Changsha Goes on a Picnic
A Meditation by
James Ishmael Ford & Cathy Seggel
12 June 2011
First Unitarian Church
Providence, Rhode Island
My friend Elizabeth Tarbox called summer an article of faith and wished for us the joy that matches our memories of what summer should be. I have always dreamed about beautiful weather and glorious outdoor living. My memories of childhood vacation times are all connected to being in the sun and swimming, lots of swimming. My mom and dad would pack up their new, very used car with clothes, sunscreen, sand toys, beach chairs, umbrella and towels for the long journey south. In our young minds, the adventure began mysteriously early. It was still dark, probably 5am. There was a very short stop for breakfast, the goal being to reach the destination before the traffic on the Garden State Parkway became unbearable.
We all had high expectations and enthusiasm for our week “down the shore.” As we approached the little motel with the big swing set, the road transitioned from all asphalt to one bordered by stripes of beloved, beige sand. It was a sign, along with the aroma of sea breezes. “Open the windows,” someone would say. “ You can smell it.”
Sometimes, as we ran over the dunes, on our mission to the land of summer, clouds rolled in with mighty cool breezes. More than once, we dipped our toes in to find the ocean still spring-cold with only a few souls willing to brave the water.
I beseeched the whole family to jump in the water with me. My sister and parents were reluctant, usually chickening out. Not me. I just had to do it. 55 degrees or not, I would swim! It only hurt for a minute, that tingly kind of ouchy feeling.
Then, all was well; all was worth that sense of rolling in the waves, letting the tide hold me, letting go.
I loved Cathy’s meditation on summer. There’s something magical about the turning of seasons, and what we experience in each of them, that become part of our memories, parts of who we are. These things, good and, truthfully, ill, gathered together become a gift from the world, mysterious and precious. In sum they are our lives.
And each event by itself is a call to us from the world, to notice, to attend, to see the connections. On our little blue boat home, we’re all family. We’re all sailing through the great dark together, more intimate than we can ever fully understand.
That story we heard earlier, about the master Changsha, really happened. It took place somewhere in the ninth century, somewhere in China. That’s a very long time ago, in a place very far away. And yet, I feel, it connects directly to Cathy’s dive into the cold waters on the Jersey shore, not so long ago.
Let’s revisit, just for moment, that older story. I think it contains within its telling some pointers for us as we go forward into the summer.
One day Changsha went off to wander in the mountains. When he returned, the director of the temple met him at the gate and asked, “Where have you been?” “I’ve been strolling about in the hills.” “Which way did you go?” “I went out following the scented grass and came back chasing the falling flowers.” “That’s exactly the feeling of spring,” said the director. “It’s better than autumn dew falling on the lotuses,” said Changsha. (Xuedou: “I’m grateful for your reply.”)
This story comes from an anthology of Zen anecdotes called the Blue Cliff Record, which was compiled over many years with various comments from the editors. Xuedou was the first editor, gathering the stories in the eleventh century and adding a word or two of his own. Xuedou’s comments are usually pithy, and often cut through right to the heart of the matter. And, with him, I’m grateful for this little story.
It points to the joy of our lives.
Of course, our tradition here is one of engagement. We do a lot. Most here do a lot. And this is a good thing. And, there is more to our lives than the doing. Or, rather, to fully engage, to fully do, we also need to pause. Every once in a while we need to stop, and to notice.
Now this story is a reminder of many things. No doubt we can work it any number of ways. It is in fact an important koan, those spiritual questions of the Zen tradition like “what is the sound of one hand clapping.” We’re not going into the formal Zen points of this koan, although the deeper currents of these things are also present when we explore other aspects of the anecdote in much the same way that the waves we encounter at the beach are informed by the deeper currents of the ocean. What I want to hold up for your consideration today is just how our ordinary lives, and particularly the turning of the season into summer and our fully encountering it, is a part of the healing of this world. It really can be that important, if we let it enter our hearts.
For our purposes here I just want to hold up for your consideration two points, both found in that one sentence of explanation for the wandering into the hills, for going on a picnic.
First, “I went out following the scented grass…”
Everything is in flower, as those among us with allergies can attest. I had to dash down to Garrison, New York, a conference and retreat center for a couple of days this week. It’s in fact the second time I’ve been there in the last couple of months. On my way back this time, I almost missed a turn because I didn’t see a landmark I noted on my earlier visit. This time the distinctive little chapel standing on a corner was almost completely hidden by a riot of bushes and flowering trees.
Perhaps this is a pointer.
The world is alive. We are alive. Notice it. Feel it. Throw yourselves, like Cathy, into the waters. It’s only cold for a moment.
Just notice the moment.
One of my favorite cartoonists over the years was Gary Larson. Seriously weird he penned a strip called “The Far Side.” Perhaps you remember it. 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 and 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. Our invitation for this summer is to be present. To wander out following 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. When that time comes, return chasing those falling flowers. Notice them, as well.
And when you get back, we’ll be here, waiting.