This Truth Never Fails: a Zen Memoir in Four Seasons
by David Rynick
When I look deeply into the real form of the universe,
everything reveals the mysterious truth of the Buddha.
This truth never fails: in every moment and every place,
things can’t help but shine with this light.
I could blame my involvement in Zen on my parents.
My dad was a Presbyterian minister who believed we should look for God in the midst of our ordinary lives. My mom, a less overtly “spiritual” person, was endlessly appreciative of the wonders and beauty of the everyday world. So when I encountered Zen Buddhism in my early twenties, the teachings sounded like what I had been hearing all my life: what is most precious and sacred is right here, all we have to do is turn towards it.
My commitment to the path of Zen is also an expression of a deep yearning for connection that has been with me all my life. This persistent longing—which has so often felt like a problem—has been the compass of my life. When I heard a Zen teacher talk in 1980, he spoke of what I knew in my bones—that though we often experience ourselves as separate and suffering individuals, we are also lovingly held in a vast and luminous web of aliveness.
And I believed him when he said there is a direct path toward waking up to this aliveness.
The path of Zen is not about leaving the world behind or getting something we don’t already have. This path of awakening “simply” requires stopping our incessant busyness and our fervent searching long enough to be able to receive what is already abundantly here. Easier said than done, of course, and so this is where formal meditation practice comes in.
When we sit in Zen meditation, we’re not trying to rid ourselves of thoughts nor are we cultivating exalted states of mind. We’re practicing the surprisingly difficult work of being who we already are – cultivating a basic friendliness toward ourselves and our experience. Over time, the discipline of meditation can help us grow in our capacity to appreciate the aliveness of each moment, regardless of the content.
But the point of Zen is not about perfecting the art of sitting still. The real-time complexity of our everyday lives is where our most challenging (and rewarding) practice takes place. Zen does not offer a magical escape from the ups and downs of our lives. However, as we learn to meet what is arising with curiosity and compassion, the quality of our ordinary lives is transformed. Even in the midst of the flood of events, emotions, and thoughts, we find something genuinely trustworthy. We stop looking somewhere else and begin to participate more intimately in the truth of this life we already have. Right here, in these exact circumstances.
This collection of short observations and reflections is my “Zen memoir”—a record of my ongoing practice and study of this extraordinary experience we call ordinary life. While written over a period of several years, I have arranged these pieces into the cycle of the seasons of a single year. Each piece stands alone, but is also part of a loose overall narrative that includes leaving a home of eighteen years and creating a Zen temple in a lovely old Victorian mansion where I now live, meditate, and teach with my wife Melissa Myozen Blacker, also a Zen teacher.
In the process of writing, I have been increasingly aware that when we talk or write, we are never wholly reporting on something outside ourselves. Each perception and each description is an interpretation, a creation of the moment based on bits of information. In some of these reflections I stick quite closely to what others might be able to verify. In other pieces I have allowed myself to wander far afield – to dream into what I see and hear and feel. This dreaming is one way of presenting what Zen Master Kosho Uchiyama means when he says “Everything you encounter is your life.” Each encounter is both meeting the eternal Other—what is always outside and unknown, and is also meeting ourselves in the particular form of the moment.
When I truly hear the hoarse call of the starlings on the birdfeeder, the calling and the hearing become one thing and I find my way into the world where “I” and the starlings are not as separate as it might appear.
At the heart of things, there is a truth that is always revealing itself. Whether we call it the Dharma, or God, or the universe, or aliveness—it is essentially ungraspable. In these writings, I use these names and others as a stand-in for this essence that can never be truly named. But though the true source of our lives is beyond words, we can surely know and come to rely on this mysterious truth.
All of us have had moments, however brief, when we catch a glimpse of the beauty and wonder that surrounds us, that is us. The smell of petunias on a clear June morning, the spontaneous hug of a toddler, the notes of a melody that resonate in our deepest heart, the loving eyes of a friend. In these moments nothing more needs to be said. A smile appears, our eyes brim with tears, we nod in silent recognition.
What we long for is always present, hiding in plain sight. Every situation we encounter contains the truth of our existence. Utterly reliable and always ungraspable, we are never separate from this mysterious aliveness.
My hope is that these reflections will remind you of what you already know and awaken your heart more deeply to the luminous possibility inherent in each moment of every life.