There’s a Zen story about a young man who wants to become a monk. He wants to become enlightened.
The Master accepts the young adept into the monastic order, and another monk leads him to his tiny room. No one says much. They pretty much leave him alone.
He’s invited to the all-day meditation sessions, and he does his best to keep up with the arduous practice. But no one’s explaining anything to him. He has a lot of questions.
One week goes by. Then two. Then three. Finally, the young monk can take no more. He storms into his Master’s office. “I came here to learn about Zen. I have been here three weeks and no one has told me anything about Zen!”
The master gazed at the frustrated adept.
“Have you eaten?” the Master asked.
“Then wash your bowl.”
I often return to this story when the complexity of life threatens to overwhelm me. I wonder if I, like that young monk, am generating a lot of agitation by asking too many questions, by trying to channel the immeasurable sea of experience through the tiny intake valves of my own limited and limiting thinking. What if, as Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced?”
And how best to experience it? The Zen story suggests that when we return to the ordinary activities of our everyday lives, the immediacy of life draws us into a renewed intimacy with its mystery. Instead of chasing that so-called peak experience, instead of spending a lot of time and money on exotic travel or high-end gurus, maybe the portal to our best and most authentic life is right here at our finger tips.
I imagine that young monk standing at the kitchen sink, running his fingers around the inside of the bowl in the warm soapy water, returning it to its pristine state through humble action. An insight beginning to rise up through the suds—that maybe we ought to think less and do more, ask fewer questions and take more chances, trusting that if we walk with integrity, humility, and loving kindness, the road will rise to meet our feet and the path will follow the swale of the land to a place where wisdom and bliss find us unbidden.
Religious people call it faith. I think of it as trust. If we let go of the illusion that we have to figure everything out, that we have to have all our questions answered, and that we have to manage life, then something simpler, cleaner, easier, and more beautiful begins to emerge. Life becomes something we receive rather than achieve.
And it is in the everyday objects all around us that the mystery is made manifest. “No ideas but in things,” wrote the poet William Carlos Williams. His poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” exemplifies this with startling concision: so much depends/upon/a red wheel/barrow/glazed with rain/water/beside the white/chickens. (Read that slowly, silently to yourself three times and see if something doesn’t begin to stir.) Williams is drawing us down out of the fog of abstraction and into the real world of things here and now—their shape, their shimmer, their texture, their color, their smell, and heft all serve as harbingers of the emerging awareness of our own immediacy, our own significance. The thought-world could never do that for us.
And wheelbarrows, like bowls, are for something. They are utilitarian. They are containers. They help us get what we need. Look at how wheel barrows and bowls transcend paradox, how they manifest a synthesis of somethingness and emptiness, being and non-being. 2,500 years ago Laozi pondered this same polarity in chapter 11 of the Dao De Jing: “We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want… we work with being, but non-being is what we use.” How can I better arrange a beneficial balance between the polarities of my own life, between the paradoxes of empty and full, busy and idle, assertive and withdrawn, deliberate and spontaneous? Noticing how the processes of nature synthesize and transcend paradox yields a wealth of wisdom.
I recently returned from a two-week journey upriver on the Rhine through the heart of the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Switzerland. I took 714 pictures. But my favorite picture took itself. I was fumbling with my iPhone on streets of the old medieval quarter in Strasbourg one afternoon when I accidentally snapped a shot. I only discovered it later that night, back in the room, editing photos. It was an image of the cobblestone street. The roughhewn square stones of many hues and colors, each painstakingly laid in place by a mason centuries ago, spread out before me in an interlacing, mesmerizing fan pattern—pure visual poetry. My imagination opened like a book. The feet that had touched these stones—a crucial errand, a sacred pilgrimage, an aimless saunter. The commerce, the trade, the wealth, the poverty. The wooden wheels of wagons bearing the dead from the Plague, the clattering tracks of Nazi tanks, the tires of air-conditioned motor coaches full of tourists. The nobility and vulgarity, the heroism and cowardice, the centuries of blood and wine and tears and hay and horse shit, all washed away by sheets and sheets of summer rain, and in the morning after the storm, rain-wet and shining in the new light of day. These stones, drawn from the earth and hammered into shape, set by hand in a bed of sand by men on their knees, brought my own journey into focus—the ingenuity of humanity to carve these villages out of these valleys, and the endurance of what remains in the ceaseless flow of ephemera. In this way, a simple thing—a cobblestone—came to stand as a cipher for everything else. Just an ordinary, extraordinary cobblestone. No ideas but in things indeed.
When life gets to be just a little bit too much, resist the urge to find solutions in the mind. For all its wondrous usefulness, the mind isn’t always our greatest ally for one simple reason—it’s rooted in the past. By its very nature, mentation hovers and orbits in repetitive cycles. Ordinary consciousness consists of habitual patterns, and all too readily imposes those patterns where they don’t belong. And yet this next moment presents us with an arrangement of elements never before seen. If we rely on the mind it will simply hammer this fluid reality into a familiar pattern instead of seeing it for what it really is. It would be far more fruitful to reach out with our hands and simply touch the things right in front of us, meeting them where they are, as they are, without ornamentation or conceptualization. The Zen Buddhists are right. Sleep when we are tired, eat when we are hungry, and wash our bowl. The universe will unfold on its own terms. And we will find our way through it unhurried, and unspeakably beautiful.
Peter Bolland is a teacher, writer, speaker, singer-songwriter, and philosophy professor. Meditate with him on the Insight Timer app and learn more at www.peterbolland.com