Thursday, 26 February 2015

Fire Monks

Wood, dirt, stone, bare skin: These are the materials that Tassajara is made of. Natural, sturdy, porous, impermanent. The smell of lemon-ginger scones.

It may sound confining, but the schedule is not intended to restrict. It's meant to release. Without a schedule, you have to wonder what you should be doing from one moment to the next. Should you wake up now or roll over and go back to sleep? Preferences must be weighed decisions constantly confronted. And since reality does not align itself with personal preferences, organising yourself to support them is usually an invitation to suffering.

Zen has a solution to this problem: "The great way is not difficult, just avoid picking and choosing." Just follow the schedule. Take up the tasks of whatever position you've been assigned, without being tugged around by likes and dislikes, and stop when the bell rings. Cook. Clean. Serve meals. Turn compost. Trim candles. Scrub toilets. Sit meditation. One is not higher than the other. A Zen student undertakes work as a practice - this is in the rules, too - "by entering deeply and wholeheartedly into the work given us to do."

But hope can be held too tightly. Zen cultivates a mind that doesn't tether itself to any fixed view or perspective - the belief that the buildings at Tassajara must be saved or, by contrast, that physical structures aren't important or worth saving. Hope is fine, as long as it doesn't lead to inflexibility.

"When you're living in the present moment, you're not so involved in hope or invested in a particular outcome," said the abbot. You do what needs to be done simply because it needs to be done, accepting that your actions may not bear the fruit you intend - and that this does not render the actions themselves fruitless.

A clever Zen teacher might say that standing back and letting the monastery burn belies a kind of attachment to the idea of non-attachment. In trying to save Tassajara from the fire - or your own life from disaster - you can't be sure you will. In fact, you can lose everything you love in a moment. And that's not a reason to give up. If anything, it's a reason to turn toward the fire, recognising it as a force of both creation and destruction, and to take care of what's right in front of you, because that's all you actually have.

From Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire, Colleen Morton Busch

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