Saturday, March 11, 2017

Little Bear and Lily Pads


Many years ago I had an experience, which irrevocably changed my life. When it happened I knew it was transforming but I had no idea to what extent, nor did I have any contextual framework into which to fit the occurrence. It took me years more before I fully comprehended what had taken place and the impact on my life. It is hard to speak of the experience in terms, which can be understood, but I’ll give it my best shot since I know how important it is to share what happenednot for my benefit but for those who may read this. 

In metaphorical terms, the floor of my bucket collapsed and I fell through Alice’s rabbit hole into a vast and unknown realm. I had lived 40 years by then with no clue that my sense of reality was questionable. It wasn’t what I hoped for but I never thought there was any other possibility. I was living just like everyone else, based on the notion that I knew who I was. I had a name, a career, relationships and a long history. I functioned in all of the ordinary waysin short I had a well-defined identity and I was fairly miserable even though by any conventional measure it appeared as if I was successful. 

I eventually reached a point when I took a serious look at the life I had fashioned and asked myself a hard question: Did I want to spend the rest of my days doing more of the same, and getting the same result? I decided that I didn’t but by then I had a lot invested in a bad game with no idea what the alternatives might be. In spite of this dilemma I saw that if I was ever going to find the answer, I had better begin again with the time I had left. So with that realization I cut loose from my moorings and plunged into foreign waters.

Through a convoluted set of circumstances I soon found myself living in a Zen monastery, which I first thought of as a halfway house to give me time to chart a new life course. Little did I know that this choice would open the door to a wholly different realm, which would radically transform how I looked at the world and myself. When I say, “the floor of my bucket collapsed” what I mean is that my floorthe foundation of my life up to that point: my imagined identitywas blocking discovery of my real, true nature. It was like wearing a coat that obscured my naked and real self. 

I had not been at the monastery very long and can’t explain why the collapse happened so soon. I have since read many stories about Zen monks spending years in dedicated practice before experiencing this metamorphous. I don’t know why it happened to me as it did. All I know is that when it happened it felt like I was being flushed down a toilet and when it was over “I” no longer existed. The “me”the identity, which was my floor, died there. And I was transformed from an isolated individual into an integrated sojourner and I joined the world for the first time, spiritually fresh, clean, naked and raw.

As I look back over what I’ve just written it looks unbelievable and strange. I know that, but I also knowafter having lived 37 years beyond that magical momentthat it is worth the risk of possible scorn to share it. If even a single person believes this story, they will know that it is possible for them too. And if that means they will take a similar risk to cast aside what they think is real and discover the same reality that I did, then a good outcome will have resulted. You might be tempted to think this experience made me special. It had the opposite effect. I realized that we are all the same; none any more special than anyone else. In fact I now realize that this whole wish to be special is a major obstacle to waking up to who we really are.

I am not a Zen master. I did not spend years of dedicated practice to achieve this transformation. There is no reason whatsoever that it should have come my way. But it did. And if it happened for me it can happen for anyone. What I have learned since that moment of transformation is this new and unknown realm is neither new nor unknown. It is like a story I used to read to my daughter when she was very youngthe story of Little Bear, who discovered that he didn’t need to wear a coat since he already had one. It is exactly like that. We too don’t need the extraneous cloak of an ego. We already have a true nature, which is always there beneath the cloak. I can only tell you that my true nature is infinitely finer than the extraneous one.

If you take the time to read Zen literature you’ll find this underlying, true nature called many namesBuddha-Nature, the One Mind, pure consciousness, True man without rankthe names don’t matter. Call it what you choose. Maybe the best name is Lilythe flower of life. The water lily grows on a pad floating on water, rooted in the muck, which is hidden in the deep. In many icons the Buddha is shown sitting on that pad. What we all would be wise to not do is to gild our lilies, or put coats on bears who already have one.
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