What I’ve come to is, such statements are a partial presentation coming from a partial understanding – which has the propensity to lead to a partial practice of Zen. Taking such statements at face value feels like putting blinders on, narrowing one’s view and focus while simultaneously keeping things beyond that view and focus at bay or shutting them out. There is a very limiting feel to this, when people aspire to “just live in the present moment” or “just be here now.” Not that those aren’t worthy aspirations for which to strive – there is indeed virtue in such endeavors. It’s the "just" that precedes these with which I have an issue, as it can tend to bring about a closing statement of “because here and now is all there is.” Another valid statement, able to be known through direct experience, yet it is also an incomplete one. Not only is the present moment all there is, it likewise contains all there is, the whole of existence emerging and transforming, rising and falling, rising and falling, here and now.
Yeah, this is where things can get weird, especially if someone has previously been stopped short by potentially limiting statements and understandings like those above. There is an esoteric, ephemeral, shamanic aspect to Zen practice that largely remains unknown, especially because of how the practice is portrayed by and spread throughout popular culture. But this aspect is not something that is kept hidden or only introduced after you’ve gone through many years of meditation or reached some “special” level of understanding; it’s woven through the practice from the very beginning, the common and the strange, the practical and the outrageous mingling intimately together. And why not? Isn’t life itself comprised of such a mixing and mingling of the practical and the outrageous?
Here are a few examples of how the Koan Zen tradition invites the common and the strange to hang out together:
In one of the popular and well-known koan collections, The Gateless Gate (the title already providing an example of its own), there is a story about a new arrival to a monastery who asks the teacher for instruction and the teacher replies: “Have you eaten?” “Yes.” “Go wash your bowls.” Very practical. Yet, in this same book, before this story is even encountered, there is another about the ghost of a teacher who was reborn as a fox paying a visit to his old monastery. Elsewhere in the tradition there are tales of a person talking to a rock, a well that sees a donkey, and people traveling to heavenly realms, hungry ghost realms, hell realms. And mixed in with these are stories that state “ordinary mind is the Way” or “the heart of the one who asks is Zen.” There are also stories in which the practical and the outrageous live side by side, such as two friends talking about what it is like to mend clothing: “One stitch is like the next,” says one, and the other: “As if the whole earth is spewing flames.” And there are stories in which the practical and the outrageous are fairly indistinguishable:
One day, Layman Pang and his daughter Lingzhao were out selling bamboo baskets. Coming down off a bridge, he stumbled and fell. When Lingzhao saw this, she ran to her father’s side and threw herself to the ground.
“What are you doing?” cried the Layman.
“I saw you fall, so I’m helping,” replied Lingzhao.
“Fortunately no one was looking,” remarked the Layman.
Reading about all this strangeness, a very reasonable question may arise: How does this help, and what’s the point? In part, I can say it’s helpful because the world itself is practically outrageous, outrageously practical, unpredictable and wild, far beyond and beneath anything we can and will ever know, and inviting such stories into our usual, knowable lives helps loosen up and expand the territory of our living, connecting us to a greater wholeness. And in part I can’t say, because…well…if it was completely sayable it wouldn’t be worth saying.
Still, I can offer words from someone else speaking to the value of this, which I came across recently and is what gave this post of mine its impetus:
"There are all the subtle realms that for some extraordinary reason we as a culture have dismissed, forgotten, rejected. And yet they belong to all the spiritual traditions—whether [for example] it's the Shaman who works with the spirit realm, or the Tibetan Buddhist who works with the devas and deities in the land, or the Christian monk who works with the Angelic world - who prays for the angels and has icons of the saints - or the Zen monk immersed in the void, in the inner realm – they all need to be included and we all need to get along together because that’s how the world is made. And we are all part of this sacred, living oneness.”
-Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee (posted on the Spiritual Ecology Facebook page)
One thing I appreciate is the through-line with which Vaughan-Lee connects these various realms, not saying they’re the same thing but that there is a commonality among them. Then he takes another step and weaves that thread into the mundane, practical realm we know all too well, which is a crucial step to take because “that’s how the world is made” – all of those realms are this one. What I most appreciate is the shift in emphasis from the different realms to the thread that connects them, so we are no longer moving from one to another or separated from any of them, but instead in a place where they all intersect. I see this place of intersection as a perpetual threshold of being, a space comprised of many things but not restricted by or belonging to any of them, dynamic and alive and flowing. To use the Zen terminology introduced above, abiding in this threshold of the void, one realizes it is not a place where nothing exists but rather a vast expanse of reality, devoid of the divisions and separations often placed upon it (inwardly and outwardly), and the concepts and constructs one has developed loosen, become porous and permeable, or dissolve altogether. Experiencing this directly, intimately and knowing it for oneself deeply and irreversibly changes the way one experiences life and the living of it.
Inviting the practical and the outrageous in and letting them spend time together helps to remove the divisions erected between them, and thus we realize one is no more practical or outrageous than the other, realize that there really is no separation at all. Continuing along from here, we discover that the world is quite strange, wondrous, wild, unpredictable, and unbelievable, and that it’s this way all the time and can be encountered anywhere: resting on a mountainside mid-hike then all at once experiencing the strong sensation of being a small rock on the mountain and being the mountain and being the person on the mountain; momentarily losing all sense of language while attempting to say a simple, well-known blessing before a meal, not able to understand the words or speak them; being struck by the deep beauty and poignancy of life through the simple happening of a golden leaf falling upon your windshield; unexpectedly saying "thank you" to the elevator as the door opens to the selected floor...and really meaning it; walking through a forest at night and suddenly seeing the pattern of reality pulsating and flowing from the trees, as the trees, like Neo seeing the Matrix; walking across the room and feeling an unwarranted wave of happiness surge forth for no reason at all, simply because things are the way they are, with all their joys and sorrows and difficulties and ease. All those worlds and realms, all those ways of being, boundless and limitless, here and now.
This threshold of being is an artful place and place of transformation, marked by spontaneity, imagination and creativity, where multiple sources of inspiration come together to be moved from intangible to material; it is the heart-mind of us all, where infinite worlds gather and wait to become manifest through us, coming forth as poetry and painting, singing and dancing; coming forth in the way we care for a sick child, support and encourage a loved one, or nourish and sustain ourselves; coming forth in how we respond to crises locally and globally, how we engage in social justice and work to bring about change in the world; coming forth in our daily living, in how we meet and connect to life and the things that comprise it, from the mundane to extraordinary.
This continual confluence of all things, this intersection of worlds that includes the realms mentioned above as well as the intricate web of connection between all beings, is how things are and what is happening right where we stand. We can’t not be in it. But we can cut ourselves off from it through the concepts and constructs we establish about reality, which in turn influence our relationship to it, and the degree to which we perceive and experience things to be divided and fractured at any given moment influences the degree to which our responding to them will be divided and fractured.
A major way we uphold a sense of division, as Vaughan-Lee points out, is by dismissing the things that don’t align with what we believe to be important and true. It might be that we choose the practical and reasonable over the fantastic, and if we fall too fully into this practical, mundane world, we can become burdened by and buried beneath it. Instead we might lean heavily toward the ephemeral as a way of escaping and transcending the everyday world, but wandering too deeply into that territory can lead us to disconnect and disengage, to become aloof and complacent. Along similar lines, choosing to work only for others can deplete our energy and resources, leading to that same sense of being burdened and buried, whereas choosing to work only for ourselves can lead to disconnection and disengagement from the world within and around us. In short, solely and completely moving in any one direction limits us and our ability to be effective. But choosing no direction in particular, abiding and resting in that perpetual threshold of being, grounded in the groundless, we can find our place among the endless transformation of all things; rooted in and issuing forth from this place, we can benefit all beings as we discover limitless resources are available and accessible to us, if we but reach out a hand.
As a final homage to the practical and the outrageous and to the value of bringing differing worlds together, allowing them to mix and mingle and influence one another as they dance in this boundless here and now, I’d like to bring in a chant from the liturgy of the Open Source Koan Zen tradition. It isn’t offered at the end of a dharma talk or at the close of a long day of meditation or as part of some event with high ceremony and ritual; it is offered at the end of a meal, after doing something as ordinary and common as sharing food together and filling our bellies:
Out of the mysterious source
we and the things that sustain us come.
Waking and eating, embracing and sleeping,
we walk on the empty sky.
May it fill your belly in kind.