The colour of the mountain is the eye of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva,
The sound of the river is the ear of Manjushri Bodhisattva,
Mr Chang and Mrs Lee are Vairochana Buddha.
– Seon Master Kyong Ho (1849 – 1912)
A few days ago my partner flew back to Japan, and after all the excitement of a week together, after far too long apart, I was left feeling sad and empty. Of course I know what I should have done, I should have sat on my meditation block and watched my breath, something I’ve done countless times before and which always makes me feel better. I could have watched the emotions and feelings rise and fall away, I could have allowed each to settle back from where they’d come. I could have practiced letting go, entrusting them all.
Instead I carried the loneliness around with me and tried to fill the gap I felt inside, and one of the ways I did that was in the spiritual section of the bookshop, looking through the latest books on Buddhism and browsing through the Christian section, trying to find the volume that contained the perfect teaching that would solve all my problems. Later, when I did finally manage to sit, I thought a little more about that search, and how it connects to what Chong Go Sunim was saying the other day about finding a teacher.
There are no shortage of teachers. Just the books I already have, each is a perfect teacher. On my desk right now I have stacks of wisdom from a number of traditions going back thousands of years. A simple click away and I have even more. Finding a teacher isn’t the problem. And not just books, I don’t know how many Dharma talks I’ve attended over the past few years. Plus, my oldest friend is a Catholic priest, my partner is a Pure Land practitioner, my best friend lives the very spirit of Zen, my Dharma brothers are just an email away.
The problem isn’t finding a teacher, I’m spoilt for choice, the problem is finding the willingness to learn. A single word of wisdom from any one of my teachers could be enough to sustain me for a lifetime, but instead I skim over spiritual advice in the same way I’d read a novel on the beach. I’m like the dried sponge that Father Laurence of New Skete talks about, “a sponge that is so old, that has sat around collecting the dust and grime of life, that when you throw it into a bathtub it simply floats! It doesn’t absorb water!”
The fact is, we really do live in a bathtub, an ocean even, of teachers – if we are willing to learn. With that willingness, every single thing, not just monks and spiritual books, can be our teacher. Daehaeng Sunim writes that the mountain teaches us to live resolute and unflinching, the flowing waters teach us to live like water, and weeds sprouting up through harsh soil teach us to live courageously in the midst of adversity. “Bad circumstances are, in fact,” Daehaeng Sunim writes elsewhere, “an opportunity to learn.”
Chong Go Sunim said last week that when learning from all that life gives us, the key “is this upright center we are all part of. This is the thing that we must never abandon. While trying to be humble and uphold the precepts, we must always keep returning to this.” For me, this means slowing down and letting go. It means accepting myself and the circumstances I find myself in. How else could I learn? It’s not in any book, it’s in my daily, moment by moment life. My practice is to open up to those lessons and allow them to flow through me.
Sources of quotations:
– “Don’t Know Mind: The Spirit of Korean Zen”, Richard Shrobe
– “In the Spirit of Happiness”, the monks of New Skete
– “No River to Cross”, Zen Master Daehaeng Sunim