Portals into the Mystery

As you know, I often use my photographs to illustrate a teaching point or highlight a concept I am trying to convey. But sometimes the photographs themselves are the inspiration for the teaching. This is the case with this series of images from our recent retreat in Hawaii.

We typically make our journey to the overlook to the Kalaupapa peninsula for our sunrise meditation early in the week when we are waking early, still on mainland time. On this particular morning, after a brief 3 mile drive, we assembled in the parking lot and walked in the faintest light of dawn through the ironwood forest to the overlook. In silence we stepped out onto the bluff behind the rock retaining wall, into the buffeting wind and streaming clouds to bear witness to the beauty and sadness of this powerful place. On each visit I have the feeling that I am passing through a mysterious transitional space—a kind of portal—emerging into a new or special world that reveals itself on the edge of those high cliffs. As we stood in silent attention to the shifting skyscape and seascape that morning, the early light began to offer itself to us.

Standing there in awe with my camera in hand, I was fully immersed in the magnificence of the moment. Everything was unfolding around me powerfully and magically. I continued to look through the viewfinder and allowed what I was witnessing to release the shutter on its own as the light continued to work beautifully through the clouds and the water and the cliffs. I had no idea what I was capturing at the time, but nature’s invitation continued to lead me deeper into the morning mystery.

The Four Practice Principles kept going though my mind:

Caught in the self-centered dream, only suffering
Holding to self-centered thoughts, exactly the dream
Each moment, life as it is, the only teacher
Being just this moment, Compassion’s Way

Opportunities to enter the fullness of the present moment are always available if we relax our insistence on our own narrow, self-centered perspective. I remember feeling very small and vulnerable facing the wind and the ocean, completely immersed in the immensity of the unfolding light. I was aware that my body would contract whenever anxiety began to take over. I could also sense that when I relaxed into the warm connection of the group, even in complete silence and stillness, I felt a deep comfort and a confidence that we were OK—together. Practicing together helps us tolerate the gentle release of the “self-centered dream” and allows us to have more faith in “life as it is.”

Lately it has been hard for me to see clearly what lies ahead in my own life. It is not as if there aren’t signs and signals to alert me, but I can’t always tell what they mean. What should I attend to? What can I safely ignore? What is a beckoning invitation and what is serving as a warning? I am in the midst of so much change at the moment that I am alternately challenged, disoriented, and even frightened at times. Which way should I turn? How should I respond? Is life really teaching me or simply defeating me? These may be questions that may arise for many of you as well.

I know that everything is impermanent, constantly changing in and around me. I also know that everything is contingent, being created and evolving in response to everything else. I am aware that there is nothing apart from this great flux and flow, including my stumbling navigation through it all. This is what I teach and practice every day. But for once it would be relieving to simply enjoy the illusion of complete clarity and certainty about something. However, as I get older and continue to practice steadily, I sense that I have a diminishing capacity to believe in this kind of fantasy. Regular meditation practice and deep inquiry completely ruin certain things about ordinary life and certainty is one of them.

There is a wonderful line from Dogen’s Genjokoan that come to mind: “Though there are many conditions in the dusty world and the world beyond conditions, you see and understand only what your eye of practice can reach.” Another translation from Shohaku Okamura is, “Within the dusty world and beyond, there are innumerable aspects and characteristics; we only see or grasp as far as the power of our eye of study and practice can see.” 

I can’t predict what I will capture when I press the shutter on the camera. I see what my limited human eye can perceive in the moment and I am frequently amazed and humbled by what I am being offered. I hope that I can capture some of what I see using the equipment at hand, but I really don’t know what I’ve been given until I look at the image later. Like everything else in life I am constantly receiving what my sense perceptions offer me, but this data is also infused with and shaped by my unconscious projections about what I secretly hope for or fear. And, like everyone else, I construct something that seems whole and coherent from these perceptions, thoughts, feelings and bodily reactions. I then call that something “reality.”

