts and commit no misdeeds.
I shall not cherish the ideas of realising Buddhahood in haste, but until the end of the future, I shall benefit all living beings, and adorn and purify incalculable, inconceivable Buddha-lands.
My name shall be heard throughout the worlds in the ten directions.
Now I prophesy on my own behalf that I shall without fail become a Buddha. Because my aspiration is superior and pure, I have no doubt of my achievement.
I shall purify my words, thoughts and deeds and let no trace of evil arise. In accordance with this sincere vow, I shall eventually become a Buddha, an Honoured One among human beings.
If my vow is truly sincere, may the six kinds quakes shake the great earth! If my words are genuine and not false, may musical instruments sound spontaneously in the air!
I am free of flattery or resentment; If this is true, may flowers of the coral tree rain down!

When the king, who was then Manjusri Bodhisattva, had spoken this verse, the six kinds of quakes shook billions of Buddha-lands in the ten directions, musical instruments sounded in the air and flowers of the coral tree rained down, all because the king’s vow was sincere. At that time two billion of the king’s attendants rejoiced in ecstasy. They said to themselves with delight, “We shall realise supreme enlightenment,” and thus followed the king’s example engendering Bodhicitta.


It is late however I do like to nip over to Japan and Little House in the Paddy to see what Iain is writing about. Turns out that we are on the same track. Words. Or how it came to me today: This is not what you think. This being here now, all that is encountered.

Words are just a code, quite inadequate for this task, bit by bit that is the other discovery we make. Words are fine to create a facsimile of the original but they never come close to replicating it, they really are a finger pointing at the moon. As we grow older we seem to feel this ‘newness’ less and less but no reason why we should. When did you last say to the person next to you on the train “Look at that amazing cloud over there! It looks like a horse!”

And isn’t it the way of things. Here is Andrew down in Cornwall talking about another theme which I am currently contemplating, fear and anxiety.

Please don’t, what ever you do, feel sorry for us! The longer you go on in this business, the deeper you go and the more intimate one becomes with this. I just want to say that fear and anxiety are better not regarded as problems to fix. The more one thinks and acts as if they are the more real and fixed they become. I have to say it again: This is not what you think! It’s not that it is something else, really. That there is a deeper ‘reality’. That if you thought differently this would be better appreciated. Or, please not, if I think positive thoughts bad things will go away and good things happen.

In The Face Of Fear – Action

Whatever you think you can do or believe you can do, begin it. For in action there is magic, grace and power – Goethe

I came across this quote, strangely enough, in a book on Zen flower arranging. It seems to be one of those popular quotes that are dragged up for use in almost any circumstance. Still, something in it spoke to me. I can’t say that I particularly go for the term magic – I am pretty sure that the power of action doesn’t come from a supernatural source, just from a source which for the most part we neglect or fail to comprehend, and maybe after all that is what more accurately characterises what we tend to call magic. However, power and grace I can go with. And the quote is particularly helpful for me just now.

I have, and as long as I can remember have had, a sense of anxiety as my background emotion – it seems to be almost programmed into my body, and at something like an operating system level come to that. Sometimes it is relatively quiet, sometimes it can lead to a quite debilitating fear. A lot of people find this hard to believe of me as I have done things and held responsibilities that many people seemed to find terrifying. I had little problem with them as the outside threat seen by others was nothing compared with my inner fears.

Life is much quieter for me now; the anxiety and fear remain, and if anything are more noticeable without the distractions of external pressures. Still, action is the antidote to fear. Sometimes any action will do. Sometimes it is an achievement just getting up in the morning, getting dressed, feeding the cats, lighting the stoves and milking the goats. Beginning these simple tasks can dispel the fear. At other times there is one particular task calling me to be worked on which, for some obscured reason, becomes the focus of my fear. Then I can find myself becoming exceptionally busy on just about anything that avoids me having to look at the one thing I need to be doing. Beginning this one thing, in the face of the fear, is where the power and grace lie.

In some ways knowing all this helps to stop other things in the future becoming immobilising with the fear they bring. Sometimes, though, the fear and avoidance seem to creep up unnoticed and for a while action seems impossible – but it isn’t. And, nervous as I am to disagree with Goethe, I am relieved to say that often I don’t even have to feel or believe I can do something – just starting is all that it takes.

Human Relationship – Spiritual Longing

Dave of Holding No Bough blog is a regular reader and leaver of comments. Why not link over to a couple of his recent post. First read Flight and then Watching. Below is a quote from Flight.

When I hear the lark ascend in Vaughan Williams’ The lark ascending I feel a just out of reachness, like the lark can’t quite get there, like we (or should I say I) can’t quite get there. Where ever there is. Does the music point to that feeling of wanting to go home in the spiritual sense? Am I just confusing this with some existential feeling of being out of kilter? And in (an adult’s) crying this same out of reachness, like the tears try to fill the gap. Such crying could be over any loss and not closely connected to spiritual home sickness. Yet there is I suppose, at the root of all pain, a gap between where we feel we want or need to be and where the universe appears to have placed us. A gap born of our illusion of separation, our incarnation in the physical body in the material world.

Dave and I correspond, and talk when he is here. Sometimes I get difficult but tonight I just wanted to say thanks. Tomorrow I might get difficult! My message for Dave? This, right here and now, is the Garden of the Bodhisattvas. There is not a gap, there are no gaps, open the gate and walk in. The key is acceptance. Deep commitment (could we be approaching vow again) to the (so called) path that leads there will have you at the gate in no time.