The Snow is the Mountain

“Nothing in my life has left a trace of the path.
Lost between the true and the false.
Long days the snow has covered the mountain.
This winter the snow is the mountain.”

After years of wholehearted practice, the Zen master Eihei Dogen voices his doubt. What has his life added up to? Has he left any tracks substantial enough for others to follow? So often we feel lost between truth and illusion, unable to distinguish one from the other, especially in the realm of our own thoughts. Our delusions seem to obscure reality as snow covers a mountain. Yet Dogen says nothing is hidden. Snow doesn’t hide a mountain; snow is part and parcel of the mountain. Just as delusion doesn’t obstruct enlightenment; it becomes enlightenment.

I read about learning to snowboard: “Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.”

Overthinking

Twice today I’ve stumbled across admonitions against overthinking. I’m beginning to take it personally. What is this overthinking whereof they speak? How can one distinguish between overthinking and mere thinking? There’s no posted speed limit. The “over” variant of thinking seems a subjective judgment–some people consider the slightest cognitive exertion excessive and unnecessary. Personally, I never know it’s over (thinking) until it’s over–until I’ve spent hours upon fruitless hours cogitating, analyzing, reflecting, replaying, and re-imagining, all to no effect except distilled confusion. Thinking is like a bad movie; you can’t write it off until the end, because an epiphany could arrive at the very last moment and redeem the whole wretched business in an extraordinary and unforgettable way. Life is like this too.

What’s Your Religion?

“Religion” and “spirituality” are two of my least favorite words, which is inconvenient for a minister. I keep thinking we need a new language to talk about such subjects, but then I think we need a new language for a lot of things.

Kodo Sawaki, a Japanese Zen teacher, noted in his typically blunt style: “Religion is not an idea.” Yet that’s exactly how we generally conceive of it–as a kind of theory of everything, explaining how we got here, what will happen after we die, and how to live between those two points.

Religion suggests a codified set of beliefs handed down through the generations, to be accepted without question (on “faith”). These days in this country, some people prefer the word “spirituality,” which sounds more flexible and open to self-definition. Yet it’s often unclear, even to ourselves, what we mean by this word, what our brand of spirituality is.

Etymologically religion means to tie again: to revivify the bond between the individual and her world (which may include the sense of a divinity, or not). We’re talking about the living, ever present relationship between the self and all things, between this moment and all those before and still to come. Although we often feel we array ourselves against life as if it were a hostile force to be outsmarted, manipulated, or conquered, it’s possible to align ourselves with it instead: to accept the reality of a given situation and try to feel our way toward the best possible outcome–best for the ecology of the situation, not simply for our narrowly defined self-interest.

What spirituality means to me, semantic quibbles notwithstanding, is just this: fully inhabiting all the layers of life in each moment, so the quotidian details of how we live reflect our essential values: clear water to the bottom. Our smallest action matters–not only what we do but how we do it, and perhaps most of all, the secretive why.

This is my religion today. Check back tomorrow…

Resolved:

I’ve determined to try an experiment: to write (and publish)¬†something every day for a year. This possibly foolhardy undertaking was inspired by two members of a writing group I recently joined. The practice doesn’t seem to have driven them crazy, although it’s possible I just don’t know them that well yet.

My second resolution is to aim at being happy no matter what happens. It’s a flimsy kind of happiness that’s contingent on everything going well, because it can’t always–that’s a law of life. But I believe in a happiness that lives its life independent of circumstance, and I’m curious about this kind. The poet Paul Eluard wrote, “There is another world, and it is inside this one.”

Finally, I want to study the nature of fear and how it works in my mind and life. The other day, this thought came to me: Once a person begins giving in to fear, there’s no end to it. The Zen ancestor Bodhidharma commented,

It’s as if there were someone who painted dragons and tigers with his own hand and yet, upon looking at them, became frightened. Deluded people are also like this. The brush of thought…paints razor mountains and sword forests, and yet it is thought…that fears them.

 Enough said for now. More tomorrow.

Happy new year!