October 28, 2009 § 6 Comments
Is there a Truth greater than any particular tradition or way? Is it possible that a kind of guide rope was/is given to us that isn’t invented by us, that precedes human beings? I once asked this of John Daido Loori, the founder abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery. Tall and imposing in black robes, a tall rugged American Zen master, he answered in a surprisingly gentle and personal way. He told me about sitting with his mother as she lay dying. He was reciting the Heart Sutra, that extraordinary incantation of the Truth in us that goes beyond all human constructions. But he saw that his mother, who had dementia, was very agitated so he began saying the Lord’s Prayer and she calmed down. As he eased into the Lord’s Prayer in Italian, her native language, he saw her relax completely into sleep, into death. I pictured her letting the deeply remembered rhythms of the prayer carry forward out of this world. Daido Loori told me he realized that as much as he loved the Heart Sutra, the Christian prayer was doing exactly what prayer is really meant to do, which is help us prepare for death….help us go beyond this form. This was told to me in the midst of a Buddhist conference at The World Trade Center and within a couple of months those huge forms were gone…now Loori is gone…for now, the trace those words that day left in me is that there is indeed a rhythm, a pattern, a force of compassion beyond words reaching out to us. Madame de Salzmann saw this Truth behind human forms. I once heard that many decades ago she visited a venerated Zen monastery in Japan. The abbot studied her and announced “She sees.”
In the lastest issue of Parabola, The Future, the Brooklyn born scholar monk Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi describes taking a walk on the campus of the University of Wisconsin one morning many years ago and seeing a Buddhist monk for the first time in his life: “I was struck with wonder and amazement at the sight of this serene, self-composed man, who radiated a lightness, inner contentment, and dignity I had never seen in any Westerner.” Many years and many large and small decisions later, Venerable Bodhi encountered that monk again and he was now a monk himself. “The workings of karma are indeed strange and unfathomable!” he writes.
Usually I go around full of thoughts and cares, trying to control life. But sometimes, when conditions are just right (like when it’s clear that circumstances are beyond my control), I can glimpse for myself that there is a rhythm to life and that we if could only learn to be quiet and attentive enough we could follow it, be with it, contribute our small lives to a larger Truth.
October 18, 2009 § 3 Comments
“Give yourself permission to be yourself, and don’t be frightened by the unknown,” wrote John Daido Loori in The Zen of Creativity. The photographer, Zen master, and founder of Zen Mountain Monastery, who died on October 9, wrote in that book that he first had a glimpse of the spontaneity and naturalness that can shine out of the supposedly ordinary world during a workshop with the great photographer Minor White. Zen training and the founding of the monastery followed but for Loori spiritual practice and and creative expression always went together. The real aim of artistic expression is pointing the way to truth, Loori once told me during an interview years ago. True originality can arise only from having a real contact with our origins, with the ground of our being–and this is also the aim of Zen practice. Drawing closer to the source, helping it flow outward through us, isn’t this the aim of all authentic spiritual ways and all authentic creative expressions? This double impulse has been present in human beings since Lascaux (which I wrote about a couple of blogs ago). Jeanne de Salzmann (whose upcoming book I’ve also been writing about) also taught about the need to cultivate an awareness of our origins, our source, before our energy flows outward into all the branching tributaries of thought and habit. What a difficult and remote attainment that seems to me! It seems about as likely to happen to me in the near future as climbing Everest. It feels like it would only a superhuman (or a possibly pre-Atlantian cave artist from Lascaux) could live and express themselves from that awareness of Wholeness. Yet, both Loori and de Salzmann taught that the way up the mountain is to see completely what is here and now, the inattention, the dispersion.
One day years ago, I sat at a picnic table in the sun at Zen Mountain Monastery in the Catskill Mountains, interviewing Loori Roshi (for PW) about Zen and creativity and about what it might mean be our true selves in the midst of life: “The whole point of Buddhist practice has to do with being the world, ” he said. “You work your way up the mountain until you reach a peak where the view is boundless and limitless. But it doesn’t end there in Zen. You keep going, and going straight ahead when you’re on the peak of a mountain can only mean one thing, going back downhill back into the world. The aim of Zen is to take everything that has been realized and actualize in everything we do.”
