Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Wood-Cutter

Consider a rural wood-cutter, one living in China about 1, 000 years ago. He would probably be very poor, a guy who didn't have an saw or an ax or a team of horses. I've heard Portland Zen teacher Hogen Bays ask us to imagine if you were this wood-cutter 1,000 years ago, how much wood could you cut? And with what? And how would you carry it? And how far would you have to carry it? And how much would it weigh? You can't carry that much - if you're a strong, vital, well-fed person, maybe 100, 150 pounds. Day after day. Several trips a day. How much?

So what this ancient wood-cutter would do is go out into the forest, far off into the woods, and he would find wood that he could break off, wood that he could pick up. Then he would make the wood into bundles and he would tie them together and put them on his back and walk, who knows, maybe five miles back to the village with his bundle of sticks. Day after day.

So this is a wood cutter, just trying to support himself and maybe his mother by carrying his bundles of wood. But because he was doing just this - simply going out, picking up wood, bringing the bundles back - out, pick up wood, bring these bundles back - his mind was pretty clear. He was uneducated, he didn't have a whole lot on his mind, and he pretty much knew what he had to do. His mind was pretty clear, his heart was pretty open. He was pretty much at ease, accepting his lot in life. And as he went back and forth he may even have hummed a little, sung a little tune. And he would go back and forth, simply going about his singing and carrying wood and getting paid and supporting himself.

As Hogen tells it, one day, he went to a temple and dropped off a load of wood. As he was coming out of the temple, he was feeling really good - he'd been paid, actually made his food for the day. He had done a pretty good job. He was relaxed in mind, and as he was walking out of the temple door, he heard a monk chanting a sutra out loud. He heard the line from the Heart Sutra, "Form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form, Form itself is emptiness, emptiness itself form." He heard those particular lines and somehow something went "pop" in his mind, and he said "Oh, I understand. Oh, that's just talking about life, that's not anything special. That's just 'this is form, this is empty.' Oh, of course."

But he actually got it. Somehow, it hit him really deeply in his heart - it wasn't just an intellectual thing that he had read in a book (he couldn't read) but somehow, it was just, "Got it!" He really saw it, he really felt it, he really experienced it. "Oh, how amazing," he thought, "How wonderful."

One of our problems in these modern times is that our lives don't allow us the quietness, the stillness of the wood-cutter. We're driving cars, talking on cell phones, busy at our computers, rushing to and fro, and our minds don't have the chance to settle into the wood-cutter's clarity. We have to go out of our way to seek out solitude and quiet, and then that activity itself becomes just another distraction, another thing to do. All this despite the fact that some pretty amazing things can happen when we just settle down a little.

I've been following the blog of Jessica Watson, the young girl who at 16 is attempting to be the youngest person to sail solo around the world. Imagine the hyper-kinetic mind of a teenage girl, and then put that mind all alone in a little sailboat out in the middle of the world's largest ocean, the Pacific. Last week, only about two weeks into her journey, she wrote, "I've pretty much spent most of the day in my bunk reading and dozing, popping my head out the companionway to keep a look out and to tweak the sails. All the R&R today has left me feeling a lot better, so I'm full of energy again this evening, playing music and sitting up on deck watching all the shades of grey turn to pink and orange." This at only 2,000 miles into a 23,000 mile voyage, and she's already entering into a contemplative space.

This evening, I saw Jane Goodall on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show. She's out promoting her new book, and at 75 she had more energy and life in her than four-fifths of the 20-something actresses and singers and athletes who've appeared on the show. There was a vitality to her, a presence, the kind of spark in the eyes that I've seen before in Zen Masters. Of course, here's a woman who spent many years alone in the jungle with only the companionship of chimpanzees, and it's clear that the solitude has affected her in a most extraordinary and wonderful way.

Now, I wouldn't go so far as to say that Jessica Watson and Jane Goodall have become enlightened by their experiences, but neither will I say they haven't or won't. I have no way of knowing. Also, one can't deny that in all likelihood they were probably pretty extraordinary women to start with - it's not everyone who decides to sail solo around the world at 16 or to move to the jungle with a tribe of chimpanzees.

But it's clear that some time to quiet the mind can have a profoundly positive effect on us. Like the woodcutter's mind and heart, ours, too, can become clear and open. This weekend, take the time to do nothing for a while. You can thank me later.

No comments: