Saturday, October 28, 2023

The Seven Stone Path

After teaching world philosophy, religion, and mythology for 33 years, I thought it
was time to write a book. Lots of people do it, I thought to myself, how hard could it be?

            Fourteen years and a whole lot of blood, sweat, and tears later, it’s done. The Seven Stone Path: An Everyday Journey to Wisdom (Balboa Press, 2023) is available now wherever fine books are sold.

            The book is built around a simple image—seven stepping-stones that form a path to wisdom. The seven stones are acceptance, surrender, engagement, allowance, enjoyment, love, and integration.

            But first we have to explore the word wisdom. What is it? Why do we need it? How do we get it? When we look at ancient sources we come away with the realization that wisdom is not a set of specific doctrines or logical explanations. In fact, wisdom might be content-free. Wisdom is a way of being in the world rooted in honest humility and the admission of ignorance. Only when we say “I don’t know” can real wisdom emerge.

            The wisdom of acceptance, whether through the lens of Buddhism or Stoicism, counsels us to say yes to our current conditions. By practicing acceptance, we are released from the suffering that results from clinging to our opinions, resentments, and judgments. But acceptance does not mean rolling over and playing dead. Quite the contrary. As we’ll see, meaningful action can only arise from accepting things the way they are.

            The wisdom of surrender means moving even deeper in the realization that we are not in charge. By aligning our mind, body, and soul with the wider currents moving through and around us—Dao, Brahman, God, or Spirit—we tap into an organizing energy far more real than our fear-addled ego.

            The wisdom of engagement, rooted deep in acceptance and surrender, moves us into the field of action where, by the melding of our courage and intention, we rise into our rightful place in the necessary work of creating beauty, facilitating justice, and serving others.

            The wisdom of allowance draws us into an even deeper understanding of right action. From Daoist sources and the voices of the world’s mystics we learn how to wield our talents in deeply fluid alignment with the energies already unfolding around us.

            The wisdom of enjoyment reminds us that alongside life’s necessary suffering, it is also our birthright to experience and embody joy. There is beauty and delight everywhere we turn, and missing that robs us of life’s greatest truths and treasures.

            The wisdom of love take us all the way down into the primal oneness of all matter, energy, and consciousness. In the final analysis, our lives are not our own. The universe, or God, has taken form as us, and the longing we feel for truth, beauty, God, and one another is God’s longing for God.

            And finally, the wisdom of integration lifts us across all paradox into Rumi’s field “out past all ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing,” where “the world is too full to talk about.” Beyond all contradictions, where words fail us, there lies a final unity, and when we have our being there, wisdom wells up through the cracks of our everyday lives like holy water.

            The Seven Stone Path is made by walking. No one can walk it for us. But we can walk it together.


Find The Seven Stone Path: An Everyday Journey to Wisdom on Amazon or wherever you like to buy books. 

Saturday, October 21, 2023

The Gateless Gate

In all areas of human endeavor we rely on the expertise of others—the dentist, the attorney, the chef. Why would the fulfillment of our spiritual needs be any different? It is only natural that in times of need we turn to spiritual guides for help.

            But therein lies the danger—the illusion that spiritual enlightenment is something we can attain second hand; the mistaken presumption that the footsteps of others can do the walking for us. The Chinese and Japanese tradition of Zen Buddhism is particularly focused on this common error.

One day, 13th century Zen Master Ekai gathered his monks for a talk. Always eager for knowledge, the young aspirants leaned into the words of their venerable teacher, sure that they would be of enormous value. Ekai sensed the time was ripe for an unexpected lesson.

“The great path has no gates,” he said, “thousands of roads enter it. When one passes through this gateless gate he walks freely between heaven and earth.”

It isn’t difficult to image the monk’s sideways glances, checking to see if anyone understood a word of what the master just said. What the heck is a gateless gate?

            “Zen has no gates,” Ekai continued. “The purpose of Buddha’s words is to enlighten others. Therefore, Zen should be gateless. Now, how does one pass through the gateless gate? Even such words are like raising waves in a windless sea or performing an operation upon a healthy body. If one clings to what others have said and tries to understand Zen by explanation, he is like a dunce who thinks he can beat the moon with a pole or scratch an itching foot from the outside of a shoe.”

            Then Ekai launched into a series of koans—unanswerable riddles designed to confound and ultimately disengage the mind, clearing the way for authentic satori or enlightenment. Later Ekai wrote the following account of the event:

            “In the year 1228 I was lecturing monks in the Ryusho Temple in Eastern China, and at their request I retold old koans, endeavoring to inspire their Zen spirit. I meant to use the koans as a man who picks up a piece of brick to knock at a gate, and after the gate is opened the brick is useless and is thrown away. My notes, however, were collected unexpectedly, and there were forty-eight koans, together with my comment in prose and verse concerning each. I have called the book The Gateless Gate, wishing students to read it as a guide.”

            To this day, Ekai’s The Gateless Gate is regarded as a masterpiece of Zen wisdom—even if it is one of the most exasperating philosophical works ever recorded. At the playful heart of the project is the notion that enlightenment cannot be conceptualized, codified, or conveyed second-hand by anyone—no matter how clever or erudite. All words and teachings can do is shake us awake to an unmediated awareness of our own essential nature. The moment you try to describe or explain it, any nascent awareness vanishes. The more fervent the grasping, the lower the yield. The fact that someone wrote the koans down was frustrating to Ekai, because writing wisdom down often dooms it to domesticity, misunderstanding, and misuse. But we’re grateful to that nameless monk anyway because now, 900 years later, we too can be challenged by these odd and edifying riddles.

All quotes from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings compiled by Paul Reps (Charles E. Tuttle: Rutland, Vermont, 1958) 113-114.

[This piece first appeared in my column called A to Zen in the November/December 2023 edition of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]