“If man were never to fade away like the dews of Adashino, never to vanish like the smoke over Toribeyama, but lingered on forever in the world, how things would lose their power to move us! The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.” — Yoshida Kenko, Essays in Idleness
One morning a while back I woke up with a woman I loved sleeping in bed next to me. She stirred awake for a moment. Sleepily, I rolled over so my back was turned to her and she rolled over and put her arm around me. I felt her soft, warm breath on the nape of my neck.
We lay there silently. She went back to sleep. Eyes wide open, I listened to the birdsong in the early morning light blazing around the hem of the curtains. Another day was dawning. Another day closer to what I’d been dreading for weeks. We’d been together for a little over a year and I knew the end of our relationship was near.
For weeks I felt her drifting from me, moving on. It made me sad. I desperately wanted things to be different. I wanted her to stay with me. But there was nothing I could do. It was as if she were being carried away by the ocean’s tide.
But, oddly—and for reasons I did not understand at the time—in those few still and silent moments that morning, I’d rarely felt happier with her. Rarely felt happier in my entire life, for that matter. My future with her was unclear, uncertain. But I remember feeling that I could have died then and there, completely, speechlessly happy.
“If man were never to fade away like the dews of Adashino, never to vanish like the smoke over Toribeyama, but lingered on forever in the world, how things would lose their power to move us! The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.”
I first read these lines in Donald Keene’s translation of a 14th-century Japanese classic, Essays in Idleness, as I stood on a sidewalk in Brooklyn late last winter. It was a balmy day, as I recall, the way it can suddenly really seem like spring is near, and people who had spent their winter hunkered inside and cleaning up, were now heaping things on the sidewalk to sell or give away.
I’d stumbled upon the book at one of these curbside sales. I’d never heard of the book, was enticed by its title, picked it up, flipped through its pages, and read those lines. They were hard to miss. They were underlined in bold, black ink by a previous owner to remind him or her of their significance and, perhaps, for me to find them, like a message in a bottle that had mysteriously washed up into my hands. I paid $2 for the book and went on my way.
Later that day on the train home to Upstate New York I read more of the book. In fact, I could hardly peel my eyes away from it. When I stopped reading I’d gaze out at the Hudson River on my left right there by the tracks and wonder why I had never heard of this book before. It just seemed like something I should have known about. But Buddhists have a traditional saying that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Maybe that’s why this book appeared in my life only now.
A footnote attached to the above passage explains that Adashino is a graveyard outside of Kyoto, and in Japanese poetry it is often employed as a symbol of impermanence; the word adashi is Japanese for “impermanence.” Toribeyama is a graveyard in Kyoto and the smoke mentioned in these lines is supposed to suggest that bodies were cremated there. I can tell you that there is no better representation of life’s coming and going than a crematorium. I can tell you if you stand outside one you can see in the plume above the chimney how the human body is reduced to smoke and ash in minutes. So one thing this book was making me realize–or remember–is that life is damn short and whatever it was I really, really want to do with it, I’d better get at it.
Getting at it for me was starting to look like I wanted to leave my job and stop, be idle for a bit, to reflect and let my life catch up to me. The idea of idleness I had forming in my head was not about killing time; it was more about stopping long enough to figure out what was killing me. Not that I was dying. But it didn’t feel entirely like living, either. At least not to the degree I felt summoned by from my depths. Maybe it was more like the world I had made for myself was just getting too small for me at this point in my life. Comfortable and enjoyable, to be sure. But not entirely enough room to breathe some new life into myself, and it was starting to look like I was going to have to make some sort of leap into the unknown to make that happen. As I said in my post last week, a leap into the void can involve danger but a timely leap can also lead us out of danger.
The author of the book is Yoshida Kenko, who lived from 1283 to 1352. He was a Buddhist priest, a reclusive scholar, and a poet who had ties to the aristocracy of medieval Japan. Despite his links to the Imperial court, Kenko spent much time in seclusion and mused on Buddhist and Taoist teachings. Essays in Idleness is a collection on these thoughts and observations. From what I can tell after a little research, I learned that the work was written in the zuihitsu (“follow-the-brush”) style, a type of stream-of-consciousness writing that allowed the writer’s brush to skip from one topic to the next, led only by the direction of thoughts. Sort of like a blog with ink on paper.
