THE GREATEST COLD
“If this greatest cold does not penetrate into our bones,
how will the fragrance of the plum blossoms
pervade the entire universe?” *
how will the fragrance of the plum blossoms
pervade the entire universe?” *
This is a vividly written sentence, composed with great care and colourful evocative imagery. It's been deliberated over to suffuse it with potency and impact. Dogen chooses images that delve deep into the mud of our mythic psyches, sifting through its rich river of sediment for golden nuggets. He manages to stimulate ideas and associations on so many levels using just twenty two words.
It somehow resonates with my memories of late Spring in the year 2000. I was in Southern Spain, on my Ordination Retreat. It was the first week of June, just past the middle of the four month long course. The Private Ordinations, where I would be given my new name was approaching. I’d heard stories of previous courses where a person had spent the night before their Private Ordinations in a cave. The idea appealed to me, for one evening to sample the lifestyle of a Siddhi, or Chan Master. There were plenty of caves on offer in and around the valley we were in. Some of these had been used as secret hideaways during the Spanish Civil War. Never one to travel far, I settled for a cave that I knew of just above the retreat centre. I’d visited it a month or so earlier. It was marked by a long dark stained fissure in a rocky feature known as the ‘amphitheatre.’
It was the evening before the Private Ordinations. The long day was brought to a close with the usual Puja. I told my roommate where I was going. Packed a few things in a small rucksack, put on a few clothes beneath my robe and donned my walking boots. I set off, to climb the steep stone scree that lay beneath the ‘amphitheatre’ cliff. At the point of twilight, I looked back briefly. I could hear the sound of late night supper snacks emerging from the retreat centre kitchen. The track up the scree, even in daylight, was treacherous underfoot. In the half light of evening my ascent felt more than a trifle foolish, armed, as I was, with quite a small ineffectual torchlight. The night was descending rapidly and I’d barely reached the cave before darkness fell completely.
Once I up there, I could see the Full Moon, in all its magnificence gleaming over the dark hunched Spanish mountains. Sharp pin pricks of distant planets and a dusting of stars were scattered across the evening sky. It was all too too beautiful. I turned away, looking apprehensively into the increasingly dark maw of the cave. What fit of madness had convinced me that I wanted to spend a whole night here? I knew from my previous sunlit reconnoiter, that the cave held remnants and signs of its previous occupants. A dusty, stone strewn mattress up on a high ledge, plus, a few faded Tibetan prayer flags and scarves.
I’d brought a handful of things with me, a meditation stool, a blanket, a Puja book, a picture of the Buddha, incense, some night lights, and a small translation of the Diamond Sutra I’d borrowed from the Retreat Centre Library. My plan was to meditate, perform Puja, and read aloud the entire Diamond Sutra, in rotation throughout the night. I’d come without a watch, so having arrived around sunset, I would leave at whatever time sunrise turned out to be.
The first thing I felt on entering the cave, was cold irrational fear. I had no idea what was living in there. Animals, snakes, or scorpions, may have taken shelter in there. Suddenly my mind was off imagining all sorts of disasters unfolding as a result of this impulsive intrusion. Being bitten, stung, or badly gored by a goat - then airlifted to a hospital in Alicante for a lifesaving operation. A sudden torrential thunderstorms might flood the entire cave. Drenched and feverish, one less person might be being privately ordained the following day. Whatever the catastrophe, no one would raise the alarm till morning, by which time, it might all be too late. With the cold hand of anxiety gripping me, I pointed my feeble torchlight into the black recess of the cave. I could see nothing, no glinting eyes or wriggling forms on the floor. Though that didn’t mean they weren’t there lurking, waiting for lunch to settle down.
Trying to calm my mind and just get more settled, I began setting up my meditation stool and shrine. The next thing I noticed was a physical, not a mental event. There was a strong wind blowing constantly across the cave opening. In order to prevent it creeping around and mischievously blowing out my candles, I needed to move well back into the cave. I kept having to position, then re-position the shrine, until eventually I found a low ledge that sheltered behind a small rock outcrop. Though the cave floor was uneven, so finding a reasonably level place for a meditation stool, also took some time. I discovered the blanket I’d brought was too small, it could either be wrapped around my legs, or cover my shoulders, but not both. Feeling the cold more readily in my upper body, I chose the latter.
