Friday, November 15, 2013

Sitting On The Path

A common image used for the spiritual path seems to be those old Japanese and Chinese black-and-white scrolls showing a person sitting in a hut or temple on the side of a mountain, beside a fast-flowing stream, and below cloud encased mountain peaks. While i agree that the paintings are beautiful, even admitting to the one hanging on my living room wall, i wonder if this is really a great symbol.

So lets look at the different pieces of the image, as i see them. Being in the mountains seems to show that the traveler has make the hard decision to leave home and begin the climb. It shows that the traveler, the henro, if you will, has consciously accepted that the path is going to entail some amount of work, some amount of discomfort; that the goal can't be found at home, amongst all the distractions of a normal everyday life.

The hut were the person is sitting is usually very simple in nature, in part because everything was simple back in the era that these scroll paintings became popular. But above that, it seems to indicate that the closer you get to nature, the closer you get to "Life" in its barest and simplest form, the closer you are to the goal.

Next to the hut there is always a stream or river, which, to me, symbolizes the flow of life. Coming from the peaks above, where all trails converge into one, it flows down, picking up speed as it flows out of the canyons and valleys that must be scaled to reach the peak, and finally, with great noise and show, onto the flat plains where the towns and cities are found, where life is turbulent, raucous at times.

Finally, there are the cloud encased peaks. Obscured in clouds, the peaks are hidden from all those except the few who feel compelled to find them, hidden from all except the few who believe the stories of what can be found when the effort is made to find them.

But, as alluring as that image is, here's my problem with it. In all these pictures, the person in the hut is always sitting there, staring up at the peaks, as if lost in thought, as if contemplating what will be found 'up there.'

This is much too static a picture of the spiritual path, the henro trail. There is no indication of progress, no indication of the person making any attempt to move towards the peaks. There is only the sense that the first steps have been taken, but once a little progress had been made, once the first layer of the old materialistic life had been shed, our henro had settled in and said "Enough is enough. Life is good here. I'm leading a spiritual life. Continuing to the peak would be much too hard, maybe not even possible, i certainly don't see others climbing past the hut each day. I think i'm going to live here for a while."

But that's not the goal of the path. Just leading a spiritual life isn't, or shouldn't be (IMO), the only goal once you have committed to following it. Why stop there? Why settle for the mountainside when you have the peak? Why settle for the Shōbōgenzō when you can have 'practice and enlightenment are one?' Why settle for the monk's life when you can be a Buddha?

The symbol of the trail can't be someone sitting in his hut, no matter how beautiful the landscape might be. The symbol has to be the climb. The trail may be steep, it may be strewn with rocks and pebbles, the clouds may block all view of your goal, but the peak can only be reached if you keep walking, keep climbing.

Discouragement is certain to jump out from behind a rock and startle you from time to time. Boredom will raise its head when day after day you can't see ahead and have no way to judge your progress. Pain and discomfort may shadow you from time to time. Doubt as to your ability to succeed will surely stare you in the face on a regular basis if you aren't careful and alert.

But, even with all that, in spite of all that, when you commit to keep moving, to continually putting one foot in front of the other, constantly, persistently, not having a clue how far you have gone or how much farther you have to go, but with heart felt belief in your teacher's assurance that you are getting closer with each step,... when you make that commitment, when you live that commitment, you will arrive at the peak. Some day. Some life. It is inevitable.

But, you can't find a nice hut and stop just because they offer warm tea, sweets, and a beautiful place to bed down.

The symbol of the trail, the path, has to be dynamic, it can't be static.

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