Already Here (Part 2)
“From the onset patch-robed monks have this field that is a clean, spacious, broad plain. Gazing beyond any precipitous barriers, within the field they plough the clouds and sow the moon.”
Zen Master Hongzhi 12th century
Having established the possibility that this life we already have might be the ‘spacious, broad plain’ of grace, we now push on to how we might live in this illuminated field.
‘Gazing beyond any precipitous barriers’ – First instruction: ‘Don’t look in the dragon’s eyes.’ This advice is given to the hero (you and me) when he/she enters the dragon’s cave. There is real danger, real darkness in the world. This dark force has the power to seduce us, to draw us into its thrall. It’s best to be respectful of the darkness, yet we should be careful of gazing too long directly at it.
This is true in whitewater kayaking as well. Many years ago, I spent time dodging boulders in fast-moving water with a friend who was a skilled paddler. He was fearless and practical. He taught me how to ‘scout’ the rapids ahead when they were dangerous. Getting out of your boat, you walk along side the rapids to study the different channels and possible routes. But he always said to take a quick look, then get back in your boat because the longer you look at the boulder you need to avoid, the more likely you are to run right into it.
‘Gazing beyond any precipitous barriers’ means not losing our focus by getting lost in ruminating on the difficulties ahead. When I focus on all the things that may happen or will happen that are beyond my power to influence, I easily become overwhelmed. ‘Gazing beyond…’ encourages us to hold our heads up, even in dangerous water – to see the patterns of the bigger picture and to stay focused on what is most important.
‘within the field, they plough clouds and sow the moon.’ Now we get to Hongzhi’s description of the spiritual journey – the journey of being human. Within this grace of life that pervades us all, our job is to do the impossible and to be content with no results. A plough going through clouds leaves no trace. The moon cannot be plucked from the sky and covered over with dirt.
Yet Thoreau, who plied his trade not far from the spot where I write these words, spoke of ‘weaving moonbeams for the public good.’ What is worthwhile doing in this cloud-like life? We are usually encouraged to work hard and accomplish great things. We admire people who accumulate great wealth, or make important discoveries, or devote their life to political service.
But we so quickly grow old and all of us, each one of us, eventually leaves everything behind. The houses we build, the financial plans we carefully monitor, even the friends we love dearly—all this is much more cloud-like than solid. Our difficulties too, though they appear as precipitous, solid and urgent, are of this insubstantial nature.
‘plough the clouds and sow the moon’ invites us to the constant and joyous work of waking up. This is not a life of inactivity, but rather a life of full engagement in the particular manifestation of each moment. Realizing the evanescence of everything, we can give ourselves without reservation to the life circumstances we encounter, no matter what form they take. With no expectation of results, we are free to accomplish without attachment and sow seeds of love without expectation.