I asked him if this actualization that he spoke of wasn’t close to a definition of art because what I took from his book was that the deeper the awareness, the closer to the source, the more true and powerful a creative expression will be–no matter what the form of expression, movement or words.
He said yes, but that “Zen arts are really about teaching people to wake up. “ Still, he allowed that in the last stages of the book, when he found himself on deadline and “just breaking out and writing and what came out was very Buddhist….” And his non Buddhist editor and publisher and others especially liked those chapters which struck him as very Buddhist. So maybe it was the breaking out, the naturalness and spontaneity shining out. Maybe John Daido Loori was being himself without fearing the unknown in those late chapters. What a great way to spend a life.
In the front of the truth of impermanence, it is clear that paying attention to life really matters. It also strikes me that the best possible way of living might have to do with breathing in and breathing out, drawing inward to the source, then exhaling, expressing that source through the channel of our one, brief and precious life.
October 8, 2009 § 10 Comments
A few months before his death, G.I. Gurdjieff drove with a group of students from Paris to a recently opened series of interconnected caves in Lascaux in southwestern France. His student J.G. Bennett told him about extraordinary Paleolithic paintings that had been discovered by accident in 1940, by four teenagers and a dog. In spite of being in much pain, Gurdjieff was determined to see them. As the great teacher stood in looking up at the great stag with many antlers and the other extraordinary figures of bisons, horses, cows, and at least one Sphinx or unicorn-like imaginary figure–figures layered on top of one another as if by succeeding generations– he is reported by Bennett to have looked as if he completely belonged there.
Curious, that impression of belonging–not just of being present and having presence which Gurdjieff reportedly always had everywhere, but belonging? Gurdjieff reportedly said that the depiction of an imaginary looking creature was the emblem of a brotherhood that appeared seven or eight thousand years ago, and that the stag with many antlers was a way of depicting attainments in consciousness and being. Gurdjieff strongly disagreed with Bennett’s claim that the art was possibly 20,000 to 18,000 years old (a Metropolitan Museum essay dates them at possibly 15,000 B.C.E.). Gurdjieff believed the paintings were made by humans who had inherited an ancient knowledge about our inner human possibilities that had existed long before their own “prehistoric” time–that the artists were the survivors or inheritors of an advanced civilization that had been lost. That impression that Gurdjieff seemed to belong in the caves–it was a profound recognition. He had dedicated his life to the search for the aim and significance of life on earth and human life in particular–beyond mere survival. After much search, he believed he picked up the thread of ancient knowledge that he formulated and reformulated for contemporary beings. In the stone chambers of Lascaux, he found evidence of the lineage of that knowledge, evidence that there were fellow humans who had tried to live as he had tried to live, who bore witness to the vibrancy and sacredness in life.
I have always taken heart from our ancestors capacity to survive. Years ago, as I’ve written in this blog, I sent a sample of my matrilineal DNA to the National Geographic “Genographic Project.” I don’t think I’ll ever get over the amazement that a small scrape of cells from inside my cheek could produce a genetic map that stretched around the world and ultimately back to a single woman who lived about 150,000 years ago, our common genetic mother, in East Africa. At moments when I have had to face fear and difficulty, when I had to go “off road” into uncharted territory, I would think of my mother and my Danish grandmother and women stretching back in time who have had to brave loss and danger, who have had to flee earthquakes and deluges and head off into the unknown. Survival itself often seems miraculous to me. I have often taken comfort in the thought that being a good human being has always meant the same thing in all times and places, and that creativity and spirituality have been in evidence since the caves at Lascaux (that last bit I picked up that thought from a book by Karen Armstrong).
After encountering the writing of Madame de Salzmann, which fulfills and advances Gurdjieff’s own work, it dawns on me as if for the first time that there has always been more to life than survival–at least for some of the “family.” I was never one of those who got a charge out of thinking about secret brotherhoods or lost Atlantis or any of that. As I write this, however, I feel a quiet…not certainty but a definite sense of possibility. Having read the excerpts from Madame de Salzmann’s upcoming book, it strikes me that it just might really be the case that something extraordinary is possible for humans, that a “way” has always existed and that it is waiting for us.