the paradoxical dance

[Editor’s note: I came to be a follower of the Buddha by way of the Theravadin path, so the Mahayana direction remained a mystery to me, for many years. Likewise, the Zen Koan: “A koan is a question or answer posed by a Zen master that is difficult to answer and challenging to those seeking solutions. It directly challenges one’s fundamental concept of self, acting like a sharp weapon that pierces through the self to reveal the Buddha nature within.” It’s only recently that my curiosity has turned in that direction. The following article answers the question, what is a koan?]

The paradoxical dance of seeking and finding wears different costumes in different traditions. In Zen it’s usually known as the gateless gate: Until you crack the combination and pass through, you can’t fully understand the meaning of the great Zen teachings—but then all your mental effort inevitably proves fruitless before this enigmatic and impenetrable barrier. You need to bring your whole being, not just your mind, to the process and allow the paradox to transform you from the inside. Many Zen koans pose some version of this paradox, disorienting the mind and evoking an answer from another dimension of knowing.

Consider the well-known Mahayana teaching: All beings are inherently enlightened, but because of their attachments and distorted views they can’t realize this fact. I can still remember how these words short-circuited my mind the first time I heard them. Hmm, I mused, if we can’t realize it, then how can we possibly say we’re enlightened? But if we’re really enlightened, why can’t we realize it?

As a neophyte practitioner, I understood these words to mean that deep down inside me there was this enlightened nature that I somehow needed to discover and meditation was a kind of excavation project designed to unearth it. For years I kept digging, sitting intensive retreats, contemplating koans, emptying my mind to make room for the influx of awakening. I was spurred on in this archaeological exploration by my teachers, who offered encouragement in private interviews and lavished authority and cachet on those who passed koans quickly. Eventually I just wore myself out with the digging, so I set aside my shovel (and my monk’s robes) and went back to living a more ordinary life. Yet the paradox continued to gnaw at me, silently, from the inside.

The fact is, once you’re gripped by the core paradox and recognize that consensus—that everyday reality is merely a reflection of some deeper truth that’s close at hand but hidden from view—you’ve embarked on a search that you can never really abandon, no matter how far you seem to stray. The Zen masters say that encountering the paradox is like swallowing a red-hot iron ball you can neither disgorge nor pass through. Until you digest this ball, you can never be completely at peace.

Throughout the centuries zealous Zen students have meditated long hours struggling to resolve this paradox, only to return home and discover their “original face.” In the Rinzai Zen tradition, practitioners bellow mu (the key word from one of the most important koans) for hours in their fervor to break through the gate, and the tradition’s stories are filled with notable examples of those who took their practice to even greater extremes, standing in the snow for hours, sitting at the edge of a precipice, walking on foot from master to master. “Monasteries are places for desperate people,” my first Zen teacher used to say, by which he meant people whose suffering, urgency, or intensity drives them forward on their long and often lonely search.

Many centuries ago, the Persian mystic poet Rumi described his own divine desperation in these words:

I have lived on the lip of insanity, wanting to know reasons, knocking on a door. It opens.I’ve been knocking from the inside!

Judging from this poem, Rumi struggled for a long time to penetrate the paradox with his mind, but the door eventually opens by itself, almost in spite of his efforts, and reveals that he’s been living in the secret chamber all along. Rumi’s epiphany when he discovers that he’s been looking from the inside out mirrors the surprise, relief, and delight of those seekers who wear themselves out attempting to unravel the paradox and drop to the ground, exhausted—only to discover that they’ve never strayed from home, even in their most desperate moments. “No creature ever falls short of its own completeness,” says Zen master Dogen. “Wherever it stands it does not fail to cover the ground.”

Needless to say, this intense longing to crack the code and reveal the truth at the heart of reality is as ancient and universal as humankind itself. You could say that it’s in our DNA. According to the Sufis, God said to the Prophet Muhammad, “I am a hidden treasure, and I want to be known.” In His yearning to be loved and experienced, God set in motion an evolutionary pattern that reached its pinnacle in the human capacity for spiritual awakening. God, or Truth, in other words, is seeking to awaken to itself through you, to see itself everywhere through your eyes and taste itself everywhere through your lips. “That which you are seeking,” wrote an anonymous sage, “is always seeking you.”

Taken from an article in Tricycle: Encountering the Gateless Gate

From Wake Up Now: A Guide to the Journey of Spiritual Awakening, © 2007 by Stephan Bodian. Reprinted with permission from McGraw-Hill Professional.

something lost regained

IMG_2026POSTCARD #171: Zurich airport hotel: Hard to believe that, as I write this, everything in our old house in Delhi is being folded up, layered, packed, sealed into boxes and labeled with a number. When I return, all our possessions will be cubed, diced up, chopped into boxes and stacked on top of each other inside the waiting truck. Larger items will retain some of their shape; a chair will be recognizably ‘chair’, swathed in corrugated cardboard and bubble-wrap. Upside down table will be recognizable by its legs sticking up, wrapped to protect corners but its upside-down-ness, disconcerting… tables shouldn’t be seen like that. A bit strange, but we’ve moved so many times and it’s always like this; as if a surgeon removes a part of the mind/body organism, it’s taken away and never seen again, then strangely a new organ grows in its place, exactly like the old one but different… after that there’s no memory of it happening.

Except, of course, if something is broken or lost during the move and this thing, this object, is mourned and held in the memory for a long time. It must have been something like this that happened to me when we moved from the house in Japan to the new place in Bangkok. I was still working when the movers were boxing up everything and Jiab reminded me that if I wanted to get the bus leaving at 16.40 I could run down the hill and probably get it – if I left right now, She called out as I went that we’d all meet afterwards at the station. So I rushed out the door, ran downstairs and off down the path. Suddenly I remembered something, stopped, turned around and looked up at the house; top floor of a small 2 storey house – I’d stayed there for 3 years, and this would be the last time I’d ever see the house… how could it be so sudden like this? I would never be back here. Tears sprouted from the eyes, what to do? Just look and try to remember it… at the same time, turn my head away, a wrench, something torn – no time, against my will I continue running down the hill, almost as if I’m running away from the house… but focused on getting the 16.40 bus. The last image of the house clear in my mind for a moment then dissolving away and forgotten. Next day I was on the plane to Bangkok and that’s the last time I was ever in Japan.

In Bangkok a few weeks later, I was telling a friend about this, Curtis Cairns – his name was, and sadly I lost track of Curtis in the end… so if you’re reading this Curtis, please get in touch old friend! Anyway I was telling the story about the house to Curtis and he was just listening. When I finished, he nodded and looked at me, felt my loss. Asked me where the house was, and what was the address. It happened he was going to Japan the following week and when he got there, unknown to me, he took a few trains from Tokyo and got on the bus up the hill, walked the last bit and came up to my old house, took a photo of it (before the days of digital images) had the film processed and put the photo of the house in an envelope, stamped it and addressed to me in Thailand. A week later the post came to the house in Bangkok, there’s the slim, letter from Japan, opened it up and pull out the photo of the house, no accompanying note, just the photo. I still have it, pasted in an album – something lost regained.

Our own life is the instrument with which we experiment with truth. [Thich Nhat Hanh]


Photo: The last pic taken of the rooftop in the Delhi house

ordinary miracles


POSTCARD #90: Delhi: Now it’s September and there’s been some proper rain, temperatures have started to drop. Wonderful, no need to have the AC running, I go around the house in the morning when it’s not raining and open every single door and window that’ll open. Screen doors closed to stop the insects but fresh air passes though, enters into these enclosed spaces where only the Hoover has refreshed the air for so long. Indoor plants sway in the breeze for the first time since June. Glass doors to the garden are pushed back on their hinges – so widely open it feels like outside is ‘in’, or inside is ‘out’… I don’t know which. The walled garden that used to be situated ‘out there’ is now a contained part of my room ‘in here’. The roof is the sky; birds fly through and inhabit my world.

Playing a music track on the speakers, and why does it sound so different? It’s because it’s echoing through the open doors, into the new acoustics created by the walled garden, the space by which my room as been extended. And what’s this? I’d forgotten about the sounds from the neighbourhood; people chatting on the other side of the fence, a phone rings: “hello?” Somebody somewhere, banging with a hammer. A shout, a barking dog. A Hindu ceremony far away – maybe a wedding. I hear reed instruments with drums – it must be on the other side of the park. Sounds carry a sense of location, near and far; the distance I’m aware of measures my world. I can explain this in terms of sound frequency, wind direction, but that’s not it. The experience itself is more than can be accounted for in words. When I become aware of something larger than I can find a reason for, it becomes a miracle. Science says there are no miracles, explains it all away by means of technical descriptions; telling us, the uninformed, that this is how a miracle works – yeh, but it’s still a miracle, isn’t it? Butterflies in the rain, (Sue Vincent’s Post)

It reminds me of the bell. A long time ago I lived in Japan. For three years, I had the top floor of a simple house in the grounds of Zuisenji Temple, high up on a cliff face near Kamakura. It was completely quiet there of course and I became acclimatised to the silence of the place. Except that sometimes the monks would ring the large bell… a horizontal pole suspended on chains swings over and hits the bell DONG! I’d be at home, alone in my house down below, sitting in my chair reading a book and WOW! this extraordinary sound suddenly hits the atmosphere. Jump with the shock of it; the acoustics – not the loudness… the pitch, deep and resonating, something from the 14th Century is suddenly intimately present in my small space… staggered by the closeness of it.

yun_13781For the duration of that one chime, the sound had presence, it entered the rooms immediately and was everywhere at the same time. Then an indefinite period before the next one – waiting to see… but maybe it’ll not ring this time – and then it happens just as I’m thinking it’s not going to. Pause, turning the page in my book: DONG! Same thing, heart-attack stuff, a curious presence of sound, an event that extends beyond hearing; more than something just felt, almost seen… can’t be explained, a miracle.

Held by the memory of it, fixed in that time and I discover I’m not there at all, I’m here in Delhi, more than twenty years have passed unnoticed, hair has turned white, sitting by the glass doors looking at the rain and not seeing anything…

“People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child — our own two eyes. All is a miracle.” [Thích Nhất Hạnh]


G  R  A  T  I  T  U  D  E
Sue Vincent for her post Butterflies in the rain’, which helped inspire this post. Upper photo by Sushil Kumar Verma, The Hindu Newspaper 02/Sep/2014.  Lower photo: Zuisenji temple bell photo source:

the jitensha metaphor

penny_farthing_bike_grand_bi-999pxPOSTCARD#75: Delhi: We bought an exercise bike from a Japanese lady who was leaving Delhi. It was a surprisingly large heavy thing with horns (NOVA fitness 700u). The delivery guys carried it into the spare room and that’s where it lives now. Jiab called it the jitensha – Japanese for bicycle:じてんしゃ remembering the bicycle she used to have when we lived in Japan. It got stolen – a sad story. So this big jitensha became the reincarnation of the one that was lost long ago. We started a routine of using the exercise bike and ‘jitensha’ became a verb, ‘to jitensha’, as in: are you going to jitensha? Jiab is Thai, and English is an improvisation, she speaks the language like playing a musical instrument. Everything is fun and it is such a lovely onomatopoeic word: ji-ten-sha… jitensha-jitensha-jitensha-jitensha, like the action of pedal crank, spinning chain wheel and everything about our jitensha is metaphorical; cycling through time in the present moment, situated firmly in the here-and-now, and the real sensation of going someplace but there are no wheels.

I get on the jitensha first thing in the morning. It’s the hot season, ceiling fan spinning, sleepy in the darkness and I wake up whizzing through streets and pathways of the mind, wind in my face and my eyes closed. Always downhill, no need to balance or steer or pay attention to where I’m going, there’s only this pleasing familiarity with the bicycle state of mind. Usually a four or five mile jaunt, not too hard, upper body swinging side to side with the pedaling movement, bare feet in pedal straps. Nothing else to do or worry about, thoughts arrive and depart, leaving fragments of things that form into something new, a memory of an event that happened long ago. Ah yes, I remember that… hold it for a moment then let it go. Now this, now that, things of no consequence. Focus on each one as it appears and disappears somewhere in these great landscapes seen rushing by.

Maybe it’s the blood circulation, a pleasing rush, and slight pressure behind the eyes seems to drive the thinking process. The intensity of making things into other things and the world out there is seen from the point of view of ‘me’ in here… the metaphorical self. I am on the receiving end of all this, I am the face in the mirror – look, that’s me. I think, therefore I am… a passing view of self and the hollowness of it all. Let it go and it’s gone, “the closer you look, the more it’s not there”. And then I’m inside a curious extended, freeze-framed thought moment, the all-inclusive presence of it and a sense of immensely distant things. No reference points and nothing left to think about. I’m not aware the thoughts have gone, just know they’re not there anymore. All that remains is the activity of Mind, not familiar with the ‘unthinking’ state and trying to fill the empty space with something, anything. Then that’s seen too, it falls away, and the jitensha spins off towards the horizon…

‘Wherever you go, you carry with you the sense of here and now. This is what distinguishes any present experience from memory. It reveals that space and time are in you and not the other way around. Most people are not acquainted with the sense of their being but only with the knowledge of their doing.’ [Wu Hsin]


The Wu Hsin quote comes from the superaalifragilistic blog/ Behind The Mind: The Lost Writings of Wu Hsin –   G   R   A   T   I   T   U   D   E   –



IMG_0500POSTCARD#44: Chiang Mai: Time to close this chapter of the story. I’m leaving soon for New Delhi, transit in Bangkok for some days. The flight departs at 16.20 and before that there are things to do in the apartment: a basket of laundry to iron; ironing table set up and I’m standing there. Pointed end of the iron smoothens its way among the creases, sailing through mountains and valleys of fragrant laundered cloth, leaving a warm, flat plain of patterned textile in its wake. Place the heavy iron on its metal stand and there’s that pleasing little sound: clink-clink… then pick it up again to do another part of the garment. Doing the front, the back, the shoulders, the collar – place it on its stand again: clink-clink. Ironing is such a peaceful thing, the hot smoothness of it, all these landscapes of wrinkled cotton eased away.

Pictures unfold in the mind, a memory appears, the story begins. It’s wintertime, I’m in Kamakura, Japan, snow everywhere and the colourless luminosity of reflected light inside the dark interior of my cute little house (everything is small in Japan) high up on the slope of a hill, in the precincts of Zuisenji temple. The ironing table set up by the window; just enough room if I move carefully, laundry basket placed at hand and on the corner of a small table, a pile of folded ironed things. The brightness of reflected light outside illuminates what I’m doing. A time of sleepy afternoon days, the clink-clink sound of the iron at intervals intrudes gently into this comfortable silence.

There’s a small slooshing sound of someone walking through the snow – look out the window; a blinding whiteness, a photographic negative. Black tracks of footsteps on the path leading to the steps to the temple. It’s a lady walking with great care, taking smaller steps than Japanese ladies usually take. She is dressed in a long dark maroon coat and indigo coloured costume down to the ankles, feet in wooden geta slippers secured by a small V-shaped thong passing between the first and second toe over tabi, white stockings specially stitched for the purpose, and the entire foot encased in transparent galoshes with pretty floral designs. Holding her hand is a little girl about 8 years old, and it just happens that as I’m looking at the girl and her small white face, alert eyes, she turns to look at me… a faint smile, a moment of intelligent understanding; she sees me, a gaijin, framed in my window at eye level with the street: a foreigner lives there, in a house the same as ours… or maybe there are no words for it, just some kind of recognition, an enigma suddenly cleared away and knowing this.

