My Doorway Between Ordinary and Deep Time

We measure ordinary time in ordinary ways, without the need of any clock. Our breath ticks off our seconds. Time spent lost in thought becomes our minutes. A walk or a meal becomes an hour. And what else can an ordinary day be but the time spent between waking and sleeping. Our bodies measure ordinary time, and our minds, arising from our bodies as they do, follow along. A twinge of remorse, the duration of a laugh, the time it takes to have a conversation – these are the ordinary ways we measure ordinary time.

Five years’ worth of ordinary time has elapsed in between my planting a vegetable garden this past spring and when I last planted one at the house where I used to reside. Five years’ worth of seasons transitioning one into another has gone by. Five years spent breathing, working, and sleeping have elapsed. Five years of love, joy, grief, upheaval, and calm have tumbled past. For five years I’ve prepared meals and eaten them. For five years I’ve collected the scraps in a three gallon bucket stowed away beneath the sink, and emptied it onto the backyard compost pile when it got full.

For five years I pondered the best place to plant a garden. I watched the sun move across the sky, past the trees, over the house, and beyond the horizon. Which spot got the most sun? Which spot had the best soil? Which spot could be readily served by a garden hose? Which spot would be out of the way of some future backyard game of some sort? And all throughout those five years the compost pile grew larger, supplemented from time to time with layers of yard clippings and finely mowed leaves.

Raised garden beds
Raised garden beds

Ordinary time inexorably accumulates into deep time. But whereas ordinary time is lived by all who’ve ever lived, deep time is lived only by the universe itself – or by God, if you are so inclined to think in such terms. Deep time is the measure of the universe, planet formation, the accumulation of rain into oceans, and the rising up of mountain ranges from the collision of tectonic plates. Deep time, for us ordinary beings, is usually only experienced as a backdrop against which our ordinary time is lived. More poignantly, though, for those who allow themselves to become so attuned, is that deep time can be felt as the ground of being itself.

Any discussion of deep time prompts me to recall a solitary cross-country bike trip that I took some years ago on which I meandered back home to the Midwest after starting out on the West Coast. I was fairly seasoned by the time I made it to Wyoming’s Wind River Canyon, having weathered the Coastal Range, the Cascades, and the Blue Mountains of Oregon, the Sawtooth Range in Idaho, and, of course, the Rocky Mountains. Such trials open up the traveler to seeing things perhaps otherwise overlooked.

Triassic mudstone beds outside of Thermopolis, Wyoming

The Wind River Canyon is about fifteen miles long and a half mile deep in spots. Picture, if you will, the many layers of the earth’s crust deposited over millions of years. Now picture those layers tilted at a relatively steep angle as one end is lifted up by forces deep inside the earth. Finally, picture a river – a recent arrival on the scene – flowing down this sloping landscape and slicing through its layers. Since the Wind River flows at a shallower angle than the layers of deposition, a journey upriver through the canyon is like a journey back in time. Whereas the mouth of the canyon opens up onto the relatively recent red mudstone beds of the Triassic period, ending some 200 million years ago, it begins higher up by cutting through Pre-Cambrian granite that is nearly a billion years old.

As I made my way up the canyon – through the grayish-beige of the Permian Period, the yellow, peach, and creamy rust of the Pennsylvanian Period, the creamy buff of the Ordovician Period, and the gray-brown of the Cambrian – I became more keenly aware that my very existence is supported by and the result of all life that came before. From the single-celled life forms to the first flowering plants, from the invertebrates to the lunged fish to the stem reptiles – if each and every one of these beings had not strived to its fullest, doing its part to fill in the web of life as completely as it could be filled, would we even be here today?

This realization becomes even more profound when one considers the fact that the Triassic Period marked a brand new blossoming of life after some catastrophic event caused the vast majority of those aforementioned life forms to become extinct. On one hand, we might wonder what those now-extinct lives amounted to – evolutionary dead ends that they are. On the other hand, we might ponder how the genetic codes capable of surviving such a catastrophe could have been assembled if each and every life form had not lived out its ordinary time as fully and completely as it did.

I contemplate deep time whenever I turn the compost pile out back, feeling as though my activity is akin to that which took place on the primeval forest floor over the course of eons and eons. Dead vegetation accumulated and decayed there, to be mixed and churned by the forces within and upon the ever-changing earth. Volcanic ash and that of forest fires was added to it. Mineral silt from flood and glacial activity was thrown in for good measure. I can’t help but marvel at the nature of deep time whenever I reflect upon the fact that, after five years of ordinary time, I have a couple of raised garden beds containing about a cubic yard and a half of rich soil giving rise to a wonderfully crowded mess of edible plants. Compare that with an entire continent covered with life-giving soil!

