Two events happened in my twenties which affected my life then and to some extent even now. The first was that my father died suddenly. He hadn’t been well for some time but we had just shared a relaxing family holiday in Scotland and we had even talked about climbing Ben Nevis when he was recovered and medically fit. Then a week or so after the holiday that phone call. Died? Why? Where did he go? No time for concluding remarks, goodbyes or any more hopeful plans. No time even for the next big event or any more events.
Then, within a few days, the next big event happened. An event which Dad had been looking forward to. My first son, and his first grandchild, was born. A natural pregnancy and birth, and thankfully no complications for mum or baby. A wonderful, joyful event. Parenthood. The type of life event that many may see as the ultimate fulfilment.
I was and am delighted to be a Dad, even an imperfect one, but at that time, a mixture of shock, grief, joy and confusion swirled around. After holding it together for a week or two, going back to work, trying to rationalise it all, listening to well-meant words of comfort, “one door closes etc…”, one night the dam burst. Out walking my dog across the cold fields; raging at the night sky; at the blank indifference of the universe and the crushing inevitability of sickness, old age and death. Also feeling ashamed of my temporary lack of gratitude for the new life, this wonderful baby boy and for the life he would bring, I shouted tearfully and angrily at the dark sky, “Why now? Why this way?”. A sense that this was definitely ‘the wrong script’ or at least the wrong sequence of events.
In a quiet moment it seemed to me that the darkness simply watched and shared my sadness.
Searching for some relief I came across D.T. Suzuki’s ‘An Introduction to Zen Buddhism’ in the local library. It was the first time I had read anything specifically about Buddhism. All these years later I can’t say truthfully that I can remember much about it other than the practice of Zen seemed both down to earth and practical and, at the same time, rather exotic and mysterious. There was the promise of ‘Enlightenment’ or at least some relief from the stress and suffering of everyday existence, and at the same time an invitation to surrender to this very same existence. Strange!
Life, work and family then got busy. In the following years, two more wonderful children arrived. In many ways I was the most fulfilled I could ever have imagined at that time. I didn’t particularly feel the need for a spiritual practice and even a daily meditation practice seemed like ‘self’ indulgence.
But those confused feelings hadn’t disappeared. I had simply buried them. Many years and personal life changes later, I finally came to Zen practice (or Zen came to me?) after reading ‘Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind’, an edited narrative based on a collection of dharma talks by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi.
The simplicity and elegance of Suzuki’s phrasing hooked me. Not a direct commentary on koan or the history of Zen or Buddhism but one exceptional man’s living and lived experience as a Zen teacher.
“Our ‘original mind’ includes everything within itself. It is always rich and sufficient within itself. You should not lose your self-sufficient state of mind… In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”
(From the Prologue)
How could a cold, dark sky silently watch and share my sadness? I don’t know but it seems that in our original mind, in the beginner’s mind, there are many, many possibilities.