Tuesday, April 12, 2022

No Water, No Moon

 The arid prose of Zen aphorisms sometimes leave you thirsty. Yet something
shines through—something nameless, beyond all categories, and, in the best possible sense of the word, empty. Empty as in full of potential. Empty as in big enough to hold the whole world.

In his classic collection Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, (C.E. Tuttle Company, 1957) Paul Reps gathered together more than 160 such aphorisms, as elusive, fluid, and shimmering as trout in a stream. And none more evocative than the story of a woman named Chiyono.

“When the nun Chiyono studied Zen under Bukko of Engaku she was unable to attain the fruits of meditation for a long time. At last one moonlit night she was carrying water in an old pail bound with bamboo. The bamboo broke and the bottom fell out of the pail, and at that moment Chiyono was set free! In commemoration, she wrote a poem:

In this way and that I tried to save the old pail. Since the bamboo strip was weakening, and about to break, until at last the bottom fell out. No more water in the pail! No more moon in the water!

We meet Chiyono in a recognizable moment—the frustration many of us feel when after years of spiritual practice we find ourselves right back at the beginning, or nowhere at all – just as unhappy and scattered as we ever were. Was it all for nothing?

And then in the course of her ordinary work, carrying a pail of water from the well, something snapped—in this case, the bamboo strap holding the wooden slats of her pail together. As poetic images go, you can’t do better than this. Notice how we, like Chiyono, work so hard to keep it together, thinking we can manage the world, thinking we actually possess its treasures in our conceptual containers – our health, our money, our loved ones. But in a snap the lie of ownership is laid bare.

The true moment of satori (enlightenment) is her response to the pail-fail. Most of us would curse and complain, but years of practice prepared her for this shift. Instead of being angry, she’s relieved, even jubilant—“No more water in the pail! No more moon in the water!”

We do not own the air in our lungs, the water in our pails, or the love in our hearts—yet we need them to live. The very engines of our existence come from outside us, and are beyond control. We experience them, but we do not own them. The water in our pail retains its unity with the One Water—it only seems separate. And what a laughable confusion—to think our pail holds the moon because we see its reflection there. That is why part of us—a deep and unconscious part—recognizes Chiyono’s relief when the bottom falls out. The charade was exhausting. It turns out attachment was the root of our suffering.

What a sense of freedom it would be to finally let go and realize that not only is there nothing to grasp, there isn’t anyone to do the grasping. All forms are empty, in the best possible sense of the word—fluid, ephemeral, shimmering. We are fleeting moments in an interconnected field of energy, consciousness, and matter without border or boundary. Sure, we still need to bring water into the kitchen to cook our rice, but we do so now with a sense of engagement, not ownership or control. 

[This piece was first published in my column "A to Zen" in the May/June 2022 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

Friday, February 18, 2022

The Perennial Philosophy

What if beneath the bewildering variety of the world’s religions there lay a small set of
common, universal ideas? What if behind the cacophony of competing truth-claims their lay a unifying silence in which all tensions resolve in mellifluous harmony?

The search for a perennial philosophy is an ancient search. The Rig Veda of ancient India proclaims that “The truth is one – the sages call it by many names.” In the Hellenistic world ancient Greeks and Romans were agog at the bewildering array of spiritual and philosophical systems their conquests revealed to them. Surely, they pondered, these must be a foreground of a deeper universality.

In the European Renaissance of the 15th century the dream of a unified theory of wisdom found new currency in Marsilio Ficino’s Platonic Academy in Florence, and in the exalted humanism of Pico della Mirandola’s bestselling Oration on the Dignity of Man. The longing for wisdom is universal, Mirandola wrote, “because it can be retraced in every tradition.”

           Twentieth-century British author Aldous Huxley brought the subject into the mainstream with his 1945 book The Perennial Philosophy which the New York Times in its glowing review called, “the most needed book in the world.” Borrowing the phrase Philosophia Perennis from 17th-century philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, Huxley deftly curated passages from Eastern and Western theologies and wove them together with his own connective commentary. 

           Here are the five core ideas Huxley expressed throughout his writing career:

That there is a Godhead or Ground, which is the unmanifested principle of all manifestation. Here Huxley articulates the Supreme Being archetype, the universal notion of an ultimate reality or “Ground,” behind all of the names of God – Brahman, Dao, Father, Jesus, Allah, Shakti, Amitabha Buddha, and so on. Whatever it is, it lies beyond the multifarious forms that emanate from it.

The Ground is transcendent and immanent. With this Huxley affirms a key paradox – that ultimate reality is at once beyond and within us. Whether it’s the panentheism of Vedanta, the universal incarnation (and salvation) of progressive Christianity, the Buddhist concept of Dharmakaya, or the Sefirot of Kabbalah, this idea finds expression in theologies everywhere.

That it is possible for human beings to love, know, and become identified with the Ground. Here Huxley illuminates the upward spiral taught in all wisdom traditions – a journey from lower consciousness to enlightenment and oneness.

That to achieve this unitive knowledge, to realize this supreme identity, is the final end and purpose of human existence. Our hunger for wisdom is not a personal choice but an innate imperative. Like salmon swimming upriver to spawn at the place of their birth, we long to return to the source from which we and all things come and not only understand it, but become it.

That there is a Law or Dharma, which must be obeyed, a Dao or Way, which must be followed, if humanity is to achieve its ultimate purpose. Ancient sages left behind maps, books, and practices which, if followed, would facilitate our awakening. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. The perennial philosophy is in all the books we already own.

If Huxley’s right, and I think he is, then all religions are true – as metaphors or maps. At their best, any of them will work. Or as 18th century Hindu saint Ramakrishna put it, “Many paths to the summit.” But a map is only as good as the traveler. It is we who must do the walking.

[This piece was originally published in my A to Zen column in the March/April issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here by permission.]