Zen advice for when things blow up around you
The monk bowed.
The master then said, “Yesterday, as I was on my wayto a dinner in the village, I was caught in a sudden storm with heavy rain and violent wind, so I headed for an old shrine and found shelter.”
In a world of instability, where is shelter to be found? The answer is what Ying’an Tanhua was pointing to when he said in his commentary that not-knowing is like that which precedes the kalpa of emptiness. The kalpa of emptiness is “the kalpa that lies between the destruction of one universe and the formation of the next.” In other words, to hold to the center in this view is to take shelter in the place before anything arises, a place of emptiness and profound silence, a place of the deepest rest where self-interest has not yet entered. This is not a void, but rather a darkness where things are not yet differentiated or seen. You yourself can go to the darkness and become like an empty vessel, empty of points of view and preferences. An empty vessel refuses nothing and receives everything that is coming at it from all directions. By practicing in this way, you can create more space to accommodate your own reactivity and the points of view of others.
In the koan, the monk is bearing witness to all the things coming at him from all directions, and Master Xinghua himself bears witness to the storm. In translating Xinghua’s direction to “hold to the center,” the word “hold” is the Chinese word da. Da, an emphatic, can also be translated as “aim,” “hit,” or “strike.” So “hold to the center” can also be rendered as “strike the center,” “aim to the center,” or “hit the center.” The phrase “hold to” can seem passive, but consider that Xinghua is directing you to actively engage the center of not-knowing and from there to bear witness to all that is coming at you.
When I recently conducted a public face-to-face in my Zen community, a longtime spiritual practitioner, wearing a yarmulke over his silver hair, came forward and took the seat beside me. He began by saying, “Hitler is my teacher. He has been my teacher for all of my life.” He then shared with the group for the first time the harrowing account of his childhood. From the ages of 7 to 9, this young boy and his family members were hidden by a Polish family in a small covered-dirt pit on their farm. They lived in this darkness for two years until World War II ended. Since then, he has been wrestling with the effects of those years in the pit: bearing witness has indeed been the practice of a lifetime for him.
On this Sunday when we were bearing witness together to his story, his shining eyes and glowing face exuded an unshakeable peace. Although the account was difficult to absorb, the act of witnessing together formed a collective center. The group itself became an empty vessel of stillness and silence into which he poured the suffering of his lifetime. When he stood up and returned to his seat, he said softly, as if to himself, “I guess I have come to accept all of it.” He had experienced a sense of wholeness by bearing witness to the parts of his life that were previously present but not fully accepted. With the passage of years spent struggling with all of the particulars of his situation, which led to a new understanding of it, this man who survived the horrors of his youth is now at peace with himself.
Bearing witness can allow you to eventually come to terms with the most difficult life circumstances. The practice is always available to you regardless of the time, place, situation, or people involved.
There is nothing that you cannot bear witness to, from dusting the lint off your sweater to living in a pit for two years.In bearing witness, you are actively engaged and embodied, even struggling, with whatever is arising. Sometimes spiritual practices can have a neutralizing effect, flattening feelings rather than stimulating them. To hold to the center is not about becoming a spiritual zombie; it is about living the fullness of your own humanity. You are alive, so be fully alive.
The third tenet is Taking Action. It is impossible to predict what the action in any situation will be, or the timetable for when it will arise or what might result from it. The underlying intention is that the action that arises be a caring action, which serves everyone and everything, including yourself, in the whole situation.
Or that the public sharing of the story of two years in the pit was an action taken after decades spent bearing witness. And though the action that arises from the engagement of not-knowing and bearing witness is spontaneous and often surprising, it always fits the situation perfectly. One student told me that when her landlord delivered a notice of a rent increase, she was overcome by despair as memories were triggered of her being left alone on the street with her clothes as a child. During the days following the rent increase, she bore witness to her painful feelings of abandonment. After a few days, she decided to go to one of her favorite places for lunch. When she entered the eatery, she saw a dirty, disheveled man incoherently mumbling and turning his pockets inside out for money. To her, this man embodied all the despair she had been bearing witness to over the past few days. Without hesitation and unnoticed by the man, she told the cashier to give him what he wanted and that she would pay for it. In that moment of spontaneous action, she returned to herself and a sense of her center for the first time since receiving the rent increase notice.
Training with the tenets is a matter of taking a backward step again and again and continually discerning your internal processes in the midst of acknowledging what is happening around you. When you hold to the center by engaging these tenets, you let go of preconceived agendas about what needs to happen and your need to make it happen.
Training with the tenets brings about resiliency of the spiritual muscles and an ever-deepening sense of reality. As life unfolds around you, the Three Tenets are active inside of you, always directing you back to the center, so that you carry out Xinghua’s directive.