It came back to visit again today, a time when, as a wobbly Zen student intent on doing it right or getting enlightened or some such fiery vision, I went to visit my teacher's teacher, Soen Nakagawa Roshi, in a private interview or dokusan. I didn't know Soen very well and was a bit nervous because of the reputation he had as a 'Zen master.' I felt like a pipsqueak.
Anyway, I did the requisite bows, settled myself on the cushion facing his, and stated my practice. That was the format. He asked me very gentle questions -- where did I live, etc. -- and put me more or less at ease. And then he asked what I did for a living. "I'm a painter," I said without much thought since at the time I painted New York City apartments for a living. "Oh that's wonderful!" he replied. "Each stroke of the brush is IT."
Later I would worry that I should have been more clear -- that I was a house painter, not a fine artist. I was worried enough about this that for several days I tried to devise ways to see him again and explain, to make it clear to him, to not leave him thinking I was something I wasn't. I was pretty agitated.
But of course, there was no need. Each stroke of the brush is it ... fine artist, house painter -- no difference. But that understanding lay some place in the future for me. At the time, I was fired up for Zen and wanted to be honest and cross all the t's and dot all the i's. I wanted to get it right. I wanted to be a good Zen student, not some corporate, book-reading spin doctor. Oh dear, I had inadvertently made a mistake!
What brought that small incident to mind was a thought that any spiritual endeavor, whatever its format, is only as good as its willingness to point its participants towards the door marked "exit" -- the direction that is completely free of any format whatsoever. Like a mama bird nudging its fledglings out of the nest ... go! -- the reality you seek has nothing to do with format or awe or bliss ... what you seek is just to fly ... I love you: Now get the hell out of here!
Each stroke of the brush is it.
Yesterday, I received a wonderful email from someone who took umbrage at a casual metaphor I used when asking in a blog post whether taking up crocheting or stamp collecting might be better occupations than spiritual endeavor.
I don't crochet, actually I embroider and have for about 40 years, and I have no idea why. I have likened it to meditation, the concentration needed to put every stitch in the right place seems to calm the relentless flow of thought more effectively for me than a sitting meditation. I can certainly stay with poking hole in cloth with colored thread more easily than a formal practice. So at least in my circumstance this hobby is both more and less than hobby or distraction.Each stroke of the brush is it ... each attentive application of needle and thread, each beautiful creation, each ... moment. But the writer, as I understood it, thought that because I put spiritual endeavor in a context of Zen practice, I was somehow excluding from the spiritual arena anything as 'ordinary' as embroidery ... that I was in effect relegating him/her to the lesser realm of a house painter.
And, with my own experience as a guide, I sympathized. Every occupation is IT, but for starters, those occupations may seem to be different from flying or from a spiritual endeavor 'outside' the formats offered in 'spiritual endeavor.'
Each stroke of the brush is IT ... always. But having said so, some care, some attention, needs to be brought to bear if anyone wants to avoid the blandishments of what is so easy to say and so hard to actualize. If we're all enlightened from the get-go, why bother with the sometimes grueling, sometimes fanatical, sometimes utterly mistaken involvements with a 'spiritual' format ... in my case, Zen practice?
Anyone can talk the talk, but it is not always so easy to walk the walk. And if this is so, as I believe it is, some format needs to be brought to bear that will clarify the obvious ... that each stroke of the brush is IT; that flying is our natural domain; that the peace we seek is the peace we already are.
Anyway, I took up the Zen format. And part of what I liked about it was precisely what Soen did for me so many years ago ... pointed me towards the door marked "exit." Exit into a world in which circumstances came and went and came again. A world without any conceivable format. A world of flying.
And I think, given the human structure, that some sort of format is necessary -- something that brings us up short and forces us to focus and reconsider what has been presumed ... and then, bit by bit, to revise and actualize in our lives what may be easy to say with the lips. To enter a limited world in order to step into a world that is devoid of limits. A format that is constantly saying ...
I love you. Now get the hell out of here!