What do I have to show after 38 years of Zen meditation? Certainly not the flash of enlightenment I was led to expect in my younger years. Indeed, the Zen koan (those pithy unsolvable riddles that the Zen student must solve) that I most relate to is the one that goes something like this: “You have a hot iron ball in your throat. You can neither swallow it nor spit it out. What do you do?” Well, that’s a good part of my life, a few unsolvable problems that I can’t ignore nor solve. And if I thought I was signing up for instant revelation and a constant state of bliss back in 1973 when I sat my first Zen sesshin, all I needed to do was read the First Noble Truth in the Buddhism 101 manual—“Life is suffering.” No way to get around that hot iron ball.
But meditation practice helps me grow large enough to hold it without getting burnt. It really is quite remarkable that a combination of posture, breath and a certain kind of attention can start to soften the prison walls of our small worried self—and occasionally dissolve them altogether, ushering us into that promised land of being one with all things. The enlightenment we young drug-induced hippies expected, some permanent sense of oneness, never quite came to us, but for those who took it seriously as a practice, a commitment to daily renewal has paid some dividends.
So on a glorious Spring day at Nezu Shrine, I can begin to feel the generosity of space and largeness of time that the ancient Japanese aesthetic cultivates. Amidst a tranquil morning silence, the clink of a coin and the clapping of two hands (to send one’s prayer to the Spirit World) takes on a significance lost in the rush and noise of modern life.
This is one of the by-products of meditation practice. Once we reduce the sensory input and settle down to some ground of being, each thing that than appears takes on a shine and wonder beyond the ordinary. The clack of a woodblock. The crunch of a rice cracker and explosion of taste on the tongue. The smell of early morning air, the caress of a small breeze, the feel of bowls cradled in the hand. My teacher might scold me for paying too much attention to mere sense impressions, but this is not a Buddhist lecture. I’m merely recording my experiences and having lived too busily for my own good lately, it’s a blessing to soak in the quiet of the temple and just listen, like that wise old owl in yesterday’s poem. Two tiny dogs chase a pigeon. The crows keep up their raucous chatter. The heels of the passing women’s shoes click on the stone. It is enough.