Where I have faith, where I have doubt

Emma Lindsay
Jan 11, 2016 · 7 min read

A monk asked Chao-chou, “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the west?”

Chao-chou said, “The oak tree in the courtyard.”

Mumonkan: Case 37

As it’s been explained to me, the question “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the west?” means something like “what is the meaning of zen?” or “what is the true nature of reality?” I am no zen master, so I may have butchered that.

To understand the answer, go find some oak tree and stare at it. Or a flower, or some other natural thing. At least, that’s what I assume you should do. I don’t understand the answer to this koan, so your guess is as good as mine. Better than mine.

I do know that when I stare at flowers right now, I get pissed off. I have heard so many koans, and zen talks, and zen zens that it all starts sounding the same. I have seen so many calm, zen faces assuring me that I will one day see the unity in everything, that I want to scream. I want to scream at them “you are not seeing the importance of my life now!”

Delusion has meaning. Delusion is important. Delusion is the imperfection in corundum that turns rubies red and sapphires blue. How can we take in the imperfections of the oak tree and call it reality, while simultaneously rejecting the imperfections in ourself?

For the first time since I began meditating, I am facing a crisis of faith. Faith, for me, has never been a matter of belief as much as an articulation of something I already knew. Chiyono’s enlightenment poem is something I have great faith in, even now.

After months of wholehearted practice, [Chiyono] went out on a full moon night to draw some water from the well. The bottom of her old bucket, held together by bamboo strips, suddenly gave way, and the reflection of the moon vanished with the water. When she saw this she attained great realization.

Her enlightenment poem was this:

With this and that I tried to keep the bucket together,
and then the bottom fell out.
Where the water does not collect,
the moon does not dwell.

The Hidden Lamp, Caplow and Moon, p 37–38

I love that poem so much. I have a picture of her hanging above my alter.

I’m sure my alter violates all sorts of zen rules. So sue me. Picture of Chiyono by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi.

Faith in her poem was never something that I had to work at. When I read it (and, I think it wasn’t the first time I’d read it, it was just the first time it struck me) I saw something in it that was true. And, not all together in a good way. It spoke to something I had been avoiding, something I didn’t want to face, that I could no longer deny.

Where the water does not collect
the moon does not dwell.

I had an ex boyfriend who used to say “If the truth is stated in a way so as to be understood, it will be believed.” In that moment, some combination of practice, gender, and good luck came together so I could understand some aspect of the truth in that poem. I’ve talked to different people about it, and people focus on different parts of it. Some people were interested in all the effort Chiyono exerted keeping her bucket together, which ultimately proved fruitless. One of my non-zen friends saw it as representative of love, that could not exist without the form of the beloved.

What I saw in the poem was my own desperate desire to believe in a type of Judeo-Christian soul, the reflection of the moon in the water, that was smashed upon the ground when Chiyono dropped the bucket. But, the breaking of the bucket did not harm the real moon in the sky.

I don’t think any of these explanations are superior to any other. I think people see in the poem what they need to see, and some people won’t see anything because they need a completely different poem. If I live to be 100, which I very much hope I do, I’m sure my articulation of what the poem is saying to me will change. But, I think that this poem is touching on some truth about what it means to be human, and what it means to be alive. I call that faith.

I think all religions are touching on a deep truth about what it means to be human and what it means to be alive, which is also where my lack of faith comes in. Lack of faith — otherwise known as doubt.

My understanding of Zen is that it maintains that there are many paths to the truth, but Zen is the most efficient one. I always cut off the last part, and believed effectively “there are many paths to the truth,” and never worried about it too much. And yet, recently, that last part has seen more and more problematic to me.

I just sat my first 7 day sesshin, a Rohatsu sesshin, this past December because it seemed like the thing to do. I cried a lot. But, when I came out of it, I just felt really lucky to be alive. That’s basically it. I’m alive, and I’m awesome is essentially how I felt. Everyone else looked awesome too!

I was reminded of this moment, in one of my favorite TV shows Dead Like Me, where the protagonist George doesn’t have to fill out an evaluation like the rest of her grim-reaper coworkers. Her coworkers complain to their boss “Filling out these evaluations sucks! Why do we have to do it when George doesn’t?” Her boss doesn’t give an answer, he just tell them to shut up and keep working. When she shows up, George is also upset because she doesn’t understand why she doesn’t need to fill in an evaluation.

“Why aren’t I over there doing what they’re all doing?” she asks her boss.

“Because you’re over here doing what George is doing,” he responds.

And, that vibe basically summarizes my current outlook on the world. I’m over here, doing what Emma is doing, you’re over there doing what you’re doing — and, I don’t really understand why I’m doing this, and you’re doing that, but it’s great. I’m going to keep doing this, you keep doing that, and neither is better nor worse. It’s just what we’re doing.

Yet, to say “Zen is the most efficient path, but not the only one” sort of goes against that. Just a little. It seems to say “what you are doing, is almost as good as what we’re doing.” And, it’s a small concession that doesn’t seem terribly disrespectful, but like a pebble in a shoe, it rubs at me. Not the sentence, rather the impression of how I get that the sentence is lived out.

I am one of the less experienced practitioners in my community, so I get a lot of advice from more experienced practitioners. And it nearly always annoys me, and I’m not totally sure why — but, I think it might be this. People offer me advice without appreciating the vast, limitless, transcendental beauty of my life. And, for me to take their advice would be to take in this assumption as well. A good teacher will give different instructions to different students, because this is an articulation of the teacher’s appreciation of the individual delusions that create the different colors in the students/stones. This is an affirmation of the vastness of the student, before they can see it in themselves.

Yet, this type of minimization in the form of a refusal to appreciate the other seems baked into the whole Zen pie. To even articulate the superiority of enlightenment over delusion is to minimize the experience of the delusional. To articulate how we are “one with everything” and that the sufficiently spiritually advanced all eventually see this truth is to minimize the mystical traditions of those who do not believe in merging of the individual with God. And why are those traditions worse? Why do we hold those whose interpretations of the poem are the most similar to our own in higher esteem? Those with radically different readings are the ones from whom we can learn the most.

And yet... war. And famine. And vaginal bleaching creams. I gotta be honest with you, any interpretation of “the Divine” that does not lead to the immediate and self evident idiocy of vaginal bleaching creams seems “worse” than any that does. So, I end up contradicting myself. All forms of worship are equal and beautiful, except for those that condone the bleaching of the vagina, which are clearly inferior.

Where does this leave me now? I’m not sure. Lien would probably tell me to sit with it, but I think I’m going to go out and get some barbecue instead.

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