Tuesday, April 26, 2011

On Not Knowing, Part 1 of 3

I first learned of Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn’s “don’t know” teaching when I was studying with a monk by the name of Sungak Sunim. She loaned me a book entitled The Compass of Zen in which Seung Sahn says: “The most important thing you can do is to learn to keep a great question very strongly: ‘What am I?’ By keeping this question with great determination, what appears is only ‘don’t know’” (p. 10).

Not knowing is a state of being that we humans are not very comfortable with. We only have to reflect upon recent disasters to realize just how painful it can be. It’s difficult to return to anything resembling a state of normalcy when we don’t know whether a loved one is alive or dead, or when we don’t know when or if we’ll ever be able to go back home. Likewise, we intimately experience this ‘don’t know’ state of mind whenever we have to wait for the results of a medical test that might reveal a major health problem or sit tight as news of a layoff begins to ripple through our place of employment. Yes, not knowing can be one of the most torturous and tumultuous things we ever face.

The suffering of not knowing isn’t only confined to such daunting life events as those described above, however. It visits us on a fairly regular basis. Do me a favor, please. Think back to those times when you’ve been at work or at school or perhaps involved in something out in the community where it was expected that you’d have some level of knowledge about whatever project it was that you were engaged in. Now, think back to what if felt like to be asked a question – a very good question, a pertinent question, a question that had never occurred to you before – and one that you didn’t know the answer to.

Have you had enough time for reflection? Well, perhaps I’m about to reveal something unique to my own personal karma. Perhaps you’re all very self-secure and unencumbered by expectations – whether they be internally or externally imposed upon you. Maybe you haven’t the slightest difficulty responding to such a question with a sincere and unrepentant: “I don’t know.” If so, congratulations! However, I suspect that I’m not all that unique when I say that my gut tightens up a little bit when I’m in such a situation, and then my mind begins to go down a path of introspection that goes something like this: Oh, man, I should know the answer to this. How did such an obvious question escape me? Apparently I didn’t become as familiar with such-and-such as I should have. Gosh, I hope this person doesn’t think that I’m incompetent, etc.

Does that sound familiar? I’m actually fairly confident that there’s a whole lot of shared human karma going into such a situation. After all, we grow up desiring to be competent. We grow up amidst expectations that we become competent. We take on various roles and we adopt various personas throughout the course of our lives and each time that we do we’re expected to do so with proficiency. Sure, some of us might be more or less conscientious; some of us might put more or less pressure on ourselves, but I think this ‘I don’t know’ scenario is one that we can all relate to.

I was generally a pretty good student. However, I do recall being a schoolboy sitting somewhat uncomfortably in my seat as the teacher’s eyes scanned the room looking for someone to call on. She’d hardly even got the question out of her mouth before hands began shooting up to the ceiling. Some kids waved their hands, almost pleading to be called on. Others were more somber and stoic, holding their arms ramrod straight and still, as if to say: “I know that I know it; you know that I know it; just say the word and I’ll prove it to you.” Still others almost certainly knew, but perhaps they weren’t as confidant in their knowledge, or comfortable with speaking in front of the class. If need be they would answer the question, but they had nothing to prove. Me, I was just trying hard not to give face to my terror that the truth might come out that, in fact, I didn’t know. Yes, this was something of a daily ritual – ten seconds of hell during which the teacher would scan the entire room looking for someone to call on – long enough for the tension in the room to build to a crescendo. You see, only some of the time did the ritual end with someone who actually knew the answer being called on. Much of the time the ritual was intended to ferret out someone that didn’t know. The lesson was a simple one: always know.

