MattAndJojang's Blog

God. Life. Spirituality.

Posts Tagged ‘Spirituality

Moon in a Dewdrop

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To what shall
I liken the world?
Moonlight, reflected
In dewdrops,
Shaken from a crane’s bill.

–Dogen

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Written by MattAndJojang

November 3, 2017 at 11:28 am

The Temple Bell

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Shoda Koho’s “Temple Bell”

The temple bell stops–
but the sound keeps coming
out of the flowers.

–Basho

Written by MattAndJojang

October 11, 2017 at 11:34 am

Bamboo Shadows

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Bamboo shadows sweep the stairs
but no dust is stirred;
moonlight reaches to the bottom of the pond
but no trace is left in the water.

–Zenrinkushū

Written by MattAndJojang

October 2, 2017 at 4:41 pm

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Longing for the Beloved

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Grieving Mary, by Fra Angelico, c.1437–1446, Museo San Marco, Florence

At night on my bed I longed for my only love.
I sought him, but did not find him.
I must rise and go about the city,
the narrow streets and squares, till I find my only love.
I sought him everywhere but I could not find him.

—Song of Songs 3:1–2

THE FIRE OF SEPARATION

There is a longing that burns at the root of spiritual practice. This is the fire that fuels your journey. The romantic suffering you pretend to have grown out of, that remains coiled like a serpent beneath the veneer of maturity. You have studied the sacred texts. You know that separation from your divine source is an illusion. You subscribe to the philosophy that there is nowhere to go and nothing to attain, because you are already there and you already possess it.

But what about this yearning? What about the way a poem by Rilke or Rumi breaks open your heart and triggers a sorrow that could consume you if you gave in to it? You’re pretty sure this is not a matter of mere psychology. It has little to do with unresolved issues of childhood abandonment, or codependent tendencies to falsely place the source of your wholeness outside yourself. The longing is your recognition of the deepest truth that God is love and that this is all you want. Every lesser desire melts when it comes near that flame.

You realize that not everyone experiences this. For some people, the spiritual journey is not so dramatic. It’s less about the overwhelming desire for union with some invisible Beloved than it is about quietly waking up. It’s about developing compassion, rather than suffering passion. There are people who never doubt that God is with them, and so there is nothing to long for.

But there are those, like you, who have felt the Divine move like an ocean inside them, and, incapable of sustaining an unbroken relationship with that vastness, feel they have been banished to the desert when the wave recedes. There is a tribe of holy lovers, who have tasted the glorious sweetness that lies on the other side of yearning, when the boundaries of the separate self momentarily melt into the One, before the cold wind of ordinary consciousness blows through again, and restores your individuality. You would risk everything to rekindle that annihilating fire. You would leave your shoes at the door and run after the cosmic flute player, if only you could hear that music one more time.

You give up everything for one glimpse of the Beloved’s face. You sneak into his chamber in the middle of the night and say, “Here I am. Ravish me.” But when you awake the next morning, swooning and alone, you realize you missed the entire encounter. You throw your clay cup on the cobblestones and it shatters. You thought you would marry, bear babies, make a career in broadcasting. You wander city streets during siesta hour and wonder where he is sleeping. Your longing and your satisfaction are reciprocal. The moan of separation is the cry of union…

 

Death has been my own gateway to the numinous. I did not pick this path. I have simply experienced an unusual number of tragic losses, which propelled me to plunge into spiritual practice as if my life depended on it, which in many ways it did. As the years went by, death after death continued to reveal traces of grace. As long as I can remember, my sorrow has been the catalyst for my longing for God.

Yet the inner harvest these multiple losses yielded did not prepare me for the avalanche that would sweep through my life, annihilating everything in its path. The year I turned forty, the day my first book came out, a translation of Dark Night of the Soul by the sixteenth-century Spanish saint John of the Cross, my fourteen-year-old daughter, Jenny, was killed in a car crash.

