"There Are No Repetitions" (excerpt) SUBTLE SOUND The Zen Teaching of Maurine Stuart) by Maurine Stuart
What is the condition of our minds right now? How are our hearts? This moment is all we have—so at this moment, how creative are we, how in touch with the source are we?
We need courage to be creative. To be sensitive and aware requires great courage. This word “courage” comes from the same root as the French word “coeur,” which means heart. So please have the courage to listen to your heart, to your body, your hara, not just to your head. You will discover new ways to experience your life.
We are always at the beginning. It is always the very first time. Truly, there are no repetitions. When I play the piano, I often come to a repeat sign. Can that passage be repeated? If I am teaching a piano student and we see a repeat sign, I tell the student that there are no repeats. We return to the beginning of a certain passage, but it’s never the same. It’s always fresh. Someone asked me, “Don’t you get tired of answering the same questions day after day—what is Zen, how do we practice?” Never! It’s never the same question, because it’s always coming from a different person, in a different moment; and each person
asks the question from his or her own state of mind. The words may sound alike, but each time they are coming from some- where unique.
What is zazen? Hui-neng defined zazen this way: “In the midst of all good and evil, not a thought is aroused in the mind. This is called ‘za.’ Seeing into one’s self-nature and not being moved at all, this is called ‘zen.’ ” We sometimes say “za” is just to sit cross-legged, but it means more than this; it means to sit with no discriminating consciousness, no dualistic activity. And “zen” is to wake up to our fundamental self, not to be disturbed by anything—just letting it come, letting it go; in-breath, out- breath; just here. Allowing the calm, deep breath to penetrate every part of the body, allowing the hara to fill up, we let go of all fixed notions. We let go of “I.” We let it all fall off. We are here to discover a way of relating to one another, rather than to expound a set of doctrines. With this attitude, our sitting is re- ceptive, alert, awake, open, so that we can hear what the silence has to say. We are letting ourselves be the vehicle for whatever teaching may come our way, not forcing or grabbing at any- thing.
Because I consider myself an artist, I tend to think in terms of poetry and music, but above all, it is the art of our own life that we are engaged in. The greatness of a poem or a painting is not that it portrays a certain scene or experience, but that it shows the artist’s vision of his or her own meeting with reality. Hence each thing, each time, is fresh and new. It is never the same place. There are no repetitions. It is not the head or the hand that paints the picture or performs the sonata. One of my teachers gave me a wonderful koan: “Play the piano without using your hands.” When we are empty and free, then the brush or the notes move by themselves. This is the source, whether or not we call it Zen, that we are in touch with. Is it done by heaven, or is it our doing? Our doing is heaven’s. Our movements are heaven’s. If the artist interferes, or if we as artists of our lives interfere with this source through some self-conscious preoccupation, what happens? What is to be expressed gets lost, becomes hard, constrained; there is no true expression. When mind and heart are open, empty; when there is no selfish motivation; then all one’s actions are one with heaven. The spirit flows freely, and we have a heavenly dance.
On loan to us at the Cambridge Buddhist Association for awhile was a most extraordinary calligraphy, by Soen Nakagawa Roshi. The top character, “human,” was very still. The bottom character was a wonderful swirling energetic character: “Heaven-dance.” This heaven-dance comes through all of us when we let go of all our ego-stuff, when we melt down the ego and let this source move freely through us.
In Japanese culture, the creative process is described by words like ki—vital energy; kan,—transcendent intuition; and myo,— wondrous action. When energy strikes intuition, a wondrous sound emerges. Myo also refers to a certain artistic quality not only in works of art, but in anything in our lives, in nature. This myo is something original, creative, growing out of one’s own consciousness, one’s own experience: spontaneous and personal creativity.
We speak of the wonders of nature. Nature is full of myo. Nature is always showing this unfathomable, absolutely inex- haustible myo, and there are many wonderful poets who express this to us. Basho, who was the role model for Soen Nakagawa, who in turn was the great inspiration for my life, wrote wonder- ful poems of nature, but they are not just nature poems; they richly convey this myo. Here are two examples:
penetrates the rocks cicadas chirp
The temple bell dies away
but the fragrance of flowers resounds—
Such elegance! By the way, this word, elegance, is also used by physicists to describe their discoveries. Basho has given us a glimpse of the source. To come to such elegance, to come to such feeling, doesn’t happen by taking some pill, or some magic potion, but through strong discipline. This is not only true of Zen practitioners, but of all great artists. How many times did Beethoven write, rewrite, tear up, sort out all the things that came to his mind, day by day, week by week, month by month, until he finally distilled everything down to the wonderful sound we hear at this point! How many times do artists draw, draw again, over and over again, perfecting their technique so that they may work freely and directly from this source. We can speak very easily about how we should be free, how we should empty our minds, how we should open our hearts, but to do this, we need strong practice. As musicians we practice hour after hour perfecting a phrase so that we may have some free- dom of expression when it comes time to give it to someone else. As Zen practitioners we sit in zazen, hour after hour, day after day, year after year, refining our minds and spirits, to come to this elegance, to come to this place where we can be what Rinzai called the true person of no rank, or what Dogen called the primordial person: one who has freely dropped off the ego-self. Basho described this condition in another haiku:
Along this road
goes no one
this autumn evening
We are the no-person person, and at the same time, we are doing what needs to be done, completely, fully, absolutely, concentratedly.
We must be completely present with whatever we are doing—so completely present that there is no separation be- tween it and us. Sitting on the cushion is relatively easy. To take it into everyday life, to be completely mindful of what we are doing, this is more difficult—and essential. We must make our base very strong, like the Daruma doll—no matter how many times he’s knocked down, he pops right up again. We are doing mindfulness practice to nourish this fundamental source of our being.
We have this source within us, but we must do our practice over, and over, and over; sit over and over, do whatever tasks we are engaged in over and over. Yet nothing is repeated. It’s hard to keep wide awake, to keep vividly present in the midst of endless repetition. But look at this! Taste this! We may have drunk a million cups of tea, but we have never tasted this one before.
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