All winter long I’ve been thinking about this subtle expectation that we know given the reality that there is so much in life that we can’t possibly know. I actually built a little shrine in my backyard to this ‘don’t know’ state of being. Now, every time I look out the back windows I see it and I’m reminded that I don’t know. I just don’t know. Alright, that probably sounds just a little bit crazy so allow me to explain! We had a warm spell in December of this past year – warm enough that I was feeling very industrious and ready to work outside preparing the vegetable garden for the eventual arrival of spring. I spread out some compost and began spading it into the soil so that it would be nicely decomposed come springtime. I was really enjoying the work by the time I got to the corner of the garden that I’d left to get weedier than elsewhere because something that I’d planted there had not done well. Suddenly, a strange sort of squeak pierced the bubble of my garden-work samadhi and I looked down to see that I’d just sunk my spade into the very spot that a toad had chosen for its winter hibernation. He pulled one leg free from the surrounding earth as if to push himself out of the dirt and hop away. Apparently, though, his other leg was still held tightly in place by the soil that I’d just compacted with my spade. I got down on my knees to inspect more closely the damage that I might have caused and it was then that I noticed him slowly opening and closing his mouth – causing bubbles of blood to begin forming around the edges.

Needless to say I was horrified, and in those first few seconds during which I realized what I’d done my mind began to race. I thought about the toad, and how it had been peacefully resting in its cool, dark, winter quarters before being thrust unceremoniously back into the daylight by this strange intruder now standing over him. I thought about how he was almost certainly going to die an agonizing death from whatever internal injuries I’d just caused him. I cursed my industriousness – mindless busyness, it was – frenetic fumbling about in the darkness. I thought about climate change and how everything is out of kilter now with some animals thinking that it should be winter and others thinking that it’s a good time to work the soil. The birds don’t know which direction to fly off to and I don’t know what the hell I’m doing anymore. It’s a sign of the suffering yet to come, I concluded – suffering on a scale as yet unimagined. I began to think that the most compassionate thing to do would be to deal the poor toad a swift death blow with my spade in order to bring its needless suffering to an end. And I thought about how I should have known. I should have known that toads would be hibernating and that this was not a good time to be spading. I should have known that the unseasonable warmth would have everything out of kilter. I should have known.

I was just a split second away from dealing that toad a coup de grace when something convinced me to reconsider the situation. Was I certain that the toad was going to die? Was I certain that he was suffering? And so, to the extent that a human is able to communicate with a toad, I tried to figure out what it was that he really needed right then and there. I looked for signs as to whether he was suffering or not. To the contrary, there was calm in his eyes, certainly more than in mine, and after his initial attempt to get away he was no longer even struggling. It didn’t even seem that he was afraid. Perhaps he recognized me from our interactions over the summer when I’d moved him from one place where I was working to another place where I was not. Certainly he must be in some kind of pain, but the suffering in the situation was mine. The toad was not worried about his future or the future of the planet. The toad was not in a quandary about what to do next. The toad was not filled with self-blame for having made such a poor choice of places in which to hibernate. No, such suffering was all mine; such suffering lies in the realm of our human existence.

I realized then that my quickness to assume that a mercy killing was warranted was related more to my desire to alleviate my own suffering – to wrap the entire incident into a neat little package and know that it was over – than it was to be of assistance to the toad. I began to wonder whether perhaps the blood that I’d seen was not indicative of a mortal internal injury at all. Maybe it was just a “flesh wound,” so to speak, one that would heal over the course of the winter and be as good as new by spring. I didn’t know. So I tried to think about what a toad in such a predicament would need in order to make it through the winter. I eased the dirt back into place – trying to be mindful not to put too much pressure on his body. I figured that I’d end up suffocating him if I buried him without adequate ventilation. After all, he wouldn’t have the opportunity anymore to create his own air hole. So I covered him with leaves, and I covered the leaves with a rag in order to keep them in place. I held the rag in place with some stones, and I tried to leave enough spaces between the stones so that he’d be able to find a way out when it was time for him to do so.

It’s been over four months, now, that that little pile of earth and leaves and fabric and stones has been a shrine – a shrine to not knowing. I don’t know whether that toad is alive or dead. I don’t know whether I should have dealt him a death blow or not. I don’t know whether I ended up killing him by burying him alive even after my spade had managed to spare him. I don’t know whether digging in the garden in December is the wrong thing to do or not. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. What I do know, however, is that this state of not knowing – and how we respond to it or behave when we’re in it – is getting very, very close to what it means to be human.

