Sunday, April 12, 2009

"Everyone has a light"

"you crawled into my bed that night
like some sort of giant insect
and i found myself spellbound
at the sight of you there
beautiful and grotesque and all the rest of that bug stuff
bluffing your way into my mouth
behind my teeth, reaching for my scars
that night we got kicked out of two bars
and laughed our way home

that night you leaned over
and threw up into your hair
and i held you there thinking
i would offer you my pulse
if i thought it would be useful
i would give you my breath

the problem with death
is we have some hundred years and then they can build
buildings on our only bones.
a hundred years and then your
grave is not your own.
we lie in our beds and in our graves unable to save
ourselves from the quaint tragedies we invent,
and then undo from the stupid circumstances
we slalom through.

and I realized that night that the hall light which seemed so
bright when you turned it on
is nothing compared to the dawn,
which is nothing compared to the light which seeps from you
while you're sleeping cocooned in my room
beautiful and grotesque,
that night we got kicked out of two bars and laughed our way
home. And I held you there thinking, I thought
i would offer you my pulse.
i would give you my breath.
i would offer you my pulse.
i would give you my breath ..."
, Ani Difranco
[pic of Ani from here]

"What is this light?"

More than a thousand years ago, the Chinese Zen Master Ummon used to ask his students, “Everyone has a light – but if you look for it, you don't see it. What is this light?” For twenty years he posed this challenge, but no one was ever able to give a reply that he would accept. Finally one day Ummon declared, “if you asked me, I would say, 'the front gate, the kitchen pantry.'”

As obtuse as Ummon's answer might first appear, it is not difficult to provide an intellectual explanation. There is an old Chinese proverb that states “the family treasure does not come in through the front gate.” This might refer, on a mundane level, to what is sometimes called “old money”: a truly noble, aristocratic family is one whose wealth has not just recently come in “through the front gate” (that is, by commerce), but rather it is one whose wealth has been in the family generation after generation - preferably for so long that no one can recall there ever having been a time when this family was not rich and powerful. But this ancient proverb can also be interpreted in a more spiritual way, to point out that each of us has a “family treasure” - exceedingly, immeasurably precious – and that this treasure has always been ours and is not something that has been acquired by us. Anything that has been gotten can be lost – only that which we have always had from the beginning is our true “family treasure.”

This concept of “family treasure” figures prominently in an old story about two friends, Ganto and Seppo, who were once traveling together on a religious pilgrimage. Ganto appeared somewhat lax in his spiritual practice, at least to the casual observer. Seppo, on the other hand, was far more fervent, and spent every spare moment seated in meditation – his face grim with determination, his entire body humming with spiritual aspiration. Once during their travels, the two friends found themselves snowed in, and they took shelter at an inn by the side of the road. During their forced lay-over Ganto spent most of his time napping (and snoring loudly), while Seppo was constantly doing meditation – bolt upright in the full-lotus posture.

At one point Ganto awoke from his napping, and, while rubbing his eyes, asked his friend, playfully: “Just what do you think you are accomplishing – sitting there unmoving all day long looking like a statue at some road-side shrine?” Seppo was used to his friend's teasing – and besides he was so completely sincere in his practice that it never occurred to him to be in the least bit embarrassed by it. So Seppo answered innocently and ardently, “My mind is not at rest! That is why I must practice constantly!!” Ganto then asked gently whether or not all of his practice had yet given his mind any rest at all. Seppo started to answer, recounting some of his own “enlightenment experiences” over many years of practice, and also citing famous examples of great teachers who had experienced liberation through long years of meditation. But Ganto cut his friend off in mid-sentence and shouted, “Don't you know the family treasure does not come in through the front gate, it comes out of your own heart and covers all of heaven and earth!” At these words Seppo became greatly enlightened. Seppo would go on to become a great Zen Master, and was one of Ummon's teachers.

So, referring to things that come in “through the front gate” means anything that can be gotten, obtained, bought, stolen, taken, received, worked for, earned, begged or bargained for, etc – from someone or something other than yourself. Anything that I obtain in that way is not truly mine - at best, it is mine only for a while. The “light” that Ummon is referring to, on the other hand, is something that each of us has intrinsically.

But what about “the kitchen pantry”? This simply refers to anything that can be consumed or “used up” in any way. It could also refer to something that we store up, hold onto, cling to, horde, guard jealously, etc – that is, anything to which we become “attached”.

But can "this light" that everyone has be obtained in any way, can it be used up or diminished even slightly, can it be the source and object of our attachment, clinging, craving, and desire?

The light that Ummon is talking about shines everywhere – so there is nowhere that it is not shining already, and there is nothing, anywhere, that does not already have this light emitting from it. In particular, Ummon says everyone has this light, therefore it is not some special possession that only enlightened people have. Therefore the light is that which comes in through the front gate – and it is also the front gate itself. It is also that which we cling to, and it is the very clinging itself – as well as the one who clings.

[continued here]

No comments: