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(if you should learn to do this will your toys of knowing, you will achieve a form of liberty more valuable than any other skill)
a (tiny) bird’s song cracks the egg
The last thing I was expecting was to have any sort of awakening. Things had become darker by far than they’d been previously and I was facing the prospect of them growing significantly darker in about as many domains as they could. Most of the people in my life either left the area or left their minds — and more than a few did both. I was lonely, and without heartful companions, and I was trapped in the position I was in — but not in a way that was commonly understood. Explaining it to the few others who might listen had no effect but to further frustrate matters. I spent a lot of time working on C code for a fantasy simulation game I was crafting with a small team of hobbyists— and a bit of time writing prose and poems as well, so I was spending too much time in my chair, looking at my monitor. I wasn’t getting out much.
One day, probably in the late spring of 2000, I was sitting in front of my monitor thinking about the fact that I’d been sitting there too much, and also about the fact that if I don’t practice my tai chi form at least a few times a month, I begin to forget portions — which almost guarantees I will not practice it at all...and thus...I decided to go do a little bit of chi kung and tai chi. I really didn’t feel up to it. I was feeling tired, lethargic, and lazy. It was, however, reasonably nice outside — and this allowed me the construed luxury of not having to bundle up. I decided to go up on my roof to practice, which allows for a variety of sweeping views that are inspiring.
So I was up there warming up near the north edge of the roof for a few minutes, going through some repetitive exercizes and feeling some inward embarrassment about the rather weakened state of my body. Essentially, I was not content, at all, and sort of working through the motions because I’d made the deal with myself to do so. Some few minutes into this activity, perhaps 3 to 5 minutes — there was a very rapid and extremely unexpected series of events.
The first thing I noticed was that some sort of bird somewhere was ’singing its head off’, and that this had been going on for some time, without my being aware of it at all. As soon as I noticed this, I felt a unique sense of startlement — I was suddenly amazed — profoundly amazed, and I could not understand what was happening. The song of the bird, which I noticed was a small brown bird with a bright red head, was so loud and poetically profound to my inner ear that for a moment — it became all there was. This incredible sound, louder than all engines — positively erupting from an ancient and magical being who was, for the moment, a red-headed bird on a telephone wire across the street to the north of me.
I am not certain how to accurately describe what happened next. It was as though a curtain inside me was gently but suddenly removed, and everything around me was unified — and talking with(in) me — and it was humorous, adoring, incredibly ancient beyond my ability to convey — and...it wanted to play. At that moment the entire universe changed in a way so essential that we have no word for it. It went inside out. Time was gone into something I can’t hope to discuss. Guilt was gone, fear was gone. There had never been anything to feel guilty about or fear, because everything was one thing learning itsElf. And this nameless, magnificent thing was talking and laughing with me. It was as if the air had turned inside out and become an ancient and sentient god. It wasn’t ‘embodied’ anywhere, but instead — nothing was embodied — but this one beIng. One of the unusual things was, it was enjoying this entire conversation, or conversion as much as I was, because it was seeing itself with(in) me, just as I was seeing myself with(in) the experience.
The other thing was that I felt I’d been transported into another universe that was coexistent with this one, but somehow invisible. It was ‘right behind’ everything else, but never seen. And it wasn’t a place at all — it was an essential being. The being had character and consistently expressed an incredible and ancient (yet innocent) sense of humor!
All of this was taking place in a very regular way. Just me standing on my roof, looking out at the northern vista, hearing the bird singing a lot. But whereas a moment before, I’d been looking out over a cityscape, I was now looking out over something more like a timescape — and I was seeing far more of it in one place that I was used to, and all of that more was laughing and talking with(in) me as though it were just as excited as I was.
I reveled in the experience wordlessly, laughing, and filled with awe and enthusiasm until it amped down a few notches. I think I finished my practice, and went back downstairs to marvel for a while about it. What had happened to me? I felt that everything I’d ever thought or known had been pierced suddenly, such that the inflationary tokens standing in front of reality parted, and wrinkled — revealing a vast and apparently eternal living sentience as playful and adoring as the most heartful of possible companions.
I began to wonder if I had accidentally resolved the matter of my koan, ‘mu’. Having sat with it day in and out for some 12 years, I was beginning to wonder if I ever would, and was in a phase of ‘having forgotten about it’ to some degree. I remembered one of my teachers saying “Mu? Oh you can forget about ‘getting it’. One day you’ll have forgotten it entirely and it will fall right out, complete — totally unexpected.” I laughed about this as well.
A variety of essential matters appeared before my eye of that moment as far clearer than they’d ever been. Humorously so, as well. I was hopeful that I might have resolved my koan, but I was more interested in what had actually happened.
For about the first month after the event, my level of attention and inspiration, and of general well-being was greatly magnified, and this continued for almost three or four months, eventually coming to a fairly sudden halt in the face of critique and judgment from the precious few others who were close enough to me personally and intellectually that such matters might have a chance of being broached to mutual benefit.
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The momentum I received from this event lasted for months, surprising me as well as my roommate, who was also a Zen student. Unfortunately, however, recent psychological and diagnostic models of manic depression have made everyone’s face go white (in common society) when anyone claims to have experienced a revelation — especially if that is expressed during a time of personal difficulty or crisis. In the real world — there’s no such thing as a revelation — and so this instantly translates into illness — which people fear might spread to them should they tarry to long in its near proximity. I believe most of the people around me merely thought that I, being sad over my station of the moment, had become manic.