As I reflected on these lines from Dogen,“…you see and understand only what your eye of practice can reach,” I began to ask myself, “What do I actually ‘see’ through practice?” I’ve practiced long enough to realize that I am not going to receive some “answer” which will nicely match my fantasied expectations of spiritual life. If I am fortunate I see a bit more Truth or “Life as it is.” If I really pay attention with patience and curiosity, I will begin to see my faithful habit patterns more clearly—the embodied expressions of the habitual ways I’ve come to organize experience, mostly outside of my awareness. As I see these patterns more clearly and they begin to soften, then life simply unfolds as it will — as it does anyway, despite my opinions — and without my painful and frantic attempts to force it back toward the fantasy that sustains my constructed “reality.”

I came to realize more fully that morning at the overlook that I don’t actually shrink from present moment experience because it is boring or painful or confusing. I do so because it is too rich. The more I practice, the greater my capacity to allow life to blossom more fully through me. As I discipline myself through consistent practice I sense that I am cultivating a kind of courage and a greater willingness to face the rawness of my life circumstances more graciously. Without a commitment to a steady and wholesome practice I find myself running, embellishing, turning away from, or contradicting the truth of my life and my precious relationships. This courage and willingness offers me more choice, more vitality, and ultimately the restoration of joy, the theme for our week of retreat.

Sometimes I download an image and am shocked by what I see. Not just because it might a beautiful photograph, but because of the flood of meaning that leaps forward immediately and surprisingly. All of the teachings and experiences I’ve been writing about in this small piece came together when I opened the image above. On the left I saw the light of the early morning streaming in magically, illuminating what was previously dark or indistinct. Morning light so often represents the beginning of new possibilities or a fresh start, a longing we all share. On the right there remains an ominous darkness and an approaching storm, and with it the sense of fear and anxiety that we so often carry, usually in the hidden shadows of our hearts and minds. In the center there is the promise of light and an opening in which I could see more deeply into the mystery. It is as if I could literally see into new potential and possibility.

As many of you have heard me say in the past, the spiritual path is like walking between hope and despair on either side, straight into the the face of uncertainty. We long for a path that will take us from despair to hope, but we know deep down that neither place is stable or reliable. We can’t leave despair behind and permanently arrive at a solid place to rest. Fear is part of being alive. We can’t count on hope either because we see it crumble in the face of life circumstance. What we can count on and can learn to welcome is the ongoing change of each new dawn and all that it brings. I have to ask myself if I am willing to give myself fully to a life I can’t control and that I will eventually loose? Anything less and I will be robbed of the joy that is not based on circumstances or personal happiness. Am I willing to accept my human life as the mysterious and miraculous gift that it is?

There are a few more lines from the Genjokoan that follow the statement about “seeing.” Dogen says, “You have gained the pivotal opportunity of human form. Do not use your time in vain. You are maintaining the essential working of the Buddha-Way. Who would take wasteful delight in the spark from the flintstone? Besides, form and substance are like the dew on the grass, destiny like the dart of lightning—emptied in an instant, vanished in a flash.” When I first came to practice at the San Francisco Zen Center and told my guest practice leader my full name she looked at me with an wry smile and said, “Have you ever read the Genjokoan?” I had not even heard of it at that time and did not know she was referring to Dogen’s question: “Who would take wasteful delight in the spark from the flintstone?” The flint and the steel come together to produce a spark. Transient and delightful, it is easy to get entranced by the spark, “emptied in an instant, vanished in a flash.” But its real function is to initiate a fire which can be used to keep us warm and to cook our food for life sustaining nourishment. The spark is not simply for our delight, but for the benefit of all beings. And so is our practice—life giving and life restoring—just as the sky and sea, the rain and wind, the light and dark, offer themselves to benefit all beings. And sometimes the storm and the light come together to produce a little bit of magic so we can be called back to gratitude. As Suzuki Roshi said, “Just to be alive in enough.”

29 thoughts on “Portals into the Mystery

  1. I am, as you say, leaking tears as I read this post. Thank you so much for all that you do and all that you share and, well, all of who you are. With a deep bow…

    1. Thank you Julie. I appreciate your encouragement to speak honestly and to continue to practice alongside everyone else.

  2. “Regular meditation practice and deep inquiry completely ruin certain things about ordinary life and certainty is one of them.”

