Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Possessing the Moon

photo from Tom Pinkall
Sometimes we hear that Zen is about letting go, of the self and all thoughts, and finding a way to live a life that is completely empty.  This has always seemed like a partial and problematic desire to me.  My own entry into Zen practice was based on a different and equally problematic desire --  to rediscover the joy of endless possibilities, a joy I had glimpsed over and over in my life, but that I hadn't found a way to make permanent.  The big joke, after years of practice, was the discovery that nothing is permanent, even cultivating a capacity to live with joy in every moment.

Some teachers favor emptiness, and some favor form.  If I favor anything, it would probably be to find form in non-form, and non-form in form -- to be awake to the comings and goings of joy and sorrow, awake to all things.   I started out with a teacher who favored emptiness beyond everything.  He lived, as far as I could tell, in a world of complete relativity, and I heard that he died with the words, "no eye, no ear" on his lips.  A friend who also studied with him told me that, when she heard that news, she wondered about what was missing in his final words --  the other side of dying -- the moans of pain, the tears of separation.  Indeed.

Of course, with words, we can only express one side.  So perhaps this dying teacher had found some rest in emptiness in that moment.  And maybe the moment before and the moment after were full of other expressions that reflected a life fully lived.  I can, even now, vividly imagine his voice, criticizing me for not understanding his full meaning.  This was a familiar experience for me when I studied with him, especially when I started to question his ethics which were based on his view of extreme relativity. His behaviors, grounded in his reliance on the emptiness of the precepts, ultimately caused me to leave him.

Wuzu Fayan, a Chinese master from the 11th century, was quite critical of Zen teachers who favored emptiness exclusively.  His words, commenting on another teacher's apparent favoring of emptiness, inspire me and expand my view.  Wuzu says: "Hold the water in your hands and possess the moon. Brush against the flowers and the fragrance fills your clothes."

We are touched by all we encounter -- nothing is lacking, in anyone and any thing.   I bow to my old teacher with gratitude and respect, and a sense that he knew all about possessing the moon.  His teachings on emptiness gave me a good start, and led to a life based on receiving all the wonders of this amazing world of form and no-form, life and death, no eyes, no ears, and the capacity we all have to hold the moon in our hands and to be filled with the delicious smells, sights and sounds of this blooming world.

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