July 30, 2014

Empty Zendo

Frank-100How many times have you heard, "living in the moment?" The expression is fashionable now. I hear it everywhere, and see it within or on the back of at least sixty percent of the self-help and psychology books in every book store I visit. It's a "truism" I suppose, but it seems to me that it's so popular a phrase that its use dilutes its true meaning. I think "living in the moment" is often an excuse for doing whatever one wants to do, whether appropriate or otherwise. Of course, all of us live in the moment. After all, that's all there is; in dualistic terms, it's the juncture of past and future, the zero hour that is ungraspable. It is such a quick span of time, a flash of a happening that with our usual human mindset it can only be stored as a fragmented event in our mind's film clip library under the heading: "things we did once upon a time." For all practical purposes in our everyday lives, the Now really doesn't exist. And because of this, neither does the past or future. We can't possibly describe the Now to anyone because, once we've experienced it, no words are adequate. The experience of the event is completely, totally personal; it belongs to what Carlos Castaneda called a separate reality.

Most of the time these moments pass by us unnoticed because we have what we think are more pressing things to do ---leaving on time to pick up a friend, keep watch on a deadline to finish a work order, worry about completing a school assignment, etc. To be honest, it is difficult, and most likely not possible, for anyone to be totally aware of each moment every moment. That would be an overwhelming and non-human life to live. I have no way of knowing this, but as far as I can tell, humans are the only creatures on this planet that have the capacity to make mental movies of passing events, or envision events that may manifest beyond the immediate moment. The "dog whisperer," Cesar Millan, is fond of telling his clients that dogs only live in the moment. Likewise, Charlotte Joko Beck writes, "A cat is the wonder; but the cat doesn’t know that, it just lives it."


What does that mean, "just live it?" I had a glimpse of this on two occasions. The first was a very pleasurable one, though at the time completely void of understanding it for what it was. The second appeared two years later and was eerily similar. The first was on a mountain, the second on a cushion in the Zendo. If one plus one equals two, the juxtaposition of these two events taught me a different kind of arithmetic. The first experience was shared with a friend while hiking South Mountain in Phoenix, Arizona. We had climbed to the top of a steep upgrade and had stopped to rest on a large boulder. We hadn't been there very long until we caught sight of two coyotes slowly walking across the mountain terrain about thirty feet below us. We sat still as prey while we watched them move slowly and deliberately across our view. When at last the coyotes had disappeared in the distance my friend and I just looked at each other, not saying a word, and quietly returned back down the mountain slope. It was a long time before we spoke and when we did there was no talk of coyotes. The experience seemed to belong to another time in another world.

I had forgotten about the coyotes until one evening while practicing zazen. I was ---unavoidably it seems--- unable to ignore thinking about the meaning of the Heart Sutra. My mind was occupied with composing an essay on emptiness. I was really involved with the pseudo composition when I suddenly saw an ant come into my narrowed vision on the floor of the Zendo. The essay my head was writing disappeared immediately and all I could do was watch the ant crawl around, willy-nilly, in front of my cushion. I watched for what were probably hours in ant-time, minutes or seconds for me. I have no idea how long I watched that little critter but my thoughts were as gone as…. Yes! Just like the time on the mountain when my friend and I watched coyotes meander across the sage and around the cactus. There was no difference in the two events. Both melded together and jolted me as if someone had turned my bed upside down and shocked me out of a deep sleep. It was stunning. What was that? When I woke up I looked for that little ant. I really wanted to thank him for his walk-about, but he was nowhere to be found. Was he real? Or a "separate reality?" Were these events emptiness or form? Two events, one impressive and experienced without understanding, the other a flashback that slammed my senses shut, leaving me in a dream-like stupor, in an empty Zendo, beneath a mountain, coyotes with six legs, ants with four, and myself with none; just a solid rock upon which to sit. An insight into what it means to be in the moment.

Frank Roberts (Fa Guang Shakya)

June 2011

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  • Philippe Duchesne

    I agree with: «I think "living in the moment" is often an excuse for doing whatever one wants to do, whether appropriate or otherwise.»
    Perhaps antique Romans would say: «Carpe diem». What do we do once we are in the moment ? Do we profit of life, do we fully appreciate this ice cream in the here and now ? That's the
    interpretation that many have of such «philosophy». It's not so far from
    the cat of Charlotte Joko Beck when she writes, "A cat is the wonder;
    but the cat doesn’t know that, it just lives it."
    My interpretation of Hui Neng is that, as soon as we are not caught in our thoughts (that is one of the aspects of Samadhi, i.e. «in the moment»), we automatically have the true vision (Prajna). The problem with most of the «be in the moment» litterature is that it leaves people alone with it. So, they spontaneously and inconsciously add: «... and profit of the moment». I see that as a widely open door to egotist expression because as soon as you add any idea on how the present should be used (i.e: profit of it!), you are no longer in the present but in an
    ideology of the present. Traditionaly, among four other characteristics,
    Prajna involves the ability to see the (an) appropriate answer to situations (Dharma eye). According me, if not warned of the danger of self-appropriating the ideology of «be in the moment», people fall in egotic interpretations. That's why if not accompanied by a practice and a coaching this litterature is a poison. So, thank you for your «I think "living in the moment" is often an excuse for doing whatever one wants to do, whether appropriate or otherwise.»

    Philippe Duchesne (Fa Tian)

  • Br.Phil Bara

    Yes !! The simplicity of taking a moment
    to percieve the moment as the moment is,
    in reality a very focused reality.
    many that think they have arrive at the
    moment have only stepped into the doorway
    of the moment !!! At this the entry is
    possible only by allowing the moment to
    surround entirely and *BE*.

  • Keith McLachlan

    I use "Being mindful," rather than "living in the moment." We all live in the moment, even when remembering the past or imagining the future.

    I may forget to be mindful, but knowing that I have drifted into thought or fantasy brings me back to the moment.

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