Suddenly, the sacred fire I had been chasing all my life engulfed me. I was plunged into the abyss, instantaneously dropped into the vast stillness and pulsing silence at which all my favorite mystics hint. So shattered I could not see my own hand in front of my face, I was suspended in the invisible arms of a Love I had only dreamed of. Immolated, I found myself resting in fire. Drowning, I surrendered, and discovered I could breathe under water.

So this was the state of profound suchness I had been searching for during all those years of contemplative practice. This was the holy longing the saints had been talking about in poems that had broken my heart again and again. This was the sacred emptiness that put that small smile on the faces of the great sages. And I hated it. I didn’t want vastness of being. I wanted my baby back.

But I discovered that there was nowhere to hide when radical sorrow unraveled the fabric of my life. I could rage against the terrible unknown—and I did, for I am human and have this vulnerable body, passionate heart, and complicated mind—or I could turn toward the cup, bow to the Cupbearer, and say, “Yes.”

I didn’t do it right away, nor was I able to sustain it when I did manage a breath of surrender. But gradually I learned to soften into the pain and yield to my suffering. In the process, compassion for all suffering beings began unexpectedly to swell in my heart. I became acutely aware of my connectedness to mothers everywhere who had lost children, who were, at this very moment, hearing the impossible news that their child had died. I felt especially connected to mothers in war zones, although I lived in safety and abundance in America.

Interdependence with all beings has never again been an abstract concept to me. I am viscerally aware of my debt to every blade of grass. Innumerable, unexpected blessings emerged from the ashes of my loss: a childlike wonderment and gratitude in the face of the simplest things: a bowl of buttered noodles, reading poetry to my husband in bed, two horses prancing across the field behind our house. These are the blossoms that unfold from my growing relationship with the Mystery of Love. This is the holy potion that has been given as the antidote to my brokenness.

Grief strips us. According to the mystics, this is good news. Because it is only when we are naked that we can have union with the Beloved. We can cultivate spiritual disciplines designed to dismantle our identity so that we have hope of merging with the Divine. Or someone we love very much may die, and we find ourselves catapulted into the emptiness we had been striving for. Even as we cry out in the anguish of loss, the boundless love of the Holy One comes pouring into the shattered container of our hearts. This replenishing of our emptiness is a mystery, it is grace, and it is built into the human condition.

Few among us would ever opt for the narrow gate of grief, even if it were guaranteed to lead us to God. But if our most profound losses—the death of a loved one, the ending of a marriage or a career, catastrophic disease or alienation from community—bring us to our knees before that threshold, we might as well enter. The Beloved might be waiting in the next room.

 

THE IMMOVABLE SPOT

The Great Sixteenth-Century Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila was not always in love with God. In fact, during her first twenty years in the convent, she alternately envied and disdained the girls who openly wept with the pain of separation from their Beloved. Teresa prided herself on being a practical person. “God dwells among the pots and pans,” she declared. If one of the young nuns in her care displayed a tendency toward altered states of consciousness, Mother Teresa would yank her from the chapel, stick a broom in her hand, and order her to sweep the portico until the delusion passed.

One day, however, during her thirty-ninth year, the Holy One rushed the boundary Teresa had built around her heart. The efficient nun was bustling through the halls of the convent, readying the place for an upcoming festival, when she noticed a statue of Christ at the pillar unceremoniously propped against a wall. Irritated, Teresa bent to pick it up. Suddenly, her eye caught his, and she was transfixed.

Christ’s face radiated unbearable suffering and unconditional love. Even as his back was bent and scored with lacerations, the blood dripping into his eyes from the thorns that pierced his scalp, he gazed at Teresa with a tenderness that felt absolutely personal and offered her his undivided attention. Never had she felt so fully seen. Never had she imagined herself worthy of such a love as he was pouring upon her.