Sahn, S. (1997). The compass of Zen (Hyon Gak Sunim, Ed.). Shambhala Publications, Inc.

The images on this page were created by the author. The raw images are photographs of huge coils of rusting reinforcing steel taken in the bright sunlight of a clear autumn day. Developed images were then copied and pieced together into something resembling mirror images of each other. These composite images were then scanned into a digital format and manipulated with Adobe Photoshop. There, now you know!

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank

Monday, April 18, 2011

Bear Butte, the Vision Quest, and the Bodhisattva Vow

Bear Butte rises from the prairie northeast of the Black Hills like an island rising out of a great ocean. Even at 1,400 feet tall, though, most modern visitors to the Black Hills will miss it – lying as it does out of sight of most of the access roads, and not otherwise known as a “destination.” Native Americans didn’t miss it, though. For the Cheyenne and Sioux migrating out of the Northeast and the Great Lakes region, respectively, Bear Butte would have been their first glimpse of what the Black Hills had in store. Likewise the Mandan, in the course of their navigation of the Missouri River watershed, would have happened upon Bear Butte due to its close proximity to the Belle Fourche River (Odell, 1942).

Bear Butte has long been considered a spiritual place. The Sutaio, an early immigrant tribe related to the Cheyenne, are storied to have received their sacred Buffalo cap from the spirits dwelling inside a cave therein. The Sun Dance, as well, is thought by some to have originated there (Odell, 1942). Story and conjecture notwithstanding, by the time written accounts began to appear in the 1800s, Bear Butte had long been a destination for Native Americans seeking to immerse themselves in solitude, in prayer, and in the spirit realm. Such vision-seeking continues there to this day, as evidenced by stones placed in the crooks of trees, and flags, feathers, and pouches of tobacco tied to their branches.

I first heard of Bear Butte while on a something of a vision quest of my own. I was headed to the Black Hills of South Dakota via the Sandhills of Nebraska and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and the gloriously desolate Badlands. While stopped at Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation I met a Sioux by the name of Jimmy. From atop the hill from which Colonel Forsyth and his Seventh Cavalry fired their Hotchkiss cannons down upon the men, women, and children encamped below I watched as Jimmy strung his collection of dream catchers from a bleached timber rack. After my descent from the hill we introduced ourselves and spoke for a time. Jimmy must have recognized that I was on a quest of my own because he ended up leading me back to his cousin’s property bordering Wounded Knee Creek where he explained to me how his people had scrambled down into the ravine-like creek seeking shelter from the guns pounding them from on high and then the Cavalry hunting them down. I was dumbstruck – barely able to comprehend what had taken place on the ground beneath my feet. “You must visit Bear Butte,” Jimmy finally said to me. “Bear Butte is holy to our people. It is said that even Crazy Horse sought guidance from the spirits there. I go there sometimes to help with the vision quests of our young people. I watch to make sure no outsiders stray from the trail onto the sacred grounds. Many people are curious and want to take pictures. You can visit,” he assured me, “but you must stay on the trail.” And so it was that Bear Butte became my destination.

I had undergone jukai just a year or so earlier, the ceremony during which one becomes, for the want of a better description, “officially Buddhist.” As part of jukai I had vowed to take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. I had also taken the Bodhisattva Vow – the vow to save all beings. Recall the Robe Verse (Ta Kesa Ge) from my previous post, as translated by Yoshida roshi:
Great is the robe of liberation
Markless garb of merit-making
Wearing the Tathagata’s teaching
We vow to save all beings.
Of course, it’s a whole lot easier to vow to save all beings than it is to actually do it. And just how do we go about saving all beings, anyway? How do we go about saving just one of them? Do we ensure their physical safety? Feed them? Practice with them until they’ve understood the Dharma to the point where all of their suffering is alleviated? It seems like an overwhelming task sometimes just to save ourselves!

