In practice this week I have been reflecting on a Zen Koan. It feels immeasurably helpful.
The nun, Chiyono was unable to attain the fruits of her meditation. She practiced diligently but was not able to find enlightenment.
At last, on a moonlit night, she was carrying water in an old pail bound with bamboo. The bamboo broke, the bottom fell out of the bucket, and at that moment Chiyono was set free!
Chris and I are experiencing many changes. We have moved house out west and are beginning a new life. This a major transition for us; we are excited and scared. I think it is fair to say we certainly feel alive! There is no bottom in our bucket anymore. Everything we know seems to exist in the past. Every moment is brand new. This recognition, according to yogic teaching, is a presence. Presence is what the koan refers to when it speaks of Chiyono's freedom.
Here in the California desert, a mockingbird sits on the palm singing its complicated song. We watch, like children, eyes wide open. We remember the osprey and the goose at Fort McHenry. There is a bit of tugging on our hearts, and we take delight in recognizing that the hummingbird, dove and white heron are here for us now. This bittersweet love is what it means to find enlightenment. Momentary joys arrive one after another, and we recognize them.
In commemoration of her awakening, Chiyono wrote a poem:
In this way and that I tried to save the old pail
since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break.
Until at last the bottom fell out.
Nor more water in the pail!
No more moon in the water!
Yoga teachings often use the metaphor of moon reflected in water to symbolize the "real" unchanging reality. It also illustrates the "unreal" ever-changing illusions that cause us suffering. In Chiyono’s poem, the moon represents the permanent and water represents movement or change. The reflection of the moon in the water symbolizes the temporary nature of enlightenment. It is troublesome to try and carry an experience around in a pail, no matter how precious the moment may seem.
For most of us, awakening is temporary. The yoga sutras tell us this. The Upanishads, The Bhagavad-Gita, and Buddhist philosophy also remind us of our changing nature, yet we still yearn to hold on.
In the story, Chiyono carefully carries her enlightenment in an “old bamboo pail”. This attachment quickly becomes a burden. The bucket is heavy and requires tending, resources, and repair.
One can imagine the burden we carry trying to preserve a brief moment of realization or a particular circumstance.
Here in our new home, it feels like our pail is empty. It feels like our hearts, minds, and hands are free. Chris and I need all of our dexterity to weed the garden, paint the walls, and unpack the boxes. Our emptiness forces us to look at the moon directly. Seeing the moon provides us a new experience in every instant.
Even though I am taught in practice to let go of whatever appears, I often hold onto to moments of insight. I tend to make theories and philosophies around such experiences rather than seeing that they are impermanent. Sometimes when I am teaching yoga, I joke about this desire. It goes like this: yesterday I had a great experience in class. Today I am going to wear the same outfit, put my mat in the same spot and hope the teacher plays that same music so I can have the same great experience. Burdened with expectation, I head into the studio with no chance of experiencing the aha moment called presence.
Letting go of everything in my life has been a reminder of the importance of release.
I often forget that my experience is ever changing, even if my circumstance stays the same. Each moment is a result of the causes and conditions of my life. My perception is subjective and based on the past if conditioned. My experience is alive and awake, if free.
In our new home, I feel a freedom to begin again. I am unsure and therefore alert. I can see old conditioned ways of thinking and embrace the opportunity for change. I notice when I am carrying my understanding around in an old bucket that simply needs to empty. Emptiness is the heart of my adventure, and it is magnificent. The truth is beginning-less and endless.
Here is another example poetry that uses the moon as a metaphor. Here the image of the moon represents being.
To what might it be compared?
Dwelling in the dewdrop
Fallen from a waterfowl’s beak,
The image of the moon.
If I can see the absolute expressed in each “drop” of my life, I have found enlightenment; this is the goal of yoga.
I feel tiny in my new house, and I feel at home. I feel vulnerable and delicate like a dewdrop, but I feel powerful too. Perhaps I am the moon? I am seeing the world, as if for the first time; everything is new. I am meeting new people and walking an unknown path with my husband, my friend. It is an adventure, and it is exciting.
And I must remember that enlightenment is momentary. That it only lasts for the instant or two it takes for a drop to fall from the bird's beak and splatter onto the grass; so my practice is essential.
I have practiced each day remembering nothing lasts forever. Every moment lasts for no more than an instant; this is what I have learned from Chiyono.
My moment as a student is fleeting. My moment as a teacher, artist, wife, friend, and adventurer is also brief. As I walk around the new neighborhood, I realize this blossom only lasts for a second, the same for the bird, cloud, and me. My practice brings me back to the present; it reminds me to keep looking, breathing, and letting go.
I have a tendency not to remember this impermanence. Even as I write it down, I tend to reject the fleetingness of things. Instead, like Chiyono, I fashion a bamboo pail so I can hold on. This bucket becomes a burden, and it takes a lot of my energy to mend and carry.
If I practice correctly, I remember how to let go. Letting go is what Chris and I are doing out here. We can watch the water disappear into the wild grass of our lives. With nothing to depend on, nothing to hold onto, we follow the path, even when the moon hides behind a cloud.
This practice is very simple though it is not at all easy.