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"Birthing and Blooming: Reflections on the Third Noble Truth" by Mushim Ikeda-Nash

9 April 2010

One afternoon, during a seven-day freezing-cold Zen retreat, I figured out something about the Third Noble Truth. We spent much of the retreat sitting, meditating on the koans – the traditional riddle-like questions—the teacher gave us. When it was time for sanzen (a face-to-face meeting with the Zen master) I’d leave the chily zendo, get in the bitter-cold waiting line, and then, when my turn arrived, run into the sanzen room, prostrate, sit down, state the koan and stammer out an inadequate answer, then Roshi would say: “More zazen” and ring his hand-bell briskly to summon the next student. Usually I found the procedure terrifying and embarrassing, and I wasn’t even sure what I was supposed to be doing. You’re not supposed to sit in Zen meditation and think about things in a deliberate way. But if I didn’t think about it, how would I find an answer?

Going to sanzen was also called “seeing the old man.” Sasaki Roshi had done thousands of teacher-student interviews over the years. The intensity of the traditional face-to-face encounter between Zen teacher and Zen student is almost impossible to describe. To make it worse, I was always aware that the intensity was something I was generating, uncontrollably and neurotically. Roshi wasn’t tense in the least, although sometimes he sounded slightly amused. He had even commented, publicly, that his students had such constipated expressions as we tried to answer our koans that we were even more amusing than cartoons.

This time sanzen was different, though. I’d finally reached a maximum point of frustration, boredom, and anger at the absurdity of the process, and had caved in under my own internal pressure. Hours passed. The koan Roshi had given me was, “How do I manifest my true nature as a flower?” I sat on my cushion, breathing “How? How?” in and out. I forgot to be anxious about whether I could answer the koan, whether I would look like a fool to Roshi, and whether I would ever make any “progress” as a koan student.

The koan had absorbed me. I entered the sanzen room, made my prostrations, and sat down on the cushion. I stated the koan. I breathed “How? How?” or it breathed me, silently, through my belly and blood. The universe bloomed. 

Roshi said gently: “It’s very peaceful, isn’t it?” Then he rang the hand-bell and I left the room. 

Since that moment, a kind of enduring happiness has entered my heart and rooted itself there, deeply and invisibly. The only time I have experienced anything similar was when my son was born, and he and I looked into each other’s eyes for the first time, the breath still new in his body. Those moments are two experiences in my life as a Buddhist practitioner which convinced me that the Third Noble Truth, the end of suffering and dissatisfaction, is a reality.

* * * * *

Mahayana Buddhists are always taking impossible vows. We take the Bodhisattva Vow to save all beings, and we vow to end our delusions even though they are endless, and so on. Over the long run, what one teacher called “vow power” becomes a steady force in our everyday lives, reinforcing our spiritual motivation and providing a humbling and even humorous perspective. I get up every morning and renew my Buddhist vows, and then I laugh to myself. Once I saw an ant trying to drag a fallen chocolate chip cookie to its home. I am that ant. 

When I first began to sit in meditation, in 1981, I thought I could get to a place that would always be quiet and calm if I tried hard enough and was lucky. So it was a big shock to me two years later when I moved into a Zen temple and discovered that I spent a lot of time feeling exhausted, on edge, and judgmental while following a steady schedule of meditation and manual work. In part, this was because we had just purchased an old, cockroach-infested house and had little money and a long list of renovations to perform. I was appointed treasurer, and found myself in the position of having to pay the mortgage and other bills when there was really no way to cover all our costs. Our situation was stressful. In addition, the teacher, a Korean Zen monk, occasionally resorted to what he termed “irritation Zen,” and he would say insulting things to his students. On one particularly equanimous evening, he even wore himself out and complained, “I’m trying to make you people mad, but no one will get angry, so I have to go to bed.”

