December 4th, 2018
Tonight the sangha will celebrate the Buddha’s Enlightenment Day at the Zen Center. I think that, in all the years that I have been meditating at the center, I have attended this celebration only once. My failure to participate has not been for lack of interest. It is more a matter of timing. For years I worked third shift, so attending an evening gathering meant that I would get no sleep prior to going to my job. After I retired three years ago, I found that I would spend most of my Tuesday nights visiting with the patients in the psychiatric ward at the local VA hospital. These visits have always conflicted with the Buddha’s Enlightenment Day festivities. In fact, there a scheduling conflict tonight.
If I recall correctly, the ceremony involves chanting, sitting meditation, and perhaps the reading of a poem. There is not much spontaneity. The altar will be festooned with flowers and fruit. After the ritual is completed, the participants will socialize and snack on sweets. It’s not a very exciting celebration, but it has its own unique beauty.
The visits to the psych ward are a little more chaotic. I go with a couple other people to the hospital. We bring snacks to the veterans in the ward. Some folks play cards. I usually try to initiate conversations with a few of the patients. I pay attention to them. I listen to their stories. Some of the vets don’t want to talk. Some are eager to tell somebody, anybody, about their lives. Many of the patients are sick and scared and lonely. They’re hurting, some of them very deeply.
So, this brings me back to enlightenment. What is it and how does one get it? I have never heard a clear definition of enlightenment. Maybe if a person can describe it, they don’t really have it. It seems to involve being able to see the world as it really is. Some people get enlightenment by sitting on a cushion and mentally reciting a mantra. Some get it through chanting sutras. Some people solve a kung-on (koan), an riddle that defies logical thought. Some people get it when a Zen Master smacks them upside the head.
I don’t have enlightenment, and I doubt that I will get it. I do find glimmers of the truth when I hang out with the folks at the psych ward. Some of them are Zen masters, and completely unaware of the fact. Those are the best kind. Some of the vets are living totally in the moment. Their past is completely trashed and they have no future worthy of mention. They have gained their wisdom the hard way, by having their attachments torn away by a brutal life in an irrational world. They are often almost childlike in their honesty and lack of pretense. Every patient’s life is a kung-on, and some of them have accepted their life just as it is.
Some Zen masters wear flowing grey robes. Some of them wear maroon bathrobes over pajamas. Their job is to teach the dharma. Some of them use riddles. Some of them are riddles. Some of them sit and meditate with me. Some of them look me in the eye and tell me how they killed a man.
Who can best teach me about suffering and compassion? A man who trained his mind for years to become aware of his surroundings, or a man who is haunted by the violence he endured five decades ago? Do I learn best from a person who is serene, or from a person whose soul is scorched?
Tonight I will study the dharma and celebrate the Buddha’s Enlightenment Day at the psych ward.