Grief has always been a powerful and intimate force in my life, and it continues to be as I’m now moving towards my late 60’s. If we’re willing to deeply inquire into the actual nature of our life, we will allow deep feelings of grief to surface as we grow older. This is our natural emotional expression as human beings, this is our resistance to the truth of the impermanence of all things. I’m aware of a tendency to spontaneously try to separate myself from the grief of eventually losing everything I hold dear; my loved ones, dear friends, and losing the joy of helping others on our path to self realization. Though I’m very aware of the willingness to enter and embody the grief, there is still a profound depth to my resistance, there is still wanting to hold suffering at a distance, and wanting to control this rapidly disappearing life.
As I woke up this morning feeling inspired to write, an image arose from a year ago of a photo of a four year old African girl dying of Ebola. She was lying on the floor of a woefully ill equipped treatment center amidst pools of infected vomit and blood, her eyes open, appearing dazed and lifeless. She was dying all alone, the photographer was some twenty feet away, not daring to move closer. As I relived my initial emotional reactions of horror, fear, anger, and deep sadness, there was also a warm loving feeling of acceptance. It felt like all the suffering was being absorbed by the light of our actual being, revealing that we all actually are the suffering of that little girl, we all actually are the suffering of all beings. The sense of being fully absorbed revealed that everything is always being transformed into boundless love and compassion.
I got up with a deep appreciation of how even though I, like everyone else, may still have an infinitely long way to go, there is always the invitation, and the real possibility, to actualize what Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche said,
“When all thoughts are imbued with the devotion to our true self, the Buddha within, there is a natural confidence that this will take care of whatever may happen. All forms are the guru, all sounds are prayer, and all gross and subtle thoughts arise as devotion. Everything is spontaneously liberated in the absolute nature, like knots untied in the sky.”
One of my favorite masters of the Zen tradition, who so wonderfully embodied the spirit of compassion is Ryokan, the famous hermit monk/poet who lived in the mountains in 18th century Japan. Totally unconcerned with worldly wealth or fame, his deep devotional spirit to the Buddha way serves as a lasting inspiration to everyone awakening the spirit of true inquiry and love.
Two of his poems express the wide variation of the emotional depth of Ryokan’s heart of compassion. Many of us on the spiritual path are unaware of how attached we are to controlling our experience. Our lives consist of a continual flow of sensory experience, thoughts, feelings, sights, and sounds. We can think of this flow as a swinging pendulum. Our efforts to control the flow, and keep the pendulum swinging on the high side, away from our deep grief, our deep suffering, interfere with our ability to fully experience the depth of aliveness expressed in the spirit of these poems.
Walking along a narrow path at the foot of a mountain
I come to an ancient cemetery filled with countless tombstones
And thousand -year-old oaks and pines.
The day is ending with a lonely, plaintive wind.
The names on the tombs are completely faded,
And even the relatives have forgotten who they were.
Choked with tears, unable to speak,
I take my staff and return home.
First days of spring-blue sky, bright sun.
Everything is gradually becoming fresh and green.
Carrying my bowl, I walk slowly to the village.
The children, surprised to see me,
Joyfully crowd about, bringing
My begging to an end at the temple gate.
I place my bowl on top of a white rock and
Hang my sack from the branch of a tree.
Here we play with the wild grasses and throw a ball.
For a time, I play catch while the children sing;
Then it is my turn.
Playing like this, here and there, I have forgotten the time.
Passers-by point and laugh at me, asking,
“What is the reason for such foolishness?”
No answer I give, only a deep bow;
Even if I replied, they would not understand.
Look around! There is nothing besides this.
Ryokan was able to spontaneously move with the compassionate heart of Buddha. He freely entered the depth of human sadness and blissful joy, entrusting spirit to move him where it willed, free of the conceptual haze most of us live our lives surrounded by. Spiritual practice is not about being free from negative emotions, it is about being free in the midst of fully experiencing all emotions. There is inherently no less freedom and aliveness in the painful realization that our personal identities are nothing more than faceless tombstones, than there is in the joyful bliss of childlike play.
One more poem, and waka from him:,
A cold night – sitting alone in my empty room
Filled only with incense smoke.
Outside, a bamboo grove of a hundred trees;
On the bed, several volumes of poetry.
The moon shines through the top of the window,
And the entire neighborhood is still except for the cry
Looking at this scene, boundless emotion,
But not one word.
What is the heart of this old monk like?
A gentle wind
Beneath the vast sky