YOUR BEST SEASON
A Zen Meditation on Spring
Edward Sanshin Oberholtzer
Delivered on March 20th, 2012
at Empty Moon Zen‘s Inaugural Zoom Sesshin
Good evening, my name is Edward Keido Sanshin Oberholtzer. I’m the resident priest here at the Joseph Priestley Zen Sangha in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. We’re an affiliate of Empty Moon Zen.
“Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York.” And it has been a winter of our discontent, perhaps an entire year of our discontent. This past winter in particular and the autumn before that and the summer before that and the spring before that. Pandemic aside, if it can ever be aside, I don’t seem to ever be able to find a place to live that doesn’t flip from the icy depths of winter straight to the full blown heat and humidity of summer without pause for more than a passing glance at spring. But, nevertheless, spring, a new spring arrived this morning at 5:37 am Eastern Daylight Time here in central Pennsylvania, at least that’s what the Farmer’s Almanac tells me, and when you live surrounded by soy bean and corn fields, you pay attention to the Farmer’s Almanac. I know that for many of you, the equinox dawned, so to speak, in the middle of the night, the witching hour, and that, for many of you, particularly those of you in California, the idea of four seasons, however skewed, is an amusing east coast conceit. But here it is.
Yes, here it is. Wendell Berry, that poet of Appalacian farmland, wrote
Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here.
Yes, what we need is here and now, in this place, in this time, in this first evening of spring. We sit on our cushions, in the still darkness. We sit surrounded by our companions on the Way, even if virtually. We sit here and we pray to be quiet in heart. Those geese, flying over, landing in the fields behind the house just outside this window behind me, gleaning the fields of stray corn cobs left from last autumn. This is all they need. This is all they have. For them, nothing is missing. That field, this sesshin, this time is complete, virtually, magically, in the grit of form, in the expansiveness of the boundless, complete. What could be added?
Wumen gives us, in the verse to accompany case 19 of the Gateless Gate:
Spring comes with flowers, autumn with the moon,
Summer with breeze, winter with snow.
When idle concerns don’t hang in your mind,
That is your best season.
This moment, this spring equinox, this season,
Seven hundred and seventy five years ago on another March 20th, deep in the mountains of central Japan, at the temple Daibutsuji, our ancestor Eihei Dogen spoke to his assembly saying:
The boundless sky is the nose of all people. The vast earth is the legs and feet of all people. Therefore, the ancestral teacher [Bodhidharma] came from the west and directly clarified how all buddhas appear in the world. The nose performs the Buddha work of the eyes; the eyes perform the Buddha work of the ears. The six sense faculties function together, and all objects practice together. So it is said, “A stone person resembles you, and sings a popular song. You resemble a stone person, and are in harmony with the music of the snow.” Exactly thus, exactly now, all sense fields are perfect wisdom. Everybody, do you want to enact this reality in complete detail?
After a pause Dogen said: Who would complain that spring radiance does not seek after anything? The bright green grasses and hundred flowers are refreshing.
For a practice steeped in sitting still, have you noticed how much riotous motion there is in Zen? Dogen tells us, in his Mountains and Rivers Sutra in the Shobogenzo that the mountains themselves are walking, who then can doubt that a stone person can sing? Or that, as the Precious Mirror Samadhi tells us, that the stone woman rises up to dance? Hakuin assures us in his song in praise of Zazen that “singing and dancing are the voice of the law”.
A stone person, singing popular songs, and harmonizing with the silence of the snow, snow that is, I hope, now just a distant, quiet memory, though the grasses here are still brown and beaten down after a long winter. But the green shoots have been popping up.
On my walks down by Turtle Creek, the ground, frozen just a week ago, has now turned to mud. I see small flowers, white snow drops, something purple, pushing up through the dead leaves, reminding me that “For lo the winter is past, the rains are over and done.” The deer in the fields behind us are shedding their winter grey for the browns of summer. On a day like this, according to the Blue Cliff Record, Changsha went off to wander in the mountains and when he returned, the head monk 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 grasses and came back chasing the falling flowers.” “That’s exactly the feeling of spring,” said the head monk. “It’s better than autumn dew falling on the lotuses,” said Changsha, and Xuedou wrote “I’m grateful for your reply.”
There is so little that we require, the sky over our head, a gentle warm breeze, the light of a candle, the smoke of a stick of incense. The poet Galway Kinnell asked us in his poem Why Regret? to “Think of the wren and how little flesh is needed to make a song.”
Now this is the first night of spring and the last night of sesshin, our ends become our beginnings. I would miss an opportunity if I didn’t urge you all not to let down your guard, not to miss this precious opportunity to practice. No, I don’t have to tell you not to pack up yet, we are , after all all on Zoom and already home. But remember the geese passing over us. For them and for us, what we need is here.