August 12, 2012

No matter life’s storm—what is, is.

Please enjoy an excerpt from my book, See for your Self: Zen Mindfulness for the Next Generation. 

Here’s the epilogue titled, “Koan on the Great Way.”


An old master said,

The great Way is not difficult
If you just don’t pick and choose.

~ Sengcan  (Seng-ts’an)

The open mind is one that is like a metaphorical sky: vast to the point of laughter, clear, and accepting of the various storm (thought) systems and cloud formations appearing and disappearing below.

There isn’t a notion to change anything, just a witnessing and a being that flow with the naturalness of the moment. It could be an interesting experience to step into the realm of openness, putting down, picking and choosing, likes and dislikes, and leaving the life of small storm systems to inhabit largeness. There might be something luscious about stepping into what is occurring as it is.

Picking and choosing implies a kind of limitation of sorts between what is—reality—and what the mind desires to see and strives to attain. There can be resistance, aversion, defensiveness, manipulation, and a sheep-like tendency to follow others, streaming out of a decision made from the unexamined, ego-based mind without us ever realizing it.

And there is conflict here too, one in which an infinitesimally small subject mentally pushes against a perceived outer, infinite object, when in reality they are both part of an overarching oneness. Stepping into this oneness might come from the simple, mindful practice of being okay with what is: cancer, chocolate, deceased pets, work, sandy toes, hawks and, of course, traffic!

The koan written above originates from an old Zen or Taoist master named Sengcan, an almost mythical figure or wild-man who roamed China’s wilderness sometime between the first and sixth centuries. It’s fun to watch scholars try to pin Sengcan down to a certain place or time, as if he meant to be a reclusive hermit for eternity not to be a nuisance, but to be more like a continually surviving and humorous teaching or practical joke.

As if within his leaping into the shadows of the unknown is a hidden and yet straightforward teaching meant to say, “Stop trying to find me through history! Put down your discerning mind and step into the moment right now… Oh, how nice it is to meet you!” In the Zen tradition he is viewed as one of the original Patriarchs, and for the sake of this book we’ll let him rest there for now.

When I bring Sengcan’s koan, “The great Way is not difficult if you just don’t pick and choose,” into this life, I am often struck by its ability to break down my internal walls, allowing more of the texture of life to seep into my awareness.

Something that may have dissuaded me before becomes an opportunity to enjoy the moment in a new way, and I am able to expand from the fortress of the “who” that I think I am. I also notice how things begin to have a spacious quality or lightness to them when I don’t have the urge to pick or choose my opinions about how the moment should be. It’s not that the external event, the world, or even the universe is different—how could that ever be possible? It’s my interaction with what is and my perception of what is that has changed.[1]

There is also a joyful sense of playfulness wrapped within Sengcan’s words: when faced with a decision between cake or pie, I might decide in that moment, “redwood!” blowing up my small mind and opening a door towards a kind of internal freedom or vastness I would otherwise not have been able to experience. Maybe this opening of the mind is the lusciousness, the thusness of life I have often read about in books, unfurling into this direct experience of the world and the moment, here, now.

Not picking and choosing includes all things, entering into the realms I fear and keep at bay, the real storms that block me from knowing my own sky-like nature.

Sickness, being alone, past grievances, anger and grief, and the greatest teacher of all, death, are all intimate parts of the totality of experience that I choose to ignore and fend off. Allowing the koan to settle in these instances within my life removes a kind of seething, underlying resistance that slithers below my perception of the world.

When this subtle uneasiness is removed, then what is, is free to be as it is, and it takes on a natural brilliance on its own, without having to fit into my narrow, prescribed view of how things should be. And so, there might be a transformative experience waiting to be directly realized within not picking and choosing.

Here is a story about a Welsh grandmother’s passing and the naturalness of not picking and choosing in the face of the greatest kind of transformation, leaving this life and moving into the unknown wilderness.

A Welsh grandmother was passing away from lung cancer and the annual pilgrimage of windswept fall leaves. There wasn’t anything that could be done and she knew deeply that the end of her path was near, whether she wanted it to be or not. As the disease progressed, she watched her family come and go through the bedroom door, giving her blessings and longing “I love you’s.”

Her dutiful old dog, Tess, her husband of forty-five years clucking about the room like a worried mother hen, her son and granddaughter flown all the way from sunny San Diego, and her frowning sister: each brought his or her own unique flavor of love and care that was tantalizing to the senses.