Bodhisattva literally means “enlightenment being.” Schuhmacher and Woerner (1994) say that “in Mahayana Buddhism a bodhisattva is a being who seeks enlightenment through the systematic practice of the perfect virtues [paramitas] but renounces complete entry into nirvana until all beings are saved” (page 39). Thus, I took comfort in the hope that as I worked my way toward enlightenment, the means by which I might actually go about saving all beings would become clearer and clearer. Regular readers who know that faith does not come easily for me might want to note at this time that it does indeed come. In some measure, it comes. The vow to save all beings must be accepted on faith, after all – at least in the beginning – because the aspiration at the time one first takes that vow almost certainly exceeds one’s realization of how to accomplish such a feat. Yoshida roshi knew that we were wrestling with this. I recall him encouraging us by telling us that “our understanding of our vows will deepen over time.” In other words, have faith, right?

There are various theories as to how Bear Butte got its name. As I approached from Highway 79, though, the name seemed to be an obvious one. It looked to me just like a bear in repose, lying on its belly with its head and snout resting on the prairie! The butte, in fact, is a laccolith – a magma bulge that did not have sufficient pressure behind it to erupt into a volcano. Actually, it looks more like two bulges, a large one that forms the body of the bear and a small one that forms its head. There are even rock formations on the head that resemble ears! Anyway, as I hiked up the trail to the summit – crawling up the bear’s right shoulder, and across its neck just behind one of those ears, and up its back – scrambling across talus slopes with rock shards clinking and clanking down below like pieces of broken bell – making my way past multitudes of gnarly pines adorned with the remnants of multitudes of vision quests – looking out across the prairie spread out like a patchwork quilt far below – I couldn’t help thinking about the Bodhisattva Vow, and how much like a vision quest it is.

Stolzman (1986-A) states that “the expression ‘vision quest’ is a translation of the Lakota [Sioux] word hanbleciya, which literally means ‘crying for a dream’” (p. 74). Black Elk (1953) refers to this process as “lamenting” (pp. 44-45). He goes on to speak of the attitude and intention of the seeker by revealing the prayer recited periodically during the quest: “O Great Spirit, be merciful to me that my people may live!” (p. 57). Stolzman (1986-B) elaborates:
One always prays that the people may live. One should also look beyond immediate needs and concerns. Remember the main purpose of a vision quest ceremony and cry for a vision. By that vision one will learn how to live, act, pray, and walk in holiness every day so as to bring blessing to the people a long time after the quest. (p. 35)

Certainly many a Buddhist has come to practice weighed down by life, seeking salvation from their suffering – crying for a vision, so to speak. With time, though, this desire for personal salvation transitions into the realization that all beings suffer – that all beings require and are worthy of salvation. Thus, the deep compassion of the bodhisattva is stirred and the intention to save all beings is formed. Doing so requires vision, though. Whereas the vision that one might pray for while on a vision quest is one that allows the seer to bring the physical world (their life and community) into greater accord with the spirit world, the vision that a bodhisattva cultivates is the vision of wise seeing – seeing things as they are, seeing what is needed for the benefit of all beings.

Of course, the wise seeing of the bodhisattva does not instantly appear in perfect form, ready to be put to good use for the benefit of all beings; it arises over time. Likewise, the vision-seeker must be persistent with respect to actualizing his or her vision. Says Mails (1978) in his description of the quest:
Sometimes the vision came, and sometimes it did not. If [the seeker] failed, he tried again until he was successful. Marvelous things were seen and learned in visions about the present and the future. The candidate received guidance for his life’s pattern, and often information which aided and directed his people. (p. 61)
It is also the case that visions might require clarification. Says Black Elk (1953): “Some young men receive a vision when they are very young and when they do not expect it, and then they go to “lament” that they might understand it better (p. 45). Once again, Stolzman (1986-B) elaborates:
A full understanding of one’s vision usually comes only from continued prayer and the following of one’s vision in one’s daily life. As a person in faith follows his vision, the meaning and instruction from the vision will become increasingly clear. (p. 38)
This all sounds very similar to the Zen approach to practice whereby cultivation and verification continue ceaselessly, with ever-deepening realization. It also reminds me of Yoshida roshi’s encouragement that “our understanding of our vows will deepen over time.”

