Zen Confidential: “I need a black dog…”

The snow is falling like powdered sugar turning Santa Fe, New Mexico into a confectionery place. The pink stucco buildings and scrubby little cactus assembled along narrow streets are powdery and playful and the Buddhists at Upaya Zen Center are pretending to work, shoveling snow off the rock paths that artfully lead to the Zendo. Work is the practice and play for the mindful here as they walk briskly with abandon to the next opportunity to learn “The nature of things”.

Nothing about the nature of these Zen Buddhists tucked up into the rocky hillsides lead by their iconic Roshi Joan Halifax has to do with winning, succeeding or becoming. Failure and struggle are as good as accolades and conquest. The only goal, which isn’t really a goal but the work of many life times, is wisdom and compassion, to know the truth of life.

The Roshi here has a haiku to illustrate this which expresses her need for a black dog to find her way in the snow. The metaphor is that darkness best leads us into and through lightness and the other way around. Without up there cannot be down. There is a context which determines what is real and that context is that all things are truly connected like happiness and suffering. Here they say; “not one, not many” because the nature of things is entirely interwoven.

The haiku gets at this First Noble Truth; there is suffering. At first this statement can sound simplistic even pedestrian but if you let it truly sink in as the Zen Buddhists here do, it becomes something else entirely. Imagine what you might do if you were not spending so much time trying to avoid suffering? What if you accepted that suffering exists and that like happiness it is simply the nature of things?

Here’s another often used metaphor: without long there is not short and both are necessary depending on their context at the time. Can you imagine if every highway was the exact same length regardless of geography or destination? We’d never get anywhere.

Without judgment about what “should be” or the story that we make up which says we must never suffer but always be happy the nature of life becomes clear: life is life and contains all elements, take what comes with ease. There is no need for success for its just as fertile as failure and just as transient. Success does not really solve the “problem” of suffering because nothing can. Suffering just is. Happiness just is. Both serve their purpose and one is necessary for the other.

Even when you have accepted all this with awe and that too falls away–what then?

You go back to the great wheel. But instead of being caught in the cycle of suffering and its temporary cessation known as “Samsara”  you turn toward your wisdom of acceptance and unconditional love. You walk with your black dog through the snow knowing he is needed for you to see and you rest in that awareness. You are filled with compassion for all without judgment.

You have put down your sword and ended your wars.

Today at Upaya Zen Center as the snow falls around the Buddhist monastics they shovel sidewalks with the same smile they have as they snow shoe and build snow Buddhas because it is all snow and they are all people slowing turning the wheel of Dharma on a winter’s day in Santa Fe. Some are with their black dogs, some not but either way they are making their way in the powdery snow which surrounds their little Sangha alive in its true nature.





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