Fall arrives, impermanence arrives, announcing itself in bright colors across the landscape; showing up as dead squash vines in the garden; and the dying light of the year: longer nights, colder days. Impermanence, celebrated in the ritual we call Halloween, sends goblins and the skeletons of death to our doors, like koans. How will we answer? Turn out the lights and hide, and they will play their tricks.
Can we instead, like the poet Rumi, be a guest house: this porch, this door, this house, ourselves? “Be grateful for whoever comes because each has been sent as a guide from beyond. “
This fall we have been studying the poem ‘Shinjinmei,’ written 1400 years ago by Zen monk Sen Tsan, who, like Rumi, would have us open the door and welcome whoever comes. No preferences. “The Perfect Way knows no difficulties, except that it refuses to make preferences.” And, “Try not to seek after the true. Only cease to cherish opinions.” Again, no preferences.
The poem doesn’t say, never have opinions. Just don’t cherish them! Of course, all living things have preferences. Preferences are not a problem, except that they become “cherished,” fixated as some absolute, a condition Buddhism calls ‘ignorance,’ the cause of suffering.
It’s called ignorance, because all form, all things, are impermanent. Zen tradition offers this explanation: Objects of our senses lack fixed identity because “knowing” always arises in contrast to something else: dark versus light, cold versus warm, red leaves versus green leaves, dead gardens versus live ones.
The one who distinguishes one thing from another is, of course, the “self.” Self and its preferences give rise to form; and, at the same time, give rise to the form we call “self”. Just as all things are empty of fixed identity, the true nature of “self” is likewise empty. This is not theory. It is experience. Isn’t it the case we experience “true” generosity, “true” compassion, as having the quality of “selflessness?”
Yet, the world of our preferences also happens. Self, as matter of consciousness, is born, experiences suffering, and is led beyond its preferences to the truth of its dissolution. Our true nature is both our coming and our going, both life and death.
Impermanence is the goblin on the porch, the skeleton at the door. But impermanence is also candy, the face behind the mask, the kid next door, your own child. Implicit in the death of the garden is its moment of abundance, Implicit in the cold and dark is summer’s sunlight. Implicit in grief is the joy of having known someone. Zen teaches that it is our deepest desire to know both our coming and our going, to experience “true,” which is to say, “selfless,” love.
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