by Lisa Kring, Insight L.A.
May I have the courage to pause
In radical stillness
As simple blessing
May I know refuge
In this warm, good and open heart,
But to rest in the love that is already here.
May I meet myself
At my own door
And invite myself in
Saying, “welcome home, beloved,
Come in from the cold.”
May kindness bloom
In the heart
Like a natural spring flower
Vivid and alive.
May kindness rise up
Like a warm sun
Limitless and abundant,
Radiating all from within,
Especially the tight dark places,
And may this light
Illuminate the path for all beings
Especially the most marginalized.
May I know the solid ground
Of being love
On this earth,
Over 30 years ago, when I attended my first meditation retreat at Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA, I was nervous about what it would be like to sit in silence for a period of ten days. By the end of the retreat, I felt as if I had connected with a peaceful inner home.
Zen practitioner Debra Seido writes about sitting in meditation as a profound homecoming. She quotes Dogen Zenji who asks, “Why leave behind the seat in your own home to wander in vain through the dusty realms of other lands; if you make one misstep, you stumble past what is directly in front of you.”
Debra suggests that we investigate our experiences of home.
*Take some moments to reflect upon these questions:
What is your earliest sense of home?
When did you feel most “at home” in your life?
What does home mean to you now? What are the qualities of home?
When do you not feel at home?
Have you ever felt homesick or longed to go home?
How have you left home in the past?
How does your felt sense of home inform your meditation practice?
One of the earliest stories of yearning to return home dates back to the 12th century BC. The Odyssey describes the long, perilous voyage of Odysseus after the Greek victory in the Trojan war. His faithful wife Penelope waited nearly two decades to welcome him home. This mythical journey resonates with us because we are all born into some kind of a home, a familiar place where we experience a degree of belonging and nurturance. Ideally, our first home is associated with safety, ease and protection from outside dangers. But even in the most ideal home, we can’t avoid learning about suffering and impermanence.
In the West, most of us leave our childhood home to explore and grow—a transition that is often exciting and frightening at the same time. Along the way, we try to recreate a home base, a safe, familiar living space. After time away, visits to our childhood home feel like a mixture of familiarity and strangeness. Recognizing how it has changed and we have changed, we are confronted with the truth of impermanence. Now my former bedroom looks smaller than I remembered it, and my father has converted it into his study. The apple tree that seemed so tall and sturdy when I climbed it as a child was cut into firewood years ago, when it toppled in a storm.
Debra points out that our everyday experiences of home pertain to our meditation practice, which leads to a spiritual homecoming and a return to a basic ground of being, our innate Buddha nature. Homecoming occurs with each in-breath, as we come into being, and home leaving occurs with each out-breath, as we let go of being. As our practice matures, we learn to let go of grasping for permanence and personal preferences, and to accept whatever arises in the present moment.
In Debra’s words, “With this kind of homecoming, we see that we’ve never left this very place and that we can find ease and acceptance in the midst of all things. [I]n that way we are home everywhere. This new home is the [refuge] of practice. Joy and ease come from trust in this method of trusting oneself and [life’s] unfolding.”
It is said that everywhere the Buddha went, with only his robe and his bowl, he was at home. We too can practice so that wherever we are is home. Awareness of breathing in and breathing out in meditation practice allows us to realize that our spiritual home is always accessible within us.
Recently, I heard a virtual dharma talk by Paul Haller, a venerable Buddhist monk who served as co-abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center. He spoke about Dogen’s idea of “universal recognition” and used the image of a vast sea of awareness where all human beings manifest as unique waves. When we rest in this sea of awareness, we take refuge in coming home and experience deep inner peace.
However, most of us are conditioned to spend time in individual rowboats, paddling busily across the water’s surface, without trusting or surrendering to the omnipresent support of the ocean. It is only by pausing and immersing ourselves in the waters of our present experience that we become aware of the habitual impediments that blind us to the true home that is always awaiting us.
A co-director of the New York Zen Center, Koshin Paley Ellison considers Dogen one of the great masters in the Soto lineage. Dogen returned to Japan from China in 1229 and translated Buddhist teachings into Japanese, enabling lay people to have access to the dharma. In his view, everyone has a capacity to develop mental stability, to accept whatever arises and to come home to their essential nature. One of his verses reads:
Now, when you seek the Way, you find it to be universal and complete.
How, then, can it be contingent upon practice and enlightenment?
The Dharma vehicle is free and unrestricted.
What need is there for concentrated effort?
Indeed, the whole body of reality is far beyond the world’s dust.
Who can believe in a means to brush it clean?
If we are already complete, lacking nothing, why do we have to sit and practice? Because we can get stuck, stagnant and burned out. We leave home base and move away from the reality of what is right in front of us. Often important moments in our practice occur when we feel blocked.
Koshin reminisces about being on a retreat many years ago, when he was frustrated, angry and bored. He longed to feel free and unrestricted and could not see how caught he was in “selfing.” Stuck in his preferences, in his desire to feel liberated and successful as a meditator, he wanted to impress his teacher with his own dedication to sitting meditation.
Suddenly, Koshin realized that he was viewing the practice like a transaction: “What is it doing for me?” Like a Janet Jackson song, “What have you done for me lately?” he was treating his work and many relationships with that attitude. Recognizing that he had been transferring the busyness of his daily life to his meditation practice, Koshin felt embarrassed. Then he sat alone in the zendo and wept, feeling a glimmer of freedom. He began to truly take his seat—to find an inner home—instead of being attached to his idea of becoming a perfect meditator.
We have a rare opportunity in this fleeting life to focus, get clear, and come home to ourselves. In a meditation sangha, we can rely on good spiritual friends who encourage us to keep practicing. Instead of hanging onto stories of ourselves that make us miserable, we can practice and allow some freshness into our lives, so that we wake up and feel more fully alive.
Dogen taught: “You must take note of the fact that even Shakyamuni Buddha had to sit … for six years. The influence of those six years of upright sitting is still apparent…. The ancient sages were this diligent in their practice, so how can people today dispense with the practice…? The Way is complete and present right where you are. What is the use, then, of practice? And yet, if there is the slightest difference between you and the Way, the separation will be greater than that between heaven and earth. If the least like or dislike arises, the mind is lost in confusion.”
Imagine how it would be to show up and practice in both favorable and unfavorable conditions, whether we feel comfortable or not. Regular, steady practice allows us to return home and touch freedom, even for a moment, to open into spacious awareness that is always available. Over time, we learn to let go of distractions so that we can be present here and now, receptive and open to reality just as it is. Then we feel at home wherever we are.