Grasping for Spirituality

Tim Buckley passed away two weeks ago.  I didn’t know Tim well –  our lives and lifestyles moved in different directions.  He was  part of the group of young people attracted to Zen and to Suzuki-roshi in San Francisco in the early 1960’s.

I did know him for a short time during the 1970 fall practice period at Tassajara.   I saw immediately that he was very, very smart and I wondered why this energetic, intelligent young man was not out there in the everyday world pursuing a career or ambition.  Like Tim, many others also had no plans other than to remain at Tassajara for as long as they could.  Eventually I understood that these Zen students were seeking for a life other than what was offered by the culture  of 1960’s America.  Their embrace of Buddhism and Zen practice illustrated a strong desire to grasp their spirituality.  It turned out to be not so simple as they thought.

It is not easy to grasp spirituality.  The characteristics of our modern, sophisticated world are deeply embedded to the point of being overwhelming.  These include:  emphasis on progress;  concerns for material well being and personal success; creation and maintenance of a personal image; an economy and way of life based on fashion and style; desire for excitement and good times; the need to acquire and retain ever-increasing amounts of information.

None of these qualities are  damaging by themselves –  progress is important, as is feeling successful and providing for comfort and safety.  But taken together they can distort how we experience our lives by creating a narrow world view, preventing us from seeing life in largely, including our inherent spiritual dimension.

Spirituality is perhaps best characterized as seeing the world in a cosmic way, intuitively understanding how people and things are not separate, feeling the inherent oneness of the myriad entities.  Such a view inspires commitment to universal ideals, taking care of life with respect and reverence, while maintaining equanimity in a universe of constant change, sometimes chaos.  It includes non-judging, the appreciation of differences, as well as humility – an absence of desire for self-promotion.  Its defining attitude is to set aside concern for “what do I want?” but rather reflect on “How can I help?”

Tim Buckley left Tassajara, got married, and moved to Green Gulch Farm.   While there, he decided to return to Harvard to complete his BA.  He eventually obtained his PhD in Anthropology at the University of Chicago.  He later taught at the University of Massachusetts, and published a number of papers that were  well-received.  In time, he became ordained and started a zendo in Maine.

Tim and others of those early Zen days  eventually learned that there is no need to “dropout,” that  Zen practice in the modern world does not have to include living the life of an austere monk, that  spirituality is included in ordinary life.  What is truly needed is the attitude of a monk.  Thousands of hours on the cushion or in retreats will not help without a determined attitude to stay continually aware of oneself, to accept our most troublesome quality, and to make a quiet vow to transform it into something creative.

To develop this attitude, we have to start with silence, to let go of the  transient, superficial  activities of the mind.  It is the only way to feel those deep stirrings unrecognized for so long.   In this silence, we patiently stay aware of our breathing,  and  allow the quiet mind to reveal an intuitive understanding of spiritual life.

When the mind that is too impatient to be silent, it mistakenly experiences a wall separating ordinary from spiritual.  Practice provides a door in that wall. Stepping  through that door with determination, the wall dissolves,  grasping dissolves. We need to engage body and mind in practice if we are to feel our spiritual dimension, the cosmic self that is without separation or limits.

By limiting ourselves to talking, thinking, reading, or listening to even the wisest spiritual gurus, we continue to grasp for the spiritual with the intellect, raising the wall.  We need to return to the composure of the quiet mind, the mind of no special activity, of no grasping.  In the quiet mind there is simply awareness of breathing, of the oneness of all things.

So we start each day with confidence in our practice and with determination.  If we discover a reluctance to sit, it means the wall has came back and there is some kind of grasping going on.  But if then we make a renewed effort to practice, spirituality is present and we have no need to grasp.