Portals into the Mystery

As you know, I often use my photographs to illustrate a teaching point or highlight a concept I am trying to convey. But sometimes the photographs themselves are the inspiration for the teaching. This is the case with this series of images from our recent retreat in Hawaii.

We typically make our journey to the overlook to the Kalaupapa peninsula for our sunrise meditation early in the week when we are waking early, still on mainland time. On this particular morning, after a brief 3-mile drive, we assembled in the parking lot and walked in the faintest light of dawn through the ironwood forest to the overlook. In silence we stepped out onto the bluff behind the rock retaining wall, into the buffeting wind and streaming clouds to bear witness to the beauty and sadness of this powerful place. On each visit I have the feeling that I am passing through a mysterious transitional space—a kind of portal—emerging into a new or special world that reveals itself on the edge of those high cliffs. As we stood in silent attention to the shifting skyscape and seascape that morning, the early light began to offer itself to us.

Standing there in awe with my camera in hand, I was fully immersed in the magnificence of the moment. Everything was unfolding around me powerfully and magically. I continued to look through the viewfinder and allowed what I was witnessing to release the shutter on its own as the light continued to work beautifully through the clouds and the water and the cliffs. I had no idea what I was capturing at the time, but nature’s invitation continued to lead me deeper into the morning mystery.

The Four Practice Principles kept going though my mind:

Caught in the self-centered dream, only suffering
Holding to self-centered thoughts, exactly the dream
Each moment, life as it is, the only teacher
Being just this moment, Compassion’s Way

Opportunities to enter the fullness of the present moment are always available if we relax our insistence on our own narrow, self-centered perspective. I remember feeling very small and vulnerable facing the wind and the ocean, completely immersed in the immensity of the unfolding light. I was aware that my body would contract whenever anxiety began to take over. I could also sense that when I relaxed into the warm connection of the group, even in complete silence and stillness, I felt a deep comfort and a confidence that we were OK—together. Practicing together helps us tolerate the gentle release of the “self-centered dream” and allows us to have more faith in “life as it is.”

Lately it has been hard for me to see clearly what lies ahead in my own life. It is not as if there aren’t signs and signals to alert me, but I can’t always tell what they mean. What should I attend to? What can I safely ignore? What is a beckoning invitation and what is serving as a warning? I am in the midst of so much change at the moment that I am alternately challenged, disoriented, and even frightened at times. Which way should I turn? How should I respond? Is life really teaching me or simply defeating me? These may be questions that may arise for many of you as well.

I know that everything is impermanent, constantly changing in and around me. I also know that everything is contingent, being created and evolving in response to everything else. I am aware that there is nothing apart from this great flux and flow, including my stumbling navigation through it all. This is what I teach and practice every day. But for once it would be relieving to simply enjoy the illusion of complete clarity and certainty about something. However, as I get older and continue to practice steadily, I sense that I have a diminishing capacity to believe in this kind of fantasy. Regular meditation practice and deep inquiry completely ruin certain things about ordinary life and certainty is one of them.

There is a wonderful line from Dogen’s Genjokoan that come to mind: “Though there are many conditions in the dusty world and the world beyond conditions, you see and understand only what your eye of practice can reach.” Another translation from Shohaku Okamura is, “Within the dusty world and beyond, there are innumerable aspects and characteristics; we only see or grasp as far as the power of our eye of study and practice can see.”

I can’t predict what I will capture when I press the shutter on the camera. I see what my limited human eye can perceive in the moment and I am frequently amazed and humbled by what I am being offered. I hope that I can capture some of what I see using the equipment at hand, but I really don’t know what I’ve been given until I look at the image later. Like everything else in life I am constantly receiving what my sense perceptions offer me, but this data is also infused with and shaped by my unconscious projections about what I secretly hope for or fear. And, like everyone else, I construct something that seems whole and coherent from these perceptions, thoughts, feelings and bodily reactions. I then call that something “reality.”