I did not set such considerations entirely aside myself — the experience was so novel, positive, affirming, and essentially intelligent however that I was not really prepared to consider it in a diagnostic light at all. It had given me the most essential and profound of intellectual, emotional and physical boosts in a single stroke of a few moments. I simply wasn’t prepared to entertain the idea that this was the sort of thing one seeks professional attention about — or drugs to put silence to it. I could somewhat understand the position of the few people nearest me — but I was also rather frustrated that some paradigm or model was standing between they and I in such a way as to make it nearly impossible to convey anything of use between us.
Although what follows is not really related to the event, I do feel that it’s relevant, and especially so for a variety of reasons that will probably be overlooked at first glance, yet remain with me as undecided points of magnetically active questions. Rather than box them and decide, I like to play with them. I invert them, turn em inside out, randomly recombine em. Poets love such games.
Some few weeks, or perhaps even a month after this event, I arranged to have dokusan with a Zen teacher who I knew before he began sitting. He’d progressed rapidly through koan study, and was authorized to teach by my first teacher, J. Tarrant Roshi (a dharma heir of R. Aitken Roshi).
Together, my then-roommate and I traveled to Sebastopol to visit the home and the new sangha of this man with whom I’d arranged dokusan. There were a couple of other people there who were familiar to me — one through practice and one through a mutual set of acquaintances. We sat a couple of periods of zazen together, and I was quite anxious — for I felt that I might actually have something to demonstrate directly — a very rare occasion in my long years of active zen study. Perhaps I’d even resolved mu... My practice had largely been set aside, so it had been a while since I’d sat a couple of periods, and I found my mind wandering to matters of time... I wonder how long one of their periods is? 25 minutes? 45? Do they sit two or three?
Eventually it was time for my interview, and I rose and proceeded to the back room in the time-honored fashion, coming to face this man who I believed to be a teacher of skill, in the hope of discovering my confusion, or demonstrating my understanding. I did feel that I’d understood something very different — and yet it was not a thing concretely communicable — but a sort of poetic essence, or underlying magic that transcended my talking about it, or categories entirely.
Dokusan is a rather private matter, and thus I will not detail it precisely here, but essentially the teacher questioned me rather stubbornly, and remained skeptically objective. We exchanged questions and answers, and he was unsatisfied with mine. He felt that I was ‘making poetry about it’. And at one point I grabbed up a glass of water nearby, and poured half of it over my head, without stopping to think — yet was careful enough in the process to preserve half the water and get nothing but myself wet. He eventually moved to the position that I’d perhaps had a glimpse of something useful, but that it was not yet complete.
After the practice was over, we gathered for tea and cookies which was a common practice in our lineage. It was a time to be a bit more communal, and human — the formality of zen practice commonly encourages an attitude of quiet and attention to the single matter at hand. I had been away from sangha practice for some time, and my enthusiasm over recent events and histories quickly spilled over into me somewhat loudly dominating things with stories and questions and ... well, from at least one perspective — my own ego.
Although no one mentioned anything to me, about two weeks later I began to see that, in retrospect, I felt somewhat embarrassed. I felt that I had really not been attending what was going on, nor did I make space for others very well, even though I was a visitor to a very new group — and a guest. As a guest I had behaved inconsiderately — and if I’d actually realized anything in my experience, would it play out in translation so loudly? Perhaps. But I felt badly enough that I called the teacher and apologized, explaining that I’d been alone a lot and was excited to be in the company of others who I knew, and were of like mind in some regards, etc. In my excitement, I had not really attended matters of propriety, or common concern — but instead ran roughshod over a lot of the rather more quiet offerings that others were trying to float.
He seemed to share my opinion, and warned me of a sort of enthusiasm often referred to as ‘the stink of zen’ — which I interpret to mean ‘more stink, than zen’. This might indicate someone who’s strayed into a sideline, and is singing too loudly about it. I could see how I might have been doing something very much like this, and felt badly about it. It appeared that the general judgments of those I knew, and my zen teacher were against me. And this started to re-establish the more mundane and self-critical aspects of my own persona. It really didn’t take long for the constant skepticism and questions — not to mention the lack of advocacy or enthusiasm — to quiet my little inward symphony.
Now I have a lot more experience, and my perspectives have changed somewhat drastically. I recognize I was being a bit over-enthusiastic — and I also recognize that there’s way too little enthusiasm and playfulness in modern zen practice in general. Of course, we can remove ourselves from that domain and simply notice that our metaphors relating to children are badly formed in the whole. Our culture abhors them while claiming to be their champions.
This is a very deadly trait we’ve inherited as a global society, from the localized metaphors of the industrial cultures, but particularly Britain and the United States. Our American culture is far beyond the loss of the child, and well into the rape of the child. Wearing the garb of heroes, systems of knowing that despise the delicacy and heartful prowess of children conspire rapidly to co-opt our cognitive birthrights, and our unitive birthrights. This, in turn, leads to the sale of broken copies of them — which we will repetitively purchase only to find them empty. We will never even glimpse what was lost, if the game is played adeptly enough, and on Earth, this game is played too adeptly for any but the rarest of children to survive. Most must instead pretend to adulthood, which in nearly all cases turns out to be more about hoods than adults.
The long and short of it is this: we need to be able to be the child we are, without reservation. A culture that values this last, poorly, or pretends to value it while actively co-opting it is so devastating that its own victims will never guess what it was that was erased in them, nor see themselves in the active role of supporting this erasure, which they are conned into by reflections in the broken copies we buy wholesale in our media and culture, at the gravest of possible prices: our personhood, and our human unity and potential.
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