a psalm for winter

I cried unto God with my voice,
even unto God with my voice;
and he gave ear unto me.

December. A wind snuffling at the windows and a cold in the bones. The long rain-slick steel of fall has now given way to the white-mottled slate of winter. Snow is falling in a day-long carpet, deepening its pile even now. The solstice approaches, too, the little new year.

I call to remembrance my song in the night:
I commune with mine own heart:
and my spirit made diligent search.

American school, with its dimly remembered but nonetheless institutionalized relationship to agricultural cycles, starts the new year in the fall. Summer in the US is a time of nostalgia, then; the end of the long vacation, and whatever mishaps, adventures, romances, and idylls occupied the season become the stuff of excited first-month-back chatter and communal mythologizing. Summer and its aftermath were an odd combination of personal and public in that way. In Korea the school year began in spring, however, for whatever reasons. I never asked why. But that meant that the rupture and transition between one phase and the next happened in the coldest season, was salted not with sweat or beach-sand, but with the icy burn of snow and under the dark anvil of long nights. Summers are redolent of dandelions and wet grass and ozone after rain. They exude, sprawl over the months with long undressed brown limbs. Winters are enclosed, gestational, interior–and increasingly private, happening for me in solitudes both physical and spiritual. Winters close in on themselves like a light narrowing in a hall. Marking transitions in the winter, rather than the summer, has produced in me an intense interiority and privacy, above and beyond what winter normally provokes.

And I said, This is my infirmity:
but I will remember the years
of the right hand of the most High.

The fall is over. The hectic, embattled, thrilling avalanche of fall is coming to a close. I packed the semester with all that I could stuff into the broad golden mouth of its sack. Now that season has finally fallen slack, and winter has arrived with its end. The tests are taken. The last activities are done. Letters are being sent, parties have been had, a general tidying and dusting of life is underway in the days remaining before the solstice, and for me, a departure to Korea for the month.

Thy way is in the sea,
and thy path in the great waters,
and thy footsteps are not known.

Patterns and habits prevail: I continued to hum Christmas carols every December I spent in a monastery, and outside the monastery, I continue to honor with remembrance an older and slower cycle of the year. I love this lull between solstice and lunar new year. The world still wrapped in cold and dark, the heart still tending toward a stillness and a silence, magnified by and magnifying the held hush outside.

Psalm 77, KJV

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such tender emptiness

Let us examine the daily life of a Bodhisattva:
There is nothing to be found in the empty mind,
Yet they are full of generous charities
In the empty roots of the six senses,
And such purity without defilement is the precept,
Such tender emptiness, tolerance,
Such innate brightness without dark shadow is exertion,
And such bright serenity, the meditation.

from The Collected Writings of Gyeongheo: A prose collection, translated by Dr. Young E. Park

The moon’s a nicked-out sliver of sky, a slash revealing the illumination waiting beneath every night. In two days’ time, Buddha’s birthday will be upon us, and the brilliant gash of the moon will widen a bit more as it moves toward full. And on the full-moon day next week, the three-month summer retreat will begin in Korea.

I am here, moving with the moon, moving with the widening belly of light, listening to frogs in the pond below the international Zen center, in the light humidity and warmth of early Korean summer.

Last week Tuesday I landed in Incheon. An American nun, one of my closest friends, picked me up at the airport. The next morning she drove me down to my home temple. Almost exactly eight years ago to the day, another friend drove me to that temple to begin haeng-ja, the period of postulancy preceding novice ordination in the Korean monastic system. The parallels were not lost on me: eight years ago I followed through on a decision, the ramifications of which shape and will continue to shape my life every day. Last week, I went to inform the senior nuns at my home temple that I had decided to stay in the US, in order to help with the Zen Center and university community I became involved with over the course of the last 12 months in the US, and to continue to prepare for and (I can only hope) gain admittance to a graduate program in Buddhist Studies. The decision was long in the making. It wasn’t easy to tell my teacher and grand-teacher that, contrary to their expectations, I would not be returning to them, but going off on my own. Like the decision that brought me to them, this decision will also exert substantial influence on each day of my life from here on out. Independence seized also entails a rather lonely-looking path; whatever else I might have to say about living within the closely-drawn boundaries of my home monastic community, it did offer material stability and the assurance of certain kinds of support that don’t come ready-made like that in the West. There is no perfect situation. Every decision and action entails a sacrifice, something given up. For security, I would have to give up a calling toward scholasticism. To pursue that calling, without any insurance that what I hope will happen actually will, I have to give up security, as well as disappoint some of the most important people in my life. To not pursue it, however, would mean disappointing the strong sense of what it is I need to do in this life.

I’ve decided against security. I’ve also decided against “duty,” which was far more painful and difficult than any question of material support. What will come of this, I can’t say. I don’t even want to speculate, although I’m working as hard as I can to lay a foundation for graduate school applications and study, which has been my long-term plan for several years now. I also will use the opportunity of being in Korea to ground again in the monastic community here. Another senior monk, who like me lives as the sole monastic in his local center, said, “Coming back to Korea and being with sangha nourishes me.” It was like I was parched and didn’t even realize the extent of my thirst.

And for the summer, something worked out like a grace: three months’ retreat. The first time I’ve been able to go on retreat since before I ordained. The dates for this summer’s retreat fell in between the American academic calendar, allowing a rare moment of equipoise in which I can participate in both the traditional monastic cycle and the conventional academic schedule. I’ll be chanting (rather than sitting) this retreat, something I’m really looking forward to.

Gyeongheo, one of the preeminent Zen Masters of modern Korea and a patriarch in the lineage of Zen Master Seung Sahn, speaks of the paramita, or perfection, of tolerance (also translated as “forbearance”) as a “tender emptiness.” “All existence is dukkha,” or “unsatisfactory;” this is the first noble truth, and in the Buddhist world we often toss that up as a flippant explanation for why life is just so damn difficult sometimes. The impression I’ve given myself over time is that I try and shrug off the intense pain living can bring by trying to bundle it up with a trite gesture toward this first noble truth, rather than actually sitting with and giving space to pain. Everything changes; we repeat this to ourselves ad nauseam in Buddhist communities. I tend to smother any acute discomfort with that pithy statement about impermanence. I abuse the first noble truth to accomplish this same emotional dulling, because sometimes things just hurt, and nothing we do changes that aspect of living.

The link between dukkha and impermanence is that the reason the stuff of life itself is unsatisfactory is because the stuff of life itself is impermanent. Whatever we hold in our hands is already slipping away from us, and we are slipping away from it. The whole range of responses to the slippage and loss of ordinary life, from mild irritation to breath-taking anguish, stems from the wish that we could hold on just a bit longer to the single bright moment. Tolerance, as I’ve come to experience it, is not a conventional patience. It is a deep acceptance that because people and situations change, sometimes there will be sorrow and sometimes there will be joy. Whatever’s there at the time is what we get to deal with. Then that too will dissolve into something else. Empty of permanence, it’s the nature of things to do this. It’s easy to quote a teaching and pay lip-service to the concept of change. It’s harder to practice that tender emptiness of forbearance, that aches and yearns and still lets go, and that can recognize and hold the aching of others as well. I was sitting in the tea-room today, waiting for a senior monk, and idly flipping through this book of Gyeongheo’s writings. There’s a bit of an ache alongside a bit of joy in me these days, the ache of knowing I disappointed my teacher and grand-teacher, and the joy of being where I feel I need to be. Gyeongheo’s “tender emptiness” touches this spot in me, like a bruise of light. No stoic patience, insensate to the pulsating whirl of living, but a response, genuine yet also discerning. Toward that forbearance, and the embodiment of it, I hope this summer sees us all advance…

dear readers of this blog

Dear readers of this blog:

Thank you.

I don’t know who many of you are, although if you follow through WordPress, I can get some idea from your profile, or your own blog if you have one. I know a few readers rather well, from nearly ten years of blogging and reading each other’s writing, back-and-forth commenting and even, on rare occasion, meeting in person. Then there are some who I don’t know at all, who are quiet and reserved and very shy, but still come by to read when a post goes up. This isn’t a high-traffic blog, but the feeling I get when I look at the stats every so often is that those who do come here, come here regularly. You return, and that means a lot to me. Although I don’t write for an audience, per se, I do appreciate readers and the feedback you provide.

This blog began last year, January first. I also have another blog, although it’s currently enjoying some downtime. Since I left Korean temples, it’s hard to make photographs about them and discuss life there, that’s all. Here, though, 201 small stones and 308 posts later, (thus) is a little over a year old and going steady. It’s high time I said thank you to you, the readers.

Many readers are quiet observers, stopping by but not necessarily commenting. As I’m someone who also comments very little on other blogs, I understand and I’m glad you read this blog regardless of whether you leave a comment or not, though feedback is always welcome. Amazing poetic conversations (follow the link for the latest “topic”) and deeply appreciated connections with other writers have also resulted from this blog. It’s a wonderful thing, and I’m grateful for each of you who, in your own way, participates.

Again: Thank you.

Quigley Canyon

I ran today up Quigley Canyon. The dirt road was completely paved in white snow, the hills and mountains dressed in naked veils of the stuff, the wide curving fields that lie between the opposing slopes turned to still rivers of crystal-studded alabaster. The aromatic sage I crushed in my hands at the end of summer now stands stiff and thin, the long-blown blooms poling up above the bush and all of it wearing capes of white. If I said, “Today the sky was blue,” I’d have to find a different word for blue, one that didn’t simply represent the color: that was how blue the sky was today. So blue, all other skies I’ve seen seem to have merely stood for the color like a word, whereas today the sky was the color itself, the signified free of representation. If only that could be said, somehow, without being a fallacy by nature.

I met my brother-in-law and the dog as they were coming down off a hill trail. Hanna, the dog, was wild with joy, snow caked between her pads and her russet fur shining. “I’m heading up the Canyon,” I said redundantly, since that was the only direction the road we were standing on led. Unless I wanted to wade up the frozen crest of the hill, which I did not. Off I ran, with the afternoon sun against my back.

Running on semi-packed snow is like running on sand. My ankles ached, I verged on losing my balance each moment. I hopped between the multiple tire-tracks on the road, trying to find a track that was packed enough to not give as I ran, with partial success. Most of the time, I left divots behind me instead of full prints, because I ran toes-first, finding purchase, leaping a little with each stride, since each stride was a bit like falling as the snow gave way under my weight.

I’ve been running at sea level for three months; I ran a mile or more above sea level today. Heart pounding, legs strong.

There were some prints along the silent fields beside the road. Animal or human, I couldn’t tell. My eyes wept in the cold, in the mild breeze, and I kept pressing the back of my mittened hand to them, to sop up the blurry tears. When I turned around on the road to head back, facing west and the lowering sun, I actually felt colder. The sweat that had risen through several layers of clothing and gathered like a fine, warm mist on the front of my fleece on the way out dissipated and cooled on the way back. I watched my feet more than the hills or sky on the return, wary of my footing.

Later this afternoon a seeming fog crept up the valley and obscured the sky. It’s not snowing, but it looks like it might.

postage

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

Mary Oliver

Now or never: to hear the birds, the little crested stealers-of-catfood and the lavish greeters-of-the-day, while I take out the compost; to smell the mingle of soured food from the bin with the musk of good late fall loam in the backyard and to not wrinkle my nose, but breathe deeply; to feel the sun through winter’s brilliant bite and shiver. To offer up all the prayers I know, in languages known and unknown, to pay the postage of a letter to the Holy with the ennui of the day-to-day, and still to sanctify the spool of days with clumsy, fumbling human love. It could be the end of the world, this annual descent to the year’s dark nadir. It could be the beginning, as the heavy soil of our anxious dreaming presses against us, urging toward return. I plan a dinner, fret and laugh and sigh and get up late, make the coffee, recite the blessings over water and fire and smoke, say goodbye, say hello, take the tangled fibers of life and drop the spindle, weaving a bright and durable thread, and when it is cut—when it is cut, or broken: unravel it. What few treasures the skein had held, what mornings of light and afternoons of rain, what sorrow or joy, let them scatter, just as the flocks of sparrows scatter, with song and the flash of wings.

In response to Poem, at the possible end of the world.