With this setup and strategy decided, I began my intended cycle of practice. As I sat down for my first meditation something else happened I’d not quite expected. My lovely clear view down to the head of the valley and the far off twinkling skyscrapers of Benidorm, suddenly vanished as a fog quietly and quickly swept up the valley, filling it to the brim with a dense mist. All I could now see was an impenetrable cloud visually sealing off the exit to the cave. Any thoughts about leaving early should it all become too much, would now have to be abandoned. Whether I liked it or not I was in the cave for the entire duration of the night. I knew these fogs only retreated from the valley as the early morning sun rose.
Not prepared for this level of cold, nor the effect on my knees of meditating on a gritty uneven floor, I tried maintaining a focus on just my practice. For a while this worked. However, as I began to tire, the pain and cold grew less easy to ignore. If I used the blanket to pad underneath my knees, my shoulders froze till they felt as if shards of glass were embedded in them. If I protected my shoulders with the blanket, my knees became increasingly raw and pock marked. In the end, I alternated between protecting knees for one period of practice and then shoulders for the next. This was how I made it through what turned out to be a very long night.
The morning announced its arrival, as though the dawn chorus was itself thawing the frosty air. Holes began appearing in the fog shortly afterwards. Rapidly the outlook from inside the cave was being transformed. As soon as I could safely see where I was going, I came down from the cave. I had no idea what time it was. Chilled by the evenings adventure, I went straight to my dormitory and fell exhausted onto my bed. The bell, all too soon, ringing for the first morning meditation. I failed to respond, weariness overwhelmed me and I fell into a deep sleep.
Apart from a slightly spaced out feeling for a day or so, there were no consequences or great insight arising from this evening as a cave dweller. So, why did this adventure come to mind when I read :-
“If this greatest cold does not penetrate into our bones,
how will the fragrance of the plum blossoms
pervade the entire universe?”
how will the fragrance of the plum blossoms
pervade the entire universe?”
Is there a connection between that sentence and this experience of mine? After all it had only been one evening, practicing in a cave. In comparison to the extreme levels of practice, and resulting physical degradation Zen Masters put themselves through, often for years on end, mine was hardly worthy of a footnote.
A sceptical modern viewpoint, might question whether such extremes of practice are necessary for spiritual insight? Whether we answer with a ‘Yes, they are’ or a ‘No, they are not,’ the obvious next question remains the same. What practices are effective here and now in our modern context? For a Western practitioner what would produce insight? Reading Dogen's short discourse, and recollecting my own experience in the cave, raises a more general question - what makes spiritual practice effective?
In those elastic evening hours in a cave, I’d experienced aspects of myself that in Western Society we are normally shielded from. Fear of wild animals was a daily experience for our cave dwelling ancestors. The need for a dry cave, protected from floods, wind and rain. To have clothes and fire to keep you warm through the night and winter months. These fears arise from being more nakedly exposed to the crueler colder blasts of Nature. Today, we're cushioned from fully experiencing such concerns. Nature remains indifferent to our fervent desire not to die before our time. It will take us whenever and in whatever way it wishes. We may attempt to insure ourselves against it, or take out litigation against someone whom we blame for when a tragedy strikes. Someone has to pay, or be held responsible for a death. Meditating in a cave exposes how fragile our hold on life is. Mortality suddenly becomes a prime factor worthy of consideration.
Up in the cave I was not likely to be in any substantial danger. The only peril I was exposed to was an overactive imagination. Bodily, there was discomfort, but nothing like meditating till your arse becomes raw with a mass of suppurating sores, or the use of your legs withers completely away. My knees being a bit pink for a few days and my shoulders as stiff as a coat hanger, is in no way comparable. Nothing a good blast of Spanish sunshine wouldn’t heal.
Dogen is asking us to go one step beyond our usual experience, in order to touch something raw, less tame, but extraordinarily beautiful to bloom.
“If this greatest cold does not penetrate into our bones,
how will the fragrance of the plum blossoms
pervade the entire universe?”
