What Will Happen? (written 2007)
Reflections on a Zen teaching from Golden Wind: “What will happen when thoughts, ideas, opinions, emotional reactions, psychological problems, attachments, expectations, life, death, sickness and old age all fall away and our minds become bare?”
What will happen? Deeper than sleep. Different from sleep. Once I would have thought of this as extinction. Death. Undesirable. But even death falls away, this says.
This seems restful. A promise. To move outside of these clamoring difficulties. Like removing a scratchy sweater, tight shoes. Like shaving your head. Like dropping naked into warm, clear water. Fearless. Limp. Relaxed. No agenda.
Sometimes sitting, for what seems in the timeless silence to be the merest of moments, I'm able to ignore the chattering till it recedes and fades, and then, when my body finds its balance...and the twitches and itches and aches are also outside the spotlight of attention, I'll find a place that tastes of this. Not enlightenment but enveloping serenity. A comfortable place to be. But not the golden wind. Yet this is the closest I have to an answer from experience to the question he sets: “What will happen?”
I imagine that, unlike me, the enlightened one would be able to maintain this serenity steadily, and function in the world too. Feeling this golden wind Ummon describes and yet doing what needs doing. There's the real mystery. For sitting, when I find this place with the flavor of being “bare”, it's like holding a soap bubble in my hand. Fragile and short lived. It can be broken often by the tone of my clock when sitting time ends or sometimes earlier by an invasive thought or sensation. So that serenity and “here” do not seem able to co-exist for long. No ideal with the actual* here. One or the other. This is what makes it clear that pleasant as this experience may be, it's just another fleeting experience. Like the pain in my knees or the list of things to do replaying in my brain, or the chill running up my back.
The initial impulse drawing us towards sitting may be this idea of escaping and separating. We're making a mistake that we'll see in time. Ummon talks somewhere of the life of the hermit as appearing to be one that escapes responsibilities. I think of myself as more hermit than monk or nun in the core, at the center of my being. But mine is the all too ordinary escape fantasy. Away from, outside of. Less psychological pain when the human elements are set aside. Waldon. A hut by a lake in the woods. Some variation of this fantasy must exist in every human mind. Stepping away. Physically or psychologically. Aren't some mental illnesses manifestations of this? The schizophrenic who moves to a new persona. The sociopath who detaches from compassion, morality. The addict who slips into a world less sharp and painful.
I see the golden wind as a different kind of leaving behind. Just shedding superficial, illusory preoccupations. No longer itchy and scratchy and bothered. In that realm one lives inside the actual and ideal together. Like the box all with its lid.* In the midst of the muck and the mire, living mindfully, with clear vision. A kind of Superman x-ray vision seeing through to the pure center of everything...the all and one, the emptiness and the form. Not skimming the surface the way we do, worrying over spilt milk and stubbed toes. Everything so intensely personal. But deeply involved. Immersed. Such that there is no self to trip and fall or be touched by anger and pain and disappointment.
* words from The Sandokai, a poem by 8th century Zen master Sekito Kisen