Stray leaves crunch beneath my feet as I walk slowly around the park.
The trees are covered in Christmas lights, unlit in the early afternoon. A light drizzle sporadically falls from the stubborn clouds as a thin fog hugs the river.
I’m covered in robes, black and brown, standard Chan Buddhist issue. A donation bag draped over one arm as I hold the Oriental flute up to my lips. It’s a slow melody, to match the pace. The notes bend through the whirring drone of passing cars. People amble by, some looking, some looking away. All of them searching for something to make them feel complete.
A family walks by and I put a silly skip in my step to get a laugh from the kids. Laughter’s important. Laughter’s everything.
Someone puts a coin in my bag, I stop the song and say, “Thank you, so much. Where are you from?” “I’m from here,” they reply. “That’s the ticket! Keep at it!” I laugh and clap them on the shoulder before picking up the tune and walking on.
After a few rounds around the park, I walk to the center. There’s a fountain there with a statue of Abraham Lincoln commemorating the time he came to town and debated with some other dude. Douglas? Williams? Eh, it doesn’t matter.
I set everything down, fold myself up, and sit.
When my mind is settled and clear, that’s the life I see myself living. I’m not a fan of robes, but they do announce to the world, “Here I am, I’m naked.” To wear robes is to invite ridicule, to make people uneasy. People need to feel uneasy—ya can’t start the journey if you’re comfortable with your lot in life.
I don’t see myself lecturing, not like here in this one-sided exchange. I see conversations; that’s where the magic happens. That’s the heart of Zen. After sitting, I get up and head home to my small, state-funded apartment, where I write and sit some more. A lay monk, living alone.
But then there’s this other life. The one where—after I can’t care for my grandma anymore—I get a job, get a place, fall in love and start a family while using all of it to fuel practice and to fuel these posts. That messy, beautiful, horrible, worthless, worthwhile life. Sitting when I can, writing when I can, laughing at every opportunity.
These two lives seem opposed to each other, though not necessarily. I’d just have to do my monkish rounds on the weekends and fall in love with someone who accepts that part of me.
The truth is, I’m fine with either option. I’m fine with whatever bend or weave life happens to throw at me. Because life isn’t about me. I’m just a wave, moved by forces that I’ll never understand. Once the wave sees that it isn’t separate from the ocean, then there’s no problem. You can rise and fall freely, you can flow and freeze and evaporate. You can rain down, or smooth out to a placid mirror.
The future is impossible to work with because which self are you trying to please?
What sounds good today might sound like shit tomorrow as moods change. So it’s wise to always keep things open and to change with the changes, never trying to form something solid out of empty space.
In all my imaginings of possible futures, each revolves around earnest communication. Whether that’s with strangers or an impromptu Sangha, or my family and you, dear Reader; it’s fine either way. Because whichever way life throws me, reaching out and holding hands is the practice. It’s called wenda, which is what all the koans are based on. It’s a lost art in modern Zen, which has been taken over by lecturers and academics.
The old teachers were far more focused on human interactions than on teachings and particular meditation methods because those face-to-face interactions are where everything clicked. The teachings and methods are just there to make those interactions meaningful and clear.
Since the get-go, Zen has presented itself as something that’s passed on like an STD, though it isn’t really passing anything on. It’s more like someone saying, “Hey, that’s a nice gold necklace you’ve got on,” and then you look down, see it and realize, “Holy fuck! I didn’t even know that I was wearing that!” Then you see that everyone’s wearing one.
That’s all it is. You’ve already got it, you’re already complete. You’re just thinking of things in terms of nouns, when really we should seeing everything as verbs. A universe of traveling qualities instead of particular things. It takes more than heart to get a heartbeat. It takes everything.
With all this in mind, wherever I end up, and whomever I end up being or being with, it’s okay. The sun still shines, the moon still dances along the river. My heart still beats, and at night I still dream that I’m walking with lions.
Lions that took me years to tame.
Anshi (安狮) is the pen name for a certain Chan Buddhist. He calls his introspective, autobiographical writing, “Living Dharma.” All names are changed to protect the privacy of those involved. If you know who Anshi is, please refrain from telling anyone. Feel free to check out his Facebook page.
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