Seasons of the Self

I suppose some know all too well when they’ve just lived their final summer day. Others can only sift through hazy memories for one that might stand out in retrospect. For me, it was the process of reflecting on the changing of the seasons and the changing of the self that caused this summer walk of not so long ago to become indelibly stamped upon my mind.

It was a day on which the heat and residual fatigue from my morning labor combined to leave me walking the final miles home from my afternoon run. Yet again I’d bitten off more than I could chew! All was well, though. That backroad was quiet in a reassuringly familiar way, with nothing much happening down those lonely miles save for a gentle breeze rustling in the dry brush of a fencerow, or the occasional rasping sound of a grasshopper taking brief flight, or maybe a solitary bird trying to start up a conversation. The stillness invited in me reflection and introspection and, as with so many other end-of-summer days in years gone by, a faint sense of melancholy on account of something beautiful slipping inexorably away.

GoldenrodBee

Autumn then was only a week away, and though a recent spell of cool weather had already put us all on notice, at times it felt as though those summer days might just go on and on. Ah, but I knew that those were silly thoughts. Despite the fact that scant few leaves had yet begun to fall, other not so subtle clues foretold that change would soon be taking place more quickly. The soybean plants and cornstalks had for some time been taking on a hue somewhere between that of the dry earth and the golden sun. Yes, and combines had already begun to crisscross the first of the fields to be planted this past spring, stopping every so often to belch dusty grain into the back of a trailer steered into position.

Life seemed on the verge of passing away; and of course it was and it wasn’t all at the same time. The passing away part, however, was tugging at my heartstrings and making me long to burrow ever deeper into the stillness that I knew was all around me, even as it seemed just out of reach. Was I trying to hang onto life more tightly, or was I simply trying to savor it that much more deeply as it passed? Either way, my efforts left me just this side of stillness, walking the backroads with a longing stretching from one side of the valley to the other, from the upper reaches of the watershed through which I walked to as far downstream as I could see.

As it turned out, though, I would only need to drift downstream for a little over a month in such a state of mind before coming to rest (at least for a little while) in the meditation hall of a Zen temple where I practice from time to time. There, after settling once again into waters still and deep, I could easily recognize where my thinking had gone astray. Actually allowing myself to return to stillness reminded me that “hanging onto life more tightly” and “savoring it that much more deeply” both serve to perpetuate the illusion of our separateness – thereby prompting us to yearn for that which already resides within. We cling to experience for the way it bolsters the experiencer – us. The passing away of life “out there” holds a mirror to the passing away of the self “in here.”

LateSummerBerries

But life is always on the verge of passing away. Life is always on the verge of being born anew. Like a dewdrop condensing on a blade of grass at daybreak only to boil away by midday, we arise and pass away based on what causes and conditions flow and ebb. When I get out of the way and simply watch this as it happens instead of “savoring it that much more deeply,” I can actually be the depth of stillness instead of one who merely longs for the experience of it.

In stillness there is only the beauty of that which is…

A cold front passed over the zendo late that afternoon. Wind rushed through the trees, setting branches to pitching and bending, and leaves to swirling and gusting against the windows. Yes, autumn too was fading, and winter would be coming soon. Light flashed from this direction and that as golden leaves from all around the temple directed the sun to where I sat with eyes barely open. Shadows of my form were cast upon the wall before me. On the left and on the right, and right in front of me – alternating, and in collections of twos and threes – the shadows flashed and disappeared, only to reappear and disappear once more. When things happen, time passes. When nothing happens, there is no time.

In time, the wind died down. The light began to fade, and the wall became a field of gray growing darker. Time and stillness merged until, at last, only stillness remained. It’s a peaceful place. In stillness there is nothing that I am, and nothing to hang onto. In stillness there is nothing that I’m not, and nothing to be savored. In stillness there is no “I” to become melancholy on account of beauty slipping inexorably away. In stillness there is only the beauty of that which is, in all its ever-changing glory.

 

Copyright 2018 by Mark Robert Frank

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

Finding Our Seat

The county roads in the vicinity of our new home town follow an interesting naming convention. Perhaps in time I’d have figured it out, but I was lucky enough to have been schooled on the matter by a local shortly after my arrival. County Road 325 East, for example, would be one that runs north and south and goes through a point that is approximately 3.25 miles east of the county seat. Exquisitely simple, right? And it makes navigation through the rolling farmland, woods, and riverine bottomlands surprisingly easy – even when you’re unfamiliar with the area. All you need do is get to an intersection of two roads in order to know precisely where you are relative to the municipal center of affairs.

County Seat

 

Much more difficult, however, is knowing where we’re at in a spiritual sense. Where do we stand with respect to our readiness to meet our maker, the end of our days, or our next major life upheaval? How healthy are our relationships with our fellow humans, or the rest of the natural world for that matter? Where do we stand with respect to the values we hold in highest regard? Our spiritual tradition might provide us with important signposts or benchmarks that we might use in this regard. But getting an accurate reading can be a rather tricky endeavor. For instance, perhaps humility is something that we say that we value. Ah, but as soon as we begin declaring ourselves humble, it’s probably time for us to think again!

Yes, we’re perfect. Yes, we have work to do. There is no contradiction here.

Various spiritual traditions also honor important figures whose demeanor and comportment serve as models for our own behavior. These are usually quite lofty, though, so unless we’re harboring some rigid belief system that preempts reflection on such matters, it would seem that there’s always progress to be made. But how much? How do we know where we stand? Perhaps this is where faith comes in – faith in our path, our practice, our savior, our guide – because it’s simply not as easy as making our way to the nearest intersection.

450 Crossroads

On the other hand, when we sit quietly and allow our mind to become still – whether we call it meditation, wordless prayer, contemplation, or something else entirely – suddenly there’s no other place that we need be. The world is perfect. We’re perfect. Nothing needs to change. We simply observe all that exists, without identifying with any one thing, or declaring ourselves separate from them. We’ve found our seat.

It’s not that we don’t still have work to do. As long as we’re alive there will be work to do. But a glimpse of perfection imbues our work with newfound joyfulness. Yes, we’re perfect. Yes, we have work to do. There is no contradiction here. This is the realization of both our emptiness and our form. This is the realization of truth from both ultimate and conventional points of view. With the knowledge gleaned from having come to know our seat we can act with greater compassion for all beings.

 

 

Copyright 2018 by Mark Robert Frank

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

Blossoming

Have you ever really seen spring flowers bloom? Here and there are blossoms fleshy and full, captivatingly beautiful for the benefit of all the world. Others droop with dull fatigue, however, ready to sink into the earth from whence they came. Still others bide their time, holding their petals close, saving up their sap. They’ll have their day tomorrow, and if not, surely the next.

DesertFlowers1

If it were necessary for all of them to bloom at once, then surely they would. But while flowers blooming all at once might be a delight for human eyes, it would bring on catastrophe for the bees and other pollinating insects once the blossoms had all played out. And what if the flowers ended up blooming before the bees ever arrived? That might well sound the death knell for all the flowers as well.

Ryokan said:

When the flower blooms, the butterfly comes;
When the butterfly comes, the flower blooms.

Nature exists in harmony for the benefit of all things, with each thing simply being what it is. This blossom gets more sun each day. That stem had sap rise up within it sooner. Different parts of even the same body have different causes and conditions. And so it is that each blossom opens in its own time – enriching the entire world as it does. The flower and the butterfly continue a conversation that has taken place for millions of years without the utterance of a single word. They are but two parts of a single mind.

Nature exists in harmony for the benefit of all things, with each thing simply being what it is.

DesertFlowers2

Enlightenment and delusion similarly coexist. Some even say that they are one and the same! Delusion sees delusion and calls it enlightenment. Delusion sees enlightenment and calls it just so much delusion. Enlightenment sees enlightenment and enjoys its wondrous blossom. Enlightenment sees delusion and sees a perfect bud that has not yet opened.

What if enlightenment came all at once for all beings here and now? Would it remain that way forever? Could it; or would it exist only for a time like all other conditioned things? And how would the children ever see it bloom after its petals had all dispersed? What if all the world were in delusion not even knowing that a bloom awaits? And yet a bloom awaits, nonetheless. Flowers never cease their activity of creating blossoms, which is why blossoms never cease to exist, even after they’re gone. So it is that enlightenment already exists for all beings here and now.

 

Copyright 2018 by Mark Robert Frank

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

Friendship Rocks

It seems that most people who speak of friendship rocks these days are referring to smallish stones hand-painted with designs and such intended to be given to somebody special. Yes, the rocks are special too, but it’s the personalized decoration that makes them so. The friendship rocks that I recall from my days spent at summer camp, on the other hand, were already made special by the process of their creation. They were stones which, by some process that I can’t begin to articulate, were formed with holes all the way through them – perfect for stringing with a length of cord and wearing around the neck. Being rare, as they were, made searching for them an endeavor of excitement. And finding one meant that the person sharing in the search was a true friend to be valued.

Friendship Rock

I was reminded of friendship rocks not long ago when I found one without even trying to in the riverbed not far from our home. My wife and I are blessed to be able stroll the river’s banks from time to time, looking for interesting stones and enjoying the sense of childlike wonder that always visits us as we do. Thankfully, some things don’t change. No matter how old we might get!

Perhaps past, present, and future are all here in this moment – the infinite potential of the pregnant emptiness of now?

That same riverbed is also good for crinoid fossil hunting. Crinoids were plentiful during the Ordovician Period some 450 million years ago. They were ocean dwelling animals that looked in most cases like flowers blooming on raised stalks rooted to the seafloor. Upon their demise, their segmented stalks frequently separated, leaving an abundance of disk-like pieces strewn about which then become trapped in layers of sediment to eventually become fossilized. Interestingly, those disk-like pieces of fossil would one day be strung onto cords and worn as so-called “Indian bead” jewelry. Inspiration for those friendship stones of my youth? Perhaps.

Crinoid3

Talk about stones made special by the process of their creation! Is it possible to even fathom the full reality of holding a stone in your hand that contains the bodies of animals that lived 450 million years ago on a warm ocean floor in the very spot that you’re standing? It’s too bizarre to even comprehend. Perhaps the Zen way of looking at time makes much more sense than the way we usually think about it. Perhaps past, present, and future are all here in this moment – the infinite potential of the pregnant emptiness of now?

In case you’re not aware of it already, rock hunting is a meditation of sorts. While not the Zen form that I usually engage in, it has much in common with some others. Rock hunting requires us to keep an archetype in mind of whatever it is that we’re looking for – the object of our meditation – whether it be a rock with a hole in it, a nice flat skipping rock, a fossil of some type, or a nice smooth stone for painting on. With the object of our meditation firmly seated in our awareness, blocking out extraneous mental activity, we scan our world looking for similarity. It’s peaceful to simply be in the world without so much stuff bouncing around in our head. With a little practice, we can enjoy such peace whenever we may choose. The pregnant emptiness of the now is always close at hand!

 Crinoid5

 

Copyright 2018 by Mark Robert Frank

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

The “Kerthunk” of Truth

Morning’s cool rain did wonders to dispel the stifling heat of the previous evening. I opened the window to my meditation room so as to welcome its gentle pattering sound into the room. Oftentimes I begin a meditation by “watching” my breath. On occasions when my mind is especially scattered I will even count them – from one to ten, and over again. More often than not, though, it is the sound of my surroundings that eventually becomes the object of my meditation. On this particular morning my mind was fairly still to begin with. I took to listening to the patter of the rain from the moment I’d finished ringing the bell.

WetRedbudLeaves

In the latter stages of meditation sound will simply wash over me, or even “through” me if I’ve allowed myself to become sufficiently still. Early on, though, with my intellect still engaged, I will notice things, perhaps, or make discernments of one type or another. And so it was that I noticed a pattern to the rainfall and its accompanying sounds: There was the higher-pitched sound of raindrops splashing on the eves and on the leaves of the trees outside. There were many drops, of course, and not all of them had the same pitch, but their dripping and dropping and pattering was largely confined within some unmeasured range. Less frequent, and of a much lower pitch, was the gurgling of water flowing through the gutters and down the drainpipe. And even less frequent than this was the occasional sound of rolling thunder – deep, distant, resonant.

Deeper still, though, were the sounds that I heard when I held my breath and submersed myself entirely in that gushing stream.

Before finally allowing this mental activity to subside, a memory popped into my conscious mind: I was soaking in a fast-flowing stream after a hard day of riding through the mountains. The surface waters rippled and splashed, much like the raindrops in their narrow band of sound. But there were branches hanging in the stream, as well – pushed downstream by the rushing water, only to spring back so as to be pushed back down again. These sounds were lower and less frequent than those of the surface waters. Deeper still, though, were the sounds that I heard when I held my breath and submersed myself entirely in that gushing stream. Somewhere were boulders rocking back and forth in the current – kerthunk, kerthunk…; kerthunk, kerthunk. Clearly the pattern of the morning rain sounds had brought to the surface that wonderful memory.

RockIvy

As I write this, I’m reminded of the practice of Lectio Divina, “Divine Reading,” engaged in by some Christian contemplatives. Beginning with a scriptural reading, the practitioner will then settle more deeply into prayer – perhaps allowing all activity of the intellect to coalesce around a phrase, or a single word, before finally settling into wordless contemplation. Thus, there is the higher frequency presence of the more readily recognizable worldly phenomena, the reading of the recorded words. What follows is a deeper, lower frequency utterance of some sort of distilled meaning. Ultimately, though, the contemplative rests in the presence of the Divine – perhaps even in oneness with the Divine.

Returning to my morning meditation, however: I eventually settled into a wordless contemplation of my own, allowing the sound of the very world from which I arise to wash over me…, and through me. I can’t for the life of me articulate a difference between where I “end up” via the practice of Zen meditation and where the Christian contemplatives “end up” with theirs. And therein is rooted my sense of kinship with contemplatives of various stripes. The “kerthunk” of Truth is of a language all human beings may understand.

 

Copyright 2018 by Mark Robert Frank

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

Water Teaches Us the Way

FromOutOfTheHills

 

During heavy rains water flows across our side yard and out into the road. It finds the gulch beyond and tumbles without encumbrance into the valley there. It filters through the turf out back and pools beneath the pines behind our neighbor’s home. Eventually, though, it seeps into the shallow cut nearby – thence to meander ‘neath the pine boughs, and the road leading into town, to marry with the waters of more distant field and wood.

The waters wash bare the earth, leaving tree roots standing out like dark veins on the back of an aging person’s hands. They make the hillsides sag and droop, as if shrugging off the deluge. And yet those hillsides give mightily of themselves as they do, supplying the bottomlands with the nutrients that make them the rich farmland that they are. Perhaps the leaves that I raked into the low spots over the course of the last two autumns will slow this process down a bit. In the grand scheme, however, I’ve merely created a convenient way station for the detritus to accumulate for a time before continuing on its journey down below.

May we all heed water’s lesson of the Way!

I can’t see the river on a brilliant sunny day without seeing the rains beyond. I can’t see the fleshy crops sprouting along its banks without seeing those wooded hillsides up above. If life is indeed a collection of individual beings, then surely water must be that which connects us all. But when I see these flowing waters in the deepest way that I am able, I see only one body, one being, and one Life – with water being the blood ever flowing in its veins.

I studied with a now deceased Ch’an teacher for a time by the name of Ryugen Fisher – referred to by some as Old Frog. At the close of meditation retreats he made a habit of reciting a concatenation of two passages from the Tao Te Ching, one from Chapter Eight and one from Chapter Chapter Seventy-eight. I’ve been reflecting on these passages for the past month or so, reading various translations and bringing them to life in my mind. One way that I do this is by using new words to convey my internalized understanding of the collective works. So, what follows is Ryugen’s recitation, reimagined by this author after benefiting from translations by Fisher, Legge, and Feng/English:

Water teaches us the Way.

It benefits each and every living being,

But seeks nothing in return.

It simply keeps on flowing downward

To places we refuse to go.

Nothing on earth is more supple and yielding than water.

Yet nothing is hard enough, or strong enough,

To contain it or stand in its way.

May we all heed water’s lesson of the Way!

 

Copyright 2018 by Mark Robert Frank

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

The Presence of Life

When is life not present? I know, this might be an incredibly tough question to ponder for someone who’s just lost a loved one; but the answer is a positive one, I think. Microorganisms were recently found in sediment a half mile beneath the surface of an ice-covered lake down in Antarctica. And in the latter part of the last century, chemical-harvesting microorganisms were found to be giving rise to teaming ecosystems in the vicinity of hydrothermal vents deep undersea where tectonic plates meet. It also appears possible that the precursors to life are regularly slung around the galaxy by comets on their celestial rounds. Might it be the case then that life, rather than being a rarity, is actually an eventuality?

ForsythiaSprig

It was a humble shrub that prompted me to consider such things once again the other day. You see, late last summer I pruned back an overgrown and tangled cluster of bushes at the side of the house. Part of what I found was a scraggly forsythia trying to reach its way out from underneath an overbearing spirea that had all but smothered it. I decided to transplant what I could to more hospitable areas, but it was far from a surgical procedure. Though I did manage to extract a couple of specimens with fairly robust and intact root balls, a half dozen or so others didn’t leave me with a huge amount of confidence that they would ever bloom again. The last of my charges, however, was in especially pitiful condition. It was little more than broomstick with a stringy little root hanging off of one end! I was so close to simply throwing it on the burn pile and moving on, but something prompted me to put forth the effort in order to give it another chance. I used a post hole digger to quickly excavate a narrow shaft that could accommodate the motley broomstick and its modest little root, and then I went about my ways.

There is a life force ever striving to remain and blossom forth.

It got hot and dry last summer and early autumn. I tried to keep the faith, though, offering up a bucket of water to each of the transplants from time to time – thinking to myself whenever I came to that last one that there really wasn’t much hope for it to rebound come next spring. On top of that we had a long, long winter before spring finally did arrive, and one far colder than I’d ever experienced. And so, as the weather warmed I’d stroll the grounds looking for tentative signs of life beginning to sprout. Sure enough, those two robust specimens bounced back with gusto. Yes, and those half-dozen others subsequently began to show signs of life as well. I’d likely have to trim some of their dead branches away before they would look really healthy once again, but they were definitely going to make it! That broomstick, on the other hand, didn’t surprise me in the least. It looked as dry and lifeless as I thought it was. But it cost me nothing to simply let it be. The spring rains had taken over where my buckets left off. Que sera, sera!

Imagine my delight last week, then, when I strolled the grounds yet again and spied a sprig of life on the end of that broomstick! Who can say when life has taken leave for good? Who can say when there’s no longer any hope? There is something very mysterious going on all around us and deep within. There is a life force ever striving to remain and blossom forth. There might be times when it appears to have disappeared for good, but that little forsythia bush has made me much less certain that that is so.

 

Copyright 2018 by Mark Robert Frank

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