It would seem, then, that perseverance is a good attribute to cultivate, whether in vision-seeking or in Zen. But perseverance can have a darker side. “Perseverance can get in the way,” warns Stolzman (1986-A), “for there may be proud, selfish, and controlling motives at the heart of that perseverance. If so, spirits usually do not come” (p. 76). Hmmm, that reminds me just a little bit of the dangers of practicing Zen with that so-called “gaining mind” – the mind that wants something out of practice.

In Zen practice the realization of so-called enlightenment experiences – penetrating insight, kensho, etc. – occur at the mysterious and fortuitous meeting ground of ripening practice and keen observation. Who can explain how a broom-swept pebble striking a hollow piece of bamboo with a sonorous tock can propel an individual toward realization? Recall Dogen (1227) saying in his Fukanzazengi that “the transforming ability of a finger, a staff, a needle, and a mallet, or the verifying utilization of a whisk, a fist, a stick, and a shout at a critical moment cannot readily be realized by the discrimination of measuring thoughts” (as translated in Yoshida, 2008). And so it is with vision seeking. Stolzman (1986-B) says:
After a period of prayer or song, one should be silent, watch, wait, and listen. One should be observant of everything; even the smallest creature can tell of God and sacred things. The paths, flights, sounds, and songs of each animal tell many things. They may speak either to one’s outer ear or to the inner ear of one’s heart. (p. 35)  

This need for heightened awareness, diligence, humility, and sincerity can be seen in the following account of the experience of a young vision seeker. Powers (1982) describes him being led to the top of a hill where a shallow pit has been dug in which he may sit or lie down for protection or sleep. He is encouraged to remain awake, however. Says Powers:
The vision would come to him only when he was fully awake, praying with the pipe to the Four Directions, the Above, the Earth, the Spotted Eagle, and all the Tunkasilas who might appear to instruct him about his future, and the future of his family and other kin in the community. (p. 35)
Later in the young man’s quest – immersed in sensations of hunger and thirst, exhaustion and wonder – he becomes captivated by the activity of a nearby ant hill. He can hear the frantic footsteps of the ants pounding the earth like drumbeats as they push boulder-like stones up from out of the hole they’ve made in the earth. Sometimes they lose control of the stones and they roll back down into the ground with the sound of a thunderous landslide. “Each step was more agonizing than the last,” Powers writes, “thudding and echoing against the earth’s surface, as if it were stretched taut over some subterranean resonator, a drum shaped by the universe itself” (1982, p. 75). Horrified, despairing, exhausted – clearly identifying all too well with the activity of these creatures in his midst – the seeker cries to the Great Spirit for help and crawls into his hollow. Says Powers:
The earth was cool and soft against his body, and he smelled the grass and sod around him as he had never done before. He thought of other things that might be in the pit with him – insects, spiders, worms, all crawling things. But he was not frightened [anymore] because he was not only with them, but one of them. (p. 75)

So, whether by going to a place high above the prairie where the world might be seen with unobstructed vision, or by sitting on our cushions where the conditioning that keeps us from seeing things as they really are might fall away, both vision-seeker and bodhisattva strive to live in harmony with all beings. Perhaps the vision seeker saves all beings through that process of living in harmony. Perhaps the bodhisattva does as well. Let’s find out. Let’s cultivate our vision.