Human survival requires us to maintain our bodies warmth. Warmth is the bright angel of Life. Cold the dark angel of death. We all know how cold feels when it penetrates right to the bone. Imagine the most extreme cold its possible to experience, and yet still be alive. An
existential cold catching you off guard when you’re up in a rocky cave overnight. This ‘greatest cold’ only chills us when we truly see our mortality and impermanence. The Japanese culture sees the extremes of things as somehow embodying the character or essence of a person,object, place or event. Extreme cold is the embodiment of the impermanence inherent within all civilisations, all beliefs, ideas, imaginings, perceptions, relationships and the affection that binds them to us. At root, everything that earth, water, fire, air and consciousness can form themselves into, is transitory. To realise this, to our very bones, would be ‘the greatest cold’.
Our body is this great gift and also an encumbrance. Something to be both treasured and transcended. Past Buddhist Masters reach a stage in their practice when they have to overcome the demands of an aging body. Self preservation ceased to be of primary concern. The body is seen as a temporary vehicle to insight, because ultimately all bodies are impermanent, Enlightenment goes beyond any notion of permanence, impermanence, of neither one nor the other. At some point a practitioner has to decide what they want to invest time and effort in encouraging. Does rigour, renunciation and existential risk have a place in Western Buddhist practice? If so what form should it take for us?
First, lets take a cooler slightly more discerning look at the practice of past Buddhist Masters. Let us be clear what it is that may be inspiring us here. Do we really wish we could emulate them in some way, if so, what is it that we want to emulate? Is it their dedication, their determination, their application and discipline to practice? Perhaps it is none of these, perhaps it's not what they did but how they were that is exemplary. Despite there being centuries between us and them the depth of their faith touches us, raises our spirits and confidence. We read all about them, feel inspired, and what then do we do? Usually we try to learn what we need to do by mimicking them, do exactly what they did. If that was staring at walls or meditating alone in caves for years in end, then that's what we do. Yet, can the actions of practitioners form earlier eras and very different cultures to our own, help or mislead contemporary Western practitioners? Do we get carried along by a tide of extreme exotic practices that are not that effective for Westerners to do. For us in our culture and society they don’t cause ‘the greatest cold to penetrate into our bones’ .
In my youth I was inspired by Marc Bolan. I knew that if I could learn to sing and perform like him, I too would be famous. I practiced his pout, his pose, his bleating singing style. In my imagination, my lank, thin strands of greasy hair, became a luxuriant mass of black curls that could be flicked back with a shake of the head. I copied every effeminate gesture. Most of us soon discover our dreams are not road maps to our destiny. We soon find we have no real musical aptitude, or a weak singing voice. Forced to abandon our ambitions for fame, we either adapt to a lifestyle of more humble obscurity, or feel frustrated or despondent at the lack of recognition. Others, though they have some musical talent, its not an original one. They turn into excellent mimics, ending up endlessly touring and performing in a tribute bands. The inspiring practice of Past Buddhist Masters that can be assimilated like this. If we don’t know, or are vague about, what our strengths and talents are, we could end up unwittingly paying tribute to someone else’s.
So there I was, stuck up in a rock cave trying to do a serious amount of practice before my ordination. Whilst in reality I found myself besieged by irrational fears and preoccupied with the cold as the temperatures descended. Brought back to earth by grosser more worldly winds, because the ideas I had about practice were simplistic, not to mention over ambitious. A story comes to mind from the Udana, one that has parallels to that experience of mine. The story is of Meghiya. who was the Buddha’s attendant. Though it seems he wasn’t that attentive to actually serving the Buddha’s needs. One has the impression from the Udana that he frequently wanted to desert his duties to the Buddha for one spiritually good reason or another. On this particular day, he sees a mango grove and becomes obsessed with the idea of meditating there. After badgering and attempting to manipulate the Buddha so he will relieve him of his duties, Meghiya does go to the mango grove. However, the moment he tries to meditate, he is besieged by lustful and malicious thoughts. He is well and truly distracted from his practice. He comes back to the Buddha and shamefacedly reveals what happened. The Buddha responds very kindly, but does give him a timely teaching about what factors conduce to the maturing of a disciple whose ‘heart’s release is immature’. Meghiya’s heart was in the right place, he wasn’t that bad a disciple, or necessarily that bad at practice. It was just that his faith and idealism were rather willful and lacked self-knowledge or refinement. He had all that youthful energy can bring to practice, vitality and enthusiasm, but needed to learn how to be patient and maintain focus.