That a man who lived such a vastly different life, in a vastly different time, in vastly different culture than me and yet spoke to my heart, is spooky. I think he spoke to me because what Kenko writes about in the book has a timelessness to it, like certain passages from religious scriptures. His thoughts about how to live a meaningful life are as true to me now as they were to him 700 years ago. Kenko is saying the same thing to me that he said to his readers back then. It is counter-intuitive, to be sure. I think we all have to admit that uncertainty is not a precious thing. It feels more like a threat, thin ice, something that goes bump in the night and wakes us up, and keeps us awake until the alarm for another day at work goes off. And off we go.
But what if I was to say that uncertainly is not merely to be coped with or accepted? What if I was to say that we are almost duty-bound to be completely aware of our tenuous existence all the time because that is, paradoxically, not the route to madness but to complete sanity. More than that, what if I was say we are summoned to court change because that is where life is really lived and where our most profound growth occurs? What if I was to say we need to make a leap into the unknown from time to time, to live with a sense that there is no ground beneath us. Would you call me crazy? “To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest,” writes the renowned Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön in her book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. “To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again.”
Crazy, yes. Crazy wisdom, as her teacher, Chögyam Trungpa, often espoused. He writes: “The process is one of going further in and in and in without any reference point of spirituality, without any reference point of a savior, without any reference point of a goodness or badness–without any reference points whatsoever!”
The good news is that throwing ourselves from the “nest” does not always ask much of us because a nest can be a habit or a routine just as much as a place. We can simply take a different route to the office, hold the fork with our left hand instead of our right, see the glass half full instead of half empty, give into our doubts, change our opinion about someone or something. Sometimes, though, there is much more involved. If asked, I would have to say it depends upon the degree to which you have fallen asleep at the wheel or how deep and persistent your longing to change and grow becomes. If asked, I would have to say I am at the much more involved phase.
I used to have a Zen saying on a yellow Post-It stuck to my bathroom mirror. I’ve long since taken it down–maybe because there was a part about it that irritated me–but I think of it almost every day as if it were still there. I like it and loathe it. It’s: “Wake up. It’s later than you think.” When that comes to mind now, two things happen to me. One, I get anxious about everything I want to do before I die. Even when I was in my 20s, I’d wake up in the middle of night in a sweaty panic thinking there was always too much to do and too little time to do it. It was like a switch that got thrown on that I could not shut off. This still sometimes happens to me. And that’s what I loathe about it.
But having studied and practiced Buddhist teachings for past 20 years now, I have learned how to be calmed by the idea because “waking up” in the Buddhist world is just about paying attention. So I stop whatever I am doing and wake up to whatever’s all around me. I stop time, in a way, and remind myself to be grateful that I’ve made it this far. And that’s what I love about it. It’s how I felt in bed that morning with my girlfriend. I was not only grateful I’d made it that far. I was also grateful for what I had then, in that moment, even as the morning, and she, were about disappear like the dews of Adashino. And therein was the root of my wonder that morning. “When you fall in love,” Pema Chödrön writes in When Things Fall Apart, “recognize it as impermanence, and let that intensify the preciousness.”
This is what Kenko was driving at seven centuries ago: It is life’s uncertainties that not only keep us on our toes but also awaken us to the preciousness of the ever-present but fleeting moment. If we were to linger on forever in the world, Kenko reminds us, “how things would lose their power to move us!” The poignant beauty of life lies in the fact that life is ephemeral. Lovers come and go. We witness the life and death of friends and family. The sun comes up and goes down. The moon waxes and wanes. The ocean’s tide sweeps in and out. There’s a wind in the white pines and then the air is still again. Lightning flashes and thunder rolls across the sky, and then the sun comes out and the trees drip with rain. A fabulous meal is spread before you, there are friends gathered all around, and then, by evening’s end, everything and everyone are gone.
But what you realize, if you’re lucky, is that all our wonder and longing are contained in a moment that is fully lived, fully absorbed. And I think if we can be somewhere or with someone or alone and feel utterly content, so content you feel that you could die happy, well that’s something to strive for. To die for. Not necessarily give up our lives for, but let former ways of being pass away so we can be born into something, someone new. To die over and over again, as Pema Chödrön writes.
Since my post last week—the first I made on this blog—I spent a lot of time (when I wasn’t outside shoveling snow) reading comments posted on the blog or sent to me by email. I was excited about the similar journeys that others have found themselves on and wrote to me about. It’s amazing to me that once you tell somebody what’s really going on in your life, suddenly you’re surrounded by others going through the same thing.
One woman wrote about her own leap: “I struggle with it. I want certainty, I want to know, I want a sense of place and home and roots and belonging, something to hold on to. The vulnerability of the void is a hard place to be. At the same time, I think there is a part of me that welcomes it.” Such is the nature of making leaps into unchartered territories, and the dialogue that comes from the lived tension between wanting certainty and living with uncertainty—a dialogue with others and within one’s own self—is the place of personal growth and spiritual development, the place where we mature. And it is a place where we can find a sort of home.
