Here's a poem from Billy Collins that celebrates the wild aspects of this holiday season:
The first thing I heard this
was a rapid flapping sound, soft, insistent –
wings against glass as it turned out
downstairs when I saw the small bird
rioting in the frame of a high window,
trying to hurl itself through
the enigma of glass into the spacious light.
Then a noise in the throat of the cat
who was hunkered on the rug
told me how the bird had gotten inside,
carried in the cold night
through the flap of a basement door,
and later released from the soft grip of teeth.
On a chair, I trapped its pulsations
in a shirt and got it to the door,
so weightless it seemed
to have vanished into the nest of cloth.
But outside, when I uncupped my hands,
it burst into its element,
dipping over the dormant garden
in a spasm of wingbeats
then disappeared over a row of tall hemlocks.
For the rest of the day,
I could feel its wild thrumming
against my palms as I wondered about
the hours it must have spent
pent in the shadows of that room,
hidden in the spiky branches
of our decorated tree, breathing there
among the metallic angels, ceramic apples, stars of yarn,
its eyes open, like mine as I lie in bed tonight
picturing this rare, lucky sparrow
tucked into a holly bush now,
a light snow tumbling through the windless dark.
Nirvana is attained by giving all, Nirvana the objective of my striving. Everything therefore must be abandoned, And it is best to give it all away to others.
- Santideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva
Today and tomorrow, many of us will give presents to friends and loved ones. This may or may not produce good feelings in either the giver or the receiver.
When Shantideva wrote about giving all, he wasn't talking about gifts, of course. And he wasn't talking about feelings. He wasn't even talking about making a great effort - although we must indeed make a great effort.
He simply asks us to abandon everything, so that we can get everything.
But what is the all that he asks us to abandon to others?
Surely, the only meaningful thing we can give is our whole being.
It seems easy to understand how we can give our incredible beauty and joy (although I think it's much harder than we might imagine). But we can also give our most feared places, raging feelings, obsessions and other kleshas. We can give away our attachments.
With conscious intent and without hidden agenda, we can expose this very person. We can offer how it is for us, just now, revealing the truth of heart/mind.
Frankly, it sometimes feels that the price of this gift is too great.
But then I remember that others before me have done it. And it's the fundamental requirement of the Bodhisattva Way.
Note: I published a version of this post at this time last year.
This Friday's video features Alan Watts talking about the point of life.
Although Watts' understanding may have been limited or even incorrect, he played an important role in the acceptance of Zen and Buddhism in the West. This video reveals how he used his great charm to hit people's minds.
I'm grateful for this!
Thank you for reading Ox Herding! Best wishes for the weekend.
Yesterday's post generated quite a few comments, including several appreciations for an algorithmic approach to decision-making. (An algorithm is a set of well-defined steps which lead to the completion of a task. Algorithms are sometimes represented as flowcharts, as in yesterday's illustration.)
I suspect most of us long for an algorithm that could guide us through life's inevitable challenges. There's a part of us that just wants to follow instructions. (I spent the first five years of Zen practice happily learning how to follow instructions: bow, chant, walk, etc.)
Of course, the problem with an algorithmic life strategy is that it inevitably involves compliance.
What's wrong with compliance? Well, for one thing, no algorithm could ever respond to the unique requirements of any moment. If there were such an algorithm, some ancient Zen master would have printed it up and placed it on the bedside table of every hotel room.
But, more importantly, compliance always comes partnered with defiance (thanks, Bob S!). Whenever we comply with instructions, the urge to defy is always present. And whenever there is embedded defiance, war is not far away.
Sometimes I think that Zen was invented specifically to resolve the problem with algorithms. It's commonplace to say that Zen cultivates wisdom and compassion. But Zen training also fosters creativity, an essential factor in responding to the demands of the moment.
And creativity can never be channeled through a flowchart.