As for my cave experience, it comes to mind that reading the Diamond Sutra, though worthy, was of no real spiritual help. Though Buddhists from Hui Neng to Sangharakshita have had realisations from hearing or reading it, for me the real edge of my practice in that particular moment wasn’t in the sutra, or in the meditations or the pujas, it was in my fears and self preoccupations. My spiritually immature ambitions of that evening obscured my being able to see that. I was taking the example of Past Buddhist Masters too literally and what resulted was personally instructive but spiritually superficial.
In the film Touching the Void, the mountaineer Joe Simpson has a broken leg halfway up a mountain, in the middle of a severe blizzard. His companions having given him up for dead. He knew that if he stayed put he really would die, so he decided to crawl, slowly and painfully down the mountain. He had no idea if he could get back to base camp, even whether it would still be there. However, reaching the camp was not what he chose to focus on. Instead, he broke his downward journey into twenty minute bursts of effort. His goal being to drag his ailing body from one rock to another. In this way he kept himself motivated, and survived. If he’d focused purely on reaching his ultimate goal, the distance he’d need to cover the effort required could have overwhelmed him right from the start. I imagine he’d have lost hope very quickly.
I find this is a helpful example, it reminds us how important it is to pace ourselves, remain practical to do whatever is appropriate to time and circumstances. The high mountain peaks, like our lofty high minded spiritual goals, become regularly obscured by clouds. To make progress you’re better keeping focused on things right before your eyes, or better still, beneath your feet. Thinking of the ultimate longer term goal, will not always be what motivates you. We tend to think that a BIG GOAL, such as Enlightenment, will require BIG PRACTICE and a BIG EFFORT. Everything has to be BIG. Though Dogen says its necessary to experience ‘the greatest cold’ he doesn’t talk about how much, or how long the spiritual effort is required. ‘The Greatest Cold’, does not correspond with The Greatest Effort. Joe Simpson’s descent from that mountain was determined, disciplined and heroic, but primarily it was an example of effective effort. Meghiya’s effort at practice seem willful, naive and foolish. However, what makes any practice effective ?
In general, spiritual practice is best kept grounded in experience, and kept to small, simple achievable steps. Usually this means working with whatever stares right back at us every morning when we look in the mirror. In Dogen’s Genjo Koan he says :-
“The study of the Buddha way is to study oneself”**
So rather than focusing on the ultimate transformation that is Enlightenment, we look in more detail at transforming the everyday details of our actions in body, speech and mind. This is where most of us are actually, we are studying and working on ourselves. All Past Masters started here, though its rare to hear of their early struggles and misconceptions in detail. We generally only hear hagiographical accounts of their later more extreme esoteric practices. Its important we are not mislead by those. Their experiences arose out of a self possession and confidence that has been hard won through years of steady humdrum practice on themselves. Gradually the level of cold they could experience increased until it penetrated to their very bones. Perhaps our aim should be more ordinary and grounded, just to increase our knowledge of ourselves, our habits, qualities, virtues and blind spots, and integrate them. What we are at our best, and what we are at our worst. The qualities we currently possess and those we’d like to develop, and those we want to discourage. All this requires a closer scrutiny and honesty, that is also risky, rigorous and may mean some form of going forth from them, a basic act of going beyond one's self.
Examining ourselves under the revealing microscope of awareness is not always comfortable. Realisations can often be more painful than pleasurable. We may discover our mental landscape is like a tangled ball of wool and the task of untangling it can feel overwhelming. Sometimes desire, despair and dissatisfaction with ourselves can hinder our progress. This is why Metta Bhavana can be so important as a practice. Self awareness does need to remain compassionate, equanimous to both our faults and virtues, or simply to our existential predicament. To keep responding kindly in the face of whatever difficulty and frustrations is thrown in front of us.