Black Elk (1953). The sacred pipe, Black Elk’s account of the seven rites of the Oglala Sioux (Brown, J. E. Ed.). University of Oklahoma Press, Norman
Mails, T. E. (1978). Sundancing at Rosebud and Pine Ridge. The Center for Western Studies – an historical research and archival agency of Augustana College, Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Odell, T. E. (1942). Mato Paha, The story of Bear Butte. Thomas E. Odell
Powers, W. K. (1982). Yuwipi, Vision and experience in Oglala Ritual. University of Nebraska Press
Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Stolzman, W. (1986-A). The Pipe and Christ, A Christian-Sioux dialogue. Tipi Press
Stolzman, W. (1986-B). How to take part in Lakota ceremonies. Tipi Press
Yoshida, R. (2008). Fukanzazengi: A universal recommendation for true zazen. Missouri Zen Center website. (Original work published 1227)
Ta Kesa Ge (Yoshida R., Trans.). In the sutra manual of the Missouri Zen Center

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Poetry and Zen, Part 3 of 3

Poetry doesn’t have to be good to save your life; it just has to be your own. This is a truth that I learned during my turbulent teen years – years during which the only thing keeping me from losing my mind, so to speak, was the fact that I was writing about it! Alright, perhaps I exaggerate just a little bit – we are talking about dreaded adolescence, after all – but it is true that poetry provided meaning for me at a time when I really needed it. You see, I fancied myself something of a rebel poet back then, skipping out of the classes that I didn’t like in order to steal my way down to the darkened high school auditorium – there to sit alone in the yawning silence, plumbing the depths of my being. Sure, I’d started reading about Eastern religions and philosophy by then, but I’d not yet begun to meditate. Poetry was my meditation, and it held me in good stead throughout those turbulent years. I strongly recommend it to anyone grappling with life-changing issues. And it doesn’t even have to be good!

Upon reflection, I see similarity between my approach to writing poetry back then and my approach to seated meditation now. Like zazen, my poetry writing then was a daily ritual involving an intention to focus my mind and become receptive to what is. It involved movement toward a state of greater stillness – a state of calm clarity of thought and experience. In some respects, as well, it even involved thinking of not thinking! (Recall Dogen’s Fukanzazengi.) For instance, at times when I was not yet inspired I would let my mind become like a blank sheet of paper held in my awareness until such time as words began to appear. At other times, when perhaps a germ of inspiration already existed, I would hold it in awareness like an object of meditation (watching the breath, for instance) until words began to coalesce around it. The key difference, of course, is the fact that when I sat down to write poetry there was always some aspect of my attention devoted to judging whether the phrase or idea that just occurred to me was worthy of jotting down or holding within awareness until such time as it might be “ready.” At this point I must remind you of the story I told at the end of the previous post in which Okumura roshi advised me to “just let it all go.” Certainly if that advice applied to thoughts of “Buddhist significance” it would apply to snippets of poetic inspiration as well – when it comes to Zen meditation, anyway.

My approach to poetry is different nowadays, though. For the most part, when I meditate I meditate, and when I write poetry I write poetry. That is not to say, however, that I’m not in a meditative frame of mind when I write; nor is it to say that I never ever find myself sitting on my cushion during zazen mulling over how words might fit together. I suppose I’m just not a perfect Zen practitioner, am I! That said, I do try to follow Okumura roshi’s advice. If inspiration does come to me during meditation it will more likely be in the form of some gestalt sense arising out of the relative stillness – a mental hologram, if you will, hovering in awareness with images and associated feelings and maybe some hint as to its nature. Perhaps it’s a little like what Ryokan described: “limitless emotion, but not one word” (Stevens, 1977, p. 43). When this happens I simply try to make a mental note of it so that at some later time – after meditation is over – I can try to access that gestalt once again and see if it can be pointed to with words. I contend that this process of noting and moving on is really not that different from the usual process of noting ‘yes, I’m thinking’ and moving on. The most common time for inspiration to visit me, however, is after meditation is over and my mind yet remains still enough that I’m able to see the world off the cushion in a way that I haven’t ever seen it before. I touch on this in the second poem below. I trust you’ll recognize the line that I’m referring to once you get to it.
This first poem is dedicated to Meiku and Kuryo – fellow practitioners at the Missouri Zen Center who have hosted moon viewing gatherings each autumnal equinox for some years now. It’s apparently a popular enough Japanese pastime to have given rise to a dish just for the occasion – moon viewing noodles – variations of which can be found in abundance online. This poem touches on a couple of important aspects of Zen philosophy. First and foremost, the image of the full moon traditionally represents the enlightened mind – bright and whole and reflecting perfectly everything that appears before it. Also prominent are allusions to the fundamental inadequacy of words to convey ultimate reality. I’ll have more to say at the end. For now, though, I’ll just present the poem:

