At last Sunday's sangha meeting, we discussed the first koan of The Gateless Gate. Koans are normally asked and answered in dokusan, private meetings between student and teacher, but the word actually means “public case,” and I thought it might be interesting to experiment with the type of discussion that was probably more similar to how koans were originally practiced. It went well, so we'll continue to do it.
This is Burns Night, and it should be noted that, though he likely never heard of Zen or Buddhism, he was one of the great Zen poets of the West:
But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white – then melts for ever;
Or like the borealis race,
That flit ere you can point their place;
Or like the rainbow’s lovely form
Evanishing amid the storm.
As part of last Sunday's Dharma talk, I read Sam Hamill's poem The Orchid Flower. I corresponded with him for years, though we never met. He is among the people who have died whom I cannot bring myself to delete from my email contacts. When he died in 2018, I wrote this poem:
Elegy for Sam Hamill
Two days ago you breathed out
and didn’t breathe in again. You
were in your bed at home in Cascadia.
I’m on my couch at home in Glasgow,
reading a book of your poems, one of
the books you put in a package, took
to a post office and mailed to me.
I find you in the words, and I look for you
in the spaces between.
Many people go through life with one identity, based on an aggregate of subordinate identities, often a hybrid of job and family role. When we don't hold on to identities, when we let go of old things as we move on to new things (without clinging to the new), we can be amazed as we realise all the different people we have been.
At today's sangha meeting, we discussed the dangers of judging our meditation, of thinking of it as something to fail at. How some people say, “I can't meditate,” when what they mean is that their meditation isn't what they think it should be.
It never is. And that's okay.
The only way you can do it wrong is by thinking you're doing it wrong. If you're meditating, then whatever your mind is doing — being focused, being distracted, happy, sad, angry, bored — is what it should be doing.
Today is publication day for the French translation of my book on Zen practice, Kill Your Self, published by Pocket as La Vie Apres L'Ego. A deep bow of thanks to Mikael Demets, Charlotte Lefevre, Elise Boulay and Ghizlaine Guevel.
I wonder if what those who make Zen our lifelong practice have in common is that when we're young we experience what John Tarrant Roshi describes in his book Bring Me the Rhinoceros: “None of the usual solutions to life that were on offer meant much to me.”
Even before I'd heard of Zen, the things that were supposed to be important seemed trivial, and based on a crazy assumption of permanence. I annoyed my first girlfriend by saying life was only varying degrees of suffering. So, when I heard about the First Noble Truth, it was a relief.
I suspect that's the difference between lifers and those who come to it for comfort or support during a period of crisis (not that the one is better than the other, just different).