The Museum of Natural History was an easy three-block walk from my childhood grammar school. The school is long gone but the museum—opened in 1869—remains an international favorite. Our annual class outings to the site across from Central Park were anticipated with unlimited excitement.
We were guided through replicas of animals and birds—prehistoric and modern—that do not normally appear on the streets of New York: dinosaurs, elephants, lions, tigers, giraffes, wart hogs, hippos, rhinos, gemsbok, oryx, wildebeest and my favorite, the dik-dik. We imagined what it would be like to be transported to another time and place to live among them in the wild, close to nature.
But my favorite field trips were to the New York Aquarium. The oldest in the U.S., it still operates on the boardwalk at Coney Island, a one-hour subway ride through Manhattan and Brooklyn. My young school mates and I would stand wide-eyed tracking the hundreds of species of brightly-colored, diverse marine life swimming freely in the enclosed space of the tanks. In contrast to the unchanging exhibits in the museum, we experienced the fishes’ world in the present, in their dynamic and magical life. Even us raucous kids could feel a sense of peace and calm in their flowing. Every visit to the aquarium was fresh and new.
On one of these aquatic outings, as I watched fishes of myriad sizes and shapes swim up to the glass separating fish from spectator, then quickly turn and dart away, I realized that despite a seemingly carefree existence, they were captive in that restricted space. I had a strong sense that these marvelous beings longed for the freedom of their natural home in the wide, limitless ocean.
We humans share that fundamental urge to be natural and authentic, unconfined by artificial boundaries. Yet to have our life feel safe and supported, we feel compelled to follow the customs of our society, conforming to its needs and accepted traditions, at the risk of limiting the very freedoms that provide our sense of wholeness.
As infants, too young to take care of our lives, we do not have the option of selecting what’s for dinner or to feed our selves: we rely on adults to ‘spoon-feed’ us. Somebody older determines and serves the menu. At that age, no problem: we accept the arrangement. Hunger relieved, we feel satisfied by what we have been fed.
Maturing into youth, a second type of hunger emerges: to make our own decisions and to act independently. We want to go beyond being ‘spoon-fed,’ to learn for our selves how to live, free of dependency on others.
Adulthood brings a third hunger: to be free from ignorance and confusion. It is the hunger for truth and wisdom and to know who we are, the foundation of spiritual searching.
As we mature from child to adult, we are at risk of continuing to be ‘spoon-fed’ by teachers, authorities, books, media, and gurus. Our parents, family, school, government, the whole spectrum of our culture influences and shapes our minds before we gain experience and intuition, when we are not yet fully equipped to think for ourselves, to reflect creatively. These external pressures can imprison our mind for a lifetime.
If we become too easily satisfied by what we are told early on in our life, if we cling to what we have heard in the past, then there is nothing new in us, we have no interest in making an effort toward discovery; instead we live by an outdated manuscript of other people’s words. For our lives to be authentic, we have to make our own reflective choices, not cling tightly to spoon-fed beliefs. We have to tear up the script. Otherwise, we are no different from the wooden man and the stone woman of the “Song of the Jewel Mirror Samadhi,” not free to sing and dance.
Zazen practice offers the awareness and determination to avoid becoming distracted from the present dynamic Reality, to be vibrant in the continually changing ocean of our lives, to let go of fixed images of the past. Our practice is especially relevant right now as we explore the tragic legacy of racism and white supremacy in the U.S. I look forward to continuing our practice together in person.
Abbot of Kannon Do