    En route to Mt St Helen’s today, I spent time in viewing exhibits in two visitors’ centers before surveying the beauty of the half-ruined dome, the devastation the eruption caused, the beautiful wildflowers that emerged on treeless slopes within a year or so.

    Emerging from chaos is beauty that we humans can appreciate, although nature took awhile to reorganize itself to our liking…

    Your words expressed the vulnerability, amazement, and awe that I felt as I immersed myself in trying to comprehend how suddenly the world we have constructed can disappear, the choices we make to leave or to stay, how each of us responds to devastation and rebuilding, how we hold hope and despair or find a middle ground.

    I am thankful that I get to continue practicing with you in some small way, that you take the time to express so eloquently, in words and pictures, what is in the hearts of many.

    1. Thank you for your eloquent and somewhat poignant story. Your own experiences and teachings are always so intimate and close to the bone.

  3. Every single word speaks directly to my mind, heart and experience of being in transition. The metaphor of the camera as a medium for learning is particularly sublime. Thank you for such a beautiful week spent contemplating the restoration of joy.

    1. Thank you for your wholehearted participation in the retreat. May the benefit continue to blossom in your life.

  4. Thank you for these eloquent words and images, and for continuing to show up, as you are, year after year, guiding, encouraging and illuminating.

  5. Flint,
    I have read and reread your post and still am overwhelmed with the richness and the truth of your words and images. So much beauty to contain at once! I am profoundly thankful for your teaching and the deep heartful sharing of your wisdom.

  6. I really enjoyed the photos you sent and the words are also very meaningful to me as I am also in a state of massive change. I was wondering if it would be alright to use the 3rd photo in the email as an inspiration for a painting? (It is the one where all the people are on the path looking at the bright sun coming from the left.)

  7. Dear Flint,
    I have always loved looking at the sky and especially clouds like the ones you shot. How beautiful. I’ll reread your piece and probably share it with a special friend. I remember when you were just starting your journey at the San Francisco Zen Center, too!

    Love always,
    Susan Sanders Ashworth

    1. I have been reflecting on so many old friends who have become teachers or remained steady through practice over the years. There is a kind of sweetness and poignancy in the reflections. Maybe some of that shows in the images as well. Either way, I so appreciate your kind words. My best to you.

    1. It is always good to hear from you, Janet, and especially to know that my images and words found a home with you. Aloha

  8. I think of us like Soul Whisperers and the work we are doing is very important.
    Jessica Cooper Weiner. Sesame Drama and Movement Therapist.
    5. 11. 1984 to 10 11. 2009.
    ”Jessie who trained on the Dramatherapy training spoke the words above about Sesame Practitioners, shortly before she died from a life-long struggle with cystic fibrosis last year. Jessie knew about Soul and when she talked with me, she said her mission was to tell doctors about Sesame so they, in turn, could help other patients who needed healing alongside a scientific medical cure.’

  9. Un-believe-able! Thank you for speaking truth. Reminds me of this teaching: listen to everything, don’t believe anything and take nothing personally.

    1. Thanks Andy. Yes, the teachings begin to resonate with each other, and the simple depths begin to emerge in various forms. This gives us some confidence that there is something good and abiding in them. Thank you for your comments and your practice.

  10. Thank you for sharing yourself. The impermanence of life; of each of us. Grappling with my mother’s terminal diagnosis and her death and my father’s unexpected death not long thereafter has awaked me again to impermanence and the conditions we call reality. As a former student of yours and others, I do not ask “Why?” Rather, I try to find the “now” and the “is.” Your sharing the isness of your life in the moment and your continuing practice shines a light on everyone’s isness and encourages me to enjoy life – all of it.

    1. Some of us have known each other so long that we have moved through these big life transitions together — births, deaths, marriages, divorce, jones gained and lost — the whole thing, all as we inevitably age. And what an amazing and awesome thing it is to live a life!

  11. What a beautiful piece, Flint! So many fabulous Sparks of honesty and truth. I am utterly inspired by your thoughts of knowing deep down that no state stays the same. We drift back and forth together holding onto each other as it all unfolds! The photographs too! “Ooooh Cher dey outta dis world perty”! Love you dearly! 💖

    1. Thank you so much for being a great practice partner. I also thank your Grandma for her wholehearted comments!

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