As I drove down the road, a girl wandered across completely absorbed in something on her mobile phone. She was no longer living in the real world, but in a fantasy one in which the danger of being run over by a passing car, didn’t exist.
A teacher once told me that there is a word that summarises the main Buddhist teachings, and that is sati (awareness of yourself and the world around you) — but really being aware. As the Buddha said: ‘In the seeing, only the seeing; in the hearing, only the hearing …’ Normally, we are mentally involved with thinking, wondering, fantasising, hesitating, and so on. But the awareness underlies this the whole time. It’s like a lake in which mental fish (distraction, liking and disliking) swim. The walking exercise that brings the mind repeatedly back to itself, brings us up against this, powerfully. It is not unusual to see a meditator on a retreat staring at something, as if they have never seen it before — they haven’t! In those moments, the awareness has been clear of obstacles, and has a vivid sense of the world that suddenly opens to us. No wonder we are startled and enchanted, like a child who suddenly sees the world afresh. But unlike an adult, a child is constructing and reconstructing its world like a set of toy building blocks, whereas the adult does not want its world picture to change, or bad things to recur. The trouble is, bad experiences often recur because in refusing to accept that they happen, we block the chance of accepting and releasing them, and also because all that arises, if left to itself, ceases.
When I was young, the world was full of vivid conversations and movement. Not only the tongue moved, but the body communicated as well, with gestures and expressions. As the famous Zen story went ‘mind moved’, if only to acknowledge and greet another part of human nature. The communication was profound and simple, and reminds me of the story of the Buddha being asked by Ananda: ‘Surely, the company of all these good people must be half the pleasure of the holy life,’ and the Buddha replied: ‘Not half the happiness of the holy life, Ananda, all of it.’
This is why at the end of the Oxherding Pictures, the herdsman returns to the marketplace ‘with bliss-bestowing hands’, and the gift of connection into the human family in its true home, in the Buddha-nature that we all share.
But now, instead of enquiring into that quiet space that people feel within themselves, they shrink from that and from others who might inadvertently remind them of it, to ‘protect themselves’ and the little box containing their egos, and to maintain the stability of that picture of themselves. By throwing overboard the great lifeline of communication, we risk drowning in pursuit of safety, forgetting that as the mediaeval poet wrote: ‘All stands on change as a midsummer rose.’
Most of us are not up to spending ten years or more in a cave in the Himalayas, and need the help and company of other human beings to get through difficult times. I know I did. But a desire to shun the company and converse of other human beings and find a haven elsewhere, loses sight of what Ajahn Chah called ‘our true home’ that is also the true freedom that we really seek.
As the poet James Turner wrote in a poem called Elsewhere:
The truth about you is not what you try to be,
someone else, somewhere else,
somewhere in the future.
The truth is what you actually are, now.
If you do not try to change
then everything changes.
Elsewhere is here for someone.
Concern yourself, not with that,
but what is here for you.
Then you can see and listen.
Then when someone wants
to get through to you,
they won’t see in your eyes a distant look.
Be here for your friends, for strangers too.
To be alive, to be fully awake,
is to take your here with you
everywhere you go.
[Thanks to James Turner for his kind permission to use this poem.]
The tenth ox heading picture.
Click here to see the Verses on Oxherding by Zen master Guoan Shiyuan.