"Mindfulness and Meditation allow us to open our hearts, relax our bodies, and clear our minds enough to experience the vast, mysterious, sacred reality of life directly. With Practice we come to know for ourselves that eternity is available in each moment.

Your MMM Courtesy Wake Up Call:
Musings on Life and Practice
by a Longtime Student of Meditation

Sunday, March 27, 2016

When You Wish Upon a Star

Dedicated to Angela Mujaku Senjin Caponigro (1946-2016) who I practiced with at Zen Mountain Monastery in 2004-2005.  Unlike me, she continued on and ordained in the Mountain and Rivers Order and finished her life in service at Fire Lotus Temple in Brooklyn, NY  A brief video "A Glimpse of Senjin" appears below.

"Truth is one. Paths are many."
 --Mahatma Gandhi

“If we learn to open our hearts, anyone, including the people 
who drive us crazy, can be our teacher.”
― Pema Chödrön

Over a decade ago, I sat on the front porch of an A frame on the ridge at Zen Mountain Monastery gazing at a star-filled Catskill Mountain sky.  I was certain that I was going to leave the monastery after six months in residence.  Yet I had absolutely no idea what my next move would be.  Over the years, I had often thought, "once the kids are grown, I can finally DO IT!  I'd get to the monastery or ashram and find The Teacher -- then just cruise my way to enlightenment!"

So much for that plan.

By then, I knew it wasn't going to be that easy.  Although I had again experienced a number of deep "openings" in the cauldron of Zen Training as envisioned by Roshi John "Daido" Loori, it was obvious that the rigid, hard-driving, and quintessentially hierarchical nature of the Roshi's "Eight Gates of Zen" practiced at ZMM didn't ring true for me.  Although I had great respect for many of the folks involved, and saw that the monastic life appeared to work for some, I wasn't going to get off that easy.  I was going to have to get out there and figure it out for myself -- again.

As I sat there, absolutely clueless, a memory of the book Jonathan Livingston Seagull passed through my mind and I thought, "I guess I just have to hang onto the wind and trust."  At that very instant a shooting star flashed across the night sky directly in front of my eyes -- instantly disappearing into the tapestry of countless stars and fathomless blackness reaching overhead.  Zounds!
I wish it was always that easy.  

So, the next morning, I ate crow (I had made a year's commitment), and announced my intention to leave.  My favorite monk and mentor there, Ryushin, who would later become the Abbot of ZMM*,  challenged me directly about breaking the commitment I'd made.  "How can you live with yourself?" he demanded.  I replied that although I may have sometimes bailed too early in the past, that my usual modus operandi was to stick with something long after it was obvious that it made no sense to do so.  I wasn't going to do that again.  It was time to go.  I don't know that he agreed with my decision but, bless his heart, he hugged me as I departed.  

I think for a lot of us, the notion of "breaking free" from the incessant busyness and demands of life and heading to the hills to escape from the myriad responsibilities that seem to tie us up in our own knots seems quite appealing.  For some of us geezers who had experienced that widespread Spiritual Awakening of the 60's, "the hills" often meant heading to the ashrams and monasteries, or the hermit's huts and caves to find someone that would provide us with the Ultimate Answers to Life.

I, myself, had made a number of such journeys over the years as I stumbled ahead.  My tour of duty at Zen Mountain Monastery was, I think, the final time I barked my shins on the way up the wrong tree.  Once again, I realized in a fundamental way the true spiritual journey for me was one of integration, not separation from, the "full catastrophe" of Life.  To borrow another notion from Jon Kabat-Zinn, I finally realized that wherever I went, there I was. 

This doesn't mean that I don't think there are Teachers and Teachings and Spiritual Communities that can provide us with a degree of support and guidance along the way.  The opportunity to engage in intensive meditation retreats and spiritual communal life is a blessing, and I am so grateful to have been able to dive deeply into days, weeks, and months in such settings over the years.  I honor and respect those who have dedicated their lives to these efforts and will continue to sing their praises.  In fact, I highly recommend that you attend a meditation retreat if you haven't yet.  Even a full day or a weekend can be transformative.

My Beloved Betsy and her Granddaughter Abby
Yet, for me (and I think many other folks), the True Spiritual Journey doesn't involve heading to the hills forever.  It involves diving ever more deeply into our lives as they are with as much skill and grace as we can muster.

If we discern that our deepest yearning is to love and help out as best we can, Mindfulness Practice unfolds as both the means and the end of cultivating the clarity, kindness, understanding,  compassion, and equanimity to do that. With Practice we learn to be more fully Present, to engage life with all our sensory apparatus functioning.  Rather than sleepwalk through our lives lost in our thoughts and daydreams, we awaken with a full and open heart --ready to rock!

At that point, everyone and everything becomes the Teacher and the Teaching!

What more could one wish for?
(*Several years later, Ryushin resigned and left the monastery and his marriage. )


Lori Knutson said...

Thank you for sharing this story. I practice alone, a closet Buddhist in rural Alberta, Canada. Sometimes (frequently) I worry this is a "wrong" practice and that I should be seeking a teacher and attending lengthy retreats. But I have a full-time job, I write books, I have a husband...and it's a good life. It has been transformed by my discovery and practice of Buddhism (secular, pretty much). So for now I'll continue this way and look to generous folks like you to ease and challenge me along the path.

Mathew Naismith said...

We indeed have everything we need right in front of us, at times we need to be shown this, at other times it appears as if by magic. We are unable to see until we are aware of what we are seeing/observing, in fact, what we observe is ourselves in everything around us. This can be awfully hard for our egos to comprehend and quite understandably so.

Lance Smith said...

Hi Lori,
Not to worry. As best I can tell, your Practice is strong and vibrant in the context of your life and service as a writer and householder. (I snooped around on the web to learn of your efforts. LOL) If you have any specific "questions or comments" on your practice, feel free to pass them along if you'd like. I can put in my two cents worth -- for free. LOL One Love, Lance thishazymoon@gmail.com

Lance Smith said...

Hey Matthew, Yes, Indeed.