This Precious Human Birth


Max and I walk along a eucalyptus lined street at dusk. He-sniffing something I’m unable to smell, me- blinded by the late afternoon light. All of a sudden a cool breeze brushes my cheek. That soft kiss stops me in my tracks as Max stops to smell the dead leaves underneath some oak brush. There is a whisper of impending winter, a damp billowing fog rolling over the Sonoma mountains, and, most striking, an awareness of being alive-right now.

I usually walk through my life taking the breeze, the smell of diesel fuel, the sound of kids on a playground, for granted. I’m alive, so what? But I’m alive now, this fleeting moment. The Tibetan Buddhist texts speak about the miracle of taking birth in a human body and what a rare blessing it is if we land where authentic teachings are available. The Buddha urged us to make good use of the short span of time we have been gifted with.

There’s a koan my meditation group is sitting with now. It goes:

There was a woman who kept the pilgrim’s inn at Hara under Mt Fuji. Her name is unknown, and it is not known when she was born or died. 

 She is completely unknown, just like most of us. There are famous bodhisattvas and unknown bodhisattvas. Throughout history there have been countless unnamed awakened ones walking amongst us. This little detail of the woman from Hara’s life begs the question, how many other unknown awakened ones are in our midst? Our neighbors? Relatives? The bagger at the grocery store?

 She went to hear a talk by Hakuin, who said, “The Pure Land, where everything is only mind, the Buddha of Infinite Light, is in your own body, Once Amida appears- mountains, rivers, and earth, plants, trees and forests, all glow with a great light. If you want to see this, look into your own heart. Since the Pure Land is only mind, what kind of special features would it have? Since the Buddha of Infinite Light is your own body, how would you recognize it?”

 Hakuin was talking to an assembly of Pure Mind practitioners, imploring them to find awakening here and now, within themselves rather than believing that awakening will be ours in some far, distant afterlife. Where is here? What is now? You are here reading these words, drinking your tea, shifting to your left side, feeling an ache in your toe. This is where the Pure Land exists.

 When she heard this, the woman said to herself, “This isn’t so hard.”

 Ah, the practicality of a simple woman! She had a real jump on those young monks who were sweating over texts, striving to understand life through study and hard work. No arcane holy books to understand, no Torah or biblical commentary, no need for explanation from someone more “advanced” than she. We humans tend to make things more difficult than they actually are. We give up our authority to others who are often happy to be “the experts” thereby loosing the opportunity for intimacy within our lives.

 Returning home, she meditated day and night, asking these questions while she was awake and during sleep. One day, as she was washing a pot, she had a sudden breakthrough. She tossed the pot aside and rushed to see Hakuin. She said, “I’ve run across Amida in my own body and everything on earth is shining with a great light. It’s wonderful!” She danced for joy.

 The autumn breeze is kissing her cheek. What a joy! She is alive!!

“Is that so?” Hakuin asked, “But what about a pile of shit-does it shine with a great light too?”

 Wonderful, blessed teacher! The old scoundrel doesn’t let her off the hook so easily. Is her joy only for the good times? It’s easy to feel gratitude when thanksgiving arrives and the family sits around a full table. How about feeling gratitude when there is only one apple in the cupboard? When there are bills to be paid and the car is breaking down?

 The woman ran up and slapped him, saying, “”You still don’t get it, you old fart!” Hakuin roared with laughter.

 Slapping an honored teacher? How truly democratic! What a fresh response! Hakuin has found another friend on the path. They walk along together.

 Max and I continue to walk together, him drunk with sniffing, me drunk with the blazing late summer sun in my eyes and the breath of fall on my face.



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