And so it is that my vegetable garden, and the compost pile from which it has sprung, provide entrée into deep time. It connects my lived existence – my ordinary time spent conditioning the soil, as well as growing, harvesting, and eating its fresh food – with those geological actions that allow for the very existence of life of any kind on this planet. I again can watch the food that becomes me arise from and return to the soil that I helped make. I again can see my own life in a similar context: arising, living as fully possible, receiving sustenance from and, in turn, providing sustenance for a world yet to come. My ordinary life, my ordinary time, is but a fleeting instant in the expanse of deep time. It is humbling and awe-inspiring all at the same time.

Parts of this post were first published in 2010 as Doing What We Can, and then again in 2011 as Desire, Aspiration, and Doing What We Can.

All images are the property of the author.

Copyright 2010, 2011, 2021 by Mark Robert Frank

Brood X and the Mystery of Human Transformation

After seventeen years of life spent underground, the Brood X cicada nymphs have begun their ascent toward the heavens. First they climb up whatever tree trunk, stalk, or wall they might encounter. Then they crack out of their suddenly very confining shells. And then, once their wings have sufficiently dried, they fly up into the tree canopy to either sing their song of love or be sung to, as the case may be. In another month or so, with their mating duties presumably complete, they’ll pass into the great beyond – leaving behind the eggs that will start the process all over again nestled within grooves made in the tree branches. In the meantime, though, there will be singing. Oh, my, there will be singing!

Brood X cicada and the shell of its former self

I’ve been fascinated by cicadas ever since I was a child. So many times I’ve been mesmerized by their song. The pulsing drone of their collective “voice” gradually builds to a scratching crescendo, then to be taken up by a chorus from another cluster of trees some distance away. And so the song proceeds, long into the warm summer nights. What fascinates me most, though, from my adult perspective, is their transformation. Can you imagine what it would be like to spend your life almost entirely underground, only to live your final few weeks up in the tree tops, in the sun and the rain, singing as the sun fades with so many others just like you – kin that you barely knew even existed all the other days of your life? What a transformation that must be!

Transformation, from the human perspective, is often thought to be the result of spiritual practice. Perhaps we’re transformed from a state of suffering to one of liberation, from attachment to a small-minded notion of our self to the realization of transcendent possibility, or from a state of being lost to one of being saved. On the other hand, we Soto Zen practitioners eschew (or attempt to, anyway) all conceptualization regarding transformation for the sake of merely practicing for the sake of practice. After all, thoughts of transformation are all too often tainted with desire and even greed – for attainment or status, to be something other than what we are, etc. But becoming free of all thoughts of attainment requires quite a transformation in and of itself! How do we maintain a spiritual practice even as we maintain that we’re not really doing anything? That there is, in fact, nothing to be gained? It’s something of a koan, isn’t it?

Notwithstanding what we Soto Zen folks might think, transformation is usually thought of as an expansion of consciousness, or movement to a higher level of awareness, if you will. We can see such transformation in our own lives in many ways. Surely we’ve noticed that our childish ways of thinking have become much more mature. Perhaps even into adulthood we’re moving from a more tribal way of looking at self and other to a more expansive view of all humankind. Maybe we’ve become less self-centered and more inclined to think of ourselves as part of, or inextricably woven into, a web of all living and non-living things. We might have stopped thinking of ourselves in terms of the various roles we play in life and begun to see ourselves more deeply connected to something thought of as divine. Perhaps we’ve begun feeling in our heart truths of greater depth than those most often spoken of on a daily basis. While such transformation may proceed in fits and starts it is largely a one-way process. It’s difficult to duck back into our shell after glimpsing a more expansive world outside. What a type of death that would be!

I watched a cicada nymph climb slowly up a tree trunk out in our front yard. Oh, I would have a chance to watch its transformation! Not knowing how long the process would take, I checked on it periodically. Its exoskeleton cracked open. It began to bulge out of the confines of its “skin.” But then it stopped. Somehow it lacked the strength to totally break free of its former being, but neither could it return. And so it died.

We can’t simply choose to stay in one place. The cicada nymph, whether from a sense of contentment or one of great fear, can’t choose to remain underground. Neither can we humans refrain from the process of transformation, despite how much we might like our consciousness (our self) to remain as it’s always been. To stay in one place is a type of death in and of itself. At the same time, though, attempting to transform our consciousness through some force of will seems a bit like furiously yanking at our bootstraps trying to pull ourselves up into the air.

So perhaps the answer to the koan spoken of above is simply to be with what is in every moment of our life. If we must live seventeen years of our life underground, then let us embrace our time in the earth – without regret, and without longing for a day when we might sing to the heavens.  And as we crawl up into the light, let us neither denigrate our earthly roots nor our kin that still remain there. And if we should happen to lose our strength at some point along the way, let us simply be with the strength that we have – either in rest, or in our transition toward death. And as we open up our wings, let’s not be prideful of attainment. For opening our wings is simply that which is. And as we sing with all that exists, let’s lose all conceit regarding the separateness of our voice or our attainment of its quality. In doing so all notions of transformation will become moot.

