A Zen poem reads, “In darkest night it is perfectly clear. In the light of dawn it is hidden.” The “it” referred to here is the Dharma, the path, or the way to apply wisdom teachings to one’s life. Why does the poem say that the path is perfectly clear in darkest night? On a biological level when it’s totally dark things know exactly what to do. Humans sleep. Owls awake. What would we do if we could not turn on a light in the darkest of night? We probably would not move around much if at all. There is something instinctive in us that brings us to stillness and sleep. Rest is aided by the dark.
From a spiritual perspective, darkness facilitates returning home to our True Self. It becomes “perfectly clear” who we really are. In darkness, all things merge. The contours that divide us dissolve. Our spiritual body comes to rest. We see the “not two” of all things.
Early one morning I had the good fortune of lulling my son, Malcolm, to sleep in my arms. He likes to be vertical when he sleeps – especially after eating. So I had him draped over my shoulder like a Buddha robe, as I sat at an angle on the recliner. Lulling my son to sleep is a tricky thing to do because if I make one wrong move he stirs awake, and then I need to go through the ritual of standing up and bouncing.
The longer I keep him on my shoulder, the deeper his sleep becomes. He starts to feel heavier, I can feel the heat of his body against mine, and he begins to snore. Then I know I may have a chance to reposition him so that he’s against my chest, giving my arms a rest. I am learning that if I put him on my chest too quickly, he’ll wake up and be quite upset. But on this morning the timing was right. He settled there for quite some time.
We both moved deeper into sleep. I was able to hone in on the muscles that were unnecessarily tense – in my shoulders and back – and to soften them, allowing him to be positioned ever so gentler on my chest. Any gross movement at this point – shifting in the recliner, scratching my nose, moving my legs – would have been like sleep suicide if I did not move with the utmost of mindfulness.
I remember when my Zen teacher, Dai-En Roshi, was teaching about meditation. She would always council us to move about the Zendo as though the Buddha were sitting in meditation behind a Japanese soji screen. We would try to move with as little sound as possible. The same is true with regards to shifting position in meditation. If you move too much, you disturb the people sitting on either side of you. Getting back to my son, he became my teacher in that moment. I moved as though the baby Buddha was resting on me.
Moving deeper into rest, I remembered a koan about Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. A monk asked his master, “How does she practice compassion?” The master answered, “It’s like grasping for the pillow at night.” In other words, she doesn’t think about what she should do. True compassion comes pre-cognitively. It responds the way the right hand responds to the left hand when hit by a hammer. There is no thought involved, just immediate action. So when Malcolm stirred awake I instinctively moved him from the vertical position he was in on my chest, to a horizontal position on my lap. There was no thinking on my part. Because I was asleep, something deeper was working in me in that particular moment. What do you do when the baby starts to awaken? It’s time for a shift of position. Did I know the move from vertical to horizontal was going to work? Not in a thoughtful way. I just acted. There he remained for another good swatch of sleep.
Zen Master Dogen writes in his, “Pure Standards for the Zen Community,” that, “We should compassionately look after our juniors as if they were newborn babies.” If Dogen writing from the 13th century sees deep value in the relationship between parent and child, so much so that he encourages his monks to learn from this relationship when encountering each other, how can we who have actual babies in our lap do anything less? Can we learn from newborns how to be towards those who are our juniors?
Returning to darkness, so far I’ve mused on biological and spiritual darkness, and lessons from being with my son. How about political darkness? Can some lessons in Zen be applied to the darkness of the political landscape? What would they be?
Another Zen poem reads, “In the dark there is light, but don’t see it as light.” From a Daoist perspective, in the dark there is light and in the light there is dark. There is the balance of yin and yang, light and dark, positive and negative. Zen accepts this but takes it one step further. Zen recognizes the light in the dark, but does not try to rationalize a dark situation. Zen says, “yes, there is light in that dark situation, but you are not there yet. Why don’t you sit in the dark and forget about the light for right now?”
When we feel fear, grief, anger, or dismay over decisions made in congress, can we not try to squirm out of the darkness that consumes us? Can we settle in to it? Not that we need to like it. Not that we do nothing to change the situation. However, can we see these moments of darkness as opportunities to grow into more mature beings?
We see babies as immature. But, in a certain sense, because they have no filters on their emotions, they can be learned from as teachers. The infant cries when she is sad, gassy, or hungry. She smiles when she connects with another being. As adults, with the process of socialization we have learned to, for example, not cry or be angry in public. I’m not suggesting that the way to adulthood is crying or throwing a temper tantrum in public. I’m just suggesting that we have a whole array of emotions that we often don’t acknowledge to our self, even in private. Can we recognize and accept the darkness of our times?