Such awareness also has to become balanced, remaining calm with whatever is discovered. Westerners can usually tell you in chapter and verse what’s wrong with them, its what we’re good at. When you ask a person what’s right with them, or praise them for a virtuous action, the response is often an embarrassed shrug of the shoulders. Its as if they are saying:~ ‘ I actually find this uncomfortable to believe’ or ‘I don’t want to believe this is, your just saying that, I’m not that good, really’ This weight of prejudice towards the negative, as being more true than the positive, is a difficult cultural habit that we all struggle to get beyond. It is quite hard wired from a quite early age. Yet what better thing could one find for a truly effective and meaningful practice? Transform this, then its a further step towards realising all our moods, all habits of thought and feeling are transitory things in our psyche. Even if we can’t in that moment transform them, the knowledge of their fleeting nature can be a relief. It allows us to become less attached to them, and be able to let go of them sooner. If we find this is true for ourselves, it must also true for others. Changing the way we see ourselves, will change the way we see others. By such small insightful steps we gradually turn the level of 'coldness' up.
The elements then for an effective practice aren’t necessarily complicated. Whatever is done requires first and foremost to be kept small, simple and doable. Within that to remain aware of three interrelated things :- the purpose, perfect pitch and focus of our practice.
Self awareness will help decide on the purpose of our practice. Though there is an overall BIG PURPOSE FOR ME AND EVERYTHING. we are looking for a smaller purpose grounded in our experience rather than a spiritually conceived ideal. Like Joe Simpson aiming to move himself from one rock to the next. Small steps forward may arise from paying closer attention to the quality and ethics of our speech. There may be a harshness and cutting manner that enters into your speech in certain situations or people. This may lead you to wonder why? Through the effort to resolve that question, something else is brought to your notice, and so it is that awareness leads your practice forward. None of this is dramatic, its often quite mundane and humdrum. Wanting spectacular insights and wanting them now, will in the longer term be counter productive. Purpose emerges through the process of following threads of self knowledge and seeing the pattern of connections emerge. The resulting tapestry is integrating, as we weave we create a fuller picture of ourselves. However full of insecurities, incorrect views and defensiveness we might still be.
Some people intuitively have ‘perfect pitch’ and are able to place their singing voice exactly and be in tune. For most of us this would be a question of practice, to discover how to stay in tune. In our spiritual practice we also have to find out for ourselves what ‘perfect pitch’ is for us. To not set it too high or low. To not do too much or too little. Whatever is ‘perfectly pitched’ will be an effective practice. The Buddha spoke of this to one of his disciples, using the analogy of tuning a lute. If the strings are too slack, then the instrument becomes discordant and unplayable. If the strings are too tight, then they are more likely to snap under the strain. So the pitch and tuning of our practice is important to keep correct. Like a radio that constantly goes off the right wavelength we have to keep readjusting our receiver, this requires self-knowledge and persistence. It's an essential part of any spiritual practice to stay receptive and really listen. A perfectly pitched voice if focused correctly can hit such a high note that it can shatter glass. Likewise the perfectly pitched practice can be transformative.
In the first flush of practicing the Dharma, buoyed up by beginner’s mind we easily cultivate spiritual ambitions. It’s all very exciting, intoxicating, and an inspiring place to be in. The newness of this state, is invigorating. Like a child that imagines it can fly, our innocence and naivety about what the spiritual path ahead will actually be like, means, like Icarus’, there will inevitably be a fall from the clouds. This state reminds me of Shakespeare’s Macbeth who talks of :~
“no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition, which o’er-leaps itself, and falls on th’other.”***
In the first flush of beginner’s mind we can easily ‘o’er-leap’ ourselves. Our fervent imagination vaults too far ahead of where we actually are. At some point there will be an abrupt fall to earth, a falling flat on our face. If we fly too close to the sun our youthful fledgling wings, still feeble and fragile, will melt and come apart. This does highlight the necessity of providing a firm foundation and stable structure, before we attempt to fly. It is a common thing for spiritual practice to become too wilful. a wilful practice generally means one that is spurred on by our ego, and forms for itself this ‘vaulting ambition’. Our desire to become like the Buddha or Padmasambhava can cause us to rush over the necessary preparations that make a practice more effective. Cultivating meditative calmness, ethical probity, and a wisdom that is increasingly aware of both Self and Other. This integrative awareness is the fundamental requirement for attaining and maintaining ourselves in higher states of consciousness. Would emulating the practices of a Past Master support this, or is it just a 'vaulting ambition'?
