Nothing in the cry
of cicadas suggests they
are about to die.
An unremarkable object, its odd shape was its only distinguishing feature. Once a bright silver, now blackened with age, its exotic markings worn away through years of use, it sat silently among the pile of papers, recipe books and miscellany that littered the cook’s desk. And yet when it was rung to signal the end of the kitchen work period at the Zen Monastery Peace Center, this tiny bell had the power to command instant obedience. Its cheery tinkle would bring all activity to a halt, reminding us that at the bottom of our exhalation there will be no time to quibble about drying the last dish or folding one more towel. At the sound of the bell, everyone bows in understanding of the importance of choosing to be present for this perfect and precious instant. And then everyone disperses, leaving no trace of themselves. The bell returns to its silent enjoyment of a tidy kitchen having delivered its poignant teaching—all formations are transient.
The bell isn’t just a reminder that the next exhalation could be our last, it is a call to live, to recollect that it is possible to be enchanted by existence. If it could speak, the bell would echo Dogen: “Life and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken! Take heed, do not squander your life.” Many of us are liable to get so caught up in the business of living, in service to a conditioned narrative of purpose and performance (not to mention its attendant suffering), that we forget to be happy, to enjoy the miracle of an embodied existence. Enjoyment, as we concluded in a recent email class, is a function of presence. To squander one’s life is to fail to be here for it. The rapture of being alive arises from being Self-aware, in total resonance with our being, or in the words of our practice, from being with Oneself in lovingkindness for the lifespan between every inhalation and exhalation.
putting my hands on a pot,
on a broom,
in a wash pail.
I tried painting,
but it was easier to fly
— Rabia of Basria
Presence isn’t equivalent to an absence of activity. As the old Zen proverb says, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” One can be as close to God while slicing potatoes as one might be in the stillness of prayer, as these two sisters discovered in this story.
In the traditional telling of the tale, Mary sits adoringly at the feet of Jesus basking in his presence while Martha bustles about getting the feast ready for the community. When Martha, exasperatedly, and justifiably so from the point of view of those of us who show up and get things done, complains about Mary’s choice to sit around instead of attending to her responsibilities, she is told to follow Mary’s example! Did Martha turn to Jesus and say, “If we all sit at your feet, who will put the food on the table?” Or was she an awareness practitioner extraordinaire, who, hearing the “bell ring” in the words of her spiritual teacher chose presence over ego and proceed to organize a magnificent feast?
The teaching that extolled Mary’s adoration over Martha’s busyness is subtle and easily misinterpreted. A dualistic orientation would conclude that Christ was advocating for one right way to be—the way Mary was. Can you imagine Unconditional Love saying that to anyone, especially to someone so obviously sincere as Martha? So what is the actual message of this story?
The teaching is clarified in the Guide’s rendition of the parable. In the Zen version of the tale, Jesus’s response to Martha would be “How about we all go help with preparing the feast?” In other words, if the moment is calling for activity, attend to the activity, but not at the expense of the adoration. It is absolutely possible to be aware of Awareness, present to the presence of Christ consciousness, Buddha nature or Unconditional Love as we sit on the cushion, admire a peony, sweep the porch or, in Martha’s case, prepare a feast.
It turns out that one is not called to choose between being Mary and being Martha. The entire point of spiritual practice is to eschew all ego-identities and identify with what Jesus represents in the story: a human incarnation alive and aware of itself as an individual expression of divinity. This might sound faintly blasphemous, and it is if ego makes the declaration, but in a non-separate reality That Thou Art is simply true. For what is awakening other than the falling away of the self-consciousness that identifies itself with something other than the Self?
Tomorrow and plans for tomorrow can have no significance at all unless you are in full contact with the reality of the present, since it is in the present and only in the present that you live. There is no other reality than present reality, so that, even if one were to live for endless ages, to live for the future would be to miss the point everlastingly.
— Alan Watts
In practice, we are reminded repeatedly in an old Cherokee story that the wolf we feed is the wolf that wins the battle for attention. The good news is that we have a choice over whether or not our life experience is one of suffering or one of enjoyment. The bad news is that the odds are not necessarily stacked in favor of the good wolf’s triumph. The conditioned belief in a future of second chances colors the orientation of even the most sincere of awareness practitioners. It doesn’t occur to us that not making the choice for enjoyment NOW comes with consequences. Each moment of inattention strengthens the momentum energy of a karmic pattern on a relentless trajectory to fulfilling itself. It is theoretically possible to awaken in any moment but, practically speaking, entrenched karma is harder to overcome.
We can cast our vote for now, NOW, while we still have a choice. Because the march of time heralds the specters of aging, sickness and death. When the body fails and the mind falters, we may or may not be able to recruit the energy required to battle a resistant ego. Imagine no longer being able to summon the willingness to make a choice to end suffering.
It might take witnessing the helplessness of someone being slowly erased by their conditioning, being buried alive by the weight of their cumulative choices to feed the karmic bad wolf, to grasp the necessity of not postponing the choice for Now.
No one lives a purely utilitarian existence devoid of enchantment or enjoyment. But suffering is inevitable if we don’t consciously cultivate the willingness to be enchanted. Without a consistent practice that supports us to choose presence in stillness and activity, the final bell is likely to usher us out of the dark room rather than the light room. There isn’t anything wrong with this life trajectory except, perhaps, that we might have missed the opportunity of a lifetime.
So it’s time to heed the little bell and take to heart those lovely lines from Rumi…
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep!