The Sublime and the Profane..., Enlightenment and Shit (Part 2 of 2)

Readers of Part 1 might find it interesting as they read on that my unconscious mind was able to construct a far more refined metaphor for practice than the “sitting with a belly full of crap” one that my conscious mind was able to come up with. As you may recall, “sitting with a belly full of crap” refers to the fact that so much of our lives is comprised of situations and circumstances that we would just as soon flush away, if only we could. However, as stated in Part 1: “We can change our mind, we can even change our behavior; but the repercussions of our past mental and physical activity continue until such karma has been exhausted.” And so our practice becomes one of working with and working through our residual negative karma, all the while trying to refrain from creating such negativity anew.

I had a dream one night during sesshin. It began with me flying over a very picturesque city – with many lakes and streams, beautiful buildings and walkways, lush foliage and green spaces. Now, you might be wondering whether I was flying under my own power or not. Oddly, I don’t know the answer to that question. Anyway, I found myself strolling along one of those winding pathways with manicured lawns and trimmed hedges and bushes either side. It was a gorgeous day, and I was feeling very calm and content – so much so that I remained that way even after noticing a lion lying on the grass beside the pathway. He was sunning himself, seeming very calm and content as well. But there was no mistaking it; this was a lion, the real king of beasts, and he was not confined in any way whatsoever. Interestingly, this was more of a curiosity to me than any cause for alarm, and so I kept strolling on. Upon continuing, however, I began noticing lions everywhere I looked, each one just as calm and content as the first one –with just one exception. One of them had gotten up from his place on the grass and begun to follow me!

Oddly, I remained largely unperturbed. Yes, a wild beast was now following me, but there was a building just up ahead and I was confident that there was shelter there to be found. Unfortunately, though, the lion was closing on me, and so I walked a little faster. But as I walked faster, he walked faster; and as I broke into a speed walk, he broke into a trot. Then, just as he was upon me, the carcass of a huge bird – an ostrich, I presume – suddenly appeared on the path at my feet (aren’t dreams fascinating like that?). I picked it up and threw it to the lion, who instantly seemed quite satisfied with it instead of me. Given such a close call, I made haste toward the building, lest my luck should run out. It was a low, circular building with a bank of glass doors and an open courtyard in the middle with lots of sun and grass and plants – just like outside, as a matter of fact. Anyway, I was just about to open the door when I looked through it into that central courtyard where, lying in the middle, there lay yet another of the king of beasts – looking quite calm and content, so far...

Upon waking, I instantly recognized that this was a dream about my mind, although for some reason I was rather slow to realize that its inspiration must have been the statue of the bodhisattva Manjusri sitting atop the lion of his mind that had been staring over my shoulder for the previous few days. A simple enough dream, to be sure, but one whose meaning has continued to unfold for me over the ensuing weeks. (Please see Living With An Untamed Mind for more on the bodhisattva Manjusri and his lion.) Let me try to unpack some of this dream imagery…

Manjusri and Lion on Sanshinji's altar
Perhaps worthy of note to begin with is my lack of “real fear” in this dream. It was not a nightmare by any stretch. Whatever “fear” had me quickening my steps in order to reach the safety of the building was more akin to the kind of fear that we willingly cultivate when we watch a scary movie or enter a “haunted house” on Halloween. Even my realization while standing at the door of my presumed safe abode – that there was no escaping the wild beasts after all – was more of the ‘Aha! The jokes on me!’ variety than the ‘I am really screwed now’ variety.
So, the obvious lesson of the dream is that mind is everywhere; there is no escaping it. We don’t escape the wild beast by entering into meditation. We don’t escape it by saying goodbye to the mundane world and engaging in sesshin for a week. We don’t even escape it by going away to live in a monastery – a presumed utopian environment – for the rest of our lives. No, the wild beast is not one that can be escaped, although it might be assuaged for a time, it can only be met face to face so that it might be tamed. Which brings me to the symbolism of the ostrich carcass…

The wild beast of the mind is awakened by pain; it is awakened by being separated from whatever it is we think will bring us comfort and enjoyment in this moment. As I stated in Part 1, the rigor of sesshin – with its meditation periods one after another after another, day in and day out – nudges us inexorably to the limit of what we can mentally withstand. And the closer we get to our limit, the more desperately our mind seeks escape. Such escape takes the form of allowing ourselves to engage in daydreams and flights of fancy – anything that distracts us from the reality of the present moment. This amounts to throwing a carcass to the wild beast of our mind. It distracts it for a time, but does not tame it. It pushes off into the future that moment when we must really face ourselves. And so it is fitting that the carcass in my dream should be that of an ostrich – the bird that purportedly sticks its head into the sand in order to hide itself from danger!

Let’s return now to my dream’s beginning. As stated, I was flying over the landscape in some unknown manner. Perhaps this flying represents the pure consciousness of being – the ‘observing without attachment’ that accompanies deeper meditative states. Perhaps, commensurate with some belief systems, it represents the “spirit” surveying the manifest world for circumstances appropriate for a future rebirth. Each of these representations involves consciousness with at least one foot in the supramundane world, so to speak, observing the mundane world in which its next “footstep” will fall. Either way, the consciousness of my dream's beginning is one that recognizes the ultimate insubstantiality of appearances. This is the mind that adepts of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition implore us to cultivate in order that we might successfully navigate the bardo realm after the demise of our physical bodies. Thus, wild beasts do not invoke mortal fear, although in my dream they are not wholly ignored, either.

Come to think of it, this is very much like the attitude with which the bodhisattva faces this world of samsara, this world of cyclic death and rebirth – either on a moment-by-moment or a lifetime-by-lifetime basis. The bodhisattva realizes the ultimate insubstantiality of this manifest world, yet he or she does not deny the sufferings of the beings in this manifest world nor turn his or her back on them. Rather, even as the ultimate insubstantiality of the manifest world is recognized, the bodhisattva vows to save all beings “contained therein”. The reader may recall one of my earlier blog series on the Heart Sutra – the sutra related to the teaching that form is emptiness and emptiness form. At the close of the introductory post to that series I noted possible meanings for the fish carved into the mokugyo, the wooden fish drum that is used to keep time during the Heart Sutra’s chanting. The meaning that resonates with me as being most in keeping with Buddhist teaching is the one that says that the fish represent the approach to life that we should aspire to – the ability to navigate this ocean of samsara without drowning. Thus, when we encounter the vicissitudes of life, the suffering and loss that inevitably occur, let’s greet them as the reality of this great ocean in which we swim without allowing them to awaken the wild beast of our mind. And when we encounter others suffering due to the vicissitudes of their life, let’s be there for them in order that we might assuage their suffering in the present moment, and keep suffering from arising in their future. This is the Bodhisattva Way. This is the Middle Way. This is the way involving neither an attachment to, nor a denial of the reality of this world.

Mokugyo - Wooden Fish Drum
This will likely be my last post of this year. I wish everyone a  Happy New Year!  I wish for all of us that we might cultivate the mind that allows us to swim like fish in this ocean of samsara – no matter how “shitty” life might seem at times to have gotten!              

Image Credits

Lion photo courtesy of National Geographic via:

Image of Sanshinji’s altar with statue of Manjusri sitting atop the lion of his mind courtesy of the author.

Mokugyo image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons via:

Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank


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