Filed in Zen (Chan)

Rising to the Challenge: Filling the Well with Snow

Bonnie Myotai Treace teaches us to be open to a world in which the old standards no longer apply.

Bonnie Myotai Treace

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We have this challenge right now: As we practice in these dangerous times, how can we be at peace? How can we become a source of compassion, and let our lives be a clear expression of wisdom? I find that so many of the traditional teachings are suddenly hitting home in fresh ways, as if they were designed for this particular moment in history. When we chant the evening gatha—the traditional verse that closes the day of training—it seems as if the ancient teachers had gathered that very day to write these words:

Let me respectfully remind you:
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.

When I’m working with students who feel trapped in their anger, fear, or hopelessness, instead of trying to talk them out of what they’re experiencing, I often simply point out that they’ve arrived at the stark reality of the Buddha’s First Noble Truth: Life is suffering. There are three more Noble Truths, and that’s where we can lean in, aware that our experience is the necessary first step toward coming to peace.

We’re all prisoners of life and death. The question is: What kind of prisoners do we want to be? We have beautiful examples of people who have literally been prisoners, yet who found reasons to be loving, compassionate, strong, and at ease with the reality of their lives. Not that they didn’t feel grief and anguish, but they were able to access something else as well—the human spirit. Nelson Mandela, Elie Wiesel, Gerda Lerner—these are just a few examples. You can look at many others who have faced “inescapable” trauma of all kinds. Over and over in human history, people have accessed this well of strength and peace.

To me, one of the great lies is that fear is the only natural response. Without denying our fear, we can keep going deeper. We can stay in basic attention and explore: Who am I? What’s the possibility here? This takes diligence, so that we don’t slip into letting others define our reality and falsely limit the possibilities that are always present. That diligence is the practice of responsibility that the evening gatha implies. Too often we get hung up on the exhortation “Do not squander your life” and interpret it as a scolding, as if we were naughty children caught wasting time. I see the teaching “Be responsible” more as an expression of absolute trust in the possibility of awakening. The message is “Hey, you! You can do it. You can respond. You’re capable of the perfect living and dying of this moment.”

I’ve been asked if I think the world is getting worse. That, to me, isn’t the point. However the world is—whether there are swirling forces of confusion or immense waves of clarity around us—we’re still responsible. When we turn diligence into an intellectual process, we end up feeling exhausted by the intensity of the obligation. But if we just respond the way the eyelid responds to a dry eye, then the work of peace naturally arises out of our innate wisdom and compassion.

When we’re afraid, the mind tends to dart away instead of diligently and deeply entering the fear. It gets confused and thinks, “Let me take care of myself first,” as if it weren’t responsible for the whole world. Part of what zazen—sitting meditation—does is to help us settle down into gentle, unswerving attention and peel away that false sense of separation.

Rage—whether in reaction to social injustice, or to our leaders’ insanity, or to those who threaten or harm us—is a powerful energy that, with diligent practice, can be transformed into fierce compassion. However much we disagree with those we have decided to call our enemies, our task is to identify with them. They, too, feel justified in their point of view. Everybody protects what they value and see as important. If we fail to recognize the universality of that basic impulse to protect and defend, we just perpetuate the urge to create a false enemy and eliminate it. We’re now at a point where human survival depends on letting go of that urge and realizing our common bond. Attention opens the mind to intimacy. And from intimacy, a very different sort of action can arise.

But why is it so hard to practice this sort of attention right now? Maybe because we want answers—and there are none. It is impossible to know what to do. The old standards don’t apply: going out and protesting, for example, doesn’t have the impact it once did. We need a kind of attentiveness that is more than just being present. It means being available in an unconditioned way, not knowing what action will be required or how much patience will be called for.

Intense times call for intense practice. But in the world, as in the zendo, intensity does not mean straining or pushing; rather, it is a willingness to begin fresh. To feed that willingness, we use the tools of practice: Work with a teacher. Have spiritual friends. Create situations where you have permission and support to go deep, so that feelings of fear and anger don’t just build up until you find you’ve gone numb. Much of my work right now is just getting people to show up for each other and for their practice. Once they do that, a reservoir of peace and wisdom is right there. But they don’t know that till they show up.

