A monk asked Yun Men, “How is it when the tree withers and the leaves fall?”
Yun Men said, “Body exposed in the golden wind.”
This is one of my favorite koans. It gets better with age, meaning with my age, for I uncover new teachings in it each time I study it anew.
Why are we here, practicing in the zendo? Why and what do we practice at home? We all have different motivations, but there’s a basic one for me, and that is wishing to experience the oneness of this world and of all life, and then deepen the practice. There is nothing abstract about this, I have learned that the more things I experience as me, the less harm I will do in the world.
I am trying to describe something that is beyond the reaches of my brain and the karmic laws it follows. I beat the drum of the deathless, the Buddha said in one of his discourses. He sets his eyes on the deathless, not the things that depend on life conditions and will therefore pass as those conditions pass, but that which isn’t born and doesn’t die.
How do you experience this? By letting go. And this koan asks, what happens after you do that? What happens after years of practice, when we see our attachments finally falling away like leaves, when all the concepts that made up my consciousness of who I am finally fall bare, the powerful needs and cravings finally released—what happens then?
I’ll tell you what doesn’t happen: quiescence and lack of response. Look outside, see the bare trees still tremble in this late, cold winter. They will feel the caress of a warm breeze when that happens, and now they shiver when it’s cold. Either way, there is complete exposure to everything in the universe, and a response. Full exposure doesn’t mean no response, it means no reactivity. In fact, you can’t help but respond. I’m hot, I sweat. I’m cold, I shiver. I’m old, I get stiff, or my memory deteriorates. What’s the use of self-consciousness then? What’s the use of complaint? What old version are you comparing yourself to?
Full exposure doesn’t mean apathy. It doesn’t imply quiescence or passivity.
For sure, there are those early mornings when I seek shelter from the storm in my practice. That’s okay for a short while, especially when I feel overwhelmed, but in my gut I know that that’s not the point. This practice does not conflict with activity, it is at the very essence of activity.
I beat the drum of the deathless. Tan, our wonderful monastic friend, was here last week and I drove him home. We talked about our different ways of life. Both of us, I believe, seek the undying and unborn in the middle of the dying and the born. Whether you are a monastic or a layperson, this is hard to do. In some ways, his is a much more exposed life than mine because he follows the rules of the Vinaya. They mandate that he must wear certain robes even in the harshest of weather, with no added layers for protection. He has to beg for food every single day in order to eat, completely relying on the bounty and generosity of the world rather than on his own efforts. He carries no money. He is much more exposed to the elements and to the rawness of life than I am.
You and I don’t follow those rules. We change clothes, depending on the weather and the occasion. When we’re hungry we reach into the refrigerator or else we go into a restaurant and pat our pocket where the money lies. We are not exposed like him. But we may be more buffeted by winds of change, by family, friends and work connections. We may find ourselves in many more unfamiliar neighborhoods than him.
In these times I think especially of the work involved with helping illegal immigrants and refugees, with fighting against climate change, at a time when so many hard-won, forward steps are being undermined and even dismantled. But I keep in mind Thomas Merton’s caution: . . . [N]on-violence seeks dialogue, not victory . . . [T]rue non-violence requires spiritual discipline and a deep love for people.
When one works, fully exposed, we seek dialogue with everything, not victory. We seek relationship at every moment with every thing that arises, including every thing inside ourselves. Merton says: The enemy is not the other but the tendency in all of us to make the other different and to declare ourselves the norm and the center of human behavior.
That tendency is gone when the leaves fall, and then, what’s left? Continuing work, not out of denial or violence, but out of relationship with everything.
A friend who went to Standing Rock last winter wrote: I’ve identified a new goal/mantra: Instead of starting a path or endeavor with the goal of achieving perfection, change, resolution, or any kind of end goal at all, I commit to simply showing up, bearing witness, and participating in the world.
Exposure comes with practice. There’s no talk of winning, because winning comes with losing. There’s no need for honors or riches, for recognition or success. We bend with the wind, we feel the woodpeckers creating holes in our bark, we shiver with the storm. No conflict anywhere, just the deathless in very moment.