From a dharma talk given by Roshi Eve Myonen Marko in Spring Sesshin, March 2013
[The 2013 Head Trainee, Nancy Inzan Eichenlaub, talked about various daily practices she uses to bring her mind to the present moment. One was stopping at a red light. Below is Roshi Eve Marko’s commentary on that practice.]
What is Buddha?
Inzan says, a red light.
The koan literature is full of answers to the question: What is Buddha? What is enlightenment? Buddha is a shit stick. Buddha is three pounds of hemp. Buddha is Mind. Buddha is the oak tree in the garden.
We can study these koans in different ways, but this evening I feel they’re demanding of us to engage with everything in life, whether it’s yucky or merely inopportune. As modern householders we have toilet paper instead of shit sticks. We have a baby’s filled diapers, dirty dishes in the sink, a telephone ringing just as we’re about to go out.
We have lots of red lights. Even if we’re driving steadily and not in any particular rush, chances are we’re still focused on a destination, on getting somewhere. As long as we’re attached to that consciousness we will probably experience a red light as inopportune, a pause, a delay, sometimes, believe it or not, a conspiracy to prevent us from getting somewhere on time.
There are lots of things like that. I can always bet that right after the house has been cleaned and vacuumed, my dog Stanley will bring up a dirty bone he’s just dug up in the yard and will sprinkle the black dirt all over the clean beige carpet. It’s not just that the bone is dirty, it’s also the timing of it: Nowyou do it, just after the vacuum cleaner has returned to its corner downstairs?
Our reactions to these things can be complex, leading to frustration and even anger, but at first they cause us to stop, pause for an instant of disbelief. There’s a red light when I’m hurrying somewhere–not NOW! The carpet got full of dirt right after it was cleaned—not NOW! I get sick just before sesshin or traveling—not NOW!
Franz Kafka once said that the meaning of life is that it stops. I think he was referring to death, but isn’t a red light a little death? The death of our busyness, our self-important, goal-centered activity.
When I lived in New York City’s East Side it wasn’t uncommon to see dignitaries in their motorcades zooming up to the UN. The streets ahead were emptied by police on motorcycles and the motorcade would drive right through red lights, stopping pedestrians from crossing the street and the traffic from the side streets. I used to pooh-pooh their sense of self-importance, but actually, how different is my mindset from theirs? I’m not a head of state, but in my own mind I’m a very important person and my work is always very important.
We think that our activities are what give our lives meaning, but I think it’s the stopping that does that. Gandhi was a pretty busy man throughout his life, yet he made it a habit to be in silence on Mondays. He continued working, but communication with him had to be in writing, not aloud. Perhaps he needed to mark some kind of pause or variation, create a reminder for himself that no matter how important he and millions of other people may have considered his work, there was a bigger context to it.
I like to do our monthly one-day sittings for that same reason. Almost every month when it comes up, a small voice inside reminds me how much I could do that day if I wasn’t sitting. But luckily, a louder voice cautions me that any time I think that I and something I’m doing are so important that we can’t stop, I better look again.
What happens when we stop? Inzan describes seeing sunrays. I think that at that point we’re letting the space inform the details, not the details inform the space.
Years ago I created a new red light for myself. I started the practice of stopping whenever I saw a dead animal on the road, getting the shovel out of the trunk of my car and carrying the body off the concrete and onto the side of the road. We refer to them as roadkill, as if it was the road that killed them. People sometimes tell me it must be difficult to get so close to the mangled, bloodied body. For me, the difficult part has been the discipline to start on my way five minutes earlier than I need to in case I have to make to make stops, focus on the road in search of animals that died, and come to a stop in a timely way rather than speeding right past. It means taking my mind off my destination and on the road, the inhabitants of the forest, the things on the concrete and those on the margins. And I bear witness to how, in the name of our busyness, the people and things that can’t wait, we not only let life go through our fingers, we also destroy many life forms.
A red light usually turns green. But I like to treat red lights like a small death, in which everything can finally come to a stop. Goethe said that as long as you do not know how to die and come to life again, you are but a poor guest on this earth.