Please & Thank You, I Love You.

Why say these words? Please? Thank you? One writer says they came from a time when there was a sharp distinction between Commoners and their “betters.” “If you please,” and, “I thank you,” came in as a way to assume an equal standing in the markets when there really was none. Each gave the other equal respect, and business went on more smoothly.

In much the same way marrieds might say, “I love you,” at the oddest times. They might be  tired, frustrated, or even angry. Loving feelings of any kind might be the farthest thing from their minds. By affirming what they don’t feel (but doesn’t love go far beyond mere emotion?) they assure the other of a needed respect, and that assurance allows the relationship to go on more smoothly.

Confucius pointed out, though that such expressions go far beyond putting a calm surface on the waters. In fact, they are acts of creation. When I tell my wife, “I love you,” it is not so much about how I feel as it is creating in her the sense of being loved – of being someone worthy of love. We can say, “please pass the potatoes,” that is, “in respect for you as a person, I am asking that you reach me the potato bowl.” We can also just say, “pass me the potatoes.” One is likely to create an inner response, “I’ll be glad to,” while the other, “and who are you?” Respectful words create respect; rude words, resentment.

Another word, not as common in the West, is, “Namasté.” It affirms equality, but on a much higher level. Rather than limiting to the common humanity, as with “please” and “thank you,” it recognises a shared, higher, and deeper, humanity. It says, in effect, “the divine in me honors the divine in you.” Not merely, “I love you,” but, “the love in me recognises the love in you.” The Tao of Prayer is about discovering and nurturing that love, and that divinity.

Spontaneous Generation

In the early days of Natural Philosophy some thought that life just happens. Where there is old meat, flies happen. Where rags are left in a corner, rats happen. Grain, weevils, &c. A naive teen might worry about a kiss making babies. Today we’re a little smarter: life has to come from somewhere, right?

Where does our life come from? More to the point, where does our aliveness originate – our awareness, our skills, our mastery?

There is an old story that Zhuang Tse told about a butcher who could cut an ox with the grace of a dancer. His blade never dulled, and his motions were fluid, never meeting any resistance. He “knew” just where to apply the edge as the meat fell away and the joints divided as if on their own. In watching him at work, the Emperor himself was instructed in how to rule his kingdom properly.

The Sage said that Butcher Ding’s spirit knew where to cut as he followed the Tao. His own tao knew the tao of that particular ox, so that there was no time spent in finding the right path to cut. This did not happen by some magic, but he had practiced his art for many years. His mind – whether seated behind his eyes, in his hands, or even in the cleaver which extended them – lived in the mastery of his craft. He was spontaneous. 

We speak today of being spontaneous as if meant just doing what we feel like doing – following our heart, and that’s that. In truth, it’s pretty much the opposite. Butcher Ding couldn’t spontaneously prepare a feast when still an apprentice. Neither could a pianist perform a Liszt concerto without visible effort, but by the invisible effort in years of study and practice.

Mind, body, soul, and spirit – all that one is – learn to operate as one. One stroke at a time, one note at a time, one prayer, one breath at a time. This is what it takes to attain mastery, and to be mastered.

 

Is the Machine in the Ghost?

We too easy accept the idea of the soul as being the “ghost in the machine.” We see different Science-Fiction images of a cyborg – a robot of some kind with a person, or just a brain, controlling it – and think our souls are like that – just a tiny speck of “something spiritual” hidden deep inside. Another idea is that the body is within a greater soul – something larger, which fills and reaches beyond it.

We don’t know, of course, which it is. We do know that we have yet to locate the mind. We have brains which keep our organs and muscles coordinated, and do the needed calculations. We also have “muscle memory” so we can do different tasks without having to calculate anything. In fact, it could be that most of what we do doesn’t involve the brain so much at all. We often “talk without thinking.” A hand might reach for something when the brain doesn’t remember where it is. We laugh, walk, dance, or make love without the first degree of cogitation. We often ask, “where was my mind,” but never seem to come up with an answer. We always think of the mind as being linked to the soul, as part of it, or our link with it. We may not really know just how or what in this world, and isn’t that just part of the Mystery?

Could it be that the ghost is not in the machine, but the machine lives within the ghost? This could explain a lot, couldn’t it? Why do we have different responses from being close to people? Why does this vary with who they are, or even their intentions? Why do soul issues effect our bodies in so many ways? Why is Psychology the most confusing science?

