For most of this week I’ve been working on a poem intended for submission to the Austin Zen Center's ongoing Just This blog journal – the most recent topic being ‘crossing the stream’. Of course, crossing the stream is an oft-used Buddhist metaphor, one encompassing some kind of difficult movement from a place of unaware existence to one of awakening. Within this metaphor the Buddha’s teachings are frequently thought of as a raft that may be used for safe passage from one side to the other. At first I thought this poem wouldn’t nest very well with my previous post. Upon reflection, however, I see that they make a perfect pair. I’ll talk about why further on, but for now let me just introduce my submission:
Crossing the Stream
I set out to cross the stream once long ago.
Or maybe it was yesterday.
Funny, time can be like that.
I remember gazing at the other side –
The grassy lowlands beckoning,
The cool green forest foothills
Rising gently into snowcapped glory…
I remember wondering of the sights up there –
Above the clouds,
Beyond all worldly cares.
Oh, how I longed to tread that path unseen!
Sloping toward sunlit transcendence...
But first I had to cross that stream.
I found a raft of four logs lashed together,
Hidden in the reeds there, half submerged.
And though the vessel’s simple nature had me wondering,
That I could see the other side left me assured.
And so I poled my humble raft into deep waters
With thoughts already soaring high above.
And it was clear that I’d gone way too far to turn back
By the time I felt the current’s tug.
Down, down, down the river took me
Till I’d have gladly kissed the ground on either side,
Past sleeping beachside towns and sweeping bayous,
And out into the ocean deep and wide.
Then just as my raft’s lashings were unraveling
And I was wondering what worse fate I could have met
The wind and waves began to rise up
And the sun began to set.
There was a time I thought myself much stronger
With ample will and strength in store,
But down, down, down those waters pulled me
Till I could fight their power no more.
And as I sank into the blackness
I could think of nothing but that shore
From which I’d gazed up at those snowfields
Feeling in need of something more.
And so I died to all I’d once been.
I died as well to all my dreams.
And as I settled on the ocean floor,
I died to every separate thing.
For one last breath I viewed existence,
For one last cold and watery sigh –
Upon the bottom of the ocean
Immersed within a star-filled sky…
There was a time when crossing to the other side
Still seemed as real as each new breath,
Way back when sun and moon, and stream and tide
Were as distinct as life and death,
Before that death to all illusion
There upon the ocean floor,
Before realizing that just this moment
Is the long sought after other shore.
It seems obvious to me now that the reason this poem nests with my previous post relates to the way that we usually think about ‘the other side’, i.e., in a dualistic way, in an ‘I lack something now but with practice I will attain something’ sort of way. Please don’t take this as a criticism of the crossing the stream metaphor. We just have to receive it as it is – as a conceptualization of a process (practice) that allows us to transcend conceptualization.
The poem above reflects my own experience of the practice of Buddhism, one that I don’t think is qualitatively different than any other spiritual practitioner’s experience – regardless the tradition. We begin practicing with the idea that there is something to be attained: wisdom, acceptance, awakening, enlightenment, peace, nirvana, etc. (to use the usual Buddhist terms related to "destination"). In other words, we think we know where we’re going. We think we can see the other shore. However, I suspect that every sincere spiritual practitioner will be able to report that their practice has taken them to “a place” that was wholly unimagined and unanticipated at the outset. Thus, in the first stanza, the practitioner gazes up at the imagined beauty of the place that he imagines he will be someday. This brings up an interesting reality: even our most pure motivation to begin a spiritual practice rises up out of the soil of delusion.
Of course, I’m borrowing the metaphor of the raft being the Buddha’s teaching. There are even four logs – one for each Noble Truth…, get it (wink). Seriously, we don’t invent our own spiritual practice – we don’t build our own raft – we borrow, find, and appropriate the practices of all the men and women who have ever practiced before us. As such, gratitude is a very good thing for us to nurture.
By the end of the second stanza the practitioner can already see that the journey is going to be quite different than expected. By giving ourselves over wholeheartedly to practice we are giving ourselves over to a current that we cannot predict or control. We are giving ourselves over to something larger than ourselves. Ironically, as the small self meets the Large Self the practitioner might come to wish that he or she could just forget the whole affair! This is not the journey that was bargained for! Ah, but it's too late now. The small self has already been irrevocably changed.
At this point it might feel as though the teachings have failed us. They can’t save us! In fact, they fall apart just as we need them the most! They take us out into existential desolation and abandon us when we least expect it. At this point we need to realize that we’re beginning to experience the death of the ego – the small self. This is the realm of existential crisis – the coming face to face with true emptiness. Now, from my last post you might think that the experience of emptiness would be one of those Easter egg-like treasures that land in our laps as a result of our practice. Well, it depends on your point of view, I suppose; but I think our first glimpses of emptiness have the potential to bring on the greatest storms of our existence. Oh, if it could just be the way it was! If we could just step back in time and remain safe and sound in our unawareness!
The practitioner experiences the death of the small self. He or she sinks to the bottom of the ocean – the ground of being, if you will. At that point, death is experienced as a great birth. What is being born, though, is the realization of the oneness of all things, the realization that what had been viewed as the self is but a part of a grand and glorious tapestry (as it is often described), a tapestry that is ultimately seamless.
And where does that leave us? Just this breath – just this manifestation of the grand and glorious mystery of existence – we die and are reborn. And that is why I want to hit the publish button on this post over the course of this Easter weekend. Is this not the Buddhist version of the crucifixion and resurrection? This weekend, Christians all over the world will be remembering the crucifixion and resurrection of their Savior, their Christ. I suspect that more than a few of them, however, will recognize this process of death and rebirth taking place in “their very own” lives.
Happy Easter, everyone!
Cropped and filtered version of a U.S. Navy photo by
Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Shane Tuck:
Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank