Today is Mothers Day

Posted by on Mar 10, 2018 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Today is Mothers Day

                         Today is Mothers Day

. . . for me as for many of us here, this day’s observance is a bittersweet reminder that “all things pass quickly away…” Remembering my mom wakens an urgency to inquire into the Great Matter, into mortality, life and death. Remembering her is a first step into this terrible mystery. Just what is going on here anyway?

In Case 47 of the Mumonkan, the priest Doushuai set up three barriers to test his students. One of these barriers begins like this: When you have realized your self-nature, you are free of birth and death. That’s certainly attractive! to be free of birth and death and maybe all of the suffering entailed . . . But Doushuai then asks: When the light of your eyes falls, how are you free?

May Swenson might have been considering this when she wrote the poem:


Body my house

my horse my hound   

what will I do

when you are fallen

Where will I sleep
How will I ride
What will I hunt

Where can I go
without my mount
all eager and quick
How will I know
in thicket ahead
is danger or treasure
when Body my good
bright dog is dead

But Doushuai asked: When the light of your eyes falls, how are you free?  Notice the phrasing here—how are you free? Right now, without changing anything, how are you experiencing the truth that the you of you is not subject to birth and death?

And Swenson continues, as though considering this:

How will it be
to lie in the sky
without roof or door
and wind for an eye

Doushuai’s voice echoes back again and again, “How are you free?” “How are you free?”

And the poet responds:

With cloud for shift (garment)
how will I hide?

If we can see all the way through this, it is immediately clear that there is no way to hide—no more need to hide and no place to hide. Where there is neither self nor other, nothing is hidden, and we find neither beginning nor end. This statement is not just about after we die.

Well that is a fine sentiment but how do we make it our own?

In Aitken Roshi’s translation, Wu-men’s verse on Doushuai’s Three Barriers reads like this:

One nien sees eternity;
[nien or nen in Japanese, is moment or frame of thought]
One nien sees eternity;
eternity is equal to now;
If you see through this one
you see through the one who sees.

Shibayama Roshi’s translator writes it in a more explanatory way:

This one instant, as it is, is an infinite number of kalpas.
An infinite number of kalpas are at the same time this one instant.
If you see into this fact,
The True Self which is seeing has been seen into.

Infinite number of kalpas! Eternity—timelessness! These are such vast abstract terms. Of course we understand their general meaning, but it scarcely touches us or our lived reality as finite creatures. Our reality is aches and pains and children, small joys and pleasures, debts and troubles and fears all around. My one instant right now does not seem so grand by any means. “Infinity may be one kind of instant,” my mind says, “but it doesn’t have much to do with me. I guess thinking about impossible abstractions could be a kind of escape. I could use an escape so I’ll keep listening to this for now.” Well, thanks, mind!

But how about this? A kalpa is defined as “a complete cosmic cycle from the origination to the destruction of a world system.” Okay—so maybe even though it says “cosmic” it’s not just a matter of planets and stars and unimaginable empty stretches of time: it mentions “world,” origination and destruction or beginning and end. “World” can mean the earthly state—living beings and their connections, systems of relating, experiencing and understanding—a little more down to earth and complete with gritty detail than mere endless stretches of abstract time. What if kalpa implies all the varieties of experiencing? The verse begins:

This one instant, as it is, is an infinite number of kalpas.

This instant would be the very being of lives and experiences in all their variety. This one instant as it is, would include my fear and my little brother’s clueless outrage from decades ago; sunrise over the Grand Canyon; the fresh taste of a wild apple on a mountainside; pain and an enormous sinking sense of loss and terror; the blossoming of joy, a call of the Swainson’s Thrush, the trusting touch of a small child’s hand in yours.

This one instant, as it is, is an infinite number of kalpas.

My ever-critical mind says, “That’s poetic now, but a little far-fetched, don’t you think?” Hold on, mind; read deeper. The line says This one instant, as it is . . . what do you make of that “as it is? What is the being of this instant?

Each of us would say it a little differently, but the instant itself is formed of awareness, momentarily shaped, momentarily showing up in a particular way. That moment is not yet set as or “in” a world. It is simply as it is, the appearing of appearances, before self and before other, the place of neither self nor other.

 An infinite number of kalpas are at the same time this one instant.
If you see into this fact,
The True Self which is seeing has been seen into.

A lot of problems in doing Zen inquiry seem to show up in our natural habit of believing in words. And words – well, the main job of words is to split the world into “this” and “that,” making “one,” “two,” and “many” out of indivisible experience. So for instance when I read “The True Self which is seeing has been seen into,” my mind automatically extracts an entity: True Self, gives it a task: seeing, and assumes that the object of that task is simply unnamed for now—or in this case, it has been “seeing into this fact.” Further, the mind assumes that somehow there is another entity—me—standing outside this whole scene, seeing into the True Self. Complicated! Way too complicated.

But if This one instant, as it is, is just the appearing of appearances, before self and before other, then the True Self is not a self, not a thing, not an object, but simply seeing.

The True Self which is seeing has been seen into.

Seeing itself has been seen into. Some have called this emptiness. They call it emptiness—but not in the sense of blankness. Rather, it is a relocation or dislodging of the ordinary sense of self. Put another way, the unnameable reality shows itself impossibly closer than we thought—before perception, it is closeness itself, in our midst, permeating experience. And we are not at all what we thought we were. All of this because I miss my mother? Sometimes an experience of deep loss brings us to this place that is no place.

Here is a poem that approaches that dislodging.

After Early Fog

winter sunlight slanting
through the currant’s last leaves,
delicate on the brown shed wall . . .

When these have their say
on this page, with that sky
and the dark under the desk,
the scent of autumn air,
smoky with ending,
colors our breath.

Sunlight, leaves, sky, walls
lead us through unseen fire,
flames of wanting, warming nothing.

Rough bark and the cat’s softness,
cascading clouds and the flicker’s cry
break us with this knowledge:

we cannot grasp, hold, swallow,
breathe, absorb — can never keep

Longing — shimmering, riveting,
ravishing lure — floods the fields
where this soil is broken.

Saturated, open and still,
having surrendered hope,
the broken finds itself

pierced through with green.


When we practice, what are we doing? Trying to find peace? to escape from birth and death, from pain and suffering? Trying to see into self-nature, to find Truth? Trying to become a better person?

All of these may be true to begin with and as endeavors all are mercifully doomed to fail. Not that there is anything wrong with these as intentions! But if as Wu-Men’s verse says,  One nien sees eternity; and if eternity—infinite kalpas, all forms of experiencing—is equal to now, we trip ourselves up the moment we look for something other than what we have, or rather, what we are in this very instant.

If we are troubled, uneasy and not at peace—that is already it: the live experience before it is named . . . the pure experiencing that is called self-nature even though it is complete and prior to notions of “self.” When we step outside of it and look at experiencing as an object, we make a story of it, saying that remembered state was “troubled, uneasy, not at peace.”

Now here on this Mothers Day let your practice be just as it is: the breathing of this breath, your tired or intensely focused Mu, the familiarity, boredom, attraction, or hopelessness of Who hears? the aching of back and knees, the pervasive,  inescapable flavors of grief. Because reality is no other than right here, right now, it invites us back to life just as it is. Because it is what we are, enlightenment cannot be lost. Because it is what we are, it cannot be achieved. It is no other than this one instant before the stories we carve out to shape it. Stay in this instant and let it go; let go even the impulse to remember.


Yesterday’s warmth floated out

the open night eye full of stars.

Roofs and lawns stricken with frost

shine inarticulate with dawn.

Pigeons, juncos and flickers

forage in the frosty grasses.

Little beaks and feathers shift

earth and bugs and millet seeds.

The cold air opening as snow

forms and tumbles and slips apart.
Dear shapes dissolve — hummingbirds

and robins, our own old bones.

Oh this, complex and alone.

The sense of company frays

and vanishes at a touch.

The near grows nearer with loss.



Robert Aitken, The Gateless Barrier. San Francisco, North Point Press, 1990.

Zenkei Shibayama, Zen Comments on the Mumonkan. New York, Harper & Row, 1974.

May Swenson, “Question” from Nature: Poems Old and New. Copyright © 1994 by May Swenson.