Immediacy and the Long Journey
Let us consider the following two Zen accounts that seem to point in quite different directions:
A young monk introduced himself to the Chinese Zen Master Hsuan-sha saying, “I have just entered this monastery. Please show me where to enter the Way.”
“Do you hear the sound of the valley stream,” asked Hsuan-sha?
“Yes,” said the monk.
Dogen, the great Japanese Zen master, was born into an aristocratic background. When he was in his teens, his mother died. It is related that when he was watching the clouds of incense billow over his mother’s ashes, he felt acutely and painfully the impermanence of all things. He resolved to become a monk in order to resolve this pain. Years later he was a fully enlightened Zen master.
These two stories seems to be making some kind of contradictory claim. On the one hand, the goal of the spiritual journey is right there, right at the outset–it is always right in front of one’s nose as it were. On the other, the account seems to imply that it takes a long time to “get there.”
Another account from very recent times as related by American Zen teacher John Daido Loori:
“Many of us are accustomed to fast-paced, quick-solution, immediate gratification lifestyles. One of my students had been practicing with a koan in his sitting meditation. He had been studying with me for about 3 years when he happened to go to California on a job assignment. While there, he decided to do an intensive meditation retreat with my own teacher. He began the retreat and went to his first face-to-face interview. He told my teacher that he was studying with me and working on his koan. My teacher asked, ‘How long have you been working on it?’ He said, ‘Three years.’ And my teacher immediately rang the bell, ending the interview. He didn’t even want to talk to him. Three years? You haven’t even started. Go away.”
Every spiritual tradition has similar accounts. And sometimes this can feel bewildering to people drawn to a spiritual tradition. St. Augustine tells Christians: “God is closer to you than you are to yourself.” The Sufis have a saying that is more concrete: “God is closer to you than your jugular.” And Zen Masters always point out that your Buddha nature, your original mind, is always there–not somewhere out there, no need to “go anywhere,” no need to do these 99 different things, etc. On the other hand, Milarepa had to build a tower and tear it down three times before his teacher would even begin with him. And there is more than one account of Zen monks being at the end of their rope when they finally break through to a realization, which was always at hand. Among the Christian Desert Fathers, the real ancestors of today’s Christian monks, one of them said: “I have spent 14 years asking God night and day to grant me the victory over anger.” And another grizzled veteran of the desert said, “I have not yet become a monk, but I have seen monks.” And another kept a stone in his mouth for a decade in order to learn how to be silent. All this implies an arduous process and a long journey. So which is it: immediacy or a long journey? Both! It is a kind of koan, if you will, which you will not resolve intellectually–you will not be able to think your way out of this dilemma. Only by opening your heart and beginning the “monk’s way” will you discover the resolution–an answer that is existential and real and not just words.
For those within the Christian tradition, it is faith which is the “steppingstone” to immediacy and which makes the “long journey” possible.
To the thief crucified next to him Jesus says, “This day you will be with me in Paradise.” Now it’s obvious that this person has not been taking up any spiritual methods, has not been following a spiritual path with numerous and various steps, he is not a member of any religious community anyone could identify–in fact the only thing we can say with certainty about him is that he certainly is “at the end of his rope.” Yet, THERE he is. He literally cannot take another step, yet he doesn’t need to anymore. It is here that we can begin to understand the meaning of faith in the Christian tradition. There are many counterfeits which we will not discuss, but it is real faith which brings one into “immediacy.” This faith will not bring anything to the ego self–nothing to take possession of, no sign of success, no feeling, nothing. Anything which the ego can get hold of and use as a credential is not IT. Yet with real faith one is always THERE, one is always at the “gateless gate,”–or as the Sufis say, “Whichever way you turn, there is the face of God.” And the last thing to point out is that it is real faith which is needed for the concomittant “long journey.” And it is only real faith which can resolve this paradox.