“The great punchline of Zen is that everything is completely obvious.”
For those of us who are slow, this truth can take decades to sink in. But when it does, everything takes on new meaning – and everything becomes clear. There isn’t anything special about this. We’ve all had those out-of-the-blue moments where seemingly unrelated aspects of our lives suddenly come together in an “Aha!” that clicks the trajectory of our lives into a different direction.
“Oh, I’m moving to a new city.” Click. We hear ourselves deciding that we want to say yes to this relationship. Click. On the way to buy groceries we find ourselves stopping to walk into our first AA meeting. Click. A friend casually says something so profound about parenting that we can’t believe it isn’t engraved on a rock somewhere. Giving our children more choices instead of more demands? Click.
I had one of those clarifying moments last week. My friend Kerry casually mentioned to a group of us that he had anonymously “adopted” a homeless man who lives near him. He just leaves small things nearby – sunglasses, spare change, sometimes even a few dollars. He’s done this for years.
There it was. Click. His words suddenly reminded me of the Hotei-like character in The Oxherding Pictures. If you’ve never seen them, the pictures describe the Zen training path into enlightenment. Basically, they are folk images accompanied by short directive poems. Taken together, they tell the story of a young oxherder whose spiritual practice enables him to first tame and then transform his heart and mind until he is fully awake. An ox appears in several of the early pictures as a metaphor for the mind of a spiritual seeker. At first, we don’t even know how to look for our mind-ox. Then, beginning a sincere spiritual practice, we start to spot it around town. This stage usually happens when we regularly do something like meditate, a simple activity that seems like a no-brainer until we actually try it and discover a mind that bounces all over the frigging place like a two-year-old on a sugar high.
If we stick to the practice, though, we eventually end up with a pretty calm mind. This is where, in the Oxherding Pictures, the ox disappears into oneness, and the famous Zen enso circle image appears. One would think that this is the end of our path. We get to oneness, and its all good. We get to oneness and we’re done.
Instead, the pictures finish with an image of this old vagabond of a grinning potbellied fellow, wearing rags and barefooted, who is walking casually through a village with a huge bag of goodies on his back, handing out candies to the villagers. A surprise ending! We aren’t finished when we finally sink into emptiness or whatever phrase we want to use to describe one mind. Our job is to head back into the marketplace with a bag of goodies at the ready.
Here’s the click that happened. Like most of my friends, I am constantly wrestling with the question of how I can best be helpful in a world where there is so much need. Kerry’s story lead me to Hotei who offers an obvious solution. My job is simply to ask myself, “What is the piece of candy this situation calls for?” Then I can match the need with my capacity to respond with what is in my bag of goodies. So, sometimes it’s simply a gift of listening. Sometimes I need to offer up a different way of perceiving something. Sometimes the gift of a specific thing is in order. My daughter wants to learn how to sew. I have a sewing machine I haven’t touched in a year. She gets to be the new owner.
Your piece of candy might be these things. Or it could take the form of building a home for a homeless family because you just happen to have a contractor’s license, or donating an old bicycle to the young family across the street. Some of us might build little free libraries next to public parks that everyone calls dangerous but we know better. And some of us might make that phone call to the domestic violence hotline because we suddenly understand that we can be our own Hotei. Click.
“Ragged and bare-footed, you approach the market and the streets.
Even covered in dust, why would laughter cease?
The bees and butterflies are happy because flowers have bloomed on a withered tree.”
Zen Master Kusan, The Way of Korean Zen