By Joe Connolly
When I decided I wanted to begin to mediate, I thought long and hard about where I should go to learn and practice. I was intrigued by Zen and other Eastern traditions, but as a lifelong Catholic I was vaguely daunted by the thought of taking a plunge in to the unfamiliar territory. Luckily for me, Copper Beech Institute provided the ideal launching pad. I attended a Zen meditation weekend with Fr. Robert Kennedy, a Jesuit priest and Zen teacher, or Roshi. The weekend felt both familiar and entirely new simultaneously. It was a wonderful beginning, and my practice took root and grew stronger.
Over the years I wanted to repeat the weekend, but it took me at least five years before I was able to return this spring. I threw myself in to the seshin with great enthusiasm, wondering what the experience would bring the second time around.
On Saturday morning, I sat on the Gallery Terrace, sipping a hot chocolate. It was not even 10:00 am, and already I had done a week’s worth of meditation in a single morning.
The air was cool, and I could hear the highway droning in the distance. The grounds were still cloaked in the dreariness of late winter, the plants and shrubs pruned, everything brown and gray. A few crocus and daffodils popped up here and there, hinting at the spring that was still a few weeks away.
A big bird hopped on to the branch of a bare and gnarly old tree. I don’t know what it was, but it was huge. My mind flashed back to an earlier workshop, focused on shamanic traditions. The leader spoke about our profound connection with nature, how animals are our family, and can be messengers. “Look, its Brother Hawk!” he exclaimed as a red tail hawk circled above us. “This is auspicious,” he said with great joy and reverence.
I looked back to the big bird in the tree, wondering what message it might have for me. The bird leaned forward ever so slightly, and projected a prodigious white stream of excrement. I could only chuckle softly to myself. I’m looking for signs and signals, I thought, and getting flying shit in return.
Sitting in the cool morning air, I realized it is all part of the totality of our experience.
The majestic and the mundane.
The sacred and profane.
From the ridiculous to the sublime.
You look to a bird for something meaningful, and all you see is the most basic, earthy, and unglamorous sight. What’s the message in that?
This experience was brought in to even greater relief just minutes later during Amy’s dharma talk. Amy is a talented artist and expert in Chinese calligraphy. She told a story of a young monk who believed he was inferior to his teacher, and he wanted to outsmart him. One day he asked his teacher, “What do you see in me?”
“I see a Buddha,” the elder monk replied. “And what do you see in me?”
Filled with self-satisfaction, the young monk felt mischievous and emboldened. “I see a pile of cow poo,” he said.
The older monk was not angered by this reply, and the young monk went home to his sister and relayed his story. “You have lost again,” she said, herself a wise meditator. “We see what we are. Your teacher said he saw a Buddha in you, because he is a Buddha. You said you saw a pile of cow poo, because you are a pile of cow poo.”
So, we see what we are. What do I see?
I see a wise old man.
I see a young man, confused and unsure of himself.
I see male and female, straight and gay, Christian and Jew.
I see strength and courage.
I see doubt and fear.
I see death and decay, and I see new life springing forth.
I see colorful light dancing across the floor.
I see all these things because I am all these things. As Whitman said, “I contain multitudes.”
This place, this time, this moment, this practice opens the gate to the inestimable treasure that lies within all of us.