Copyright 2021 by Mark Robert Frank

The Moon in the Window

It had been a stressful day, and it was getting late. I knew I should try to get some sleep, but I had that sort of tired-but-wired feeling that stressful days sometimes bring on. Should I close the drapes? No. Privacy be damned; it might be nice to gaze out into that meter-square patch of rich, dark emptiness – should I ending up lying awake, that is. And maybe I’ll see the moon pass by! That would be nice.

Waning crescent moon

It was still Sunday. Just a few days prior I’d felt an uncharacteristic anxiety wash over me, prompting me to reach for my wife’s blood pressure monitor. Yes, it was high enough to be concerning. I’ll call for an appointment on Monday, I thought. In the meantime, I would dial way back on the caffeine, eat healthy food, and stay away from any salt. It worked, for a time. The next couple of days saw my numbers move solidly in the right direction. Then came Sunday morning, Easter Sunday, when my first reading of the day fell into “Get thee to an emergency room now!” range. So that’s where my wife and I went.

Darla stayed with me all afternoon as the doctors and nurses swirled around me – checking me for a stroke, asking questions, drawing blood, and wheeling me away for x-rays and scans. But then I was alone, save for the nurses who randomly popped in to check on me. It was then that it began to dawn on me that I’d entered a sort of bardo realm – that place in between death and rebirth spoken of in the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

I had been a healthy person. But what was I now? I’d been an athlete. But what was I now? I’d enjoyed my sense of physical agency. But would I again? Would they be able to stabilize my blood pressure? How long would that take? Might there be some more dire underlying cause that tests had not yet revealed? And what if I ended up having a stroke even now?

There were ruminations and reevaluations of the past as well. Apparently that malaise that I’d been feeling, which I’d thought must be what everyone was feeling after being stuck in a bardo realm of pandemic stress, was actually the onset of this hypertensive state. Those mild headaches were probably not dehydration after all. And apparently that increased need for sleep was not simply due to fatigue from the increased level of concentration required of remote work.

I was strangely calm, though, as these questions and thoughts just kind of meandered through my consciousness. Even the possibility of death seemed rather ordinary. Yes, this could be exactly what it looks like. Why would I think it should happen with so much fanfare? And so the minutes of the clock hanging right in front of my face clicked past. I slept a bit. I greeted the nurses who came in to check on me, trying to remember to put on my mask when they did. I made small talk. It was all even more ordinary for them.

Around 5:00 a.m. the next morning, I watched the moon peek over the roofline across the way. Its waning crescent floated slowly up into my meter-square window, and on up into the sky. I was reminded of Ryokan’s famous poem, inspired after discovering that a thief had ransacked his meager hermitage:

The thief left it behind –

the moon

At the window.

Everything can be taken from us – our possessions, our loved ones, our way of life, our health. As long as we’re alive, though, we can still know wonder, beauty, love, and gratitude. And as we say our last goodbyes, that too will be ordinary – as ordinary as the moon rising up past the window of our room.

Postcript: Please take care of yourselves. Please see a doctor if you are privileged, as I am, to be able to do so. Please don’t think yourself too strong and robust to be harboring a potential time bomb of a health issue. Please take care of your loved ones. And please enjoy every ordinary moment. Enjoy every sandwich, as Warren Zevon said. So much of life is so very ordinary. And death is ordinary too.

Credits:

Translation of Ryokan poem by John Stevens as it appears in One Road, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryokan

Photo of waning crescent moon courtesy of Jérôme Salez via Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lune_du_19_12_2011.jpg

Copyright 2021 by Mark Robert Frank

The Blossom That Can Be Named

Spring unfolds in different ways depending on your clime. Or it unfolds in a similar way at a different time. And so the crocuses that are suddenly here today perhaps appeared in your yard yesterday, or perhaps they will tomorrow. Such is the beauty of spring – appearing in her own time, much like last year, but always new.

A friend posted on social media that the Siberian Squill was blooming in his yard, and then he enquired as to what was coming up in ours. I’m glad he included a photograph, because otherwise I’d not have known what he was talking about. Yes, I’ve seen it before, and it is coming up in our neighborhood. It’s lush and grassy, with delicate blue blossoms. It seems to grow up in the middle of people’s lawns, so I suspect it gets mowed over as soon as it’s time for that to happen. But by then the deed is done as far as nature is concerned. The seed is sown, the bulb nourished, and life will begin anew to signal the arrival of a spring beyond this one.

IMG_7663
Siberian Squill beginning to bounce back from a strong spring downpour

 

I secretly envy those who can name an abundance of the plants with which they live. It speaks to me of a familiarity with the natural world that I admire. When one knows the name of a plant, one often knows a great deal more: when and where they are likely to be found, how they propagate, what fauna they attract, and what they might be useful for – whether it be a side dish or as a medicinal.

Older women seem to be especially good at this, but nature writers elevate it to an art form. Good nature writing weaves plant names into and throughout a seemingly effortless narrative encompassing attribute and taxonomy, life cycle and symbiosis, the manner in which the plant has changed the human landscape, and the manner in which the human changes the landscape of the plant.

But as much as I value all that names have to offer, I understand the danger they pose as well. Names convey the illusion that something is known, when in fact our knowledge, no matter how deep and wide it might appear, barely scratches the surface of ultimate reality. Names can also stand in the way of truer knowledge by separating and demarcating one “thing” from another “thing” when the two are in reality inextricable one from the other.

“The Tao that cam be named is not the true Tao.” So begins one translation of the Tao Te Ching.

“The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao.” So begins one translation of the Tao Te Ching. And from that first sentence on we understand the provisional nature of the truth contained within its pages. The Tao Te Ching invites us to use its words as bootstraps with which to pull ourselves up to a better vantage point, or to lower ourselves deeper and deeper into more Truthful understanding. But don’t believe for even one moment that because you understand the words contained therein that you somehow know all that can be known. For words are merely fingers pointing at the moon.

Siberian Squill is not really Siberian at all. Native to parts of Russia and Turkey, it was brought to this continent as an ornamental, later to be deemed an invasive species. Different understandings of a larger reality yield different understandings of particularity. A name turns into knowledge which spawns a judgement and precipitates an action. And so a plant that was “just” a beautiful spring blossom to me yesterday – unnamed but not entirely unknown – becomes today a being with a history straddling continents and spanning epochs. And where once it was spring itself, with seamless belonging and natural existence, now it is a visitor that perhaps has overstayed its welcome and perhaps become a bit too comfortable. Siberian Squill, shall I call you by your name? Will that help me better live? And how about you? Or perhaps I should forget that your name ever dribbled from my lips. Perhaps I should forevermore consider you just another beautiful spring blossom. How best shall you be known?

 

Copyright 2020 by Mark Robert Frank

All images are the property of the author unless otherwise noted.

A Mindful March

February is the longest month, regardless of the number of days it might contain. By February, winter has gone on long enough, darkness has held sway long enough, and our forced hiatus from so much of what we love has lasted long enough. Oh sure, winter has its share of boisterous holidays, gorgeous snowfalls, and welcome solitude. By February, though, I’m more than ready for a change.

SnowyDogwood_square

By February, many of the good dietary habits that were so much easier to maintain in warmer months have fallen by the wayside. My recurring “winter hunger” took hold of me sometime in mid-January, and within a couple of ravenous weeks the likelihood that I’d choose the healthy option had almost become nil. Yes, and the cumulative effect of daylight savings time having robbed me of my evening run has begun to feel oppressive. My energy level has plummeted, and a certain inertia has set in. It’s become so much easier to let a stack of clothing build up atop the dresser, or a pile of papers on the desk, or a list of undone tasks within the mind.

Rather than being failure, awareness of our distraction is very much a success.

Perhaps a perfect practitioner of mindfulness can roll with this contraction of daylight, this subsidence of energy levels, and this darkening mood to just as consistently find joy within these cold gray days as any other. After all, happiness is really just a matter of keeping our desires and expectations in accord with what reality allows. I have to admit, though, that all too often I have early autumn expectations for these dreary winter days. It’s high time, then, that I embrace a mindful March!

Mindfulness involves the intention to be fully present for what is. It involves giving full attention to every moment of our lives. But if full attention is our goal, it would seem that the failure of distraction would be lurking around every corner! Rather than being failure, though, awareness of our distraction is very much a success. Paradoxically, when we become aware of our struggle with the circumstances of life – when we see clearly that our expectations are not in accord with what is in this present moment – then we’re better positioned to accept the reality that exists. And when we simply accept the reality of this moment it becomes easier to see the beauty that is always here to be experienced – in the most ordinary of circumstances, and in the most difficult ones as well.

So, I hereby declare these next thirty-one days to be Mindful March! In recognition that my mindfulness practice is imperfect and in need of rejuvenation, I will take this month to increase my awareness of how my own unskillful thought processes keep me from fully appreciating every moment that I’m alive. Instead of bringing a September frame of mind to a February reality, I’ll bring a March frame of mind to a March reality. I’ll bring a this-moment frame of mind to a this-moment reality. Certainly I won’t do it perfectly. I’ll surely falter along the way. And when I do I’ll make awareness of that very imperfection part of the perfection of what is.

 

Copyright 2020 by Mark Robert Frank

All images are the property of the author unless otherwise noted.

Our Cut Bank Overlook

One of the many streams near our home flows swiftly out of the hills to then meander in tight arcs across the bottomlands, bordered on one side by a broad cornfield, and on the other by a series of smallish hillocks. There’s one spot in particular that I like to frequent where the surging water makes a sweeping turn to the right to plow straight into one of those hillocks before sweeping left again. Perhaps it’s the drama of the place that attracts me – the rushing water…, the way it carves into the hillside…, the tangle of logs and debris that come to rest at the base of the cut bank.