She had never felt so much gratitude before and she smiled at the grief of being torn between two worlds: this one and the next. As she continued to slip more into the unknown, simmering family dynamics and questions of morphine fell in and out of hearing. Her mind was going and the logical parameters or boundaries of what she thought was real were breaking apart.

Talking and breathing were hard for her now and there was a strange, ironic humor in it all. Being okay with dying: thankful, gracious, and lingering with this life, but ready for what lay beyond the borders of the known, where she couldn’t pick or choose. She realized that this life had always been this way.

In the midst of death, as all her opinions, thoughts, and beliefs melted away, a freedom beyond the scope of what she had previously experienced leaped towards her. She had lost her internal walls and so she stepped intimately into the life she had always been a part of:

One day she awoke among dreams, pain, and memories, and asked aloud, “What day is it?”

Her husband responded, “It’s Tuesday dear, how are you feeling?”

She had lost her sense of relationship with the outside world, or what she once thought of as reality. All that mattered to her now was that it was her time and that she was ready to move on. She said, “I’m supposed to be dead today dear!”

Later on she awoke again to see her granddaughter smiling and holding her once-strong hands—hands that recalled setting sail across coral reef passages in the Seychelles and plucking rocket lettuce, tomatoes, and fresh chicken eggs from her bountiful Welsh garden, hands that had borne her children and grandchildren, hands that clasped her glass of white wine and slapped her thigh after a good laugh, hands that had touched and expressed so much in this world and that held fast so many dear ones to her heart.

Her granddaughter interrupted her thoughts and lovingly told her, “I’m going for a walk Nain. I will be back in a little bit.”[2]

The Welsh grandmother was very tired, but she had not lost her spirit and her wild humor.

She lovingly responded, “If you tell me that you are going to see me when you get back, I’m going to throw something at you!”

The grandmother held on, slipping in and out of consciousness deep into the night and the following day. She passed away, leaving her family to grieve as she went out the back door.[3] There wasn’t anything she or anyone else could do but accept the moment and appreciate the existence of a wonderful, vibrant life.

“If you tell me that you are going to see me when you get back, I’m going to throw something at you!”—reverberating outwards, her own fierce kindness was her Way.

The grandmother’s death was hard on her family, but easy on the sky under which she lived. When she let go, it all became so clear. There was a reverence and an ancient wisdom that flowed out of her handling of an apparent impasse: taking the moment in hand and passing right through, without doing, picking, or choosing. She appears now and again in the laughter of her descendants and the winds that blow their sails through the calmest of mornings and the darkest of nights.

I often hear Sengcan’s line jumping out of redwood tree roots, or the texture of frozen ice cream—intimate, yet tantalizing to the senses. I also see it within the Welsh grandmother’s actions, a letting go and a dropping away of smallness to enter into what is, even if that “what is,” is death.

Meditating on this story brings out a spaciousness in my life and a kind of reverence for the greater movements of the universe. And then this fades into ordinariness, for that is what not picking and choosing is, inhabiting the ordinary mind and watching the unfurling of life without labeling or compartmentalizing it.

Grounded into the sky, no matter the storm, what is, is.

Sengcan may not be in the past, eluding the roving intellectual flashlights of present-day scholars and Zen enthusiasts. He could be here now, sitting quietly on the veranda or emanating from the Welsh grandmother’s open mind. He also may be in your mind too, watching a sunset or chuckling at an inside joke.

Putting down our little minds and gleaning the lessons within the Sengcans floating through time and space, even those making brief appearances into our lives, opens up the possibilities for the innate Sengcan mind within to come forth. And that mind is something to be experienced intimately too. It might not be about externalities—life, death, chocolate or strawberry, cream or white colored wall paint—it could be all about you: how open are you to the total, unfettered experience of this life?


[1] It could be an intriguing idea to step into no-perception. And instead of labeling, it might be an expansive move to see the apparent individual moments in life as… life!

[2] “Nain” is the Welsh word for grandmother.

[3] As the cliffs erode into the sea and eventually make their way down into the earth’s mantle, so too do those we love. Going back into infinity is an inevitable step. Taking a creative approach to dying—facing it head on—one sneaks through the back door (There is a certain kind of playfulness embedded within this line. I often envision children playing hide and seek, sneaking away and leaping out the back door. It takes the heaviness of tragedy out of a natural event.).

Editor: Lynn Hasselberger

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