9 June 2013
James Ishmael Ford
First Unitarian Church
Providence, Rhode Island
One day Changsha went off to wander in the mountains. When he returned, the temple director met him at the gate and asked, “So, where have you been?” Changsha replied, “I’ve been strolling about in the hills.” “Which way did you go?” “I went out following the scented grasses and came back chasing the falling flowers.” The director smiled. “That’s exactly the feeling of spring,” Changsha, agreed, adding, “It’s better than autumn dew falling on lotuses.”
Blue Cliff Record, Case 36
Our spiritual tradition here is one of engagement. We do a lot. Most here do so much. In addition to caring for our families, and trying to live decent lives informed by considering our own hearts and minds, we act in the world. As a community we are committed. We feed the hungry. We struggle for justice. We even win an occasional victory. I’m still shocked that our state won marriage equality, and that our church was so at the center of it all. This is a good thing. These are all good things.
But, a key to the treasure house, to the point of our lives, of living fully with some grace and joy, is that spiritual discipline; how we look deeply into our own hearts and minds, and from that place, act. So, I think this encounter between Changsha and the director points right into how we, you and I, are invited into that dance, and in paying attention learning when to lead, when to follow, and, just as important, when to sit this one out.
This story comes from an anthology of Zen anecdotes called the Blue Cliff Record. It had several editors. Xuedou was the first, gathering the one hundred stories of the Blue Cliff sometime in the eleventh century, and adding a word or two of his own by way of comment. Xuedou’s comments are usually pithy, and often cut through right to the heart of the matter. In fact as this particular case is published, it includes a little coda from Xuedou. After Changsha’s description of following scented grasses and falling flowers, and the director’s appreciation, and Changsha’s pointed conclusion, Xuedou adds his own. “I’m grateful for this answer.” Me too. It points us on with a gentle hand.
More than most stories from the world’s treasure trove of spiritual teachings this story of spring flowers and autumn dew points directly to the secret of our path. So, what might be the secret, that if we hold it true, makes noticing the turning of spring to summer, of picnics, and walks in the woods, the stuff of a spiritual life? I suggest some of us might profit from a re-read of Henry Thoreau’s Walden. But, really, this anecdote has all we need.
First, “I went out following the scented grass…”
Everything is in flower, as those among us with allergies can attest. The world is alive. We are alive. Notice it. Feel it. Throw yourselves into the moment, not some other moment, this one. For Changsha a walk in the countryside. For us, today, pews, and lingering music, and a grand old pulpit. In a moment or two, for some of us, the annual church picnic. For all of us, each moment of our lives something is presented. So, right now, through those clear glass windows, how can we miss the day beckoning, the moment inviting?
As intimate as a kiss.
But, also, there’s that line about the autumn dew. Here we’re also reminded, and really, invited into the cosmic play, found for us as flashes of insight throughout our lives, but most commonly noticed when we’re quiet. It is our intimation of interconnections so vast, so very vast that you and I, indeed, everything we can name collapses, like a star pulled into a black hole, where even words like interconnected web, or, my preferred term, boundless, slightly miss the point.
Perhaps you’ve had that taste of reality in all its vastness. It’s a gift of our humanity, encountered by rich and poor, by educated and ignorant. Now and then we all catch a moment of its truth like a flash of lightning in a summer storm. Or, maybe it just haunts an occasional dream. The point is this. The deep connections that our tradition sings of, the perspective we are all woven together so fine, that we can’t even find our separateness, is an important encounter. I would even call it the God beyond God. But, again the words fail, collapsed into something more than a black hole. For those of us who’ve noticed this experience, we might recognize that description of autumn dew falling on a lotus.And it is important to notice this big thing. However we name it. It ties us together, and puts the lie to our separateness, and sense of isolation. But, Changsha adds in something. We don’t live there. Or, rather, and in fact more important, we find that vastness nowhere but in things. And not things in general. But specific things. The person sitting next to you reveals that whole. Your own experience of this moment manifests the universe itself and the space beyond naming. The whole interdependent web is revealed in a single flower.
Changsha calls us to the world, of the precious individual, of scented flowers. Here, we’re invited to see how that boundless place, that black hole of all ideas and separateness, is also this place, this place with hard pews, and skies presenting through clear class windows. Scented grasses and falling flowers. Everything may be tied up together in some great cosmic play that is so vast our words fail to convey it. But, it is also, nothing other than you and me, these pews, this pulpit. This. This This.
Here’s the deal. We spend a little time noticing, and then when the time comes again to act, and don’t worry, it will; well, we might even notice whether the dance is calling us to lead, to follow, or to sit this one out. We gain a perspective that even deserves the word holy.
Not fully clear? Well, there’s another story about Changsha from many years before. Perhaps it can underscore our invitation. He’s sitting on the side of a hill with an old friend. Its late evening and they’re looking up at the moon. That’s another pointer to the great big, to that sense of divine, of holy, of the vast unnamable, of the interdependent web.
Out of their shared silence, contemplating the beauty of it all, Changsha’s companion says, “That’s the secret. Right there. Right here.” He paused, and added, “Too bad people don’t know how to use it.”
Here we’re being invited into something. It isn’t rocket science, but it is the hidden secret of our lives. How do we act with grace in this world? How do we do the work that our lives call us to? How are we decent parents, loving partners, good friends? Well, all is revealed in a moment when two friends sit on a hillside gazing up at the full moon.
Changsha replies, “I’ll show you how to use it.” And with that he pushes his friend over on his side.
I suspect there was laughter.
Forget the high falutin’, forget the philosophy. It’s there, we can return to it soon enough. But, for right now, for this moment…
As some might recall one of my favorite cartoonists over the years was Gary Larson. Seriously weird he penned a strip called “The Far Side.” In one strip there’s a cow guru and a cow disciple. Like I said, far side. The cow guru says to the cow disciple, “Don’t forget to stop and eat the roses.”
Some platitudes are platitudes, repeated over and over again, because they’re true. Stop to smell the roses. Unless you’re a cow. And then you have your instructions, as well.
Enjoy the summer fully. Maybe it’ll rain on your parade, or picnic. And, you know, that’s okay, too. It’s all the play of summer. Another spiritual tradition that we can learn much from tells us how to take this season rain and all, with their slogan, “Easy does it.” Take it as it comes. Take it easy. Play, rain or shine.
Just open your heart to what is going on. The autumn dew is always with us, the full moon never very far away. Notice the clear clean moments as they present. But, but, our invitation for this summer is to be present. To wander out following the scented grasses. We’ll find it all in the scented grasses.
And, then, time will pass. It does, you may have noticed. And, we will come to the time of the falling flowers. And it will all be present in the falling flowers, as well. So, when that time comes, return chasing those falling flowers.
And when you get back, we’ll be here, waiting.
Ready to resume the great work.