When you are on a retreat in a monastery something interesting happens. You never know what, but it’s always interesting. Today the walls were melting.
It might sound a bit like an LSD trip, but I have never taken LSD. In a monastery.
A shimmering light poured over the hardwood floors and every surface seemed to be slowly breathing. I watched a monk standing by a window, his robe a shadow against the sunlight streaming through the frost-covered glass. Suddenly I was he, looking out over the garden. A cracked Buddha statue gazed back. White stones lined a path covered with fog. The branches of cherry trees were beginning to bud through melting ice. A humming bird flitted by and hovered as it drank from a feeder, then flew up into the sky.
I flew back into my body, breathed deep, and thought about how fascinating hummingbirds are. Physics tells us that their wings should not support them and they should fall from the sky. Someone forgot to tell that to the humming birds. I smiled and waited for the bell. When it rang, I stood and walked back to our Zen Masters room, bowed and entered.
Genpo Roshi was reclined in lazy boy chair, sipping coffee. He wore blue jeans, a flannel shirt and motorcycle boots. It was a cold day for riding a motorcycle. Roshi was very different than when I had first met him 17 years ago. At the time he was rather formal and intimidating; a stern moody Zen Master whose teacher had recently passed away in a tragic hot-tubing incident. Roshi was a stout body builder, usually wearing his dark robes and a darker expression. He carried a stick, which in Japan they used to hit monks who had drifted off in meditation. I never drifted off.
When Roshi spoke he would usually say something profound like:
“What was your original face before your parents were born?”
“The way up is the way down!”
In our interviews Roshi would often begin by asking me a deep question about my meditation practice or a Koan I was working on.
Today he just smiled and said. “How’s it going?”
I looked around and said. “I feel like I am high.”
Roshi nodded and then mentioned how he once tried to get his mother to take LSD to facilitate enlightenment. It hadn’t worked out well.
I asked him a question to which he seemed surprised as if he had never been asked it before. It was one of those Zen questions you would have to be there to get and even then it probably wouldn’t make much sense. Zen is like that. It was a profound question I am sure, but I don’t remember what it was. I do remember that we talked for awhile, solved the mysteries of the universe and then Roshi drank the rest of his coffee.
“It’s all love,” I reflected. It was. And it wasn’t.
“Yes, it’s awareness. It’s tantric.” Roshi added.
“It’s ungraspable.” I said.
“So don’t try.”
Don’t grasp it I thought, and watched as my mind tried to grasp it.
As humans we grasp. It’s what we are good at. Grasping, even though we know that everything in life are just fleeting moments. Like a sand mandala, we build a something in our minds only to watch the colors drift into the wind. Nothing remains but the awareness of what was. And then we are somewhere else, our minds grasping the next experience.
Quantum physics is discovering what lies beneath everything, is awareness. The deeper we look, we find something increasingly abstract. There is no longer a separation between the observer and the observed. The universe slips through our fingers like sand. All that is left is a pure consciousness rising and falling in waves of vibrations. The relationship between awareness is what creates the universe. It is this interactive consciousness that creates light waves, particles, everything we see and experience. In yoga traditions this might be called God Consciousness, divine love. In Buddhism it’s the absolute or nirvana. It’s ungraspable but elegant, beautiful and abstract.
Then we are back. And when we return to the real world things get a little messier.
Shortly after that last retreat I received a powerful lesson in not grasping. I had been one of the few accepted to become a facilitator of Genpo Roshis system. For some reason I hesitated to accept; something had not felt right. I decided to put things on hold, and then it hit. Genpo had an affair with some of his students and the resident Sensei.
It was a blow, though personally I wasn’t too surprised. But if its one thing we do well it’s judge. Eventually the resulting uproar destroyed our community and hurt many people. But for myself there was a strange sense of freedom. It’s sad to walk past the empty monastery, a place I called home, soon to be a home to someone else. But the memories and awareness still remain. Awareness rises and falls. Ungraspable.
A year later I went through my Anusara yoga teacher training for the second time. I wanted to completely immerse myself and deepen my teaching and my practice. Open to Grace is the first principal of Anusura. Open to something larger than you are, a state of yoga or union with the divine. During the training I was surrounded by others who were in similar alignment. It was beautiful and exhausting; I often stumbled and at times fell. One day my teacher noted that I had a very strong handstand practice with excellent alignment but that I seemed tentative coming up.
“Try practicing falling.” He said.
“I’d rather keep practicing not-falling.” I said. I’ve always been acrophobic, but it really wasn’t heights I was scared of so much as the falling.
“If you can fall gracefully you can do anything.”
By embracing falling I stopped falling.
During our training, in the background there were rumors of prominent Anusara teachers resigning. I didn’t think much of it until we found out why. The founder of Anusaura, John friend, fell from grace in yet another sex scandal. I tried not to judge. If we are honest, who hasn’t dreamed of having our own cannabis fueled tantric-wiccan-sex-coven on the side?
But again, the community was devastated.
The karmic lesson continued, rising, falling, ungraspable.
Roshi once observed that students get stuck in a love of their teachers’ knowledge. They see the teachers’ wisdom but can’t see their humanity. It’s important to have a teacher, someone to show us the path, but at some point, we have to kill the Buddha.
When you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha. -Zen Proverb.
There is no Buddha outside of you. Everything is both perfect, and imperfect. Even if you become enlightened you don’t become a better person. Enlightenment is simply awakening to a new reality. There are many enlightened beings who are oblivious to their own darkness.
You can become addicted to anything, even a spiritual state. This has been referred to as the stink of Zen. Spiritual teachers often ignore the shadow because of their ability to live in the non-dual state. From the non-dual everything you do is fine because everything is one. There really is no shadow. So you grasp the ungraspable.
Learning to embrace my own light and darkness has taught me freedom to move fluidly between duality and non-duality, and accept these states in others. So often it seems like when we get too close and see someone else’s shadow we pull away. I love John Friend and Genpo Roshi even more now. I am grateful for their inspired wisdom, and knowing that they are human like us all is a gift. Perhaps unconsciously, their fall is an act of martyrdom, freeing their followers from the bondage of worship.
The universe creates and destroys. Awareness rises and falls. It is a natural process that we all must go through. Whether we are metaphorically or literally upside down we can learn the power of embracing our fear and learn to fall gracefully.
Genpo Roshi calls this process the Path of the Human Being.
He had five stages for this.
1) The shift or opening, a great awakening.
2) The path of submission, the process of surrendering the ego.
3) The Great Liberation, completely impersonal; what some call true awakening.
4) Falling from Grace, a completely personal process.
5) The Apex. Integration or Unity, fully experiencing your ongoing process.
“What’s beyond the Apex?” I asked Roshi.
Roshi looked surprised at the question as if he had never been asked it before. He finished his coffee.
“It’s all love,” Roshi finally answered. It was. And it wasn’t.
“Yes it’s awareness. It’s Tantric.” I added.
“So don’t try,” I said.
At that moment there was no up, no down, no difference between Roshi and I.
“Just live your life,” said Roshi. He rang the bell and I stood to leave. Something made me pause.
“But you know we’ll fall again,” I said.
He gave me a sad resigned look, but didn’t say anything.
I turned and walked away.
We are all human. We all fall from grace.
Rise and fall.
Don’t grasp. Accept and learn to fall.
Accepting this in others.
Editor Tanya L. Markul