Zen teacher Hogen Bays — along with Chozen Bays — has been my spiritual guide and co-abott of Great Vow Zen Monastery for ten years. He writes:
“There is so much in the news that reminds me of the first noble observation of Buddhism: that there are problems, serious problems everywhere. From the giant catastrophes such as the earthquake in Japan, the violence in Libya and the 450,000 people displaced by civil war in the Ivory Coast to one family’s struggles with illness and joblessness. Everywhere we turn we are reminded that no one is safe from difficulty and distress. It is almost impossible not to become anxious when we look honestly at the possible disruptions and challenges that we are facing and may have to face. What hope do we have? How can we live? What can we rely upon?
One thing is certain, that when confronted with life’s very real challenges, knowing theories about timeless wisdom is no help. When we are laying in bed at night and overwhelming anxiety wells up in our hearts, knowing how we ‘should’ respond does not help. When we are hungry even world class photos of food are not filling. Rocked by trauma, how we are ‘supposed’ to feel, what we ‘should’ understand, what we ‘think’ we know, is of little support. A real catastrophe washes away all our hopes, dreams, shoulds and oughts.
For me, this is when spiritual practice becomes extremely compelling. Usually, our spiritual and psychological lives revolve around how to be more happy, effective or successful. But when we know death is coming (and a lot sooner than we hoped) there are more urgent questions: “What is it that is alive right here?” “Where can I turn for help?” “What is real right now?” “Who is the one who is suffering?” “What is the truth that is always present?” When we are compelled to ask these questions no one else’s answers are of any use. What we have read, believe or been told will not do! We must know for ourselves!
Of course, writing about this matter requires words and so it seems that these questions are intellectual and require thinking. These questions are like the finger pointing at the moon. The words only direct our attention to what is more intimate than words. What is more intimate than words is our direct experience. It is not a particular experience. We naturally meet crises with an intense aliveness, a compelling demand from deep inside us to look at what is real. It may present as anxiety, or numbness, anger, deep depression, or curiosity, but whatever our experience our attention is caught. It is our deepest life saying, “pay attention!”
This is what we can always take refuge in – the compelling experience of being alive. This experience is the essence of all seeing, hearing and feeling. It permeates all body, emotions and thought. In fact everything that comes forward whether we regard it as magnificent or dreadful comes from the same source. No matter what comes towards us or from within us, this is our ultimate refuge.
This attention to the source of life is a refuge available at all times, in every place. But we must practice and recognize it. Initially we have to learn to turn our attention away from our thoughts and conceptual mind. We let the churning of our minds still, like allowing the mud to settle so we can see the water. But, then we turn our awareness to seeing both mud and water, to seeing thought and the space in which it is held. We experience life and creation, death and destruction and the space in which they are held. We see ourselves respond completely to each changing condition. And whether our responses are skillful or unskillful they are all held in the dreamlike nature of our own life. This is the essence of practice. This is refuge.”