 Moon Viewing at the Home of Kuryo and Meiku

Waxing gibbous and waning crescent –
The names of broken pieces of mirror
Clank about inside my head
As we stand around the fire
Boiling moon viewing noodles.

Smoke wafts through the garden
And floats up into the cloud-filled sky
As we catch up on the news of one another,
And occasionally wonder aloud
Whether the moon will show its face on such a night.

During lulls in the conversation
We slurp noodles,
And sip sake and homemade elderberry wine,
And read the poetry of Ikkyu, Dogen, and Ryokan,
Just in case their words about the moon must take its place.

Wait! Wait!
Here it comes!
The clouds grow brighter,
And then their veil recedes –
Revealing that mirror within which no words reflect.

I pick up the perfect round disk
Of daikan radish
Garnishing my moon viewing noodles
And turn it into a waxing crescent
With one clean bite.

“The moon will actually be full at one o’clock,”
Meiku says at midnight,
When the sake and warm conversation
Are no longer enough to keep the evening’s chill at bay.
“Aha!” I can’t help but say,
My understanding nearly complete.

Isn’t it often the case that we think we know something simply because we can wrap it in a package of words? I had arrived at the moon viewing with a satchel full of words about the moon – waxing gibbous and waning crescent, etc. – but an inadequate understanding of the true nature of the moon. My collection of words had led me to think about the changing appearance of the moon as a discrete process, occurring night after night like a series of snapshots presented one after another. Ultimate reality, however, is seamless. Meiku’s offhand remark about the true nature of the moon spurs me toward deeper understanding of this seamless reality; and yet my understanding is still not complete. While my conception of the nature of the moon is more refined, the fact remains that it is yet a theory about the moon’s fullness. The reality of fullness will occur when it occurs. Practice continues, ceaselessly.
For the most part I wrote this next poem in my mind as I was driving home from a meditation retreat at Sanshin-ji in Bloomington, Indiana. Over the course of lunch at the close of sesshin we ended up having an interesting discussion about faith and doubt as it relates to Zen practice – a discussion that coincided nicely with where my head was during at least a good portion of the retreat. Okumura roshi stated that (according to his teacher, Uchiyama roshi) faith is “purity of mind” – a definition that doesn’t really strike me as all that compatible with the way we think about faith in the West. I suppose, then, that I’ll have to devote an entire blog post to faith and doubt sometime soon. Anyway, this poem touches on the fact that Zen practice can be damned hard at times. Of course, when things are easy we rarely question them. When things become difficult, however, we question them relentlessly. We want to know that our hardship will “mean something” – that our effort will not be for naught, that all that we are going through will be “worthy our time.” So, call this a poem about faith and doubt. Oh, and meaning, too. I am an existential Buddhist, after all!

 Thousand Year Old Footsteps in the Snow

I step outside and watch the snow fall
From darkness into light.
The others have already gone
For dinner in the mess hall,
But the cold feels too good on my face
Not to linger for awhile.

It felt good this morning, also,
After we’d rousted ourselves from slumber at 3:40
To sit straight-backed,
With palms together –
Facing our respective walls
By the time the teacher made his rounds at 4:05.
And after two hours of absolute and utter stillness
Overlaid with daydreams,
And sleepdreams,
And stomach-growling yearning for the bell,
And wondering if I’d make it through the day,
And wondering why the hell I’m doing what I’m doing,
I stumbled out into the pre-dawn blackness
To see a shining silver sickle of a moon,
And Jupiter,
And the black sky –
As black as anything can be.

