When the Buddha was walking with a group, he pointed to the ground and said, “This would be the right place to build a monastery.” Indra, lord of the gods, took a stalk of grass, stuck it in the ground, and said, “The monastery is complete.” The Buddha smiled.
living without walls in the mind, and so without fears,
seeing through delusions and finally seeing through nirvana. -Heart Sutra, Pacific Zen Institute Sutra Service
Transformation of life means finding a broader vision, our lives extending beyond the borders and barriers that we set up for ourselves. These ideas and beliefs stop us short and hinder our ability to see or respond freely to life as it comes to us, as it is. Transformation is an opening to freedom for love to find its way through us to others, love out into the world.
For me limitation often comes in naming things, feelings, patterns I believe are coming to interfere with my life. When I was a child about 8, I was at summer camp exploring Marble Creek. Where the creek met the Kentucky River, I saw something move -- it completely captured my attention. Seemed like a tail, flashing here and there. I dove in after it and after 3 attempts pulled it up and out of the water. As I pulled it from the water the sun reflected off its skin revealing a dark coloring with spots. I just remember staring, being caught up in the wonder of this creature, the slimy feel of it in my hand. Never had I seen such a thing, held this kind of life in my hand. We seemed connected, this creature and I, the way that I felt connected to family and friends, something easy between us. That was when an older friend of mine came along and said, “You found a Hellbender.” That closed things down as I asked my friend to tell me about this creature. My investigation became about knowing, rather than not-knowing as I interacted with the Hellbender. It was if the creature’s skin dulled, its flabby softness disappeared. It was something now to pick apart with my mind, perhaps dissect to see what was inside.
Naming can be a wall for us. Something that we set up and put between ourselves and the world. As things are beginning to open for us, we sometimes give it a name. Quickly explanations, understanding and knowing follow. A world enchanted and wondrous falls away, and we are left with our thoughts about the thing named. One step removed from life.
Meditation is the welcoming of life, however it is. When we meditate we open our life to what comes, the energies as they cascade through us and out from us. What I have noticed is that as I give feelings and thoughts names - anger, sadness - this stops the cascading flow, giving me something to relate to, to understand, to analyze rather than continuing to notice how this feeling moves through my body, heart and mind. Naming, I sometimes put a gap between myself and my experience.
This koan is a celestial improv. The World Honored One -- honorific title for the Buddha -- is walking along with his group, including the number one God, Indra. Buddha points to the ground, “this would be a good place for a monastery.” “Ha!” someone might say, “Where are the plans? What materials would you use? What is your budget?” Indra has nothing to do with such schemes: he picks a straw of grass and builds the monastery. The Buddha smiles.
In the appreciatory verse accompanying this koan there is the line, “taking what’s at hand and using it freely.” Life, vast and seamless, is “at hand.” It comes to us as it is. So, before any of the scheming and planning to erect some sort of imposing edifice what might it look like to take what comes? Before ideas about monasteries, or blades of grass, just where is that monastery? In a blade of grass? In the smile of a friend? How about it when your car breaks down? Life is everywhere, your monastery, your church, your family home -- all present right here. It is all monastery, all church, you are at home.