I think the palliative for fear and anger is to stand firmly and wakefully in the moment. It’s like the old Zen master saying, “Come with me. Let’s fill the well with snow.” It’s a hopeless task: The snow melts; the process is endless. We don’t take action because we expect a certain result; we do it because it needs to be done. We pick up the shovel not because we’re going to fill the well with snow but because shoveling is the dharma activity of that moment. We show up for the impossible. Is that so different from saying, “Come with me. Let’s be peacemakers”?

Bonnie Myotai Treace is spiritual director of Zen Center of New York City, Fire Lotus Temple, in Brooklyn.

Image: © James Welling. Courtesy of the artist and Gorney Bravin + Lee, New York.

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myers_lloyd's picture

Let's fill the snow with a well.

deannies's picture

Beautifully written and lush. What I could suggest for those who feel powerless, get involved with your local government process. You can see changes there, concrete changes, in your community that can lead to the betterment for all. Trying to take on climate change and nuclear war is a daunting topic that often makes people feel powerless. Starting smaller, figuring out how the system works and what the system is can lead to bigger and better challenges and accomplishments. Look in the small pond first.

jespersr's picture

With as much respect as I can now muster, I have to say that after 40 years of study and practice, I'm tired of the doubletalk. Like "we don't take action because we expect a certain result. We take action because it needs to be done." Such faux profundity. So frustratingly and impossibly meaningless in any practical way. This teacher means well, of course. But, please. I do long for more straightforward teaching and not more head banging dead end speech.

myers_lloyd's picture

Maybe you're better suited to a religion that issues specific directives on what to do when. Buddhism as I understand it, as my sangha practices it, is a "don't know" condition. Is Buddhism supposed to be practical? It is a practice- there are guidelines- but without Ten Commandments. Whether you're Buddhist or not, I recommend the Buddhist practice of Right Speech. Is it necessary or helpful to label a teacher like Bonnie Myotai Treace a teacher of "faux profundity" or "double talk"? The respect you are mustering is just not there.
Is this problem you place on the teacher your own to carry? I don't see what you here attribute to the teacher: "head banging dead end" speech.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Filling the well with snow sounds like bailing water out of the boat without patching the hole first. At its core Buddhism is simply common sense.

gdixon1's picture

Thank you for your insightful comment. I have gone rogue for the same reason........

drlipton's picture

"Maybe we want answers, and there are none." I respectfully disagree. I think that there is an imperative, as Buddhists or any other sane human, to take action to prevent nuclear war and global heating. And there are effective ways to do this Watch this video:
If we take even a small part of the bodhisattva vow, to protect all beings, we must act to prevent nuclear war, and right now, the hands of the Doomsday clock on the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists are at 3 minutes to midnight, as close to global extinction as during the Reagan era. Mindful action is a necessity, and there are many nonviolent steps to take.

Dominic Gomez's picture

"the process is endless": Life is eternal.

robmounsey's picture

"Let's fill the well with snow!" How marvelous! How beautifully useless! How nutritious, and delicious! Thank you.'s picture

Once again Tricycle comes up with just what i need to see....
Much Gratitude

chrismannolini's picture

There are many good points in this article. Turning and thinking of the self when you are fearful, rather than the common good, is one. And "to stand firmly and wakefully in the moment" is a great antidote.

manatee's picture

Wow, David, did I ever need to hear that RIGHT NOW ! THANKS SO MUCH ! manatee

davidfeldman26's picture

Thanks you for this article. I love "showing up for the impossible". A long time ago aI was going going with a friend and mentor of mine from Cambridge to Newton and the snows stopped the trains. He said "let's walk. It is a VERY long walk, especially in somewhat of a blizzard. I said, that seems crazy, almost impossible really. He said. only the impossible is worth doing. We walked and it was quite wonderful.