Ah, but that was light years ago…
That was this morning.
And anything that is not right now might as well be light years away.
Oh, sure, I’ve glimpsed that absolute and utter stillness
A number of times throughout the day,
But this is why I do this:
So that I can step outside and see the world
With brand new eyes –
Eyes without a “me” to tell me what I’m seeing.

So I hobble though the snow
On my zazen-weary legs,
Leaving thousand year-old footprints in the snow.
And as far as what all this amounts to
Once these bones are in the ground,
And how the hell my sitting facing a wall
For over eleven hours a day
Can possibly make the world a better place…
Well, I kind of like to think of all of this
Zazen after zazen after zazen
As stitching together the pieces of a robe
To someday be worn
By my great-great-great-great
Granddaughter in the Dharma
As she steps outside into the night
To watch the snow fall
From darkness into light
Before gliding like a shadow to the mess hall
Leaving thousand year old footsteps in the snow.

The image of ‘thousand year old footsteps’ represents the reality that our Zen practice comes to us from across the ages. It is only because of the striving of teachers and students alike for thousands of years that we are even able to test out the true nature of this thing called zazen; and it will only be because of our striving now that people a thousand years from now will be able to test it out for themselves. This, of course, is touching on the bodhisattva vow – the vow to save all beings – that I discussed in the previous post. The image of stitching together a robe to be worn by someone else is inspired by the Robe Verse (Ta Kesa Ge). Ta Kesa Ge, as translated by Yoshida roshi and chanted at the Missouri Zen Center, is as follows:

Great is the robe of liberation
Markless garb of merit-making
Wearing the Tathagatha’s teaching
We vow to save all beings

So, a number of things that I’ve been discussing in this sequence of three posts come together in the final passage of this poem. Clearly, there is the matter of our individual practice – practice at the level of conventional reality – done by me or you, done with dedication or lackadaisically, done with absolute certainty or with the greatest of doubts. Regardless of how it is done, however, it is both a continuation of practice reaching out of the past and practice extending into the future. For instance, one of our doubts might be related to the vow to “save all beings.” And just how are we supposed to do that anyway? But when we view our lives from the vantage point of ultimate reality, we see that our individual lives are but a seamless continuation of life reaching out of the deep past and extending into the future. This is at least one aspect of the reality that each life (and everything for that matter) at each moment contains the entire universe. Therefore, how we live our lives today does have the potential to save all beings in the future. We are all leaving thousand year old footsteps - million year old footsteps, for that matter.
Okay, how about ending on a playful note! Here’s a fun poem that draws on some well known Buddhist teachings and sayings. I hope you enjoy it.

Lunch Hour Musings on True Nature

So what is our true nature, anyway?
Such was my lunch hour musing
On a winter’s day that I’ve decided to rename spring.
It depends on who you ask, I guess – and when.

“Decay is inherent in all compound things,”
A friend used to say.
But that was before he dropped off his body
And lost his mind.
Now he just keeps chanting:
“Form is shunyata, shunyata is form”
Over and over again.

Chop wood and carry water.
Yeah, I like that answer,
I tell myself
As I sip coffee and scribble down words
About chopping wood and carrying water.

I gaze out across the sunbathed courtyard
Where people have gathered to enjoy the sunshine
On a winter’s day that I’m calling spring.
Yes, it’s just like a sage once said:
“Nose vertical, eyes horizontal.”

What was the question again?
Ask me again tomorrow
When I’m chopping wood and carrying water.
For now, I’m just an old dog with Buddha-nature
Lying in the sun.


Stevens, J. (1977). One robe, one bowl – The Zen poetry of Ryokan. John Weatherhill, Inc.
Ta Kesa Ge (Yoshida R., Trans.). Sutra manual of the Missouri Zen Center

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank

Photography Credits
Moon image courtesy of Graur Codrin via:
Orion image courtesy of Evgeni Dinev via:
Life in a Smile image courtesy of Federico Stevanin via: