The Garden of Mists
Presented December 3, 2001
It has been said, in a number of ways, that one cannot begin real Zen practice until the age of forty. Real Zen, in this case heavily weighted to the mystical path. Oddly enough other mystical traditions also zero in on this time frame. The Cabalists say forty as well, and I even think they include the fact that one should have been married. The Indian subcontinent - or at least the Hindu part of it, has over the years made it a part of their culture in reference to a “householder’s” responsibilities diminishing to a level compatible with mystical pursuits around the age of forty or perhaps fifty. (Bureaucratic rules always add a few years, It has something to do with the tax laws I think.)
A couple of our great priests have included this caveat many times in essays as well as in their personal ministering to which I have been privy. Using such lines as “Zen is a religion for the mature,” Chuan Zhi has written very recently on “Suffering” and the need for it. One could substitute any true religion for the word Zen and the meaning would still hold. What is true about religion has nothing to do with what is being taught in the madrasas in Saudi or Pakistan or Jim Jones University for that matter. Whoops, I think that was Bob Jones University. Oh well, it doesn’t matter. Jim, Bob, John, Frank, Betty - you get the point.
It is perhaps one of the oddest ironies that our ministry is an internet ministry and that almost by definition the age-demographics of all those cybersurfers will most likely be under that dreadfully ancient age of forty. So with that age group in mind let me go straight to the acknowledged birthplace of Rock’n’Roll and relate this old story from the annals of Sun Records in Memphis that touches on this need for suffering.
Johnny Cash went to see Sam Phillips when he was in his late teens or early twenties to get a record deal. At that time all JC did was sing old gospel tunes in his albeit unique vocal style. Sam listened to him, liked his voice but felt that something was missing. He then walked him out of the studio and with arm wrapped around the young boys shoulders said, “Johnny, go sin a little bit and come back with something I can sell.” Fast forward to this: “I fell in to a burnin’ ring of fire I went down, down, down And the flames they went higher And it burns, burns, burns That ring of fire, that ring of fire.”
Welcome to the swamp, and the swamp is the key.
A simple statement, “Good judgment comes from experience, experience comes from bad judgment,” is a kind of Moebius loop when coming from the mouth of an aging philosopher. It can bring a certain ironical smile to your face when contemplating it. If that same statement issues from your teenaged son as he asks for the car keys on prom night, my guess is that the look on your face will be entirely different. It’ll probably be similar to that look of quizzical bemusement that teenagers always interpret as complete ignorance plastered on the faces of that peculiar group of idiot savants called parents.
There certainly seems to be a certain level of swamp gas, a critical mass so to speak, that must be breathed before knowledge and experience begin their transformation into wisdom. Out of the mists the transformation starts, the onion fog begins to peel, layer after layer is folded back, until, with grace, a turning occurs and a confirmatory experience happens, unannounced and unprepared for. Other eyes open. Mist is burned off, bright clarity is flashed to those other eyes. What is it you see, I cannot say. What is it you feel, I cannot say. But it is You and not you.
Get ready. Here comes my insight of the day. “Something happens to us as we get older.” The brain seems to think in more expansive “scenes”and less linear ones. It opens up to a broader universe instead of our own “private Idahos.” Beliefs begin to be replaced by experience or faith. Faith in this case does not mean a mere collection of beliefs, but that residue of wisdom that is hard to verbalize. It is part of the shadows that exist within the mists of knowing.
Once born again, old things may become new, but you have arrived nowhere. For once in your life you know that you have attained nothing, nothing to be proud of, and there is no tit for tat. As a matter of fact you were the man that wasn’t there.
The garden must be cultivated. You may weed in the sun but you’ll plant in the intuitive mist, sometimes by the light of the moon. It is a hard, hard job to expend effort on such things. You cannot measure your results easily with the passing of days and nights. There is no such thing as, one, two, three, four, open the door I’m coming in. But you can count on this… yearning. The yearning is, in and of itself, the calling. It is the small wordless whispering voice that calls for you. If there is within you a yearning then feel blessed. If it is a great yearning causing you to feel pain and agony, feel even more blessed. Accept it, be glad for it, keep it with you. Faith can be born here even as the walls of your beliefs are crumbling down. After six days of circling the walls on the seventh the silent trumpets sound and Jericho is no more. Life is suffering…there is a way out of suffering…
Your agony is the language
Of your poetry
Embrace its aching sigh
Follow its cry
Walk with it where
It is born as Real
In the shadows
In the mists.
Last modified: July 11, 2004
©2004 Zen and The Martial Arts