By Ross Bolleter Roshi
When Michal, my composer friend from Slovakia, was driving me out from Bratislava to show me the eastern regions of this country, especially his birthplace Lengow, in the foothills of the High Tatras, he asked me a lot of questions about Zen and how to live it. I found his questions challenging - such questions always are - but their radical simplicity was far more confronting because I spoke no Slovak and he spoke just enough English for us to deal with practical matters and in a vague way to feel out the contours of each other's lives.
Once he asked me, 'What is Zen?' and I replied that 'the countryside looked splendid now that the sun had come up.' As always after my responses to his questions he would remain thoughtfully silent, however, as we neared his home village he said, 'I like the jokes in your religion, but I don't think I would do the meditation.' Sensing my disappointment, he went on, 'But I would do Great Aunt Meditation'. 'Well, what would that be?' I asked doubtfully. 'Great Aunt Meditation is chicken meditation. My great Aunt spends all afternoon in front of her fire. For hour after hour there she is in her chair, looking like she is asleep. But she knows where very chicken is and which way the wind is blowing and what loaf of rye bread the pantry mouse is munching.' When we meditate we let the world be as it is; we let our heart just be. Then what is there can be, as W.A. Mathieu describes sounds as nourishment, holy food, and best friend. The plane roars through opening up your heart; you hum that old love song as you move from paying bills, to shopping to writing a difficult letter and the humming confirms it.
There is an old Taoist saying, 'The hen can hatch her eggs because her heart is always listening.' When we listen to hear another's pain in their critical words, when we listen to our own pain when we are criticised, the depth of and warmth of our attending opens up the way for life to appear.
One of my students who is engaged in the koan 'Who is hearing that sound?' asked me whether he could bring that question to bear on his inner voices, his self talk. Our inner voices and the voices of the world are different orders of existence, but why not? We talk to ourselves, non-stop: Surging rivers of 'I like this, not this again, oh no?' Even in the midst of the most brilliant conversation, or engrossing performance 'What's next?' can cut in like Call Waiting. And the anxious voice that endlessly rehearses next week's interview, 'Will I be heard?'. 'Will I be understood?' 'Will I be up to it?' So, who hears these voices of suffering and joy? When we see into that, we're not so identified with the clamour of our neediness, not so convinced by whatever is gusting through. Moreover, who is experiencing it?
Lin-chi said, 'there is nothing I dislike'. Can you truly say this, truly live it? Importantly Lin-chi's words are not about suppressing our aversion, or cornering ourselves into thinking that everything is wonderful - how could we? Rather we open to our aversion, to our disgust 'God what a stink!' utterly. The barriers of like and dislike that we've set up in our mind collapse silently when we allow the smell, the affront, the abusive attack or the envious feeling. And there is also some part of us which wants to curl up, and have nothing to do with becoming aware and wants to go back to sleep. Good to wryly mercifully acknowledge that one too.
Over time, we can never remember how long, we open to our fear of loving, our fear of life and get some ease there. Now there is shame and pulling back, now there is fear and clenching: Now the rain falls and you can hardly see the stars for the clouds. Each thing sluiced with our attention emerges flashing its true colours. Love begins to feel possible and we can be more honest and more tender with ourselves and others. We aren't solely the victim or hero of the drama we create, and the world isn't some kind of painted backdrop for our ambitions. At unknowable depths you open your eyes and stretch widely, easefully, friendlily, so that the hubbub hubhubbing, and the bright and dark carnage of night and day are safe, at home.
Later, in Lengow, I met Michal's Great Aunt. She was frail, almost totally blind. Michal talked family with her in Slovak. She responded in rivers of Ruthenian. I listened in English. She plied me with Polish vodka. If you can't understand at least you can drink! Michal asked me to explain Zen to her. I said, 'Ask her if the birds are singing in her heart!' Maybe he did, but she just poured me another vodka. As she laboured to get another log on the fire, Michal told me that it took her an-hour-and- a- half to get to church. 'How far is the church?' I asked for the village was tiny. 'Oh about a hundred metres', he said. 'Is that because she is blind, because she can barely walk?' 'Yes. But mostly because she keeps stopping to enjoy what she can make out of the shadow and light. She picks up rocks and pebbles so she can feel them, talks to the dogs and cats, and to anyone she meet. It's a long journey.
Jack Kerouac asked, 'Day and Night: Why do they sojourn here?' I stare out of the shed window, dusk is closing the bush down from dark green to black, the first stars appear. The voices of the children playing late in the park sound heartbreaking at this distance. I walk up from the shed through the long grass and up the steep uneven stone steps to the house. Day and night, why do they sojourn here? Puffing a little I step into the living room and pull the kindling and paper over the logs to make a fire. I remember Michal's Great Aunt telling us that both her sons who fought in the Czechoslovak division of the Soviet army in the Second World War, their mission of liberating their homeland almost accomplished, were killed just a few kilometres away from Lengow by the Germans. Later her husband died of vascular disease. She had nursed him for years on milk after both his legs were amputated.
'I can't work out why I'm still alive', she says. She pauses for a long time and says a little doubtfully, 'I guess I here to pray for everyone else.'