I recently got a Christmas card from a devout Christian friend, who said she found Buddhism very attractive, particularly its “cool luminosity.” Maybe other Buddhists had gotten to cool luminosity, but not me. Of course, I’ve had many experiences during Zen practice of feeling very calm and settled, but they’ve always passed. As a parent in lay life, I’ve discovered that I can go in a matter of seconds from being a kind, tolerant mother to screaming at my son for a bad grade on a report card. Amidst the heat and tumult of family life, I’ve had to radically redefine what “peace” and “inner peace” mean. In fact, it was my son, when he was around twelve, who helped me figure it out. “Don’t confuse inner peace with enlightenment,” he said. “Inner peace is a feeling, but enlightenment is clarity and understanding. It can include inner peace but it is much more.”

* * * * *

For me, Buddhist teachings and practice have provided a context of understanding in which to let go of some of my convoluted, judgmental thoughts. In the summer of 1999, my father-in-law died after a long illness. Seventeen days later, Mark, a teenage friend of the family, was in a car accident. The driver was instantly killed. Mark was in a coma, in the Intensive Care Unit of a local hospital, when my family and I went to visit him a few days later. A respirator and feeding tube were helping to keep him alive. The accident and its consequences have permeated our lives with the realization that things we take for granted can change overnight. About a month after the accident occurred, I found myself sitting in a stupor on our back deck one afternoon, unable to understand how this could have happened to Mark. The question grew larger and louder, filling my heart with pain. I wasn’t sitting and meditating, but I was sitting and allowing that thought to absorb me. I didn’t try to manufacture an answer; I just naturally entered the question in the way my Zen training had taught me, with a steady forward movement, like rowing a boat on a lake. 

After around a half hour had passed, I gradually became aware of the potted bamboo and herbs around me, the warmth of the sun on my arms, and the white noise of cars passing on the nearby expressway. A bird rustled in the upper branches of an overgrown elm. The blue sky overhead was cloudless and vast. 

It was as though someone had handed me a pair of prescription eyeglasses that made everything appear sharp and clear. My normal sense of the boundaries of my body dropped away, and I became my surroundings: the deck, which is really the tar-papered roof of the back extension of the apartment below us, the back yard, the plants, the trees, the bird, the neighborhood, the sun and the sky. My little section of the city of Oakland teemed with life: worms and bacteria in the soil, opossums and raccoons in the storm drains, birds, people, cats, dogs, and aphids, ants, flies, mosquitoes. Plants and tree leaves breathed in carbon dioxide, breathed out oxygen. Bacteria in my body digested what I’d eaten for lunch. And within this pulsing, intensely alive world, I was suddenly aware that at that very moment, some living being somewhere had been in an accident and had become injured. Some living being had just died. Something was being born and something was dying, near me or even in me at the microbial level. 

It wasn’t that I suddenly felt calm or indifferent. But my question was answered in that the question below the question had been revealed. Unconsciously, I had believed until that moment that, somehow, because I knew and loved a young friend, he would be magically protected from harm or death. Could the same thing that had happened to Mark happen to my own son when he learned how to drive? Yes, it is possible. We do our best to keep those we love safe from harm; we have no guarantees.

My heart opened to let in this bigger picture of the continual unfolding of birthing and blooming and withering and dying. How amazing, that so much is going on in this very moment, around the world, throughout the universe. How big life is, and it embraces so much!

This essay first appeared in Dharma, Color and Culture: New Voices in Western Buddhism, Parallax Press, 2004. 
Copyright Mushim Patricia Ikeda-Nash

Mushim (Patricia) Ikeda-Nash is a core teacher at the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, California. She has been included in documentary films on Asian American women poets (Between the Lines) and faith-based women activists (Acting on Faith: Women’s New Religious Activism in America). Mushim has published essays on Buddhism and childrearing, family life, women, and racism in books and journals such as Shambhala Sun, Inquiring Mind, Turning Wheel: The Journal of Socially Engaged Buddhism, and Innovative Buddhist Women: Swimming Against the Stream. She teaches meditation retreats for people of color, social justice activists, and women nationally. For more information, see http://mushim.wordpress.com/


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