Watchful Trees

A couple of young trees have begun a slow motion fall down that cut bank – held up by what roots still remain in firm earth. When first I saw them I wondered what it would have been like for them if they’d had the awareness of their perilous predicament that a human being would have had. They’d have grown up rooted in that place, all the while knowing what the future had in store. One companion after another would have been lost over the edge as season after season the precipice crept closer. What would that have been like? How would they have found the strength to go on?

[W]hile the tree, by its nature, yields only the sweetest of earth, we, through our life’s work, can make it bitter or sweet.

Ah, but then I realized that we all do as much. Who in this world is blessed so to live in a time without wars or rumors thereof? Perhaps for you it was a World War, or a Cold War; for me it was Vietnam. Now we have climate catastrophe breathing hot down our necks even as one random shooting after another brings the precipice closer.

So how shall we live in this maw of annihilation? I think those trees teach us how. Live with leaves as green and fleshy as your roots allow. Continue reaching for the sun even in the midst of your fall. Our lives of today become the soil of new lives tomorrow. And while the tree, by its nature, yields only the sweetest of earth, we, through our life’s work, can make it bitter or sweet.

For Buddhists, each moment encompasses both beginning and end. Suffering arises when we refuse to let go of that which can no longer be. The Dhammapada says: “Mindfulness is the way to deathlessness; unmindfulness is the way to death. Those who are mindful do not die; those who are not mindful are as if already dead.”

And so I vow to calmly watch as those young trees watch – never losing sight of the sun, and never ceasing to provide comfort and nourishment to those in my midst. Surely storms will rage and put this vow of mindfulness to the test, but for as long as the sun rises and rivers flow to the sea, I will watch.

Copyright 2019 by Mark Robert Frank

All images are the property of the author unless otherwise noted.

That Which is Form is Emptiness

I was navigating the backroads home one evening when I happened upon a committee of turkey vultures closing in on the carcass of a possum lying there amidst the stubble of cornfield. They were waddling and hopping and gliding toward it until I interrupted them by rolling to a stop not too far away. I watched them for a bit, marveling at their bald heads and their interesting combination of awkwardness and grace. Soon, though, I began to feel guilty for keeping them from their dinner, so I moved on.

Vultures

We often think of vultures as ugly birds, hideous and disgusting even, simply for being what they are. I’ve come to view them much more compassionately, however, for reasons that will become clear. I even had my heartstrings tugged by one who’d made the mistake of feeding on the crumpled body of a deer too close to the roadside, only to end up flattened beneath the tires of a fast-moving vehicle. Even scavengers are sometimes denied the simple pleasure of a putrid meal in this cruel world!

We humans often think of ourselves as beings of such refinement, don’t we? Unlike the vultures, we dine in places both comfortable to the body and pleasing to the eye. We delight in flavors both subtle and bold, intriguing and familiar. We wield our cutlery with delicate precision, and dab at the corners of our mouths whenever our lips become too moist. We celebrate dishes of elegant simplicity and creative complexity alike, crafted by artisans toiling in their kitchens to elevate to the highest levels the offerings of farmers, butchers, fishermen, and so forth. This dining experience is not simply for survival’s sake. We would do this for the sheer enjoyment of it regardless of the nature of our existence. At least that’s what we like to pretend. We dare not think of ourselves as hunters and gatherers with blood and mud matted in our hair and caked underneath our fingernails. No, that was a previous lifetime, one from which we’ve evolved so far we can scarcely imagine it any longer.

Perhaps that’s why turkey vultures disgust some of us so. We catch glimpses of them riding the air currents, ever-vigilant for the scent of decay, and we’re reminded of what we’d just as soon forget – that death lies in wait just over our horizon, or even in our midst. As much as we’d like to keep it at arm’s length with rituals of refinement, one day it will come for us and there’ll be nothing we can say or do about it. But whereas we might like to run and hide from death, the turkey vulture seeks it out and embraces it. Death is life to them. They thrust their bald heads into its fetid piles and commence to ripping and tearing it with gusto. They fill their bellies with its rotting mess and fly away, to feed their young and then return for more.

When we develop insight into the true nature of emptiness, rather than thoughts of nihilism consuming us, a deep sense of compassion for all beings begins to arise

Is truth big enough to encompass these starkly different realities, and countless more for that matter? Well, off course it is. It is what is, after all. But what kind of truth transcends the reality of turkey vultures and human beings alike? For Buddhists, it is the Heart Sutra. For it is the Heart Sutra which has Avalokitesvara delivering Buddhism’s most transcendent teaching to the disciple, Sariputra, in terms such as the following:

 

Listen, Sariputra, form is emptiness (sunyata).

Emptiness is form.

Form does not differ from emptiness.

Emptiness does not differ from form.

That which is form is emptiness.

That which is emptiness is form.

The very same applies to feeling, idea, mental formations and consciousness.

Hear, Sariputra, all dharmas (everything that exists) are marked by emptiness.

They are neither created nor destroyed,

Neither defiled nor undefiled,

Neither increasing nor decreasing….