In the spiritual supermarket of 2,500 years of Buddhist practices, its easy to get excited by the range of choices on offer. What were once practices sparingly given out to a disciple when their Master thought they were spiritually ready for it, can now be downloaded from the internet in a matter of minutes. Esoteric practices and exotic rituals, are very attractive things to dress one’s practice up in. Twinkling decorations can make you stand out in a crowd, they get you noticed. If your ego is what is primarily in charge, it can make you look at best a spiritual tourist collecting memorabilia, at worst a spiritual tart parading your wares for sale. Higher teachings aren’t that effective for the spiritual ingenue. If you’re not truly prepared for them, they will probable be of no benefit, they might even be harmful. Remaining steady in our application to practice, focused in how you practice, regularly and with awareness. Its best to stick at it and not deviate. It is important how you practice, probably more than what you practice.
How do we approach deepening our awareness of ‘the greatest cold’ of impermanence? We need to place our focus on reflecting regularly on our daily experience of impermanence. Pitching this well, depends on circumstances, temperament, level of awareness and experience? In a sense it matters not whether we focus our reflections on the personal or universal dimensions of impermanence, as long as we direct our attention towards actually noticing them.
We could focus on impermanence in our immediate personal experience
- in our meditation, the breath, calmness, in dhyana.
- in our bodies, noticing the signs of old age, sickness and mortality.
- in our thoughts, emotions and feelings.
- in our ideas, concepts, views and ambitions.
- in our desires, cravings and romantic love.
- in our clothes, possessions, and everything that wears out or breaks.
We could focus on impermanence in our more externalised experience
- in the earth, water, fire, air and universe.
- in nature, the weather, plants and mountains.
- in the seasons and the changes of global warming.
- in our culture, history and civilisations
- in governments and political fortunes.
- in fame, celebrity and reputations.
We need to consider what sort of practice would be appropriate. A personal focus might be a simple reflection on pure awareness practices. A external focus might be to understand the Heart Sutra better, or to do the Six Element Practice.
By maintaining regular and focused effort practice grows slowly more effective. Gradually the spiritual temperature drops and intensifies until there is ‘the greatest cold’, the longest most severe winter you could ever imagine, to realise the impermanence of everything.
This experience of the complete universality of impermanence is, however, only an essential precursor, for without this Dogen insists :-
“how will the fragrance of the plum blossoms pervade the entire universe?”
This phrase is perhaps less easy to understand or resonate with because the associations here are culturally specific to Japan. The Japanese were no different to us in feeling that winter was too long and restricting. Swaddling themselves in layers of clothing to conserve their warmth. Though they enjoyed the extremes of Winter, they also looked eagerly for the first signs of it starting to abate. The first sign would be buds appearing on the Plum Blossom Tree. The Plum Blossom, has black gnarled branches, which whilst still lined with white scarves of snow, will suddenly erupt into extravagant flower. Large voluptuous white flowers breaking through its frosty white blanket. Once these blooms appeared, they knew the thaw of winter is only a few weeks away. Plum Blossoms have become a commonly used metaphor in Japanese Zen poetry, for everyone understood what was being referred to. Th Plum Blossom bursting into flower in the depths of winter became for Zen practitioners synonymous with the opening of insight in the midst of samsara. So Dogen uses this association here, knowing precisely what he was evoking.
“If this greatest cold does not penetrate into our bones, how will the fragrance of the plum blossoms pervade the entire universe?”
Perhaps the very trigger for the Plum Blossom to begin flowering is the severity of the cold that precedes it. Whilst we are asleep at night, the temperature gets colder as the night progresses, being at its coldest in the minutes before the sun begins to rise. So, unless the frost has reached its coldest, so that it penetrates beneath its bark, there will be no blossom, no sunrise, no enlightenment. The cold has to be that intense. Likewise, our awareness of impermanence has to so freeze us to the marrow that we feel we might actually die, before liberation will unfold.
