Into the Dark of the Year

Posted by on Jan 3, 2015 in Zen Talks | 2 comments

By Madelon Bolling
This piece was originally given by Madelon as a dharma talk
at the Three Treasures Sangha zazenkai on December 14, 2014.

The days are shorter now. It seems appropriate as we enter the dark of the year that we reflect on the lives of relatively unknown predecessors on the Way. Women and laypersons have always had an interest in seeing into self-nature, and they too influenced the course of Zen study significantly. Yet traditionally only monastics have been remembered and celebrated, and those were predominantly men. Not that women weren’t also monastics: they just weren’t talked about much. Recent scholarship allows even English-speakers to change this one-sided view. Today I’ll talk a little about one of the women we now remember in the sesshin dedication.

Femaleness has always had a symbolic resonance with mystery, darkness, the unknown. The Greek root of the word mystery means to close or shut, as in closing the eyes or mouth. When eyes are closed, it is dark and nothing is seen; when the mouth is closed, secrets remain unspoken. The interior spaces and processes of the female body are dark, not visible, and yet give rise to new life. The whole purpose of Zen it seems to me, is to face the great matter of life and death, the known and unknown, beginning and ending, joy and pain, to see clearly right through phenomena. Nowhere is this quest told more poignantly than in the story of Patacara (pronounced P’tAh chahra).

Patacara was the beautiful daughter of a wealthy merchant of Shravasti in northern India. When she was 16, her parents locked her on the top floor of a seven-story tower and surrounded her with guards to keep her away from interested young men. So naturally she fell in love with one of the servants who tended to her daily needs. When her parents arranged marriage with a young man of equal social standing, she decided to elope with her servant-class lover. She disguised herself to escape from the tower, and the young couple went to live in a village far away. Her husband farmed, and the young wife worked hard as farm women must.

When she became pregnant, Patacara begged her husband to take her to her parents’ house to give birth, which was the custom then. He refused, saying that her parents would likely torture him and throw him in prison. So she took off on her own. When the husband found her gone, he followed and tried to persuade her to come home. But before they could reach Shravasti, a baby boy was born. As there was no more reason to go to the city, they turned back to their home in the village.

A few years later Patacara became pregnant again, and asked her husband to take her home to her parents to give birth. Again he refused and she left, this time with her young son in tow. Her husband followed and tried to persuade her to turn back. A massive storm came up, bringing thunder, wind and torrential rains. Just then she went into labor, and asked her husband to build them some kind of shelter. While chopping saplings for a lean-to, he was bitten by a poisonous snake and died instantly. Meanwhile, Patacara was in labor and eventually gave birth to a second boy. The next morning she found her husband lying dead, his body rigid. Distraught, she blamed herself for his death.

She continued on her journey to Shravasti. Unfortunately the river Achiravati was swollen due to the storm. She couldn’t wade across with both children, so she left the older boy on the riverbank and carried the baby to the other side before returning for her first son. When she was half-way back, an eagle swooped on her newborn and flew off with him. Patacara screamed. Hearing his mother’s cries, the older boy started wading towards her. To her horror she watched him being swept away in the strong current of the flood waters. Having lost her husband, her newborn, and her first child, Patacara continued toward the city. But on the outskirts, a passing acquaintance told her that the family house had collapsed in the storm, killing her mother, father, and brother. (I used to think this was an improbable parable but the Oso landslide set me straight.)

By the time she reached the family home, and saw it had been set on fire with the remains of her parents and brother inside, Patacara was mad with grief. Tearing her clothes off in distress, not knowing what else to do, she ran through the streets naked and inconsolable. At that time, the Buddha was staying at the Jetavana monastery in Shravasti, and she eventually ended up there. A bystander covered her with a robe and Patacara threw herself sobbing at the Buddha’s feet as she told her story. He comforted her with his view of attachment and impermanence and she immediately resonated with this way of seeing things.

After joining the Order (since she was already homeless and without family) her awareness was permeated with this experience of multiple losses and the Buddha’s exposition on impermanence. In this state she was washing her feet one evening prior to retiring to her hut for the night. When she poured the foot-washing water out, she watched it run down the slope beside the hut. Some of the little runnels of water were long, some were short. Some soaked into the ground sooner and others ran down the hill and disappeared later. She understood then that causes and conditions like the porousness of the soil determined the length of the little rivulets of water. She saw that everything passes by in constant change, a never-ending appearing and  disappearing. This thought-process gave her so much clarity that she attained to total emancipation the following night.

(adapted from Hellmuth Hecker: Buddhist Women in the Time of the Buddha. Sister Khema, translator. Wheels #292-293, chapter “Patacara,”  pp.  35-38. Kandy, Buddhist Publication Society, 1982. BPS Online Edition copyright 2009)

Patacara came to an awareness of the three marks of existence dramatically in a short period of time. First impermanence: all things are impermanent, constantly changing; and second, suffering or unsatisfactoriness (not having what we want; not wanting what we have) – these two came on her full-bore with the loss of her entire family one by one in a single day. The third mark of existence, no self: the experience that there is no independently existent identity or “self” in any phenomenon followed when she watched the foot-washing water being absorbed by the earth. Impermanence, suffering, no-self. The related notion of interdependence came into play here, as Patacara clearly saw that the length of the rivulets depended on how porous the earth was, how vigorously she poured the water, how recently it had rained, and so on. Their disappearance mapped vividly onto the shorter and longer lives of her recently-lost family. I imagine she had already lost much of her own sense of unchanging identity on that maddening day that she lost her family, all of her important relationships, and the meaning of her life.

Aside from the underlying question of what is going on here in this astounding, unjust, stunningly beautiful, heartbreakingly horrible, incomprehensible process we call life in the first place, the most urgent universal mystery among us is death.

  • we agree it’s inevitable
  • it could happen at any time, and generally
  • we don’t know how it will happen

We don’t know what it is, when or how it will happen – only that it will happen.

Not knowing is dark: dark is the realm of the unknown.

It is a mistake here to infer that death is a thing. It is not. Death is a name for change. This change is of the nature of absence, since death is a change whose most salient point is that what has been, is no longer. What was here isn’t here anymore. Strange, isn’t it? The entire nature of the cosmos is change, always and everywhere. The sense organs can’t even perceive except through processes of continuous change; minute shifts in brain, body and environment create the possibility of perception. Yet there is one dimension of this continuous change that bothers us deeply and intensely: the change called “death.” Movement ceases to occur in what was moving. Breath ceases to occur in what was breathing. Communication ceases to occur in what could formerly talk, or growl, laugh, cry, grunt or gesture.

The experience of absence that characterizes death lies in the act of noting that what was here, now is not, and we don’t like the change. It is painful, painful because we want things to be different. This comparison of past and present along with our hopeful and futile reaching into emptiness for the form of our loved one – is integral to the experience of absence, and it belongs to the realm of ideas, thoughts, words. We say we don’t know where the person has gone. We don’t know what happened to the complex of phenomena we call “a person.”

Not knowing is dark: dark is the realm of the unknown.

If dark were merely the absence of light, it would also be the remembering of light, as in this little poem:
Before Daylight or After (10/24/2014)

When the lights are off,
these rooms become furniture corners
wall edges door frames
all suddenly in the way
bumping arms banging shins
blocking shoulders
stopping each forward move
silently, firmly, without argument.

How easily brought to our senses
where darkness plays
as the mis-remembering of light.

Light is its own thing, nuanced and present as color, shade, and shape. Dark is an aspect of the awareness of light, but dark is also its own thing, seldom explored without the memory of light, of known things. We dream and pray to undo the dark so unless gifted with blindness or stunned like Patacara by unthinkable loss we don’t step closer into dark. We don’t open ourselves to make its acquaintance or ask to meet on its own ground.

We walk the world of light, the world of the known as though it were everything, like Patacara’s “everything,” her home and family. So let’s step closer to darkness now and approach what we can’t see, can’t know, can’t grasp in words, like Patacara on her day of total loss. This is scary. This is the Halloween funhouse where you step into a dark room and the disembodied audio-guide says, “Now put your hand into the hole in the wall.”

Death is assumed to be ultimate darkness. Maybe that’s so – but what does “ultimate darkness” mean?

Because words cannot convey reality, we are encouraged to find out for ourselves, to step into the dark. We’re given that opaque instruction, “Die on the cushion.” This just means taking a seat, adjusting posture, half-closing and un-focusing eyes, settling with one breath, carrying nothing forward, and settling with breath that is not “breath” but a complete manifestation of – the unknown, of what is before thinking. What is real and present and inarguable then cannot be captured by words.

In that place we cease to believe or invest in words and thoughts. Patacara came to this place when her known world was torn from her. The foundation stones of all concepts of self and other and place and identity, were torn away with her family members, one by one.

Words and thoughts are merely phenomena whose specialty is slicing and dicing up reality into separate, speakable, knowable bits, incidentally creating subject and object. Regarding words and thoughts as phenomena only –  impermanent, suffering-laden and without independent reality… we lose the idea of self, living being, life span and any continuing essence. This sounds like nothingness, very scary, very dark. But remember, words and concepts are presenting this view. In a teisho he gave in August of 2010, Jack addressed this most clearly:

It is by being fully present in your conditions, in your sadness or happiness, in your sitting or lying down, that you forget the self. Obviously this can happen on as well as off the cushion. But zazen is the continual and continuing focused practice of forgetting, of giving up, of letting go. Zazen is the continual and continuing focused practice of forgetting where you came from, forgetting where you are going, and of forgetting who you are. (Teisho on Genjo Koan 8/28/2010)

Dying on the cushion is being fully present in this moment just as it is, seeing clearly without eyes. With self forgotten, nobody is seeing! … “and so on to no thinking; no ignorance and also no ending of ignorance, and so on to no old age and death and also no ending of old age and death.”

I rise to form clouds.
I gather and release water droplets.
I fall to earth.
I enter plant roots,
becoming part of leaves
and then animals
and the great cycle of nutrients.
I carry fish and plants and soil
to new places on the way to the ocean.
Does ocean die to form mist?
Does mist die to form cloud?
Does cloud die pouring its substance
into the rain storm?
Does rain die soaking into soil
or invigorating leaves?
Do streams die entering the ocean?
The nights around us have become longer and longer, and the cold, rainy, cloudy weather brings darkness even during daylight hours. We’ve stepped together into the dark. We accompanied Patacara experiencing unpredictable incomprehensible loss. “Ultimate darkness” is only an oblique reference to the ungraspable realm of what cannot be known: of what is, before thinking. So we turn again to our practice of zazen, entering the vastness of our inescapable, unknowable home.