Rather than resist our resistance, we can allow ourselves to explore it in intimate detail, like a bug traveling across a flower, petal by petal. Examined at close range and without judgment, each form of resistance reveals its own rich texture. Sometimes, for instance, the form seems meaningless. “This is stupid,” the mind sputters. “Why should I circumambulate clockwise rather than counterclockwise?” Such moments can be humorous or painful - yet they, too, have their grace.
In college I had a friend, a poet who had a serious stutter. One evening he gave a poetry reading before a fairly large audience. He began by explaining that when you have a stutter, you spontaneously discover that a certain gesture - pulling an ear, scratching an elbow, or bending down to pull up a sock - helps get the sound out. But over time, each gesture loses its power, until gradually you are left with a collection of empty and eccentric tics. He demonstrated for us: “S-S-S-S-(bending down to pull up a sock) A-A-A-A-(scratching an elbow) S-S-S-S-(pulling an ear) PARILLA!”
He went on, performing a kind of absurd and marvelous dance until he had completely disarmed his audience, and the anxiety that his friends felt for him had dissolved into laughter. What I learned is that it is possible to be completely present within certain words or gestures while remaining in full knowledge of their essential absurdity. Shakyamuni twirled a flower and Hakuin’s teacher tweaked his nose. Each gesture is at once absolutely necessary and infinitely replaceable.
But what happens when we seem to fall out of the forms completely? In the midst of chanting a sutra that one has recited a thousand times, the words turn to dry husks inside the mouth. At such moments we look around and wonder what we are doing among so many strange people moving their mouths. It’s as if suddenly Cinderella’s coach turns into a pumpkin, her beautiful dress is back to rags, and she no longer belongs at the ball.
I remember so well the pain of being without a path - and my immense relief when I was taught, by a young Thai monk, to meditate. I felt as though I’d been looking for this path my whole life, yet the forms themselves were quite alien. The strange statues and chants made me want to weep with discomfort, and somewhere I still carry a fear that the vehicle could hit a bump and expel me onto the curb.
When I allow myself to sink into this apprehension, it draws me back to an experience that I had as a child. Sometimes in the midst of the most ordinary situations - sitting around the dinner table or riding in the car - I would suddenly look into my parents’ faces and all connection with them would vanish. This happened quite apart from any emotion - it wasn’t that I was angry at them or holding something in - it was just that, for a split second, I saw them in the mysterious singleness of their being. Why should my mother have this particular slant of nose and cheek? Why should my father’s voice have this timbre? How did it come to be that we were eating ravioli at the dinner table or whizzing past telephone poles in the car?
Such estrangement is dizzying. Yet there is something sacred about the moment when we fall out of the habit-realm. So often it is precisely such a gap, a sense of wonder or questioning at what we take for granted, that brings us to the path in the first place.
The very meaning of “religion” contains the notion of tying back, fastening, yoking. There is something for the sake of which we are willing to let the loose strands of our own predilections go. The process can be painful, yet it can also be liberating - as in the famous story when the Zen teacher pours tea into the student’s cup until it overflows. It’s in precisely those moments when we experience how crowded our minds are that we have the chance of letting go and experiencing just how light we can be. What a joy to simply bow and light a stick of incense.
But here we are in dangerous territory. For when the willingness to surrender our own doubts and hesitations is not grounded in a practice of genuine inquiry and insight, the risks are real. Even setting aside the danger of fanaticism, it is important not to betray our own sense of what is right and what is real. Once, when I lived at a rural Zen center in northern California, a young woman from a Vajrayana lineage came to perform her 100,000 bows on a solo retreat. When she arrived it had already been raining for several days, and it continued to rain during the course of her stay. One evening I found her in the dark kitchen of the main house, drinking tea. She wasn’t supposed to engage in a conversation with anyone, but she looked worried, so I asked her how she was.
“I’m having a lot of resistance to my practice,” she said. “I keep feeling as though my cabin’s moving.”
“Are you from California?” I asked her.
“No,” she said. “I’m from New England.”
“I think your cabin’s moving,” I told her.
We went down with flashlights to have a look - and sure enough, in the drenched ground a chasm of several feet had opened up and surrounded her cabin. It looked as though it might soon slide down the hill.
From a certain perspective, of course, these questions and reservations about form are pure luxury. It’s through the lens of deprivation that we perhaps get the truest glimpse of the power of form. In her memoir, The Stones Cry Out, Molyda Szymusiak, a young Cambodian woman tells a true story that began when a friend of her uncle’s had a dream. In the dream, a buddha was moaning from the mud of a pond, “Help me out of here, my friend!” Guided by this dream, the two men found their way to a dry river bend, where a large bronze buddha lay in the bottom of the silt. Most statues found in this way had been decapitated, but this one was intact. The girl’s uncle wanted to rescue the statue, but his friend was too frightened. To be caught in such an act was a crime punishable by death by the Khmer Rouge. That evening the uncle returned to the spot alone. He asked a passerby to help him, but the man treated him as if he were crazy.
. . . So he prayed, “Lord Buddha, I’m alone and you’re too heavy. But if you wish it, you can become light.” He stretched his muscles, his feet sank into the slime, but the statue moved. He pushed it closer to the edge of the pond, and with a last effort hoisted it up onto the grassy bank. . . . He told my father he felt as if he were carrying something like a big rock, no heavier than one or two bricks. . . . Shortly afterward we all left that area, and I don’t know what happened to the statue, but my uncle always said to his children, “Only bodies may be killed. Take care to keep peace in your heart.”
How is it that a particular word, gesture or thing can be the embodiment of that which has no body and can never be killed? In times of extremity, the inanimate form can flower forth, like a daffodil bulb having stored its energy under the cold, hard ground. Where does this energy come from? Shakyamuni twirls a flower.
Noelle Oxenhandler began Buddhist practice in 1971. Her most recent writing has appeared in The New Yorker and Parabola. She lives in Glen Ellen, California.