Aug 9, 2018

One reason I like mowing the meadow is the fresh smell every few seconds as different plants are sliced while the tractor chugs along. There is a news stream to the nostrils that I can’t decipher but I love to receive it anyway. What the plants are expressing is important, and maybe of even greater significance than what I read in the actual morning news, but I don’t understand them.

It’s not fair to say “of greater significance,” but it is hard to read that written morning news because there too I find myself saying I don’t understand. How is this day’s story possible? Without understanding it is easy to go numb. Easy to just live here in the woods day by day.

One of the recurring themes I use when teaching physicians is learning how to face suffering. But it is one thing to face suffering of the sort that seems to just be part of our lives – the loss of an aged father – but it is far more difficult for me when the suffering is seemingly caused by someone’s cruelty, ignorance, hatred, or greed. Those are the difficult stories.

I’ve been struggling with that second form of suffering, wanting to understand, wanting to speak, but not wanting to just add to the noise of the moment. But I was thinking of the late Japanese Zen Master Omori Sogen this morning, the teacher of my Zen teacher. And I was thinking of the physical character of his life – recognizing that everything seemed to align. How he breathed, how he walked, how he wrote, how he taught. Everything seemed to just line up, no loose edges. People who met him said every encounter left them with a clean feeling, nothing muddy.

Those who know of his training in the old sword school that includes the form or kata we call “Hojo” would say of course that is how he was. His physical training in swordsmanship was so severe that not only did “straightforwardness” (jikishin in Japanese) go into his bones but into his life. My teacher, Tanouye Roshi, lived the same way. Who he was in the morning was the same as who he was in the evening.

The older I get, the more I understand how incredibly difficult that last step is. Every step, every word, every breath, every encounter feeling like it is just one thing. Without shugyo (intense physical/ emotional/ spiritual training) early in life, it is very difficult to do the necessary shugyo later in life that leads to this straightforwardness.

I think I landed on this quality in Omori Sogen’s character this morning because I realized that is what I long for in every politician, every businessman, every teacher, every police officer, every physician who has a large impact on the lives of others. “Longing for” by itself is an empty phrase but I had to get all of these things I’m describing to the surface before I could look at my own alignment, my own straightforwardness. That’s yet one more step along the way…