Thinking Out Loud

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If butterfly wings,
having sired the storm,
presage a chaos yet to be born...then
                                regardless of form
beauty is beauty and
                                      fire is warm.

And if, once washed, the bowl remains         full,

then life is not over
no matter the pull

Last but not least 
                                              the feast.

Here Today

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(Photo courtesy of Prakash Adhikary)

The Buddha said: “The life of mortals in this world is troubled and brief and combined with pain. For there is not any means by which those that have been born can avoid dying; after reaching old age there is death; of such a nature are living beings. As ripe fruits are early in danger of falling, so mortals when born are always in danger of death. As all earthen vessels made by the potter end in being broken, so is the life of mortals. Both young and adult, both those who are fools and those who are wise, all fall into the power of death; all are subject to death.”

– The Parable of the Mustard Seed

There are those who believe that, given time and resources, scientific advancement will one day conquer death itself.

I am not one of those people.

As much as I yearn to see the future, to walk in a world defined by galaxies rather than continents, to travel at the speed of light to the place where stars are born; as much as I’d love to watch history’s eons unfold endlessly around me; as much as I’d give to read the end of the story–even so, the thought rings hollow.

I have a sneaking suspicion that my life is exalted by its inherent limitations, without which it would be meaningless, moment-less. I wonder if they are really limitations at all, or if they are simply infinity in disguise. I am who I am because I will not be forever. True eternity dwells in the finite; the vicissitudes of time render time timeless. My existence matters only because it will one day cease.

This is my time. I am here today.

This person called “Vance” is a moment in time, a blip on the radar of reality–it cannot be otherwise. Whatever fate awaits is predicated upon birth and death. I am in between. It is the only place I can exist. It is the only arena in which I may act. And when I act, I act as one who will soon disappear and who therefore must act now.

Chögyam Trungpa taught that “we are quivering between this and that.” We live our lives poised on the razor’s edge, at a moment’s notice. We dwell in the instant between first breath and last. And in an instant, the instant will pass.

This is my time. I am here today.

I do not fear the loss of tomorrow, because it is the elusiveness of tomorrow that makes such a precious commodity out of today. A precious stone is precious because it is scarce. If there is always to be Vance, then what real value can Vance really possess? I am precious because I am scarce. The promise of death makes a precious commodity of my life.

There are things only I can do, words only I can say, and thoughts only I can think–and I have only today in which to do, say, and think them. They have never been before; they will never be again. Life’s greatest glory is its own impermanence. Here today; gone tomorrow. Precious now.

If I am to live as Vance, I must one day die as Vance. And in between, I must act.

Me & Bunny Foo-Foo

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHow long must we all wait to change,
This world bound in chains that we live in,
To know what it is to forgive,
And be forgiven?

– Kenny Loggins

Deep in my soul, beyond the reach of age or reason, they will always and forever be “aminals.”

Nothing reduces me to the quivering excitement of a three-year-old like encounters with woodland creatures (or any creatures, really). I want to run at them, capture them, be close to them. Not to hurt them, mind you; I just love them, with every fiber of my being. I am intrigued by them; I want to share in their space, in their existence. To touch, and to be touched by them. To be, in essence, one with them.

I am fascinated by the spark of life we share.

This little guy and I had our moment one early morning last month at Lake Powell Resort in Page, Arizona. I got up just after sunrise and took off down a trail that stretches east from the resort proper, and found myself in a scene out of Watership Down. There were jackrabbits everywhere. At one point I stopped and lay down on the pathway, in the hopes of getting a decent shot of this guy, and as I lay there, he decided to up the ante. Apparently, I intrigued him greatly. Slowly, he made his way toward me, one hop at a time, until I could have reached out and touched him. And there we were, inches from one another, man and bunny rabbit, staring and being stared at.

Time stood still.

For the briefest of instants, there was no line, no distinction between man and animal. We were simply together, sharing the nature we each inhabit, that belongs to us both. And then it was over: another morning stroll broke the sacred spell, and as the stranger rounded the bend in the trail, my sylvan friend headed for the brush. But fleeting as it was, it was a magical moment. It was a fearless moment, a moment free of the constant conflict that plagues humanity’s interactions with the natural world. It was quiet; it was present; it was real.

I’ve often noticed how rarely those three adjectives apply. Perhaps it’s my imagination, but it seems we are determined to fill all the quiet moments with noise. Of course, this may just be a case of common rudeness: the longer I live, the more bullish people around me become, and the whole world’s a china shop. We seem incapable of silence, of awe. Maybe it’s just rudeness, inconsideration, but I have to wonder whether there’s a deeper meaning in all this.

Could it be that we’re afraid? Could it be that the magnitude of the natural world reminds us just how tiny and insignificant we really are, of just how brief a moment we occupy? If history is a book, then I am a footnote–and not even a good one. No juicy tidbits; no “see” references. Just a page number, with maybe an “ibid” leading the way. Same as before: different face, maybe, different name, but basically just more of the same.

