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Zen Xmas Blues

Took the Christmas tree to the recycling depot today and had a hard time parting with it.

It was just your typical Fraser fir from the supermarket, where danger lurks for Christmas tree seekers. You never know what you've got until it thaws. But we were lucky. This tree was verdant and fragrant, one of those lavishly fulsome conifers from the balsam family in contrast to the scrawny 'Charlie Brown' style of tree we've routinely watched unfold in the living room in Christmas's past. They are stunning too, in their own way of course. But someone remarked that this one was the best Christmas tree we'd ever had. Who could argue? Almost everyone commented on how spectacular and luminous it was.

So it was hard to strip it of its seasonal decor and then unceremoniously plop it on the snow-filled bed of the pick-up truck for a sordid ride to the recycle dump. I felt that it deserved a better fate and so the whole thing made me feel a bit sad.

But on the journey I kept telling myself that the tree had admirably fulfilled its temporary purpose among us. I was reminded that nothing lasts forever. Nothing is permanent. This is the very heart of Mahayana - that all suffering flows from habitual attachment to things that are impermanent. And if we must cleave to something, then let us cleave to nothing. And having embraced nothing, even this, one day soon, we must eventually release.

All this likely came to mind because I have two books on Zen on the go, along with some essays on Zen. And it seems that almost every year at Christmas, for no real reason, some of my attention turns to Zen.
Indeed, though I am far from being a Zen-man, sometimes I'm compelled to recycle this stuff.
And rather than be sad about my culpability in the fate of this tree, I decided to say good-bye with admiration and happiness - acknowledging its' impermanence while reflecting on my own. This is today's little lesson and brings to mind the following aphorism by the Zen master Hyakujo. Hyakujo would offer lectures to the novice monks in his monastery. For several days he noticed there had been an old man standing in the back of the lecture hall. One day after the lecture the old man asked if he might speak with Hyakujo and the master had him brought up for a private meeting. The old man said: "I am not really an old man. I am a fox. In a prior world structure I was the abbot of this monastery and someone asked me, 'Is an enlightened person bound by cause and effect?' And I said 'No'. And for that answer I was condemned to live in this body of a fox for the past 500 lifetimes. Can you give me a turning word to release me from this fox-body?'" Hyakujo said: "Ask your question again." The fox-man said: "Is an enlightened person bound by cause and effect?" Hyakujo said: "An enlightened person does not ignore cause and effect." On hearing this, the old man was released from his fox-body.
So far in this New Year I have tried to peer a bit more clearly into things. By admiring the noble purpose of a really great Christmas tree, for example. Similarly, if I am perturbed by our consumerist, throw-away society, or by the question of whether one should have a 'real' living Xmas tree at all, I am consoled to know that this living thing is subject to the condition of impermanence by virtue of its arising from a cone and by the cone arising from a tree and going back generations of cones and trees seeing that it was conditioned by having come from a single undivided prokaryotic cell. And regardless of whether I am, for the moment, perturbed or consoled, there is an old Zen story that illustrates how we might avoid getting too caught up in our thoughts: A monk asked a Zen master: 'What shall we do when the 100, the 1000 and the 10,000 things come towards us all at once?' The teacher replies: 'Just don't try to control them.'
For just a fleeting moment then, for just 21 days, our little living tree gave as much pleasure as it possibly could squeeze from itself, standing so radiantly among us. In a twinkling you could say this humble tree served up its' own Buddha-nature, sharing its' most intimate self so perfectly and brilliantly. All we can do is stand in awe and toss it on the pile of soon-to-be wood chips and sawdust. Thank-you. Well played. Nothing more to be said or done.
(Top: watercolour & India Ink illustration Zen Christmas Blues, by David Roberts.)





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Reader Comments (1)

Beautiful line work!

January 4, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterConnie Chadwell

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