Teresa’s knees buckled and she slid to the floor at his carved feet. Then she kept going. She unfolded her body in full prostration, pressing her face to the ground, arms stretched above her. Her heart overflowed and she began to cry. She cried tears of longing and tears of fulfillment. She wept with remorse for never having loved Christ as he deserved to be loved, and she wept with supplication that he never, ever leave her.

Like the Buddha as he sat in meditation under the Bodhi Tree, vowing not to move from that spot until he had broken through to enlightenment, Teresa drove a bargain with her Lord. She told him that she would not get up until he gave her what she wanted: the strength to adore him and never to forsake him again. Once the dam had broken, all the tears of a lifetime cascaded through her heart, and Teresa lay weeping for a long time. When she was spent, she rose transfigured. From that moment on, Teresa of Avila began to undergo the stream of visions, voices, and raptures for which she is so famous.

Near the end of her life, Teresa finally experienced the union of love she had so fervently longed for—in what she referred to as “the seventh chamber of the interior castle,” where the Beloved dwells at the center of the soul. Once this love had been consummated, all the supernatural phenomena fell away, the ecstatic states and levitations ceased, and Teresa became a fully integrated being. Like the bodhisattva in the Buddhist tradition, Teresa found the highest expression of spiritual love in dedicating herself to the service of others.

–Mirabai Starr

Written by MattAndJojang

September 6, 2017 at 6:23 pm

The Woman at the Inn

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Painting by Katsushika Hokusai

The radiance serenely illuminates the whole vast universe…

–Zen Master Zhangzhou Xiucai

A woman ran the inn at a station on the pilgrimage route at Hara, a village under Mount Fuji. No one remembers her name, but she had a great awakening in her own kitchen. Her eyes looked directly at you, and she made up her own mind about things. Both men and women felt at ease in her company. Her turn of thought was practical and she liked to cook, clean, sew, and do. Every year she salted plums. She made vinegar out of persimmons from her old trees. She cut up radishes and cucumbers and put them in pickle jars, adding vinegar, spices, and seaweed that she gathered. She enjoyed the smell of rice cooking and the vigor of steam. In autumn there were pears; in late autumn, chestnuts.

Light seeped through the paper windows, the old brown wood wrapped around her like the fabric of a well-worn kimono, and she was happy. This was the point of being human, she thought—to have her hands inside the world, moving its colors and shapes. Her children grew and her life unfolded, placid, then shocking, then placid again. A son died of tuberculosis, a daughter sang beautifully. When travelers tied on their sandals in the mornings, they departed into the stories they had come from, and sometimes she longed to step into a story herself. Her thoughts went out to Edo, as Tokyo was then called, and even to Holland, home of the foreigners who were allowed only onto an island in the harbor of Nagasaki to trade.

One year there was a cold spell and the life she had known began passing from her like autumn leaves. She didn’t know why—perhaps her older children growing up and leaving home left a void, perhaps there was no reason. In any case, the plum blossoms stepped back behind an invisible barrier so that they didn’t pierce her heart that year. Slights enraged her; she woke fuming in the small hours. When a guest asked for a small service she told her, “Get it yourself.” Her husband worried about soldiers breaking down the doors, and about a killing at another station up the road, but she was inclined to laugh. Sometimes she felt so much that she could hardly breathe. Her husband thought it might be grief over the loss of their son. But it wasn’t grief. If she had known a spell to undo her pains, she wouldn’t have said it.

What she felt was not an accident. She had always known that sooner or later she would have to face such a moment. She knew about the poet Basho, a wanderer who walked the Tokaido Road fifty years before. When she opened one of his books, the first thing she read was a poignant account. Basho had come upon a two-year-old running along the highway in distress, crying and hungry. The child’s family couldn’t feed another mouth and had turned him loose until his life should vanish like the dew. Basho wrote, “I threw him some food from my sleeve as I passed,” and he wrote this poem too—as a gravestone:

You’ve heard a monkey shriek—
for this abandoned child,
what is the autumn wind like?