Walking the beaches of Lindisfarne; staring into the vast depths of the Grand Canyon; even contemplating the pastures on the family farm in Missouri–I’m reminded of the fleeting nature of Me. So many have gone before; so many more will follow after. I matter, yes, but I matter in that I do not. You’ve heard my mantra before: it’s not about Me. If anything, I am about it.

Back to my encounter with Bunny Foo-Foo: the moment itself was predicated upon silence, stillness. Respect. I identified with him, and he with me. We shared the space–no need for domination cum “stewardship.” The Daniel Boones of the world are great, but so are the Tom Bombadils. I don’t want to shout at the world, or subdue it; I want to sing to it, to see it dance in response, and to dance along with it.

I could have reached out and touched him. And I wanted to, desperately. I wanted to pull an Elmyra, and squeeze him till he popped. Deep down inside, I always want to do that, whether it be a deer by the side of the road or a squirrel in my back yard. I want to jump up and down and holler “Bunnybunnybunnybunnybunny!”

At times like these, I have to grab my inner child and bop him on the head. Or at least stifle him a bit. Teach him to be quiet and live the moment at hand. To bow before the life that surrounds him on every side; not to fear it, not to subjugate and conquer, but to embrace it as a reflection of himself, as a part of himself.

If “God” is anything, it is this mutual recognition, life speaking to life, moment to moment, without interruption. From man and animal to man and man, person to person, in the wild or in the checkout aisle. Life speaking to life. Not in anger or in arrogance, but in love.

To be with nature as one is with a lover, a friend, a wife, a husband, oneself–to do unto that Other as I would have done unto me. This, to me, is the only religion that matters, and the only one that’s real.

Speak softly. Life will answer.

Find, and You Shall Seek

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When ignorance is overturned, it transmutes into enlightenment. It is like melting ice into water; it is not something apart and does not come from elsewhere. All is contained in a single moment of mind.

– Chih-i

I seek a single moment of mind. And I find it, every single time, right where I left it. Right here. With me, in me, behind me, ahead of me, beckoning, waiting, answering and asking at once.

A single moment of mind, leading to single moments of mind, pointing to single moments of mind. Moments of mind that, collectively, constitute my self, intermingled with your self, and scattered amongst the infinity of Self itself.

The third of the Four Great Vows of the bodhisattva says: “Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them.” Or, as Thomas Cleary interprets it, it is the vow “to study all truths” (Cleary, Glossary to Stopping & Seeing, 1997). Of the four, this is the one that most clearly resonates with me: the search for Truth within all truth, the quest to ask all the answers through learning all the questions. My questions, your questions, their questions, today, tomorrow, and yesterday. The questions go on, they are continuous; how can the answers be other than the questions through which they are sought?

Chih-i also wrote: “Temporary expedients do not contain the true; it is the true that contains temporary expedients.” In other words, whereas we often envision answers as endpoints, in reality they are mere waystations in an ongoing journey. Today’s answer, properly understood, becomes tomorrow’s question. And so on. Infinitely. We always find, so we never arrive. And this is life. And life is enlightenment.

Another quote, from Stargate SG-1: “If you immediately know the candlelight is fire, then the meal was cooked long ago.” To assume I have the answers is to miss the point of the questions asked: it is to choose a solution before hearing the problem; it is to decide my fate before knowing who I am. It is to abandon the journey before it ever begins.

The path to Truth is not linear, although we often believe it so. The path to Truth is not even really a path. We stand simultaneously at the beginning and the end; the beginning is the end. The path to Truth is not a path. Truth is the path, and the path is truth: no more and no less. It is not ahead; it is not behind; it is not outside of us. Truth is not a destination, it is a realization.

We are never really there, because we are already here. We never really arrive, because, in truth, we never really left.

Listen

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You must perceive world sound. You must perceive the sound of your voice. 

– Seung Sahn

Meditation, I think, is different for everyone who does it. It’s one of those things that suffer under too many rules, over-definition, because at its heart, it involves just…being.

For me, meditation is about listening. To everything. Being still and listening, being quiet and listening, being and listening.

The world speaks with many, many voices:

Bird choruses, high above, rebounding from one end of awareness to the other, species after species calling out in natural harmony–from the throaty shrill of the grackle to the metallic chirp of the cardinal. It is fauna gone stereo; it is everywhere at once.

The crescendoed buzzing of a mosquito in my ear. It is after me, but it is after me because it is alive, and I share with it in that life. We are, literally, blood brothers.

The insistent rapping of a red-headed woodpecker at the top of a nearby telephone pole: knock, and the worm shall be offered up to you.

Whispers of wind chasing one another around my head, and the feathery rustle of leaves sashaying in its wake. Memories ride on the breeze, tossing me back through time and space to the family farm and another breeze, identical yet different. I am reminded that all space and all time is hopelessly and inextricably interrelated; miles away, a world away, someone else listens with me, before me, after me, to the same different wind as I.

Suddenly, I’m hearing sounds that aren’t even there, sounds that I’ve heard before but long ago left behind: Vance Woods, this is your life!

