Our need for help is obvious. Our own efforts are insufficient and likely to spill and roll in chaotic directions, like marbles spilling across the floor. We need texts and teachers – Zen masters, the Psalms, A Course in Miracles, good psychotherapists. Something. Without help, our spiritual exile is unnecessarily prolonged.
Thus, it is critical to be open both to our need for help and the actual form that help takes when it arrives. Because it always does arrive. Truly, we are not bereft.
Last night I read Yaeko Iwasaki’s enlightenment letters. She was twenty-five years old when she attained enlightenment. Less than two weeks later, she was dead. Her letters – which are written to her teacher, Harada-Roshi – are contained in Philip Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen.
I’ve had this book for years – a close friend twenty years ago was a devoted Buddhist and follower of Kapleau, and I sort of dabbled with zafus. My efforts were sincere but more or less half-assed and in time I drifted along – back to Catholicism, back to Christianity, and eventually – long story – short – to A Course in Miracles. Recently, I pulled Kapleau’s book back out because I wanted to read something that was a bit more grounded than the opacity of the course.
I say that carefully, of course. I don’t object to the opacity, so much as need to step away from it at times. And it’s not really fair to call the course opaque – it is actually quite practical and simple. But our minds are capable of complicating anything, and when that happens – when I perceive that happening – it is sometimes helpful to gently step away for a few days or weeks or even longer just to breathe. It’s not a crime against God. God goes nowhere and our attention directed at other traditions or teachers is simply God another way. It’s no big deal.
Zen was fascinating to me – still is, in a sort of academic way – in my early twenties. It seemed practical in a way that Catholicism – my Christianity of choice back then – was not. Sure, I could read Thomas Merton and follow his efforts to unite Zen with Jesus and Christianity. There’s no doubt his work resonated for me in helpful ways. But I liked the instructions I was given at the Zendo. Sit like this, count your breaths and let’s talk again in a few years. There was a formality to it. There were these non-negotiable boundaries. I needed that then.
Reading Yaeko Iwasaki was inspiring. Her letters are very grateful and loving and lucid and they neatly track her experience of awakening. Reading them, I didn’t feel a need to make it Buddhist or Christian, if that makes any sense. It just seemed like what can happen to any of us if we pay attention in a disciplined way. Most fascinating was the way she cycled through her enlightenment. At first blush it has the air of a good acid trip or something – like she woke up in an amusement park where all the rides and treats are free. But then the experience evens out and becomes much more natural and grounded. It becomes almost ordinary.
I like this, in particular:
. . . now that I have penetrated deeply and have acquired an unshakable aspiration to Buddhahood, it is clear to me that I can continue in my spiritual discipline forever and in this way perfect my personality to its fullest, impelled by the vow, which rises naturally within me, to save all sentient beings.
The truth is that we can become as addicted to crucifixion as well as to enlightenment. I think you can fool around for a long time – lifetimes maybe – in any practice. The conditions that Yaeko Iwasaki – especially with respect to service, the lovingkindness extended to all creation – resonates deeply with my understanding (which of course is always evolving, always growing sharper and more useful) – of A Course in Miracles.
I woke up from a pleasant dream at 2 a.m. and couldn’t sleep last night. I remembered Yaeko’s letters, and my friend with whom I have lost touch, and I felt very happy. I like the night a lot. The stars through the window, faint light on the neighbor’s white barn. It is very quiet and beautiful. I have been focusing on a review of the first five ACIM lessons, and they came through with unusual simplicity last night. I sat in bed and didn’t feel a need to do much of anything else. Every now and then that electric feeling of no-thoughts swept by. It is still so hard for me to trust the Holy Instant, to say yes to God, to awakening. But it is nice when that’s okay, when I can let it be what it is and not need to fix it or improve it.
Help comes in many forms, from many directions. We just never know.