The ego has a way of tricking us. We think we have matured, evolved to become a better person. Then something happens and we realise: Nope, still same old me. Still have miles to go. I'm still the same person making the same mistakes. And yet - I understand a little bit more now than I did.
I was thinking of something, so I went and dug out an old issue of Shambhala Sun.
There was a piece I recall a long time ago that stuck with me:
Te-shan asked the old tea-cake woman, "Who is your teacher? Where did you learn this?"
She pointed to a monastery a half mile away.
Te-shan visited Lung-t'an and questioned him far into the night. Finally when it was very late, Lung-t'an said, "Why Don't you go and rest now?"
Te-shan thanked him and opened the door. "It's dark outside. I can't see."
Lung-t'an lit a candle for him, but just as Te-shan turned and reached out to take it, Lung-t'an blew it put.
At that moment Te-shan had a great enlightenment. Full of gratitude, he bowed deeply to Lung-t'an.
The next day Lung-t'an praised Te-shan to the assmbly of monks. Te-shan brought his books and commentaries in front of the building and lit them on fire, saying, "These notes are nothing, like placing a hair in vast space."
Then bowing again to his teacher, he left.
Natalie Goldberg elaborated on this parable:
But, oddly enough, Te-shan only had that one meeting with Lung-t'an, and he woke up. Of course, he was a serious scholar of the dharma for a long time. Who is to say scholarly pursuits―studying books intently and writing commentary―don't prepare the mind as well as sweeping bamboo-lined walk-ways, sitting long hours, or preparing monastery meals?
Zen training is physical. But what isn't physical while we have a body on this earth? Sitting bent over books, our eyes following a line of print, is physical too. So that when Te-shan had that single evening in Lung-t'an's room, he was already very ripe. Lung-t'an merely had to push him off the tree, and Te-shan was prepared to fall into the tremendous empty dark with no clinging.
Te-shan was shown true darkness when Lung-t'an blew out the light; he held at last a dharma candle to guide his way, but he still had a lot of maturation ahead of him. Don't forget the next morning he made that grandiose gesture of burning his books in front of the assembly of monks. He was still acting out, choosing this and leaving that. He was not yet able to honor his whole journey, to respect everything that brought him to this moment. Te-shan still envisioned things in dualistic terms: now only direct insight mattered; books needed to be destroyed. He didn't see that all those years of study had created a foundation that supported his awakening with Lung-t'an. Originally he traveled from the north with his sutras on his back to enlighten the southern barbarians. Here he was doing a complete reversal, torching his past and revering his present experience. Someday he would embrace the north and the south, unify all of China in his heart, and attain a peaceful mind. But he was not there yet. We see him engaged in drama, presenting a flaming pageant in front of the other monks.
His life has not yet settled and become calm....
How can anyone survive if the way is so splintered? What we learn is it's all whole, been whole all along. It is our perception that is broken and that creates a shattered world. But each of us has to discover this in our own lives. That is what is so sad.
The excerpt is taken from, "When the Candle Is Blown Out," written by Natalie Goldberg, Shambhala Sun, September 2004 issue. There is a lot more in the article, but it is this particular parable of Te-shan and the burning of the books that I always come to. Like Te-shan in a way, I'd believe I need to burn away my past to move on. Yet time and time again, I am reminded that I am the sum of all my experiences, pleasant or otherwise. To deny any bit of my experience is to deny the whole of myself.
Ms F and I were talking one day. The question came up: "If you could go back in time, what would you change?"
Of course, as Ms F pointed out, it's a trick question. You can only learn from your mistakes after having made them. Without the mistakes you would not want to change anything. A paradox of life - that we need the mistakes and the regrets for change. That our screw-ups can lead to a realisation of something better. We just need to be ready to see.
Another time, another place. After yet another screw-up with her no-good boyfriend, Ms C asked me, "If you were in my place, what would you have done?"
Once again: trick question; if I was in her place, I would not have made the choices that led to her regrets and heartbreaks. Similarly, Ms C would not have made my mistakes; she would have chosen differently.
This is the burden of Free Will. We are no better that anyone else; We just make our own mistakes, each one on our own path. As Goldberg wrote, "But each of us has to discover this in our own lives. That is what is so sad."
This is what is so sad.
Even now, when I see my friends about to make similar mistakes, I try to warn them. I have been there, I tell them. It has costed me much suffering. Do not go there. Here we are - trying to change our past through another. But we never listen. What did I expect? That was how it was for me: advice fell on deaf ears, how I would not listen until I was ready to hear. Finally, it was the tremendous regrets that made me hear.
As the mud nourishes the lotus, yet not cling to the lotus. Respect everything that brought us to to this moment. I have to keep reminding myself of this.