Falling in love with the ordinary

by Roshi Mary Jise Jaksch


When we start walking the path of Zen, we carry baggage along with us. We walk, burdened with hopes and expectations. We may want to be more focussed, sleep better, become a more spiritual person or get enlightened. As days merge into each other and months and years pass while we set one foot in front of the other, we tend to forget what brought us to this path in the first place. And then something strange happens: we fall in love with the ordinary. Suddenly, ordinary things begin to shine: Heavy rainfall at night, the grumpy face of your child early in the morning, the cats stretched out in the sun.

I remember meeting Susan Gilbert, who had just heard - in seemingly perfect health - that she had terminal cancer and was expected to live only a few months longer. We were looking out to sea, standing on Aitken Roshi?s veranda in Hawaii, I asked her that day, "What is different, now that you know you are going to die so soon?" "The sky is so blue!" she said, "I never noticed before how blue the sky is."
We are all terminally ill. All of us are going to die. We just don?t know when. We are obsessed with keeping death at bay. We are obsessed with ideas of death and life. Yet when we practice zazen, we can touch something that bears no relation to our ideas of life and death.
We also try to keep life at bay. We want to eliminate the messy bits: The flood of jealousy that washes through us, or the gnawing hurt of envy, the wave of grief, the sudden chaos of passion that overwhelms us just when we have ?got our lives together?.

The monk asked Master Chao-chou, "In whom does Buddha cause passion?"
"Buddha causes passion in us all."
"How do we get rid of it?"
"Why should we get rid of it?"1

When we enter what is truly present, we can touch joy, even in the chaos of despair, rage or grief.

I recently got a letter from a friend who wrote to me after her sister had finally died of cancer:
What a journey it has been! Such an honour and a privilege to have my life touched by this experience. It is beyond words to describe the ecstasy and joy I felt at the time of her death and the strength that I experienced then and still do. Such a fullness in my heart and a sense of being held.
Often the reason why we end up in spiritual practice is that we hope that it will lift us out of turmoil and pain. But when we truly enter each moment, accepting with openness what it brings, a sense of joy, confidence and peacefulness starts to emerge. When we start to be intimate with what is, we experience life with a new sense of wonder: How soft rain falls! How wet water is!

When our eyes begin to open and we see things as they truly are, we fall in love with the world. Suddenly we see little details that we missed before. The ordinary things shine - the sun is hotter and the wind sharper; water has a taste that is beyond words and the purple flowers by the wayside break the heart.

What is most ordinary? Our breath is most ordinary. Ordinary, because its regular rhythm has dulled our awareness. You can be sure that we will snap to sharp attention should it stop! Can you fall in love with the miracle of your breath? Can you notice how sweetly it flows in and out, nourishing body and soul? Please pause for a moment and experience one breath from its very first stirring to its fullness and complete dying away.

Paul Matthews writes in his poem Finding Out a Joy:2

As I walked out
This May morning
I heard a Blackbird
calling from the wood
and there without a word
the Bluebells spread
and I said look at me
you pure inquisitors
and this they did -
their mute gaze
finding out a joy
I?d too long
shaded from their view
and as the Blackbird
carolled in the sunlit glade
I wept for being seen

When we open to the splendour of the moment, ordinary things fall in love with us. Doorhandles wait to be touched with tender regard. A little pink cloud in the evening sky yearns to be noticed by you. Willow trees, sporting their first spring green, shout for your attention. Your breath is waiting to unfold under your soft gaze. Rainer Maria Rilke speaks of this in his Duino Elegy3:

Sure, spring depended on you.
Many stars lined up
hoping you?d notice.
A wave rose towards you
out of the past
or a violin
offered itself
As you passed an open window.
These were instructions, your mission.
But could you perform it?
Weren?t you always distracted
Waiting for something
As if all this was announcing
A lover?s arrival?

As we walk this path we begin to fall in love with ourselves, with our own ordinariness. We begin to see our quirky little ways, our small fears and hidden hopes with compassion and a smile. Zen practice sharpens our sense of humour, our ability to laugh at ourselves. We begin to see that we are all right, just as we are. We are all right to the very bottom, all right since before time. This is the ground whence laughter arises. When we can laugh kindly about ourselves, that is true confidence!

The Sufi poet Rumi said: "Love is the way the messengers from the mystery tell us things"4. Who are the messengers of the mystery? You don?t need to go far to find them! A cool wind has come up and clouds are gathering. The heady scent of Freesias wafts through the window. Notice your own breath flowing in and out as you read this. When you let go deeply into your breath or whatever holds your attention, when you become truly intimate - you will find that the messengers are the mystery itself.

In his poem Pine Tree Tops, Gary Snyder sings5:

In the blue night
frost haze, the sky glows
with the moon
pine tree tops
bend snow-blue, fade
into sky, frost, starlight.
the creak of boots.
Rabbit tracks, deer tracks,
what do we know

Indeed, what do we know? In our culture there is a premium on knowing. If you know, then you are an expert. We go to school, we learn a trade or go to university - all in the service of knowing. What is it like not to know? I don?t mean the blank stare of failing to work out what 4 times 74 is! I speak of the gaze of innocence, the gaze of wonder and awe. I speak of a not-knowing that strikes us dumb, where words fail us, where knowing slips away, revealing potent emptiness.

I led a Zen workshop for beginners recently and wanted to give them a tongue-tip taste of this. So I offered the following exercise which you may like to try: Settle into zazen, paying soft attention to your body and breath. Include in your awareness sounds and sensations. Now hold the question, "What is it?" If you notice your mind spinning an intellectual yarn in response, simply return to the question. Now drop the words. Just rest in the mind of questioning itself.

After this exercise I asked participants about their experience. A young woman said, "I couldn?t make head or tail of your instructions!" "Well," I said, "what was the mind of questioning like?" She paused, then said haltingly, "It was like the sky at night." An innocent response, touching the heart of the matter: Not knowing is like the sky at night - dark, vast. The ancient word ?benighted? touches on this. When we truly enter our breath or the vast glory of the moment, when we settle deeply into our koan, asking "What is Mu?" then we are ?in the dark?, we are ?benighted?.
You don?t have to sit on your zafu to experience this. Ross Bolleter Roshi tells a folk story of the fairies that came at night and stole the words off all the things. Next time you go for a walk, notice how is it when you let names drop off things. How is it when you look at a flower with tender regard and there are no words - no ?flower?, no ?blue?, no ?beautiful??
Tell me, when all words and ideas fall away - what remains?


1. Chang Chung-Yuan, Original Teachings of Ch?an Buddhism. Random House (Vintage Books), New York 1971, p 166.
2. Unpublished manuscript.
3. Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegy I, transl. David Young, W.W. Norton & Co, New York, London 1992, p21.
4. Love Poems of Rumi, Ed. Deepak Chopra, Harmony Books, New York, 1998, p59.
5. Essential Zen, Ed. Kazuan Tanahashi and Tensho David Schneider, Castle Books, Edison, 1996, p128.
© Mary Jaksch 1998

No reproduction without the authors permission please.