15 September 2023
Resident Priest and Managing Director
Every year when the seasons shift from summer to fall, the first line of a certain gatha (Buddhist poem-like stanza) comes to mind: “the mind moves with the ten thousand things” (心随万境転).
Summer is a hot time of year in most places and the heat levels of summer are rising all around the world. There also seems to be a humidity in the Vancouver area that was not part of our normal summers in the past. Japan has even hotter and more humid summers, every year without fail. So when autumn comes with its cool breezes, everyone experiences a sudden clearing of the head as they awake from the torpor of life in the summer heat.
This is similar to the coming alive feeling of spring, but it is also different, for soon we will be moving into a yin time of year, winter being the season of deep, quiet, motionless tranquility. But the autumn wind, the rustling of the autumn grasses and the flight of the geese through clear skies seem to work a kind of magic on us, making us pensive and reflective. Even without these images, the air we breathe fills us with a kind of sadness echoed in the natural world.
When the world changes, we change. I believe this is the gist of the line quoted above. We are not discrete beings observing a world that is outside of us. We are it and it is us, and for some reason, the shift from winter to spring, and from summer to fall puts us into a meditative state. Religiously, this shift takes expression in the Japanese Buddhist celebrations of Higan, which literally means “the other shore,” a time in which the lines are blurred between “this world” and the world beyond the six paths of conditioned existence.
Some may see the first line of the gatha – “the mind moves” – and think, “But should we not have a steady mind that is not moved by the things of the world?” After all, Buddhism values the unmoving mind (不動心fudōshin) which is not thrown off balance by events. The second line of the poem answers this: “even in moving it is thoroughly still” (転処実能幽).
When we are truly in accord with what is happening around us, we unite in spirit with whatever comes our way. When we play with a child we become like a child; when we listen to a musician playing we engage with the music and the player. When tragedy strikes we are saddened or even horrified. When something fortuitous happens we rejoice. But at the same time our fundamental nature (sometimes termed “Buddha nature”) does not change. This is the still “place” which is recognized in the second line of the gatha, although it is paradoxically here called the “place of moving.”
And speaking of that fundamental nature of ours, or really of all things, the third line of the stanza declares: “if you can discern the fundamental nature [of all things] while going with the flow….” (随流認得性), [fourth line:] “there is neither joy nor sorrow” 無喜亦無憂. This last line can cause some confusion. If we are one with all things and our mental attitude changes with the changes of the world, then joy and sorrow must be part of our experience. And they are, but not in the way that we normally experience them. To “discern” or “grasp” our true nature is to have the calculations of our ego-driven machinations drop in what is called a state of mushin 無心in Japanese. This word literally means “no mind,” though more accurately it would be “nothing in mind.” Normally we spend a lot of our time either trying to hold on to what we have, or else we are trying to get what we don’t have. Of course as human beings we need to do this in order to survive in this world. The problem is that our craving for things and our desire to manipulate the people and things around us for our own advantage often goes too far. It controls us and distorts our perception of what is happening. But a state of mushin is the opposite of that. It is simply awareness of the world without our trying to change anything, without calculating our next move. This can happen in meditation, but it also happens at other times, such as when we have been exerting ourselves for a lengthy period of time and then, when the task is finished and we rest, our ego also takes a rest. Or it might happen when the seasons shift and, rather than struggling with the environment, we let things flow without trying to change anything. It is a feeling of contentment. We are content, even if momentarily, with the way things are.
When ego drops, therefore, we are able to experience joy and sorrow fully and deeply, but without being knocked off balance. We don’t become morbidly attached to joy or sorrow, and as with all things in this state, we realize a lack of separation from what is happening around us.
Finally, I would like to quote the poet William Blake:
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.