It’ll All Get Swept Away – And Happy New Year Anyway

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It’s been cold in Omaha these past days with another several cold ones forecast. In this weather (not climate!), we worry about a stray cat that we’ve named “Ananda” (tends to hang around the garden Buddha), who hasn’t been seen in many days, leading us to worry that he may not make it through the winter. But perhaps he’s just found a warm place to hole up.

Meanwhile, the center is closed for winter break, giving me more time for reflection and bumbling around with some misguided translation work that I just can’t get right. In the midst of this confusion, a passage popped out that seemed fitting for the New Year – not necessarily all glowy and positive, mind you, but fitting. It’s from the preface that Wansong offers for The Record of Going Easy, (從容錄, Chinese: Cóngróng lù, Japanese: Shōyōroku) “Case 74 Fǎyǎn’s Substance and Name.”

“Abundance has ten-thousand virtues. Swept away, not a speck of dust. The mutual parting of all things – that is all dharmas. On top of a hundred-foot pole, take a step. The ten direction world is the whole body. Yet say, what comes?”

The Record of Going Easy is a one-hundred case collection of kōans and companion verses by Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091–1157) with Wansong Xingxiu’s (1166–1246) adding prefaces, notes to each line of the kōans, and notes to each line of Hongzhi’s verses. Both these important old teachers were descendants in the Cáodòng/Sōtō lineage.

Let’s look at it line-by-line

“Abundance has ten-thousand virtues.”

We begin tapping this ancient wisdom with a focus on gain and the virtues of health, wealth, and abundance of all kinds. When we consider the New Year, of course, we wish for an abundance of happiness for ourselves, those near and dear to us, and all living beings.

And yet, in this universe of constant flux, where everything dissolves and recombines, abundance is just one part of what’s likely to happen in the coming year.

There is also the other likelihood: “Swept away, not a speck of dust.”

Whatever we gain, we will lose now, soon, or at the hour of our death. Amen. Except perhaps the consequences of our love and hate. That’s the ugly and liberating truth.

I’ve just read The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World, by Jeff Goodell, and so have a fuller and more detailed appreciation of what we are likely looking at in the coming years. What we’ve built at sea level will very likely be swept away, and soon. Perhaps nine feet of ocean rise before 2100. At least 200 million climate refugees by 2050.

And how about in our practice with the qualities of wisdom and compassion that we’ve gained? What comes together, falls apart. Friend, let it all be swept away. Death too will come.

By the way, if you want a reminder you can get a We Croak app. “Each day,” they say, “we’ll send you five invitations at randomized times to stop and think about death.”

“The mutual parting of all things – that is all dharmas.”

So what about “Happy” New Year?

Sober up.

Tiffany Watt Smith in a TED talk, “The History of Human Emotions,” notes that our focus on “happy” is a recent cultural thing. Smith says that in the 16th century, self-help books listed reasons to be disappointed (instead of happy):

“These self-help authors thought you could cultivate sadness as a skill, since being expert in it would make you more resilient when something bad did happen to you, as invariably it would. I think we could learn from this today. Feel sad today, and you might feel impatient, even a little ashamed. Feel sad in the 16th century, and you might feel a little bit smug.”

Happy, sad, or smug

The whole works is just flowing. And not necessarily interested in our fleeting and fickle human desires. In the midst of gain and loss, happiness and sadness, “…on top of a hundred-foot pole, take a step.”

Usually this line, stepping off a hundred foot pole, refers to post-awakening practice. Even intimate self knowledge can’t be clung to. Even at the highest stage of enlightenment, the imperative is to continue to develop. Instead, with open hearts, full-knowing, we take a step into the unknown wilds.

But in our day, with our whole little planet seemingly teetering on the top of a hundred-foot pole, I’d like to expand this to include us all, asleep or awake.

Then, in the activity of just doing, “…the ten direction world is the whole body.”

Taking a step in such circumstances might look like fearlessness, but really that’s frost on snow. It’s just doing. The whole body of the ten directions steps through the whole body of the ten directions.

“Yet say, what comes?”

For this line, Cleary has “…where does it come from?” Yamada has “…from where does one get this?” Strictly, the characters seem to say, “What place comes?” 

Like I said, I just can’t get it right.

If the ten direction world is the true body, then what is coming at us? “What is it that thus comes?”

When we let go of everything and the world of ten directions advances, where are we then?

Happy New Year to you all!

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