"There are four kinds of wisdom ... giving, kind speech, beneficial deeds, and cooperation."

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Tea and sparrows

I went after Buddhism partly because of passages in Thoreau and Emerson, first read in 1963, I think; and they were the same passages that led me to seek out alone time:

I have a great deal of company in my house; especially in the morning, when nobody calls. Let me suggest a few comparisons, that some one may convey an idea of my situation. I am no more lonely than the loon in the pond that laughs so loud, or than Walden Pond itself. What company has that lonely lake, I pray? .... I am no more lonely than a single mullein or dandelion in a pasture, or a bean leaf, or sorrel, or a horse-fly, or a bumble-bee. I am no more lonely than the Mill Brook, or a weathercock, or the northstar, or the south wind, or an April shower, or a January thaw, or the first spider in a new house. -- Thoreau, Walden, "Solitude"

In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity ... which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me.... -- Emerson, Nature

When alone, I have often felt as Thoreau or Emerson did -- that what was to be noticed was that the dandelion or mullein is not separate but a localized manifestation of the undifferentiated; the inspection of one's surroundings yields not things but a unitary happening.

I had a sense the daffodils and fir cones in my surroundings were not burdened by the prescriptive religion I was being taught. Their amorality is not all "make love not war:" watching a preying mantis at work can give one a lot to reflect on. Yet the basic Transcendentalist exercise of "I am this and this is me" coincided with the one enduring maxim I derived from what I was being taught in churches: "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." I could generalize from my desire not to be punched, bitten, or stung. There's a disconnect here between the mantis' ethics and my own, but I'm working to solve that.

I, a presumably hardened skeptic, have admittedly skipped ahead to the golden rule from the moment of unity with all beings, taking the notion that they are somehow connected on ... faith. It comes from sitting still and studying that unity. Immersed in such study, I'm less likely to lash out, and the inner state that goes with not lashing out just feels right.

Buddhism struck me as a sound approach to not lashing out. It had both the unitary vision and simple, powerful ethics which were asserted to arise from that vision. I was, sometimes, put off by the verbosity, though, and approached the literature with some reductionism.

I came to feel that the Four Noble Truths were but a wordy way to say "do no harm;" the Eightfold Path's recommendations were but a wordy way to say "do no harm;" the Six Paramitas were but a wordy way to say "do no harm;" and all the sutras, etc. were but an especially wordy way to say "do no harm."

I felt I could personally do least harm by setting myself quietly aside from the stream of humanity; and found ways to do that; living alone for years in Atlanta, or in a housetruck hidden in the Oregon woods whenever I could take a break from tree planting; or in a quad near my campus job when I, a householder, ran away from home and family to have my mid-life crisis -- but that last interlude was indeed harmful.

We do some harm when we go for a walk. Multitudes of invisible (to us) lives are crushed underfoot as we go, whether alone or with others. I might not be a preying mantis but in my clumsiness the end is much the same. So really the stricture might better be worded: do less harm. As if that were really possible; yet I think most of us feel this is a reasonable thing to at least try to do.

To go to a zendo and sit is to sit with others, but it is also emphatically to sit alone, "eyes level and nose vertical," as Dogen says, settling deeper and deeper into the solitude that gives each of us the chance to notice we are not separate from one another -- two or twelve or fifty breaths being inhaled, exhaled together in a space set aside for the purpose.

The instructions for this activity vary, but Dogen, cribbing his from a document now over a thousand years old, summarizes it so:

At the site of your regular sitting, spread out thick matting and place a cushion above it. Sit either in the full-lotus or half-lotus position. In the full-lotus position, you first place your right foot on your left thigh and your left foot on your right thigh. In the half-lotus, you simply press your left foot against your right thigh. You should have your robes and belt loosely bound and arranged in order. Then place your right hand on your left leg and your left palm (facing upwards) on your right palm, thumb-tips touching. Thus sit upright in correct bodily posture, neither inclining to the left nor to the right, neither leaning forward nor backward. Be sure your ears are on a plane with your shoulders and your nose in line with your navel. Place your tongue against the front roof of your mouth, with teeth and lips both shut. Your eyes should always remain open, and you should breathe gently through your nose. -- Fukanzazengi

Those of us with arthritis, perhaps, or Tourette's or paraplegia, will immediately see the problem here. Group zazen, held to this or even a somewhat relaxed version of this standard, is profoundly ableist.

I was never able to do all of it, and am rapidly approaching the point where I can do almost none of it. But in a hut I can do it in whatever way darn well works for me, which at present is to lean back in a zero gravity chair and sip "yard" tea as I watch the sparrows, returned from wherever, nervously flitting through blackberries in seach of twigs for their nests. The hut is its own full lotus.

Or a bedroom, or dining room, or seat on a train or bus. Or anywhere at all. Do not think that those currently hiding from bombs, or even those dropping those bombs do not, even then and there, have such moments. 

This is common to all. That I think such moments should increase while bombings should cease may be my foolish attachment to illusory non-harm, but I'm, for whatever reason, all-in. 

Let's hear it for tea and sparrows.


No comments:

Post a Comment

Stony Run Farm: Life on One Acre