Dogen wrote in the ‘Shobogenzo’ a longer discourse called ‘Plum Blossoms’. It is both tantalising and infuriatingly opaque. What he communicates is primarily a feeling. A feeling for how an pure awakened perception might see the world.
“A moment in which flowers opening is the occurrence of the world, is spring having arrived. At this moment one flower is present as the opening of five petals. The Time of this one flower is able to include three flower, four flowers, and five flowers; it includes hundreds of flowers, thousands of flowers, myriads of flowers, and kotis of flowers; and it includes countless flowers. The opening of these flowers, in all cases, is the old plum tree’s state of being unable to be proud of one twig, two twigs, or countless twigs. Udumbara flowers, Utpala flowers, and so on, also are one twig or two twigs of flowers of the old plum tree. In sum, all cases of flowers opening are benevolent gifts of the old plum tree”****
That moment when the old plum tree blossoms, is ‘the occurrence of the world.’ Something occurs to us at this point. Its like when you’re listening to a Dharma talk and the speaker vividly explains something you previously had only a vague grasp of. At that point, something opens up and unfurls in your consciousness. Something occurs to us that was previously muddled or obscured, it becomes crystal clear. Our misconceptions about the nature of reality and of ourselves are like this. When these drop away, the world of Samsara we live in, is shown to be indivisible from Nirvana. The ‘plum blossom’, is the flowering of this Insight which then pervades the entire universe.
So the awakening of one flower releases a fragrance that permeates the entire universe. Not just this universe, but all universes. Not just in the present, but in all eras, past, present and future. Like water falling onto a dried out sponge, one persons awakening flowers and rejuvenates all the flowers of all previous awakenings, and the entire cosmos says, Sadhu! sadhu! sadhu!
There is a practical as well as metaphysical teaching here. In his full length discourse ‘the old plum tree’ is ‘unable to be proud of one twig, two twigs or countless twigs’, because we have enough twigs. Twigs are ten a penny, what we need are the remarkable and rare blossoming of Udumbara and Utpala flowers. The purpose of twigs is to bear these flowers. Being just a twig on the old plum tree is not an end in itself. The ultimate purpose for humanity is to become Enlightened beings. In the long winter of our daily practice we can lose hope of being anything other than twigs on branches. Will we ever come fully to fruition and flower? Out of despair we can often settle for just being a twig. How can we prevent this from happening, to continue practicing over time and not lose hope?
I passed my driving test many years ago, but have driven very little since then. A few years ago I become a car owner for the first time. I found that even though I drove daily to work, I had little confidence in myself as a capable driver, becoming easily crestfallen if the slightest thing went wrong. Yet every day I would jump into the car, turn the key and the engine would start without fail. I was a very undemanding car owner. As long as it started and got me to work on time, I gave it very little further thought. Occasionally I’d take a look under the bonnet, though I’d rarely wash or polish it. For me, owning a car was a practical necessity only. I’d put it in for a service whenever the engine was began to sound a bit gravelly, or the clutch and brakes were less sharp and seemed to have lost their smoothness. On its return from service I’d realise how much its performance had been slowly and imperceptibly deteriorating.
The main thing to draw out of this is obvious, but obvious things are the things most often overlooked. It is that driving and cars, are like practice, they need regular upkeep and maintenance. Over time spiritual purpose grows cloudier. The perfect pitch and focus of it becomes roughened or less precisely drawn. This happens without our even noticing. With a car, as the oil gets older and dirtier the engine compensates by using more petrol. This damages the engine which becomes less efficient, until eventually it burns out. Petrol provides energy for movement, oil ensures the engine moves smoothly. Now for practice, the petrol that keeps it moving is determination, discipline and dedication. The oil is our confidence, inspiration and vision, our Sraddha or faith in what we are doing.
