Changing Temples Pt. 15 – Mindfulness

“There are days”, he reflected, ” when one sees as though one had been blind the rest of one’s life. Such clarity – perfection in everything, not merely in the extraordinary. One lives in the present moment; lives intently. There is no urge to be doing: being is the highest good.” “However”, he said, “doing of some kind there must be.”
Patrick O’Brien, ‘Post Captain’

Have you ever wondered, specifically and particularly, whether another individual, or a small group, or that larger mass we call humanity sees an incident, an object, or an experience in the same way as you? I mean by that, of course, the same way. Because of such wonder and curiosity, have you wrestled the language with another person in tandem to determine if there is similarity of experience? Have you parsed this slippery, all together too facile language of ours to determine whether, in fact, that incident, that object, or that experience was perceived, inculcated, understood the same way?

I, for one, am rather obsessed with that question, have been for as long as I can remember. I tend to believe, now that I am in my anecdotage, that I sought to know whether there are universals, archetypes within the human condition – and that I had experienced one (or more) of them. Naturally, I acknowledge that Plato and Jung, at least, have long since argued that there is – who am I to contend with those two?

One very particular experience I have wondered about in that context is damned difficult to pin down with words, no matter what language is used: Transcendence, Enlightenment, Nirvana, “The Peace that passes all understanding”, and their variously described ilk. Interestingly, Nirvana implies, to me at least, a mental/spiritual state, whereas the thesaurus has as many synonyms referring to what can surely be described as a locality: Elysium, Paradise, Happy Hunting Ground, Shangri-La. It is so fascinating to think about high spiritual achievement being part and parcel with place – in my own small way I have contributed to the lexicon by describing such as “the geography of contentment”.

During my first and only other travel experience where I had no agenda, no return ticket, and no calendar, one of my journal entries was about what I saw as a universal among travelers – the desire to discover that ONE (dare I say magical) place with all the attributes that the traveler’s spirit seems to seek: quiet, geography that is compelling (sea shores or mountains most frequently), handsome and oh so accommodating and accepting people, untrammeled culture, good food and drink, cheap – in other words a version of paradise. I think it is fair to say that even the cruise ship day trippers in Cancun, Bali, Venezia, Kerala, Santorini, Cozumel have a deeply embedded hope they will find a place that transcends, that satisfies by bringing a deep level of contentment and which will trigger a desire to never leave, to be forever within this Shangri-La.

Place and Spirit – how interwoven they are. Being and Doing – how interwoven they are. Are Spirit and Being, Place and Doing interwoven in the same way? Religions promise Spirit in a place – the 1000 virgins of Islamic Paradise is certainly a promise of some interest. Well, clearly not all religions promise such. One of the attractive features of Zen is that place is irrelevant. There are persuasive indicators that Zen Enlightenment is not a sudden conversion experience – somewhat different than St. Paul on the Road to Damascus, gotta love that lightening, or the Buddha under the Bodhi Tree. Place was not the point, spirit was the point.

I do not believe I have the ability to find Peace without place in this life time. Lord knows I have given the best half-hearted effort that a spiritual dilettante could muster. I am a person whose only success (dare one call it that) is finding Spirit in place, in geography, in Doing. I have to admit that “Do-Nothing Zen” founded by Bankei (1622-93) is more my style! Perhaps because the great lightening bolt or ultimate realization has never happened to me, despite my repeated efforts to “get there”, I have come to believe that transcendent experience is an incremental thing. I have some evidence for that.

But, first, an aside. My dear friend David, a man of living spirit if ever there was one, would immediately spend a significant amount of time, energy, and words trying to get me to understand that you cannot “get” it – you are it. He’s absolutely right of course. But, as I say: “I may be, but I ain’t!”

So, back to increments. I read a marvelous and insightful little book containing three biographies entitled “Three Zen Masters”. What a wonderful world we live in that gives us access to such gems. I have neither the memory nor the book with me to give much detail, but a simple Internet search refreshes sufficiently. Ikkyu Sojun (1394-1481), Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1768), and Daigu Ryokan (1758-1831) rank among the greatest Zen masters in Japanese history-their names have become nearly synonymous with Zen itself. Iconoclastic, funny, and artistically vital, these men represent that which drew many of us Westerners to Zen in the first place.

What is to be gleaned? What is compelling? What the hell does this have to do with tourist desires? The answer lies in what I overlooked the first two times I read this slim volume. Only in a lonely, but inspirational moment, did I remember that each of these individuals was a poet, calligrapher, painter, scholar, administrator (often of large, important monasteries), mentor, benefactor. They each enjoyed drinking saki with the local farmers. One was a lover of many years standing (or lieing as the case may be).

So many possible illustrations. One is worthwhile. An old couple came to Hakuin. They operated a fan shop, but business was so poor that they were worried that they now would have no money for when they could no longer work. Hakuin quickly painted a small poster and told them to post it on the door of their shop. They did. It read something like: “on Sunday, Hakuin will come and autograph calligraphy and paintings”. His fame insured a large, large crowd. The couple sold all their fans.

As one follows these men through their lives, one “realizes” again and again that each frequently despaired about their own enlightenment. What is also clear is that such enlightenment for each came in incremental bits and “realizations”; no grand lightening strokes, just a transcendent moment here, a complete exhilaration of joy there, awakening experiences over there. They engaged in everyday activities like writing, painting, administering, partnering – but always, always with an eye toward mindfullness.

Today, I walked the fairly long walk to St. George’s Episc. Church where I have been going regularly since arrival. I am, you should understand, spiritual and distinctly not religious. I attend primarily because church is a community and one can create a bit of community for one self by the simple diligence of attendance. I was discouraged. I was unhappy. Too much baggage, too much of that self that Socrates assured me I would be hauling along with me from Montana. I crossed over a ponte (bridge) on a small canal, fairly far off the beaten track – so I was alone. At the crest of the ponte I heard music being played; it sounded like an accordion, as unlikely as that would be in my decades of walking experience. Rather than rushing on thoroughly immersed in my own mind, I stopped. I listened. I observed. I was mindful. It was, in fact, an accordion – played without elaboration but with an accomplished set of hands. The tune which I had caught by the 3rd. or 4th note, was “Que Sera Sera” (for Doris Day fans, the remainder of the phrase is “whatever will be will be, the future’s not ours to see, Que Sera Sera”).

It was one of those small, incremental moments where there is a glimpse of spirit within place where manipulations and machinations of mind result only in frustration and the understanding that one has to just accept. Hidden in there is the connection regarding traveler’s desires for a transcendent locale.

Continued. . . .


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