 

We arise from myriad causes and conditions to do that which we humans do. We are this form for a brief span of time, but this form is absent any absolute and permanent identity that we might call “our own.” Likewise, the turkey vultures, and all of life, and everything. We’re simply matter and energy changing form. That which disgusts one of us is life-giving to the other. That which provides one of us comfort prompts the other to flee for his life.

Vultures play a sacred role in Tibetan culture. So-called sky burials are common there. The body of the deceased is allowed to be eaten by vultures until (hopefully) nothing remains. Vultures, to the Tibetan people, are honored beings. Indeed, when we begin to see reality in terms of the emptiness that the Heart Sutra describes, we see all things as precious, sacred, and worthy of honor. As such, compassion can’t help but arise within us. We see more clearly our connectedness and commonality. Perhaps that’s why Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, was chosen to deliver this ultimate teaching on the true nature of reality – emptiness. When we develop insight into the true nature of emptiness, rather than thoughts of nihilism consuming us, a deep sense of compassion for all beings begins to arise – even for the vultures in our midst.

 

Copyright 2019 by Mark Robert Frank

All images are the property of the author unless otherwise noted.

Winter Poems

 

 

 

aa 1 bamboo fence snow

Poetry is a practice that I thoroughly enjoy, but one that I engage in far too infrequently. Similarly haphazard has been my collection of the “finished” pieces. They’ve wound up here, there, and everywhere. I guess I never thought of myself as having a deep enough trove to seriously consider their publication. Some have been offered up to various email groups over the years. Others have become buried in the deep scrolls of social media. A few have enjoyed publication in one blog post or another. Many others, however, exist only in handwritten form, stashed away in drawers and filing cabinets. Perhaps it’s some sense of mortality that has me gathering them all together at this point in time. At any rate, it’s winter, and an obvious theme has come to mind at this time for at least a small collection.

Embracing Winter

I wonder at my readiness for winter
As I step into darkness
Filled with the creaking of unseen branches overhead
And crunching ice beneath my feet.

Coldness caresses coldness…

When first light breaks,
I see yesterday’s snow
Nestled in the furrows
Of a cornfield that has taken leave.

Coldness nestles within coldness…

Here,
A black pond gazes up at the gray sky,
As if calmly recognizing an old friend.

There,
A broken barn door hangs open,
Welcoming the sunless morning.

Coldness welcomes coldness…

And I, too, feel myself begin to open
To the possibility
Of welcoming another winter,
And warming up
To coldness being coldness,
And being a sun for the world
On an otherwise sunless day.

 

wintercreek

Where Does Mind Reside?

I wonder if geese discuss their coming flight
to warmer climes —
Clucking amongst themselves
as they bed down,
Before concluding:
“Yes, tomorrow at dawn we rise.”
Or is it a surprise even to them,
When as one suddenly they lift up
And keep on going?

Where does mind reside?
Is it in our heads,
Or do we billions hold it
In the basket of our interwoven lives?
Or is even that too small?
Perhaps nothing less than the universe itself
Could be the dwelling place
Of even the faintest glimmer of mind…

And so the geese depart,
And my mind follows,
Growing bigger and bigger
As they circle the lake,
And finally disappear,
Leaving me gazing into emptiness.

 

geese on a lake at dusk c

Mind Is Held By Everything, and Holds All Things In Turn

Earth holds the gathered rain
That holds the ice upon its surface.
Ice holds the brightening sky,
And corn stubble ‘round its ragged edge.
Sky holds the rising sun,
And clouds that wander ‘neath its gaze.
Eye holds it all within its empty cup
From which the mind drinks in 10,000 things.

Crows In Two Dimensions

Black limbs of a lone, dead tree
Lose dimension against the flat gray wash of winter,
As do the wary crows perched upon them,
Looking left, then looking right.
Only their stark cries belie their apparent lack of worldly form.

Thousand Year Old Footsteps in the Snow

I step outside and watch the snow fall
From darkness into light.
The others have already gone
For dinner in the mess hall,
But the cold feels too good on my face
To not linger for awhile.

It felt good this morning, also,
After we’d rousted ourselves from slumber at 3:40
To sit straight-backed,
With palms together –
Facing our respective walls
By the time the teacher made his rounds at 4:05.
And after two hours of absolute and utter stillness
Overlaid with daydreams,
And sleepdreams,
And stomach-growling yearning for the bell,
And wondering if I’d make it through the day,
And wondering why the hell I’m doing what I’m doing,
I stumbled out into the pre-dawn blackness
To see a shining silver sickle of a moon,
And Jupiter,
And the black sky –
As black as anything can be.

Ah, but that was light years ago…
That was this morning.
And anything that is not right now might as well be light years away.
Oh, sure, I’ve glimpsed that absolute and utter stillness
A number of times throughout the day,
But this is why I do this:
So that I can step outside and see the world
With brand new eyes –
Eyes without a “me” to tell me what I’m seeing.

So I hobble though the snow
On my zazen-weary legs,
Leaving thousand year-old footprints in the snow.
And as far as what all this amounts to
Once these bones are in the ground,
And how the hell my sitting facing a wall
For over eleven hours a day
Can possibly make the world a better place…
Well, I kind of like to think of all of this
Zazen after zazen after zazen
As stitching together the pieces of a robe
To someday be worn
By my great-great-great-great
Granddaughter in the Dharma
As she steps outside into the night
To watch the snow fall
From darkness into light
Before gliding like a shadow to the mess hall
Leaving thousand year old footsteps in the snow.

 

snowy footsteps

Walking In The Snow

Walking in the snow is a meditation
That unfolds of its own accord.
If one must speak in terms of beginnings,
Then it begins with the closing of the door behind us.
And it ends when…, well…,
Who can say when it ends?

A closing door,
A garden fencerow –
A walk in the snow quickly leaves such things behind.
And what remains are memories
Of what we want,
And what we need.

A path to walk,
A place to sit –
These will not be as they once were.
But as the snowy walk continues
The nature that is us
Becomes the nature of that which is,
And new paths,
And new places for the mind to rest
Appear.

Snow-laden bamboo
Bends to earth,
And we receive its cool embrace.
A darkened hollow beneath a rock
Invites us in,
And mind accepts.

For mind is a deer
Walking nimbly.
And mind is a rabbit
Waiting in stillness.
And mind is a tree
Rooted in the heavens.
And mind is a bird
Peering into the circle of all the world.

The pine bough bends
Beneath the weight of so much snow.
It is our teacher.
Revealing to us how we can be –
Bending without breaking
Beneath the weight of all that is.

Such teachings abound during a snowy walk:
Revealing how to subtly color all the world
With precisely the required hue,
Showing how we might stand with all beings
With the entire measure of this Life force that is “ours”,
And whispering to us that in death is Life –
What a gloriously resounding whisper to be heard!

 

aa 7 pine bough snow

 

Embracing Winter © 2018 by Mark Robert Frank. This one first appeared on the Heartland Contemplative Facebook page.

Where Does Mind Reside? © 2018 & 2019 by Mark Robert Frank. This one first appeared untitled on the Heartland Contemplative Facebook page. I also added the last line before publishing it here.

Mind Is Held By Everything, and Holds All Things In Turn © 2019 by Mark Robert Frank. This one first appeared on the Heartland Contemplative Facebook page.

Crows In Two Dimensions © 1985 & 2019 by Mark Robert Frank. This one has been sitting in my vault unpublished for over thirty years!

Thousand Year Old Footsteps in the Snow © 2011 by Mark Robert Frank. This one bounced around in personal correspondence for a bit before appearing in my first blog, Crossing Nebraska, where you can find it here. Shortly thereafter, it appeared in Just This, a publication of the Austin Zen Center.

Walking In The Snow © 2014 by Mark Robert Frank. This one also appeared first in Crossing Nebraska, where you can find it here. It also appeared on the Sanshin Zen Community Facebook page.

 

Copyright 2019 by Mark Robert Frank
(except as noted)

All images are the property of the author unless otherwise noted.

Calm Abiding

The weather is lousy outside, with sleet coating the roads, trees, and windows, and a foot of snow on the way. At least, that’s what I’ve been hearing on the local news – the foot of snow that is. The sleet I can see with my very own eyes. I can hear it, too, peppering the windows when the wind picks up, first from one side of the house and then the other. Like a child home from school on a snow day, I stand at the window surveying the backyard where everything is covered with white or dripping with ice. Absent is the usual activity of squirrels dutifully managing their stashes of nuts, rabbits hopping about tentatively as if they’ve only so much energy to spare, and starlings flitting en masse from lawn to tree to who knows where. They all seem to have simply disappeared. The squirrels I know are up there in their leafy nests, huddled together and swaying with the wind. And the rabbits are down in their unseen burrows, wonderfully insulated with grass and fur. The starlings are more of a mystery, though, at least to me. Apparently they’ve faded away into the nooks and crannies of the world – amongst the leaf litter that collects under the bushes, or in whatever other secluded hollow they might have found – there to patiently wait for the storm to pass.

snowy hollow

I think of them calmly abiding out there in the frigid cold, hunkered down in places that are growing quieter and quieter as the ice continues to accumulate. There is great wisdom in their abiding. I know that first hand now, but only after many years of living. There is great trust in their abiding, more trust than I can usually muster. Huddling in their chosen places, with whatever food they might have collected or none at all as the case may be, they abide with innate trust that the storm will eventually abate, and it will do so before their strength runs out. They know this because they are of this world, and so they fear not that the world might conjure up a storm too furious or long-lasting for them to survive. They know they simply have to abide. And so they wait, without any contingency planning, without any fretting or lamentation, and without any pining for the day when spring will come. They simply settle into calm abiding.

Those feelings are like the wind that roars outside while you’re safe and warm in the burrow of your breath.

