For Lion’s Roar’s 40th anniversary, we’re looking ahead at Buddhism’s next 40 years. In our March 2019 issue, John Tarrant shares what he feels is the most helpful message Buddhism can offer in coming decades.
For twenty years I struggled fiercely—
How many times have I gone down to the Blue Dragon’s cave for you?
In forty years will we be on a spaceship under Elon Musk’s conductor’s baton? What teachings and practices are suitable for those on a spaceship?
The notion of a ship as all metal and plastic is like our notion of meditation practice as a protection against life. Instead, I would like our spaceship to be full of life, and itself a living being. I would like our meditation practice to be alive in such a way too.
For myself, I would like to take with us on the spaceship insects, songbirds, crows, trees, crabs, rats, daisies, and the DNA for wooly mammoths, just in case. And an immense range of bacteria—it’s the little things that count. The spaceship would look very different then; you could get lost in it. Also I’d like to take songs, redwood trees, the way young people run laughing on summer nights and burst into flower, and moonlight falling on the harbor.
Oh wait, earth is already a spaceship. Then what if the spaceship itself is alive? Does it have practices of its own and teachings of its own? And what teachings are suitable for such a spaceship?
In forty years, the earth itself, beyond our control, and human violence, also beyond our control, will have changed all our assumptions. Even so, what do I want the teachings to be?
Most popular meditation methods are based on improving ourselves by pretending we don’t want or do all sorts of things that we actually do want or do. That kind of practice happens in brackets inside our real lives. I wouldn’t bring that approach along with me. I take questions about the future as a way of asking, ‘What do we include on the spaceship?’
12 Things We Might Take Along on Our Spaceship
- Uncertainty: It runs through pretty much everything. There is no foundation to stand on.
- Not knowing: This is what uncertainty tastes and feels like. It means that the Zen teachings will be mysterious, changing who you are in ways that you couldn’t have imagined. The result of such a process is a new life. There will always be mass market teachings that make life smaller. Not knowing goes in the other direction and opens doors.
- Beauty: Beauty announces that you have come to the end of the known universe. You look up before dawn—the morning star is in the arms of the old moon and the world stops. In the Zen story, the Buddha declared: “Now I see that all beings have the nature of the one who comes thus; only their delusions and attachments keep them from realizing this.” We have to teach that. Here is where we get to rats, crows, and bacteria.
- Rats: Why take rats with us, you ask? Won’t they gnaw the wiring? Well, a young woman had two pet rats. Their fur was sleek, and they ran up and down her arm. One rat died. Then the other would sob in his sleep every night. If you have rats, you have empathy. So, definitely we take rats.
- Crows and ravens: Suddenly the crow falls backward off the branch and tumbles and tumbles, and just before she hits the ground, she saves herself. This is a crow joke. Crows are us; a sense of humor is itself a practice.
- Trees: Different forests and different trees have different qualities. They are images of the branching psyche and branching galaxies. I have an apricot tree that responds to questions and appears in my dreams. I feel its warmth when I meditate under it. It disliked having a cherry tree planted near it, but after a couple of years their branches have intertwined without touching and they seem to be getting along better.
- Stones: Stones are very slow stories with secret memories of fire inside. If you just put a stone on a table it becomes an altar, and a temple appears around it.
- Panic, delusion, desire: The dark materials accompany us even when we leave them behind. Panic, for example, tells us that we are alive. It is a reaction to not knowing and brings its own potential silence. When you panic, the world might stop in just the way it does when beauty appears. And in the timelessness brought on by crisis, you realize that the universe is holding your life. Everything becomes connected and vast. Panicking or not panicking—they are both just life unfolding.
- Love, again: Love appears with consciousness. It tells us how the rat feels hiding under the juniper tree; we can respect her courage and willingness. We can love our own lives when we are afraid, when we think we have done something stupid, and when others shame or attack us.
- You are not doing it wrong: Santoka, the haiku poet, had a vow: “Do not regret your life.” Don’t think, “This is the wrong life.” Don’t think, “This is the wrong planet.” Even bacteria and stones aren’t wrong.
- Even very small stories are teachings: For example, “Once upon a time a teacher said, ‘Every day is a good day.’”
- Practice: Having a practice is the first gift. It’s a primary encouragement and the only thing that locates us. It’s always good to encourage each other. Practice is not for something. It is mere being, which is why it gives luminosity to the whole of our lives. Like consciousness, practice doesn’t take a fixed shape. It is never properly explained, yet it changes everything. It’s the mysterious thing that gets handed along.
I think that the teachings existed before there was Buddhism and that they are everlasting, like the dragon who is the universe, and who lives in all the universes.
The teachings are a record of the meetings with that dragon, by which I mean, they are a discovery of what is true and intrinsic to life. They don’t explain things; they are things. And this gives us a reverence for the small and disregarded. From the vastness of galaxies to the particles inside the atom, it’s all dragon.
We practice the teachings by stepping forward into the emptiness that is always before us. And everything we ever have been, are, and will be, comes with us.
Read the rest of the series, “Buddhism’s Next 40 Years: What’s the Message”.