As I reflected on these lines from Dogen,“…you see and understand only what your eye of practice can reach,” I began to ask myself, “What do I actually ‘see’ through practice?” I’ve practiced long enough to realize that I am not going to receive some “answer” which will nicely match my fantasied expectations of spiritual life. If I am fortunate I see a bit more Truth or “Life as it is.” If I really pay attention with patience and curiosity, I will begin to see my faithful habit patterns more clearly—the embodied expressions of the habitual ways I’ve come to organize experience, mostly outside of my awareness. As I see these patterns more clearly and they begin to soften, then life simply unfolds as it will — as it does anyway, despite my opinions — and without my painful and frantic attempts to force it back toward the fantasy that sustains my constructed “reality.”

I came to realize more fully that morning at the overlook that I don’t actually shrink from present moment experience because it is boring or painful or confusing. I do so because it is too rich. The more I practice, the greater my capacity to allow life to blossom more fully through me. As I discipline myself through consistent practice I sense that I am cultivating a kind of courage and a greater willingness to face the rawness of my life circumstances more graciously. Without a commitment to a steady and wholesome practice I find myself running, embellishing, turning away from, or contradicting the truth of my life and my precious relationships. This courage and willingness offers me more choice, more vitality, and ultimately the restoration of joy, the theme for our week of retreat.

Sometimes I download an image and am shocked by what I see. Not just because it might a beautiful photograph, but because of the flood of meaning that leaps forward immediately and surprisingly. All of the teachings and experiences I’ve been writing about in this small piece came together when I opened the image above. On the left I saw the light of the early morning streaming in magically, illuminating what was previously dark or indistinct. Morning light so often represents the beginning of new possibilities or a fresh start, a longing we all share. On the right there remains an ominous darkness and an approaching storm, and with it the sense of fear and anxiety that we so often carry, usually in the hidden shadows of our hearts and minds. In the center there is the promise of light and an opening in which I could see more deeply into the mystery. It is as if I could literally see into new potential and possibility.

As many of you have heard me say in the past, the spiritual path is like walking between hope and despair on either side, straight into the face of uncertainty. We long for a path that will take us from despair to hope, but we know deep down that neither place is stable or reliable. We can’t leave despair behind and permanently arrive at a solid place to rest. Fear is part of being alive. We can’t count on hope either because we see it crumble in the face of life circumstance. What we can count on and can learn to welcome is the ongoing change of each new dawn and all that it brings. I have to ask myself if I am willing to give myself fully to a life I can’t control and that I will eventually loose? Anything less and I will be robbed of the joy that is not based on circumstances or personal happiness. Am I willing to accept my human life as the mysterious and miraculous gift that it is?

There are a few more lines from the Genjokoan that follow the statement about “seeing.” Dogen says, “You have gained the pivotal opportunity of human form. Do not use your time in vain. You are maintaining the essential working of the Buddha-Way. Who would take wasteful delight in the spark from the flintstone? Besides, form and substance are like the dew on the grass, destiny like the dart of lightning—emptied in an instant, vanished in a flash.” When I first came to practice at the San Francisco Zen Center and told my guest practice leader my full name she looked at me with a wry smile and said, “Have you ever read the Genjokoan?” I had not even heard of it at that time and did not know she was referring to Dogen’s question: “Who would take wasteful delight in the spark from the flintstone?” The flint and the steel come together to produce a spark. Transient and delightful, it is easy to get entranced by the spark, “emptied in an instant, vanished in a flash.” But its real function is to initiate a fire which can be used to keep us warm and to cook our food for life-sustaining nourishment. The spark is not simply for our delight, but for the benefit of all beings. And so is our practice—life-giving and life-restoring—just as the sky and sea, the rain and wind, the light and dark, offer themselves to benefit all beings. And sometimes the storm and the light come together to produce a little bit of magic so we can be called back to gratitude. As Suzuki Roshi said, “Just to be alive is enough.”