zen in a pile of manure


“…after my first feeling of revulsion had passed, I spent three of the most entertaining and instructive weeks of my life studying the fascinating molds which appeared one by one on the slowly disintegrating mass of horse dung. Microscopic molds are both very beautiful and absorbingly interesting. The rapid growth of their spore, the way they live on each other, the manner in which the different forms come and go, is so amazing and varied that I believe a man could spend his life and not exhaust the forms or problems contained in one plate of manure.”

David Fairchild-Nobel prize winning American botanist

I remember sitting under our lemon tree in the backyard on a tiny patch of soil shaded by the tree’s umbrella. Being the suburbs, there wasn’t much in the way of wild life. But the ground beneath the lemon tree was alive with rolly polly bugs and soft yellow moths, busy ants and bees and the sweet smell of lemon blossoms. The expression of life under the tree was infinite! When there was confusion and fighting in my home I would climb under that lemon tree and become one with a more harmonious ecosystem.

Much of my spiritual practice has been some version of climbing under that lemon tree. Like so many others, I came to the practice in an attempt to self medicate. I think that’s a common entry point for many people, especially in this culture. Bookstores are full of self- help books advising us to change this or that about ourselves or our lives in order to become happy. It’s natural to want to be happy and natural to feel the itch to eliminate anything we perceive to be in the way of our happiness. It just seems to be the way of things.

But what if happiness is not dependent on conditions? That sounds crazy! Happy while going through a divorce? Happy while deathly ill? Happy while our child has run away from home? Happy while facing economic hardship? Come on now, really? This notion that we can enter sanity, joy and wholeness even while wading through a pile of manure flies in the face of common sense. Isn’t pursuing happiness the way to find happiness? Zen takes this common sense idea of pursuing happiness and turns it on its head. Hakuin wrote:

The aim for the moment is for there to be a place to enter-just exclude non-entry, that’s enough; there’s nothing else.”

 From the Zen perspective we awaken into reality, which exists right now in all things, all places and under all circumstances. This notion is radical for any age. Most healing and religious systems advocate being some way other than how we are in order to awaken; more loving, more generous, more forgiving. Some say that in order for our awakening to ripen we need to follow a set of rules, some say we need to have our personal lives in order or a clear mind or no desires. But awakening isn’t found by changing ourselves or our environment. Awakening finds us in its own mysterious way- and it can only find us right where we are. Hakuin challenges us to enter our awakening, to find our happiness, right where we are.

Taking life just as it requires staying open to life’s ever present manure. This goes against our understandable human tendency to cling to the pleasant and be repulsed by the distasteful. Added to that, we humans have a natural tendency to divide things up into piles: good and bad, wholesome and unwholesome. This can be a useful tool when managing our everyday lives. But how easy it is to take this concept of apparent duality and think that to enter the way we need to get rid of the unwholesome states and cultivate the wholesome ones. This impossible task actually ends up creating more aversion-aversion to unwholesome states! We become unhappy with ourselves due to our inability to root out all the weeds, no matter how hard we try. Zen opens up the playing field by telling us we can enter awakening under all conditions. At first glance this may look a lot like moral relativism, and some do use the principle of non-duality to justify bad behavior. But to a mature practitioner non-duality goes to the very marrow of ethics. Our non-duel original nature is inherently kind. Ethical behavior flows forth naturally from that original kindness. We don’t have to remember to be kind, to not kill, to not abuse others. It’s just who we are once the wrapping is removed.

We all live amid a joyous, complex, pile of manure. It is a world in which Donald Trump grows rich and powerful as teachers scratch by, a world where military assault rifles are in the hands of unstable citizens and neighbor turns against neighbor because of differences in color, sexual preference or religion. It’s also a world where first responders run into burning buildings to save strangers, where people care enough to spend their lives lifting up the homeless and feeding the hungry, where mothers nurse their babies. I don’t know why this world is filled with so much beauty and insanity. But this is what we’re given. Haikuin invites us to not only tolerate the uncertainty and manure that touches every life but to embrace it as yet another aspect of who we are. To explore the manure and the flowers with curiosity.




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