Calm abiding isn’t easy for us humans to do. We’re so filled with ideas about what’s fair and what should be. We’re so used to setting our own agendas and deciding what is right for us. We’re so socialized to struggle with and fight against anything that we determine is not in our best interest. That’s what strong people do, right? They stick up for themselves. They make things happen the way they think things should happen. Yes, that’s the way we usually live our lives. Until, that is, we can’t. And that’s the part that we seem to forget.

I learned a lesson that I’ll not soon forgot while on a long and solitary bike ride across the West. “You’ll be tougher than boiled owl by the time you make it across Wyoming,” the old woman said while ringing up my can of soda and bag of chips somewhere in the middle of nowhere in between Shoshoni and Casper. Yeah, that’s right, I thought, rather enjoying the prospect of being tougher than boiled owl. I’d already pedaled over all of the mountains between there and the Pacific Ocean. And the hundred miles of “rattlesnake country” seemed to be going well so far. How bad could the Great Plains be?

post hollow

Ah, but it was only a couple of days later that I collapsed – dehydrated, exhausted, and on the verge of heatstroke. And as I recovered my wits in the welcome shade of a highway overpass, vowing to roll out my sleeping bag right then and there if I had to, I realized that what the old woman meant by being “tougher than boiled owl” wasn’t at all about any prideful sense of achievement. It was about learning to abide. You do what you can, and you do what you must, and above all else you learn to abide.

So, when the storms of life rage, when the cold settles in around you and the winds of annihilation howl, remember those rabbits and squirrels and starlings out there, calmly abiding one and all. Sure enough, listen to whatever anger and fear and bewilderment you might be feeling, but just keep breathing all the same. For those feelings are like the wind that roars outside while you’re safe and warm in the burrow of your breath. Breathe in and let it fill you up. Accept its gift with gratitude. Breathe out and trust that another will arrive to sustain you. For you are of this world, and the world still has a place for you. Breathe in and let if fill you up. Breathe out and settle into stillness. The storms of life may rage, but you are alive and calmly abiding.

 

Originally published on Crossing Nebraska in February, 2011.

Edited and updated January, 2019.

Copyright 2011, 2019 by Mark Robert Frank

All images are the property of the author unless otherwise noted.

Mind Like an Empty Nest

Are you a student of the mind? That’s not really such a strange question, is it? You have one, of course, and you’re intensely aware of its workings from time to time at least. But do you ever really observe it for the sake of better understanding it, as you might observe the world around you?

Certainly you’ve enjoyed mind’s capacity for single-pointed concentration – while focusing on one of your very favorite tasks, perhaps. You might also appreciate its incredible expansiveness – the way it seems possible to hold all of life and time and space at once within its gentle grasp. Hopefully you can also relate to the stillness of mind that’s possible – the way mind can be as quiet and receptive as an empty nest in winter, patiently waiting for whatever phenomena might “choose” to light within.

BirdNest

Mind has been compared to clear light, luminous and bright, or water, whether cloudy or clear, flowing or still. Mind is referred to as open or closed, gentle or hard, big or small. Yes, mind has been called a lot of things, but not even scientists know with certainty what it is, despite the fact that you can watch it for yourself anytime you wish. Until such time, that is, when mind wanders off with your intention and finds itself lost in a jungle of thoughts that weren’t there in its meadow just a moment ago.

I came to be pondering such things of late (for the umpteenth time) after becoming aware that my mind had shrunk to encapsulate a rather small world that I’d stumbled into. You see, I recently took on the task of leveling the floor in our kitchen and family room – a task that, without getting too lost in the weeds trying to describe it, had no obviously good solution. For weeks I researched methods and considered possibilities. For weeks more I toiled bringing the decided on course of action to a suitable conclusion. And all the while the pressure continued to mount related to the nonnegotiable requirement that the whole project be wrapped up in time for an upcoming family visit over the Thanksgiving holiday.

Mind can constrict around such circumstances and make it seem as though nothing else exists, or ever will exist.

What I was able to notice was that, in addition to its many fine attributes, mind can also be like shrink wrap growing tighter and tighter around us and our less than desirable circumstances as the heat, the pressure of the situation, increases. Our entire world becomes reduced to only that which is contained within our narrowed field of vision. In my case I was able to alleviate that pressure a little bit by reminding myself that I could always use some vacation time to finish up the project, or hire a contractor friend to come in and help if need be. Thankfully, the occasional flash of joyful anticipation of the upcoming family gathering served as the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel as well.

As I write this, however, I’m reminded of times of great loss and hopelessness, when options seemed few or nonexistent, and light seemed nowhere in sight. Mind can constrict around such circumstances and make it seem as though nothing else exists, or ever will exist. It’s important to know how to find stillness in such times. Whether you find it in prayer, meditation, or in communion with nature, the ability to tap into the inherent stillness behind all phenomena can be, quite literally, a lifesaver. A glimpse of stillness can pierce the shrink wrap of constricted mind and transform it into one that is more spacious and open, and patiently waiting for life to nest within it once again.

 

Copyright 2018 by Mark Robert Frank

All images are the property of the author unless otherwise noted.