The great nature of koans and children compel us, in unexpected and often dramatic ways, to learn, break apart and reshape our thinking. Practice engaged, not simply with the mind to think, the eyes to see or the ears to hear, but with every ounce of effort we have available to give. Our practice manifests itself in an evolving and growing life. A life that refuses to be taken lightly and ignored, or too seriously and spoiled; a life that refuses to allow any moment to sit and escape into the relative comfort of a meditative cushion and dark cave.
Children and koans push our practice into the real world; out of the meditative cocoon that we spin around us and into the blinding sun. Children and koans are always evolving, never settled, and will always be what your practice comes back to, my dear Buddhist parents—no matter how many times you escape to the cushion, it always comes back to them.
But thinking about them does not solve the riddle; it does not break through the koan, it does not raise the child. No longer does MU! exist in the abstract but it is reflected in the eyes of our children. It is embodied in the song and dance of samsara that comes unbidden from the minds of children in their most joyous and sad moments (often within seconds of each other). It is born of unintentional dance and skinned knees; buzz-bees and the uninterrupted rapture of an unexplored tree or high-grass at noon. It is the joy of seeing the moon disappear behind a cloud and then reappear, unchanged and universal—the eye of Bodhi in the sky.
The moon is still the moon, lonely parent, and the dinner table will transform into a dokusan where teacher instructs and student responds. Rolls reverse, tumble and then come back again into alignment. Work practice extends from morning to night, broken by the meditative silence of washing your daughter’s hair, only to be re-ignited with dharma-combat, tears and a parable before bed. No Rinzai instructor was ever so harsh to almost bring me to tears so many times. No strike of the stick of enlightenment across my shoulders could ever bring me back to this moment.
Practicing with a koan is often compared to swallowing a red-hot iron ball that won’t go up or down your throat—it remains lodged—it may wiggle one way or the other—but no matter how hard you try to struggle with it, the hot iron ball will always be there, burning, never extinguished, always hot. This same description applies itself to to parenting. When practicing a koan or raising a child we are not made of wood. We do not burn away when placed near a flame. We are not made of clay or glass. We do not crack or shatter. This koan—these children, your child—this practice of raising them is lodged in our gullet and it burns in our throat. It is our life. There is no way of ever becoming one with it. It will only be realized when it is ready and even then this practice is only just beginning—it was just a preliminary step. Just a warm up. A stretch…
To swallow it all would mean complete understanding and ease while to spit the iron ball out out would mean giving up. This is the medicine of Zen and parenting, the great aspirin is not meant to be swallowed and digested, it will never meet your stomach—it will never provide nourishment. At the same time, you will never spit it out. It will stay there forever, always reminding you of its presence—annoyingly, lovingly, persistently hot.
It tears you apart from the inside.
It will, however, keep you alive.
Hakuin stated that three things are required in your practice: a great faith in the Teaching, a great “ball of doubt”, that is, energetic application of the koan to this life, and finally, great tenacity of purpose. He stated that any man who lacks any of these is like a three-legged kettle with a broken leg, ready to fall with the least amount of pressure. Imagine teetering on that three-legged stool, reaching up high to grasp something…this is your child balanced on your practice. One misstep and she falls…
The same is true of us, dear parents. We have to have great faith in our ability to prepare us. We need to keep that “ball of doubt” lodged deep in our throat to keep us constantly applying to this koan of life and parenting. Finally, we need to have a great tenacity of spirit and purpose. An understanding that what we do as parents will move Mount Sumaru and drain the Ganges all in one awesome swoop. With constant commitment to the practice of our children we will not mold Buddhists but create small Buddhas—small world-honored ones that take seven stumbling steps guided by the hands of bodhisattvas and saints.