The first book of Moses speaks of God, in the plural, “Elohim,” creating mankind in His/Their image, and of people, from the beginning, not just raising families but creating communities. So long after, we now flock to cities, but simply to make money – to survive, and get ahead (of others). We lift up the Loner, the Maverick, the Strong Woman, and the Rugged Individual as ideals, and tell ourselves that the disease of loneliness is really the cure.

If the soul is the best picture of who we really are then perhaps in recognising its outward-ness we can learn to grow by reaching out when our culture has taught us to merely cringe.

Risking All, Gaining More

We all change. That part is certain. Do we grow, or do we decay? Lao Tse says that most people live either in fear of death, fear of life, or fear of change. Only the one who is released from all these fears is really alive. When we embrace our own death we begin to live. When we begin to live, we encounter change. When we accept change we can become who we really are.

Do we just consider an idea, and say, “yep?” If we’re not doing the change, we’re not making the change, are we? In some places a novice monk will spend a few weeks in the crypt, with only the bones of monks long dead for company. This helps him take it to heart that his own bones will one day join them. Having passed his time there he can join the living, with the liberating reminder, “brother, we are going to die.”

Not all of us have this option. We can, though, take slow walks through graveyards and consider the brief “biographies” on the stones. “Beloved wife, 1887 – 1924.” Only thirty-seven years. Where there no children? How did she die? How did she live? Another one lived a long life, and has a tall, marble monument where the others are limestone. Yet now, who, even, was he?

We can visit people in nursing homes. Many have had rich lives, now live as prisoners. Some have raised children who now show up on the odd Thanksgiving, or maybe a birthday. Where – and how – will our own lives end?

This kind of exercise hurts. If it doesn’t, then we’re not doing it right, are we? When we embrace death we find that is not only cold, but prickly. We all tend to be too full of ourselves until we’ve been properly wounded. But then, the choice is ours, to grow, or not. Either way, we change.

One Hand Clapping – Loudly!

Shunryu Suzuki answered that age-old koan, “what is the sound of one hand clapping?”  The sound has always been, he said, or it would not be. If we hear the sound that two hands make, then we hear it, and it is gone. The one hand is already the sound. Do we hear it? Do we not hear it? No matter. All that exists has been before, and will continue to be. In our duality we can’t see that. Before a child is born, or conceived, there is no child, and only for a few years does she exist before she dies. Yet every life – indeed, all of life – is an extension of the life of God. This universe is alive with the Divine life, or it is not alive at all. Whence it comes, there also it must return, because that is its home. That is where it belongs.

Is this strange, that we speak of “being” and “existence” as two things? One is but the extension of the other. What exists, is, but it has become evident. It is more definable. An old Christian sage, and I forget his name, said, “if an intelligent person asks you if God exists, then tell him, ‘no.’ For all that God is cannot be encompassed with any meaning which we give to the word, ‘existence.’ ”  The ancient Celts spoke of all nature – not just mankind, or not just the enlightened by any such means – as being alive with Divine life, or not at all. There is only one life, and only one Source of all life, and of all nature. A recent survey in the US showed nearly half of all people calling themselves atheists had experienced this wonder, not to mention those who claimed some religion or spirituality. We come from God, we go to God, and in the meantime, as the two hands are clapping they clap in God.

Suzuki Roshi goes on to tell us that when we sit, when we bow, when we go about our day’s business, it is Zazen to do so simply. When we pray, let it be in such simplicity, as putting one foot before another, simply walking the path. Have you ever heard a child on a journey? “Are we there yet? When do we get there? Now are we there?” The adult knows simply to keep the vehicle moving, because the journey is the getting-there, If we get attached to our goal it does nothing to get us there sooner, but makes the trip all the harder when we could be enjoying the view. So, an attitude of, “look at me, I’m driving,” does nothing. I knew a couple of men who invited me to join them in their prayers. Each of them focused on doing everything Just Right. Bowing at the right moments, even reciting the prayers in a language their hearts did not know. Striving to attain. Struggling to do everything perfectly, by some imagined pattern. What could have been a release from the ego became instead the ego’s own exercise. In each time I found myself wishing for the nearest way out of that room. The strife was unbearable. Within a year, each of them was given over to terrible passions.

Rather than always doing, to get this or that “done,” is it not better to be where we are, who we are, and simply doing what we are doing in the peace of the moment? The drive will be more pleasant, the walk more restful, and the destination will come as a welcome surprise. 

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