The Miraculous and the ordinary Pat Jikyo George June 7th 2014

The Hidden Lamp The old woman's miraculous powers

Magou, Nanquan, and another monk were on pilgrimage. Along the way they met a woman who had a tea shop. The woman prepared a pot of tea and brought three cups. She said to them, "Oh monks, let those of you with miraculous powers drink tea."

The three looked at each other and the woman said "Watch this decrepit old woman show her own miraculous powers." Then she picked up the cups, poured the tea, and went out.

This koan is from a new book called "The Hidden Lamp", a collection of koans by women Zen people. And this is pretty unprecedented. When I was studying Zen many years ago there was Iron grindstone Liu and a few nameless old women and that was about it. Not only do the koans feature women, but there are commentaries by women teachers. A breath of fresh air!

The teaching in this koan is actually in an attitude of how we see what we do. As children most of us had a very keen sense of wonder. Just being alive in a world with such a multiplicity of interesting things was stimulating to us - was miraculous.

I remember one morning, many years ago, my daughter must have been five or six years old, said "Oh look mommy, I wrote a poem!" And it was a beautiful little poem of all the things she had seen that day. A bumble bee on the window, the light in the room, and it was spring, and we had an apple tree in the back... it was lovely. Most all of us, whether we wrote poems about it or not, had that feeling as a child.

So what happens to that sense of the miraculous we have as children? As we grow many of our experiences become routine, we get caught up in our adult responsibilities, and life becomes habitual. Hum drum. The old woman has recaptured that sense of magic. She sees the simple act of pouring tea as miraculous. Can we recapture that miraculous sense as well? If so, how can we do it?

The word miraculous is defined by some as "wondrous", "mind blowing", "astonishing", "amazing". So how can the ordinary acts of our lives be all this? In a culture that drinks tea as much as China, pouring tea must be the most ordinary and mundane of acts. And yet, in Japan we can see the very same act transformed in the tea ceremony. Into something very special and sacred.

So to see the lesson of this koan we need to look at how we view the ordinary everyday acts of our lives. We spend a lot of our lives doing very very ordinary things - brushing our teeth, putting on our shoes, buying a cup of coffee, riding the bus or the subway, making phone calls, sitting down at the computer, using our credit cards. Along with the thousand other ordinary acts we do every day. And I dare say we don't present our Visa card and exclaim "How miraculous!"

More than likely, we accomplish all these things while thinking about something else. We're usually strainging forward. In a hurry. For the next "important" thing we need to do.

What we do in our lives is arbitrarily make some things important and other things unimportant. What we call unimportant, we pay little attention to. We space out. We're just not present.

I remember very early in my Zen career, one of the things you had to do to become a student where I was practicing is an all day sit in the Zendo. Then there was a ceremony with the teacher. I remember at the end of the ceremony my teacher at the time said to me, be careful on the way home, sometimes these all day sits make you kind of spacey. And I said - "Oh I don't do spacey." Because I was an organized and practical kind of person. But once I began to sit zazen pretty regularly, I realized how much of my life I spaced out on. How little I knew myself at the time.

Some day we hope to get rid of all these "unimportant" things and just occupy ourselves with the "important" and "special". In this way we hope to inflate ourselves and make everything special. Isn't this the allure of becoming rich? To hire other people to do all the ordinary things we don't want to do anymore? One problem with this attitude is that it doesn't really work. Because big important experiences are all made up of little moments, one moment at a time. And we can have the big moments without all the rest.

Not so much anymore, but it used to be that the attitudes of fathering were that dad didn't spend long hours with the baby. Doesn't watch the feverish nights, change the diapers, wipe the spinach off the chin and all that. And yet he might expect the full pleasures of fatherhood to descend when he attends the big events. The weddings, the graduations, all of that stuff. And yet it seems to me it doesn't really work that way. They love, the involvement, the intimacy, arise in those mundane moments which can be missed. And without that investment, the big moments also lack feeling and depth. So we have to take whole gestalt of our lives. The miraculous is embedded in the everyday.

So how do we access these everyday miracles? Well, it's easy and it's hard. We pay attention to each moment, and when we do, the miraculous appears. It's actually a matter of attention and attitude. If we dismiss the everyday routines as something we "get through" so we can make time for the "meaningful" then we will enver see the miraculous. For that we will need to slow down. And pay attention. And regard each moment as equally important to every other. Because if we don't we won't really be present for the important ones either.

You know at any given moment only two things can be happening. Either we are being present or we're resisting the present. It's our distraction that pulls us away from the moment. If we look at the roots of the word "distraction", it suggests being away from, going off track. And we go away from the present moment and lose our grounding.

We live in an age where our distractions are more pervasive and seductive than ever before. Yet it is still true that it's only when we're aware of what we're experiencing in each moment that we can connect with that wonder we experienced as a child.

The mundane makes up most of our lives. The big moments are few and far between. How much of our lives are we going to miss if we only pay attention to the big stuff?

Why is each moment miraculous if we pay attention? Because in each moment the entire universe is present. Each moment in time is connected to every other moment. From the beginning of time to the future, which hasn't happened yet.

This is Indra's web. The vast web of connections and reflections that is the universe. We chant this. "All buddhas throughout space and time." It's all moments throughout space and time come down to this very moment. This is absolute time.

This is a quote from John Wellwood, a therapist who writes a lot about spiritual practice and emotional groundedness. "Hard as this may be to grasp, the Buddha, our awakened mind in each person, is whatever we are experiencing in that moment. The wind in the trees, the traffic on the freeway, the confusion we are feeling. If we but surrender to it. Surrendering means to experience it fully. Give it our full attention without struggling against it or trying to make it something other than what it is. In opening to what it is, without strategies or agendas, we touch what cannot be grasped. A moment of nowness, sharp and thin as a razor's edge. And walking on this razor's edge cuts through the struggle of self and other that separates us from a more immediate presence to life."

We encounter that metaphor of walking the razor's edge in Zen as "walking the sword's edge." Same concept, because we can't grasp this moment. By the time we look at it, it's gone and we're in the next moment.

It's only because we've learned to dismiss the ordinary rather than experience it fully that we take it to be ordinary.

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