The special crunch of gravel beneath my feet, sounding as it did only on that road, in that place, lost in the past, alive in the present. Voices of loved ones, some stilled by distance, others in death. The ricochet of bike tires off ramshackle cobbled streets: sounds today, aches and pains tomorrow. The past is the present writ large, and it too speaks in a multitude of dialects. Me llamo Eduardo–repeated over and over in decreasingly hesitant tones, back at the beginning of my adventure, back when I had just started to become.

Then, I begin to listen beyond, behind, underneath, and through. I begin to hear the pulse of existence, breathing, beating, just beyond the threshold of sound: the perpetual motion of being. Inhalation, exhalation. Life.

The world speaks, and I speak with it. It speaks to me, in me, and through me, in tones I often do not recognize, but, oh, when I do…Imagine my surprise!

What’s the old saying? I love listening to the sound of my own voice?

Here, at the heart of the world, the two, my own individual voice and the voice of the whole, are one and the same.

Eternity in an Instant

328px-ClessidraEternity dwells in the instant between Out and In. All that came before, all that comes after–this is but a shadow on the face of Now.

The past lives in me, but I cannot live in the past; the future waits for me, but I cannot wait upon the future. History weighs me down as the clock-face drags me forward. I must cut ties with either, lest I lose my Self to both.

Out. In. Life and death, promise and doubt, intermixed in a multitude of single moments.

As I breathe, I am eternal.
I need no farther horizon
.
There is no grander view.

Articles of Faith

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We are our own prisoners. We defeat ourselves, believing in defeatism, which is itself our own creation.

– D.T. Suzuki

Just because the vision blurs, this does not mean the eyes cannot see.

If you read my previous post, you know that I consider myself (to an extent) an atheist. Which creates certain difficulties when it comes to the idea of “faith.” There is a widely-held misconception that a turn to atheism is a turn away from “beliefs” in general; in fact, some atheist writers themselves insist that this must be the case, especially in terms of having faith, which to these thinkers denotes an acceptance of something intangible, something that cannot be seen.

Fair enough. But wrong.

I’ve always been a humanist, even in my most committed Christian moments (although it’s not really something you’re allowed to talk about as a Christian, since it is assumed that humans stand no chance on their own, without divine assistance). Having set aside the Christian identity, I’m free to embrace the humanist in me openly, without qualifiers. The moment that did it for me came at a roadside rest stop in West Texas, reading Malcolm Murray’s definition of atheism: the rejection of supernatural (metaphysical) agency. I’ve always waffled on the atheism concept because I refuse to reject the idea of the human spirit, which I believe firmly is very real. But I also believe that it comes from us, and not the other way around. We can call it “God” if we want, and it may be metaphysical (in the sense that it’s not “physical”), but it is most definitely not supernatural, and it definitely has no agency independent of the humanity from which it springs.

That in which I have “faith” is people, you and me, and particularly Us, and the things we could do if we could find a way to set aside all the details that separate us and really take up the humanity that brings us together. I have faith in human potential; I have faith that, somehow, somewhen, we will rise above and show the universe what we, as a species, can do.

Some might say that faith in the human spirit is as insubstantial as faith in an Absolute Being. I will admit that at times it feels as if this is truly the case. We often struggle to see the underlying goodness in people, hidden as it is beneath the layers and layers of distraction and deception time has piled on top of us. This is where Zen offers the most beautiful of insights: our nature, the Buddha-nature, simply is–beyond the categories of good or evil, above human constructions of beauty and ugliness. It IS. But as it is, it has become lost in the accretions of a species trapped in history and tethered to philosophy and intellect, driven by a need to analyze and categorize. It is our quest for understanding, expressed in the only way we know how, that has brought us to a place of self-dejection, self-repudiation. We live; we die; the cycle goes on over and around us, in spite of us, and the only way as semi-finite creatures to conceive of ourselves is to freeze ourselves in place, and confuse a mere snapshot for the whole of reality.

We see ourselves in our failures, and assume that failure is who we are. We see our hands about evil deeds, and assume they can perform nothing else. We stare into the darkness and decide there is no light.

In the end, as D.T. Suzuki wrote, we are the victims of our own creation: having convinced ourselves we cannot win, we set out to codify our perpetual defeat. We devise philosophical and religious systems to explain why we must decline, and those systems in turn become the boulder chasing us down the slope. Zen calls our attention to the homemade chains we wear, reminds us whose handiwork they really are, and that if we wish we may choose to cast them aside. Not that it is easy: seeing into the nature we’ve forgotten demands patience and determination, persistence in the face of a seemingly hopeless task, and the willingness to see past momentary failure to the everpresent promise of subsequent success.

The potential of human goodness lies in the recognition of human Being. If we are twisted, it is because we have so long insisted that it must be so. If our logic is flawed, it is because we believe it can be otherwise. If our system is broken, it is because we believe it must be fixed. To recognize the truth is to build upon it; to create that which is good is to embrace our nature as it is, to fill it with emptiness and watch it overflow.

In the words of John Daishin Buksbazen, “Remember who you are, and keep on going.”