How did life turn out for her? I feel sad that we only had the shared experience for that instant. Maybe it’s the remembering of events like these, returning many years later; a moment recalled, a thing that was puzzling for a long time suddenly understood, somehow – beyond words. These small moments of understanding, overlapping each other and it could be the more I’m aware of it, the more conscious experience includes the possibility of revelation. And this is the reason why there’s always a fascination with the remembered moment; an event or an accumulation of events that make sense… somehow. Language doesn’t stretch that far; the whole thing just carries meaning.

Ironing along the seams, the waistband, how good these garments look, just as they are, stitched art objects – clink-clink goes the iron. Pictures unfolding in the mind, a memory of an event is a story with a beginning, a middle, an end – although I might arrive in the middle and have to work it out from that entry point; searching for the ending of it so that I have some idea of what the beginning could have been – then re-order it so the story starts as it should (“… once upon a time….”). Language insists on a structure, I have to ‘story’ it (verb: to story), think about how to get it to work; what happened after that? Create a sequence of events. Listening to a story I’m telling myself as if it were being told to me by someone else.

Getting this place cleared up and ready now so that it can enfold itself quietly in hibernation while I’m away living in another world. Soon it’ll be time to jump into the taxi and off…

‘We are forever telling stories about ourselves. In telling these self-stories to others we may, for most purposes, be said to be performing straightforward narrative actions. In saying that we also tell them to ourselves, however, we are enclosing one story within another. This is the story that there is a self to tell something to, a someone else serving as an audience who is oneself or one’s self…. On this view the self is a telling.’ [Roy Schafer]


static electricity haiku

Static electricityPOSTCARD #35: Chiang Mai: How to explain Static Electricity to a nine-year-old who speaks English as a second language? M my Thai niece, jumps in surprise when I’m handing her some coins and it happens: ZAP! Looks at me, like I just played a trick on her or something: “What’s that Toong Ting?” (for some reason she has called me Toong Ting since she was a baby) It’s electricity,  fai-fáa sà-tìt ไฟฟ้าสถิต in Thai. M looks suspicious of me, “Yes but what is it?” she says. Okay so that still doesn’t make sense; I say it’s like a small spark… What does spark mean? So I start to speak about positive and negative electric charges inside our bodies, and eyes glaze over… losing the audience, I’m not making a very good job of the explanation, say it’s like lightning in the sky and make a big gesture with my arms. Thinks about that for a while, this has her attention… Yes but why? I tell her it’s like this strange thing that happens in the cool season, you unexpectedly get zapped when touching a doorknob – like an electrical charge, and sometimes it happens when you touch nylon clothing – it happens during the cold dry season. In countries like Thailand that are hot and humid most of the year, you notice it more than in cold countries. But this doesn’t really answer the question either, so we look it up in Google. There are all kinds of examples of it, still kinda hard to understand, I decide it has to be more like an experiential thing, learning from the feeling of it.

It reminds me of the haiku written by my friend Andosan, in Japan. ‘Static Electricity’ is a haiku seasonal word seidenki 静電気 and it’s thought to be quite charming – maybe because it’s quite mild in Japan, less of a shock than in the Western world. Usually experienced when buying something from the station kiosk, receiving coins or touching hands. Contact between people creates this small spark, it’s a surprising, instantaneous, friendly and communicative thing. It creates a link between people; a moment when we can’t explain something and share this small event that we can’t get any further with than “What was that?” A glance down at the coins held in the  fingertips, conscious awareness; the mysterious feeling of the spark somehow becomes the physical reality of the coins in the hand.

[Haiku translation: I receive small change/ and I am very surprised/ I have been given/ static electricity]


Haiku by Tatsuhiko Ando