Immensity taps at your life Barry Magid April 26th 2008

Jane Hirshfield

It is foolish
to let a young redwood
grow next to a house.

Even in this
one lifetime
you will have to choose.

That great calm being,
this clutter of soup pots and books -

Already the branch-tips brush at the window.
Softly, calmly, immensity taps at your life.

When I first read this poem, it immediately struck me as being a wonderful metaphor for our practice. On the one hand, as we sit, we may cultivate a great calm; or the other, our sitting quickly can threaten to shake up our life. How do we deal with this paradox?

If we believe that practice should only be about calmness - if we use our sitting to cultivate any particular state of joy or peace or quiet - then it is as if we have planted a redwood far away from our house, in a distant corner of our garden. There it can grow, year after year, to an immense size - without ever having any direct impact on our house - on our ordinary daily life. I've seen a lot of people practice this way and they can look quite impressive - the way a majestic redwood can look seen at a distance or through a window. But when you look past the tree and get to see their house, it may be as messy as ever; beer cans litter the porch; an old car lies rusting in the yard; and from inside you hear the screams of a never ending argument. All the while, the redwood stands there, looking calm, immovable and grand.

As the poem says, it's foolish to plant a redwood near a house. And yet, that is just the kind of foolishness practice asks of us. It indeed is foolish from our usual, self-centered point of view. None of us want practice to shake up our lives beyond a certain point. I remember when Joko first talked to me about becoming a teacher, she warned me, "It will ruin your life." That is, it will continue to encroach upon your comfort, your complacency, your time and anything else that you try to keep separate from practice. Practice, like that redwood, will just keep growing, encroaching, shaking things up. Not just practice of course; life itself is always encroaching on whatever self-contained world we try to set up and hold on to. Being a father has certainly rattled my soup pots & books! Over and over we are challenged by our practice, by our life: what we will let in? what will we try to keep at bay?

When we truly let practice right into the midst of our life, we may find, that after many years, it has taken root right in the middle of our house. And then, like the living tree that formed the bedpost of Odysseus's and Penelope's bed in the Odyssey, it will be a source of strength and steadfastness amid all the difficulty and turbulence of our lives. But even then, pots will rattle and books fall.

Once, when a monk asked Joshu, "What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the West?" he replied, "The oak tree in the garden." Traditionally, students have tried to answer this koan by becoming that oak tree. But that's all wrong. The oak tree - or Jane's redwood - must become us.

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