The poem released something in the innkeeper. She hugged her breast and felt the cry in her own body. She thought that although she didn’t want to go down the road her guests took, a journey was definitely called for. As she went about her work she listened for a voice, a direction.

The inn had one treasure, a piece of calligraphy with the character for long life, given to someone by the local Zen teacher, an eccentric named Hakuin. The writing was beautiful though amazingly rough, and she felt alive when she looked at it. “The person who understands that roughness,” she thought, “might know what is happening to me.” When she went to hear the old man the hall was packed, and he made her laugh. It turned out that he was famous, though not, apparently, pious. She began meditating a bit, sitting and breathing, or concentrating on washing the endless dishes that made up an innkeeper’s life. This meditation didn’t seem to be a new direction but perhaps it was a condition for a new direction. She found a little more space between her thoughts, the trees began to step near again, and she calmed down for a while. But she knew that it was a temporary lull and that her journey, not yet begun, waited inside her.

Hakuin’s talks were a mixed bag. They confused her, she went to sleep, she grew sullen and argumentative. Her skin itched. Hakuin gave advice to great ladies and local lords, to samurai, fishermen, and rice planters. But it didn’t sound like advice. He said things like, “Straightaway, the rhinoceros of doubt fell down dead, and I could hardly bear my joy.” He had a lot of experiences like that. Sometimes he talked as roughly as a soldier and ranted about something that annoyed him—a rival teacher, say. He had a high-flying mode too, and one thing he said went straight to her heart. “They say there’s a pure land where everything is only mind, and that there’s a Buddha of light in your own body. Once that Buddha of light appears, mountains, rivers, earth, grass, trees, and forests suddenly glow with a great light. To see this, you have to look inside your own heart. Then what should you be looking out for? When you are looking for something that is only mind, what kind of special features would it have? When you are looking for the Buddha of infinite light in your own body, how would you recognize it?”

The Buddha of light wasn’t interesting to Hakuin’s funding sources, but he was someone the poor country people prayed to for a good rice harvest, for freedom from bandits, for children and grandchildren, and for lower taxes. For the innkeeper, the words were spoken just to her. She said to herself, “This isn’t so hard.” She had finally discovered a wish that had been secret even from herself. She wasn’t confused any longer, and she didn’t try to think through what Hakuin meant; she just wanted to spend time with the koan.

She told her family, “I feel that happiness is as near as my skin,” and she brought Hakuin’s words to mind when she was awake and even during sleep. “Inside your own heart. Trees shine with a great light.” The words accompanied her everywhere. Her husband asked if she had become a fanatic, but she wasn’t in the mood for jokes. “This isn’t about you,” she muttered, and he knew that she was right. After that, he tried not to get in the way and to help unobtrusively. He hoped that she would find what she was looking for.

Meanwhile, if the trees emanated a light she certainly couldn’t see it. But gradually she began to feel a connection with the things around her—a wooden rice bucket quivered with life, the doorway made a perfect doorway. At birth she had been given a doll, made just for her and, as a child, she believed that her doll danced at night. She could never catch it dancing, but in the morning it was more alive. The rice bucket was like that; whenever she looked, it had just stopped dancing. This connection wasn’t really a light, but wasn’t not a light either.

One day as she was washing a pot, she had a breakthrough. Breaking through into what, into where? She had washed thousands of pots, but her life was in this one. She was just scrubbing, actually, when she completely forgot herself, forgot her chapped hands and her wet clothes and what kind of thoughts she was having. There are dreams so deep that on waking the dreamer can’t at first remember her name or where she is. Or even what she is. It was like that for her: the walls, the bowls, and her own hands were utterly strange and new. The moment had no end, and she didn’t know which of her worlds was the dream.

She saw daylight coming out of the bottom of the pot and reasoned carefully to herself that this couldn’t be true. The sunlight wasn’t just in the pot; when she looked around, everything was bright: the paper screens, the tatami mat floor, the sound of a harness jingling outside, the smell of daylight. That was the particular feature of her change of heart—she saw things glowing with light. It was as if they had a song of their own, and that song was light. She began to laugh and couldn’t hold it back. Her youngest child came in to stare at her enthusiastically, wondering if she had gone mad. But the woman’s laughter set her moving out of the kitchen at a run. She tossed the pot aside and rushed to see Hakuin. She couldn’t wait to tell someone who understood. By the time she got to his place she had settled into a jog. Hakuin happened to be sitting on the steps outside his room, looking at nothing in particular. As soon as she saw him, she began waving her arms. As if words would bridge the gap that was still to be covered, she shouted, “Hey!” and started babbling.

“I’ve met Buddha in my own body—everything is shining with a great light! It’s fabulous!” It occurred to her then, as she ran, that she could test each thing she saw against her happiness. She could test digging the ground on a cold morning and the happiness was there. She could test her sorrow over her lost child, and when she did, she felt the warmth of her love for him, and then his life seemed complete. Brightness fell about her. She tested an angry soldier. Fine. She tested a dark, bent cypress. Each thing she saw had become perfect, and without flaw. She looked at Hakuin’s face, and saw the creases of age along with the amusement that often seemed close to the surface with him. The light was in him too. She danced with joy.

Hakuin had the general attitude, “If you’ve seen one enlightenment, you’ve seen them all,” but he liked what was irrepressible, including this woman. He stopped looking at nothing in particular. She felt him open to her and meet her delight with his. He came straight at her, “Is that so? But what about a pit of shit—does it also shine with a great light?”

She jumped up and down like a child. A test! A test! It was the test she had just given herself. “Of course, of course,” she thought, “even shit gives off light, there is nothing that doesn’t And he pretends that he doesn’t see.” She enjoyed Hakuin’s mind so much that she went up to him and slapped him and said, “You still don’t get it, you old fart.” Her thoughts were not really thoughts; they just appeared without her intending them. They formed themselves a little like this: “I see you, I see you. So, does my slap give off light?”

Hakuin roared with laughter.

***

Do you notice whether you can see the light in the most ordinary of places. Can you find the light in your own kitchen? Can you find it in your own body? Where is the light in your own face? At what point in your life are you certain that there is no light? Is it painful to hold that belief?

Hakuin’s question about the pile of shit is just a version of, “Can you bear to be this happy?” And, “Can you find this beauty in all circumstances? Or, is there instead some part of your life that you think of as a pit of shit, a place where you never expect to meet happiness?”

— John Tarrant

Written by MattAndJojang

August 8, 2017 at 9:22 pm

What The Buddha Taught (In One Sentence)

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Photo: io747/Flickr

Life sucks – BUT you can do something about it.

~ Nicolas Buxton

Written by MattAndJojang

July 3, 2017 at 10:05 am

God The Artist

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Photo: Getty Images

To guide us from afar.
How did you think of a clean brown pool
Where flecks of shadows are?

God, when you thought of a cobweb,
How did you think of dew?
How did you know a spider’s house
Had shingles bright and new?
How did you know the human folk
Would love them like they do?

God, when you patterned a bird song,
Flung on a silver string,
How did you know the ecstasy
That crystal call would bring?
How did you think of a bubbling throat
And a darling speckled wing?

God, when you chiseled a raindrop,
How did you think of a stem,
Bearing a lovely satin leaf
To hold the tiny gem?
How did you know a million drops
Would deck the morning’s hem?

Why did you mate the moonlit night
With the honeysuckle vines?
How did you know Madeira bloom
Distilled ecstatic wines?
How did you weave the velvet disk
Where tangled perfumes are?
God, when you thought of a pine tree,
How did you think of a star?

— Angela Morgan

Written by MattAndJojang

May 29, 2017 at 5:19 pm

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