I also spent part of the week reading Swamplands of the Soul: New Life in Dismal Places by Jungian analyst James Hollis. Reflecting on the existential loneliness that inevitably haunts all of us at some time in our lives, he writes: “While it is true we can’t go home again, it is also true that in a universe of exiles, when people’s paths intersect, the journey itself may seem like home…. No small thing.” And, he writes, “It is precisely our aloneness that permits our uniqueness to unfold. The more enmeshed we are with others, the less differentiated, the less individuated we are; the less individuated, the less we serve the greater purposes of the cosmos for which we were so mysteriously generated.”
On June 11, 1963, a Vietnamese monk, Thich Quang Duc, burned himself to death at a busy intersection in downtown Saigon to bring attention to the repressive policies of the Catholic regime that controlled the South Vietnamese government at the time. It was not a protest against the Vietnam War, as is popularly believed. Buddhist monks then had asked the regime to lift its ban on flying the traditional Buddhist flag, to grant Buddhism the same rights as Catholicism, to stop detaining Buddhists and to give Buddhist monks and nuns the right to practice and spread their religion. (If you are not old enough to have seen this in the news at the time then you might recognize the photo from the cover of a 1992 Rage Against the Machine CD.)
In the Buddhist tradition the symbol of a burning house relates to life in this world. How quickly it can go up in flames. What was once there is there no more. So too our lives; we are in that burning house. Or more to the point, we are that burning house. And we are meant to use our lives—to burn them up—in an ongoing effort to wake up and to help others to wake up, too. “Whatever it is in your power to do, do with all your might.” So says the unnamed teacher in Ecclesiastics. It is meant to inspire its readers to live with passion because life is God’s gift, even in light of the perceived senselessness of existence that is famously woven into the text.
I stare at that photo and try to fathom what that monk was thinking and feeling as he burned to death or in the moments as he prepared himself to die. We can guess that he was frightened; he could not know what was going to happen to him as two other monks poured gasoline on him and in the final second before he himself struck the match he knew would end his life. And yet he braved his fears and uncertainty, and did what he felt he most needed to do with his precious human birth. We do know he did it with dedication. He had prepared himself for it through several weeks of meditation and had explained his motivation in letters to members of his Buddhist community as well as to the government of South Vietnam in the weeks before he gave up his life.
We should be so bold as to live our lives like he did, to be consumed by our own deepest passions, what theologian Paul Tillich called our “ultimate concerns,” no matter what we fear, no matter how uncertain we feel going into them. Or, as a friend so simply put to me recently: “Life is too short to be chicken.”
Tell a wise person, or else keep silent,
because the mass man will mock it right away.
I praise what is truly alive,
what longs to be burned to death.
So wrote Wolfgang von Goethe in the opening lines of his poem, “The Holy Longing,” translated from the German by Robert Bly. Years ago a good friend of mine fell in love and married a man who gave her this poem. She passed it onto me and now I am passing it onto you, paying Goethe forward. He continues:
In the calm water of the love-nights,
where you were begotten, where you have begotten,
a strange feeling comes over you,
when you see the silent candle burning.
Now you are no longer caught in the obsession with darkness,
and a desire for higher love-making sweeps you upward.
Distance does not make you falter.
Now, arriving in magic, flying,
and finally, insane for the light,
you are the butterfly and you are gone.
And so long as you haven’t experienced this: to die and so to grow,
you are only a troubled guest on the dark earth.
Jack London writes In The Call of the Wild: “There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame….”
I’m thinking these days that this is how I want to live, what I want to be. A man caught up and out of himself in a sheet a flame. A burning man. I have stopped running for a time to let the flames of what used to my earliest passions and strongest desires catch up to me. I know I want to spend more time writing and I will be (I have been) doing plenty of that. But there’s more, I know. And when I do find these passions—or if I do—I want to burn with the light coming from within, stoked by all that I no longer want to do or be, like a great funeral pyre, out which will come someone I can only call my true self.
Oprah has this thing where she says what she knows is true for sure. Here’s what I know what’s true for sure: We each have our own light we are insane for, a sheet of flame into which we long to plunge—our work, our family, our art, our campaigns to save the disappearing rain forests, our cooking, or even our own awakening. Especially our own awakening. And closer we get to that flame the more we realize what it is; the distance between you and it collapses, and then, if you are lucky, you and it become one. And I believe that’s what love is. And this is your ultimate gift to the world.