A dear friend opened up her home for a one-day meditation retreat. We meditated in intervals of 25 minutes of sitting then 10 minutes of walking. In between, each one of us offered a small dharma share; a reading or insight. We were surrounded by roses and fountains, lavender and cool, shady lawns. It was a perfect Mediterranean Sonoma day. The sun was fully present and the garden was moist. During the rest period I stood by the window and looked out at gentle breezes blowing through the birch trees. The leaves sparkled and danced in front of a blue sky.
During one of the afternoon dharma shares my friend spoke the words that have been sitting like lead in my belly and haunting my sleep. All the violence in the world today is horrifying. Global warming and the audacity of its denial, a presidential candidate who could do great harm to our experiment in diversity and world unification, guns designed to kill as many people as possible in the hands of madmen, thousands fleeing their homes seeking safety. Munich, Nice, Texas, Syria, Istanbul.
These dark, terrifying events sit alongside our peaceful day of silence. How do we hold the beauty and the horror of life in our one fragile container? This is our challenge as people aspiring to be whole and awake. To use our meditation practice as an escape tunnel is not going to bring us to the lasting bliss and peace we desire. Our bliss will always be vulnerable to events. Even if we escape to a perfect, far away island the sea levels will rise. The Buddha did not teach meditation in order for us to escape the world but rather to bring our bliss deep into the fray, to bring our stillness into the chaos.
There is a well known series of poems and pictures in Zen called the oxen herding pictures. These stages of awakening are written sequentially but in actuality they are experienced in deeper and deeper layers throughout our spiritual experience. The series starts with that dark night we all know:
Desolate through the forests and fearful in the jungle,
He is seeking an Ox, which he does not find.
It then walks us through the different stages of awakening; seeing the footprints left behind by awakening, seeing the first glimpse of awakening, training the mind and enjoying the glow of awakening.
Wherever he may go he creates a fresh breeze,
While in his heart tranquility prevails,
The Ox requires not a blade of grass.
But this state of bliss, this dwelling in emptiness is only the 6th stage. The unfoldment goes on to dwelling in this bliss, entering into the emptiness where no self, no ego, remains and returning to the origin, to our true self. Now, fully embodying the true self, the final stage brings us back into the world:
Barechested, barefooted, he comes into the market place.
Muddied and dust covered, how broadly he grins!
Without recourse to mystic powers,
Withered trees he swiftly brings to bloom.
It is not enough to sit and enjoy the emptiness, the beautiful day, our lovely family and comfortable home. We are never separate from the refugees fleeing Syria or the families grieving in Nice. Yet if we go into the fray without our bliss, our emptiness, our stillness, we are vulnerable to being dragged down into the fray. When that happens we become part of the fear and anger and can no longer offer solace. If we remain detached in the emptiness we are prone to selfishness and delusion. Zen invites us to walk the tightrope between the horror and the bliss and to act compassionately in the world from that place of balance. We fall off to one side then the other oscillating between fear and joy. Then we right ourselves with our practice and with our friends on the path over and over again.