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At the Zen monastery where I trained, intensive sesshins were held at regular intervals and people from all over the world came to participate. As the only resident layperson in the monastery, I felt proud when these inexperienced “outsiders” came in. I loved the precise, devotional, ritualized life of a monk. I was well-versed in the monastic routines and rituals and I felt accomplished in the practices of mindfulness. These included making gassho – bowing with the palms of the hands together, fingers just below the tip of the nose and elbows away from your sides – at each doorway, to the meditation cushion, to our food, to each other, and reciting prayers at the table, in the zendo and even in the toilet. Washing the dishes was a model of ritualized efficiency: a threefold process of bowl-washing followed by a rigorous process of drying, sorting, and putting away. Going to bed was just as exacting: pulling out our mattresses from under the platform, arranging our bedding, and lying down before a monk carrying a smoking incense stick slowly circumvented the zendo in a closing ritual symbolizing protection. I particularly loved processions and ceremonies when the monks walked solemnly in a hierarchical line, like so many identical Buddhas.
During one sesshin I was working in the kitchens. The kitchens were in a separate building to the dining-room, so the food had to be carried up a steep flight of narrow stone steps and across a wide, gravel driveway. One particular day was spectacularly windy and blustery. The gusts were so strong that the monks’ robes were twisted into knots and lifted, and progress around the monastery grounds was severely impeded.
I wore a layperson’s robe consisting of a skirt and a kimono. I was proud of my robe. With a little help, I had cut and sewn the light beige material myself following the pattern prescribed by monastic rules. The full-length skirt was made of several meters of cloth pleated and gathered at the waist. It reached fully down to the ground. My robe was both a source of personal pride and a symbol of forbearance and humility to me. I wore it continually. As with so many monastic practices, it took away the expression of my individuality by removing any possibility of personal choice.
As I approached the steps on my way to the dining-room, carrying a large, stainless steel bowl of mashed potatoes, I became acutely aware of several dozen faces staring at me through the low windows across the driveway. Walking in solemn procession at the head of half a dozen monks carrying bowls, being scrutinized by a group of inexperienced meditators, I felt supernally graceful, spiritually elevated. I tried to project flowing movements and a serene expression toward the faces in the windows. Since the retreat participants might not be familiar with the layperson’s robe, I fantasized that some of them might think I was a wandering, foreign monk on a pilgrimage or perhaps a visiting abbot from some distant monastery. In mere seconds out of my imagination I had created a narrative, with myself as a paradigm of spiritual virtue eminently worthy of deep veneration. But the weather conditions distracted me from my delicious daydreaming reverie. With the wind threatening to raise the voluminous skirts of my robe, it took all my concentration to hold the heavy bowl of mashed potatoes firmly between my extended forearms, bearing down with my hips in a futile attempt to counter the uprush. Just as I reached the top step, I trod on the hem of my robe, pitched slowly forward and, with my mouth wide open emitted a high-pitched yelp and fell flat on my face. As I lay spread-eagled, the mashed potato oozed out onto the gravel. I struggled to my feet, fighting against the wind, with my hair, face, and kimono plastered with gravel and potato, only to realize that the retreat participants had observed the whole mishap in minute detail.
When I left the monastery, the world seemed so brash and insensitive that I wondered how I would survive. Then I remembered that I had sometimes felt these qualities in myself – and often projected them onto others – while I was in the monastery. Sometimes I sorely missed the binding power of the ancient rituals and the discipline that had at times felt so restricting when I was there. Now they appealed to me more for the certainty and security they provided. When I recalled the serene faces of the monks, the faces of “ordinary” people seemed disturbed and grotesque. But gradually the gap between the idealized monastery and the rude outside world narrowed. I saw that we are all spirits in form, living, growing, and responding to life as best we can. Finally, I closed the gap by owning my inner spiritual life and retrieving the spiritual projection with which I had clothed the monastery. I understood that my spirit was essentially inner, not “outside”; neither in the monastery nor outside it. By returning it to me I was free to express it in the world in appropriate ways. I saw that the world and the monastery were not as different as I thought. The world was a monastery, my life was an opportunity for spiritual practice, and the division I had made between the two was the projection of an inner divide, a creation of my mind, not my heart.
Genuine spiritual practice always demands letting go. Any method or practice becomes a trap if we hold on to it for too long. The Benedictine monk John Main likened meditation practice to climbing a hundred-foot pole. He said that as we get higher we are tempted to stop climbing and take in the view. But, suspecting the view will be even better higher up, we carry on climbing. When we get into the clouds the view disappears. We have no sense of progress, only our commitment to climbing. So we carry on, one step at a time. Then the clouds disperse and the view appears more magnificent than before.
Eventually beyond reason and complacency, purpose and perseverance, we are called to jump: we must abandon the pole. Abandoning the pole takes us into the boundary-less unknown where we are closer to truth than ever before. Where Main leaves us the celebrated Ch’an master Mumon, in yet another story about a hundred-foot pole, takes up the theme and asks: How do you proceed from the top of the pole? He answers that if you are to avoid danger your insight must be genuine; your spiritual attainment must be real.
Spiritual practice may be measured in terms of time or even quality, but the realization of spiritual accomplishments cannot truly be measured, because it is only revealed through insight. Without insight we will spiritually perish by plunging into the darkness of ignorance and our example will lead others into ignorance. But, if we are endowed with insight and non-attachment, we may jump with impunity and our example will lead others to freedom. This is the circle which the practice of sangha completes. As we receive help in our spiritual practice, so we are able to give help to others. It is not a question of gaining qualifications or learning skills, but of drawing out the authentic wisdom that is deep within us all.
So, our courage and commitment to begin a spiritual practice must be matched by our willingness to drop it… when the time is right. Holding on or clinging to a practice is always an expression of fear and resistance. Non-attachment – neither attachment, nor un-attachment – means letting go whenever we are asked to by our inner self. Only when we have relinquished everything we have been holding onto out of fear, can we approach the profoundly intimate relationship with the spiritual, the transcendent, and the divine.
Excerpted from Richard Harvey, Your Essential Self, Llewellyn Worldwide 2013, pp. 184/187. For full details and how to purchase the book go to Your Essential Self, a book by Richard Harvey (therapyandspirituality.com)
This article was published on this site in November 2023.