Whether we know it or not, we develop our own life’s collection of koans. Here is one of mine:
Eve asked Zen Master Bernie early one morning, “What should I speak about today?”
Zen Master Bernie asked, “The way we make love?”
Blue morning, gray morning.
Leaves open to the sun.
Crows everywhere, looking for roadkill.
This koan is about expression. Or is it about the lack of expression?
What should I speak about today? We all have moments when we feel there’s nothing to say. We open our eyes, we look around, and no special insights or perceptions appear. We feel talked out, written out, thought out. There are traditional koans that deal with this. Nor is this something that just happens to me. Probably many of us here come to a point when we feel there’s nothing to say. Things are what they are, and any expression feels superfluous.
Bernie replies: The way we make love?
Writers know that it’s hard to write about making love. What do you say about it? If you say too much, you risk being unnecessarily graphic and even salacious. If you say too little, you risk sounding coy. So what do you write?
We can ask that about anything. What’s the proper way to express it? Why say anything, when ahead of time you already know it’s insufficient? Why not take the way out that Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener took, when he constantly reiterated, I would prefer not to.
I have talked before about the Greyston Bakery in Yonkers, New York, with the illegal paint factory operating across the street, the all-night bar right next door, and the fumes from the trailer trucks loudly driving down that narrow road. At the corner there was a meat market, and whenever I passed one of the men would be standing outside wearing his butcher whites splotched with blood. Often the door was open and I could see large carcasses of cows hung on meat hooks, blood dripping down the grates underneath. Whenever that door opened the smell hit me like a shock, the smell of blood and of flesh being sliced up. The butcher would teasingly ask me when I will bring him a chocolate cake from the bakery, and we would talk pleasantly, like neighbors.
What should I speak about today? The way we make love? The way we make love, the way we come together, the way we make paint, the way we treat illegal immigrants, the way we cut up sirloin, and yes, the way we make chocolate cake—these are all expressions of the dharma. The dharma speaks to us day after day through the johns staggering out of the all-night bar, the friendly flirting of the butcher, the smell of incense from the zendo commingling with blood and paint fumes and the smell of chocolate brownies, all these things together in our nostrils, in our ears, in our eyes, in our hands and mouths, all this is the dharma. The world is speaking; the world is making love right under our eyes.
And we participate. We are making love too. We walk and eat and sit and sing. Why? For the same reason that the butcher smells of blood and the paint factory of harsh, illegal chemicals, for the same reason that the green leaves reach out to the warm sun and the crows feed on the dead raccoon. Because we, like everyone and everything else, participate in creation and destruction. Because at every moment we’re nothing other than creation and destruction, shining.