A car cannot run on petrol alone. Likewise a practice that runs too much on willpower and determination eventually will burn out or go up in flames. Some days a little judicious application of self discipline is really needed. But if this happens everyday then something is being ignored, habitually overridden, or is remaining hidden to awareness. Perhaps what this clouding of our awareness is hiding is a vague unspecified doubt. Resistances always arise for a reason,and shouldn't always be thought of as spiritual laziness. It might be because our idealism has become fossilised, and doesn't properly represent where we are currently. In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind Shunryu Suzuki describes this :-
“When you are tired of sitting, or when you are disgusted with your practice, you should recognise this as a warning signal.
You become discouraged with your practice when your practice has been idealistic.”*****
Idealism can have a lot of crude energy propelling it, when this meets an obstacle to it there can be a tendency to wage war on it. A bloody minded insistence on practice, or on a particular form of practice can narrow awareness of anything outside of the objective which is to overcome or eradicate it. Idealism can also be confused with sraddha. Sraddha, however, is not inflexible. Our natural ideals for ourselves, can has become entangled or held to ransom by specific views, concepts and methods that we feel have to be rigidly adhered to. Idealism can have this fascistic dictatorial tendency. It’s no wonder, if after a period stretching into months then years, we start encountering weariness with practice. Idealism is often conceited, arrogant, lack understanding, lack a compassionate heart, lack Metta.
One cannot then over emphasize the usefulness of oil. Sraddha oils the machine of spiritual practice. What inspires and brings confidence to maintain our practice, what we decide to place our heart upon, will be different for each of us. Whatever our sraddha is founded upon, we should know how to top it up regularly. It might be through collective practices, rituals or a sense of community, but don’t be surprised if its not obviously Buddhist. When we have an experience of Right View or Vision, it somehow provides the faintest glimmer of an answer to an unanswered question, one that has always been bothering us for a long time.
There is something in nature, in being alive and creative that is related to sraddha,this is what it is built upon. These bring a much needed sense of openness, spontaneity and freedom to us. Sometimes sraddha may rest in our sense of relationship with others, be they friends, partners or work colleagues. Sraddha might rest in 'how' we want to relate to others, than to whom. For myself, I find reading and studying Dogen connects me into a deeply mysterious vein of sraddha. It’s ineffable what exactly that is, but then that ineffability is a characteristic of Sraddha and indicative of Enlightenment. Sraddha never fully explains itself, there’s always an element of the hunch to it. It’s important that we don’t imprison sraddha within idealised views, concepts or habits. Sraddha has to be allowed to flow freely and to express its true nature, otherwise any practice we do, whether meditative, ethical or insightful, will grow dry without its oil.
Oil and petrol have to work together in order for a car to run efficiently. Sraddha has to accompany determination in order for a practice to be really maintainable. In the Zen and Chan traditions there is a saying that the spiritual life needs Great Sraddha, Great Doubt and Great Determination. You have to feel free to constructively doubt what you’re doing, to question yourself, reflect and check up on your practice. In order to maintain its effectiveness you have to feel free to doubt. You need occasionally to look under the bonnet just to make sure it sounds like its still functioning well. Practice can lose its edge and effectiveness. In our moments of despair, we might be tempted to lose hope and settle for being just a twig. However, our Sraddha remains loyal and confident in the old plum tree, because it knows that after the severest winter imaginable it will burst into the glorious purity of its blossom. Sraddha is like a lamp we carry with us in a dark windowless house. An old aphorism from the southern states of the US, says it all:~
“Faith is the bird that sings while it is still dark”******
Dharma Discourse No34 – Penetrating Cold.
taken from Dogen’s Extensive Record – a translation of the Eihei Koroku.
Translated by Taigen Dan Leighton & Shohaku Okumara.
Published by Wisdom publications 2004
Taken from Flowers Fall
a commentary and translation of Dogen’s Genjo Koan
by Hakuun Yashutani Translated by Paul Jaffe.
Published by Shambhala Publications 1996.
Taken from Shakespeare’s Complete Works
Edited by Peter Alexander.
Published by WM. Collins Sons & Co. Ltd 1978.
Baike – Plum Blossoms
taken from Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo – Book Three.
Translated by Gudo Nishijima & Chodo Cross.
Published by Windbell Publications 1997.
Taken from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
by Shunryu Suzuki
Published by Weatherhill 1999.
Taken from Sitting up with the dead
by Pamela Petro
Published by Arcade 2001