Leaving the Impression Behind

There's a sign on the wall here in the Dharma room, “leave no trace” of having been here. No garbage, nothing out of place, paying attention to how the room was when we got here, and paying attention to leaving it that way. If nothing else, that's common courtesy. Given the number of different people who come in here—from us to massage therapists to mental health counselors to dancers, if it were any other way than what it was when we came in, it would be inconsiderate to leave the room otherwise. It might be convenient for us to leave the altar and mats in place, but not for the dancers. If the massage table were left in the middle of the room, it's not like they could work around it too easily. (Of course, Zen practitioners that we are, we would certainly proceed without judging how inconvenient this is, and what an awful person that masseuse must be).

On a practical level, when we clean the dishes, we pay attention that no food is left behind. We also put the dishes back where they're supposed to go, even if that's the dish drainer, because the dish drainer's correct function is to allow the dishes to dry--no trace of the water is left behind.

Zen Master Thich Thien-An quotes a poem:

“Swallows fly in the sky,
The water reflects their images.
The swallows leave no traces,
Nor does the water retain their images”.

That's a metaphor of course; birds fly, but they don't leave much of a wake in the air, “cluttering it up” so that the next bird has to work around it. Fish swim, water is disturbed for a moment, then returns to its natural state. Even when the air and the water combine to create waves, once the wind stops, the waves stop. Both air and water return to their undisturbed state. When we pay attention to what is happening right here&now, we may be in the disturbed, wave-like state, we may be in the calm, peaceful state of equanimity. When the waves stop, we don't have to act like they're still there, emotionally battening down the hatches. When something challenging happens, we can either ignore it and suffer the consequences like the inhabitants of barrier reefs who don't evacuate when there's a hurricane, or like the residents in the line of a forest fire just stay put, even when the fire is at the door. Peaceful, calm equanimity is wonderful, and even in those situations when disaster is knocking, we deal with disaster and don't have to turn it into something: “Oh, this always happens to me, what did I do to deserve this?!?” Water rises, get a raft. Fire's in the yard, grab a hose.

But either way, at some point we will be going into a wave if calm, into the calm if we're in a wave. And maybe sometimes, waves turn into tsunamis, not directly alternating with calm. The good news is that even tsunamis end. The bad news is that even when they end, we may be all too ware of the tsunami having been there. But, if we're surfers, we may like the waves, even be attached to the waves, becoming unhappy when they calm down. If we like placid, we may become attached to placid, and become upset when there is a disturbance. We all know someone who is at their best when the heat is on, a regular adrenaline junkie. We all know people who are like that becoming embroiled in situations that may not even be their own situation, and making waves when there needn't be any.

But even then, due to the impermanence and emptiness of all dharmas subject to causes and conditions, they really are transparent, they really will pass. That's just how impermanence works. Our thinking is what makes them how they are, not how they are in reality. And that's fine, that's how things are too, and when we're in the middle of the emotional tsunami, that seems totally irrelevant. The Buddha's First Noble Truth points to that sometimes things are just not to our liking. We get the opportunity to apply the other Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path over and over again. Maybe that helps, maybe it takes a little while longer to help than we'd like. But even though we create all things by what's going on in between our ears, knowing that we isn't much of a help when we're really deeply feeling something. “Feelings are empty,” the Heart Sutra tells us. It sure doesn't seem empty when we're really hurting. So we feel the hurt, when the hurting is over, we really should let it pass, and that's probably easy enough in most cases. The same applies to being joyous, and letting that go might be a little more difficult. But eventually, that happens too.

We live in the world of the Relative, where even though the “things” themselves are non-existent, that we are feeling them regardless is reality. Even being delusional about reality is in and of itself reality. That's the Absolute manifesting itself in the Relative. And part of that manifestation is that reality doesn't just contain impermanence, emptiness, struggle, and non-struggle. Let's not forget about the interdependence of all dharmas. It might be nice to live in a world of black/white progression, of “feeling, feeling is empty, let go of feeling, feeling is gone.” But we don't.

It might be nice to live in a world of leaving no trace, but every single action, thought, and word is going to leave an impression. Walk on a beach leave footprints in the sand, wave washes away the footprints, done. No trace. Really? What if countless sea creatures die because of the impression of the feet? What about whether those footprints somehow contribute to beach erosion? And what if that erosion contributes somehow to the next tsunami?

Paper or plastic? Plastic ends up in landfills, maybe strangles a bird, takes resources and energy to manufacture it in the first place. Paper also uses resources—trees, lack of which contributes to the imbalance between oxygen and carbon dioxide. Fossil fuels undoubtedly are used to power the saws that cut the tree down, further contributing to air pollution. The possible unintended consequences are virtually endless. Even these words might cause someone to reach either some sort of understanding, have no reaction at all, or maybe become totally disconsolate over the hopelessness of not knowing what to do, and has even more struggle because of it? Obviously it's not my intention to cause more suffering, but I'm aware it might. How that suffering is dealt with by the sufferer will have its own ramifications, maybe positive, maybe neutral, maybe negative, and on and on and on.

There's a Zen quote about being like firewood, burning out completely in our activities, leaving nothing undone—but metaphorically, maybe our fire creates pollution, maybe the fire kills animals in the vicinity or underneath it, maybe the ash and residue contributes to the next generation of plants to grow. Ash doesn't return to firewood directly, firewood doesn't return to tree directly, but maybe they can do so eventually. So it is with our actions and non-actions. We can't become paralyzed into non-action, as even that is action, unless done skillfully.

So what to do? We take the Middle Path. It's not all meaningless nihilism, it's not all meaningful determinism. In the Five Mountain Order, we talk about “Do no harm.” We try our best to be the most effective Bodhisattvas we can be. If our best isn't necessarily saving all beings, then maybe at least the outcome isn't creating hell for ourselves or others.

But being attached to an outcome—as either a goal or a result—is still attachment. If I think, “Well that was a great talk, definitely saved all beings there,” I'm attached to the impression I might have made. Correct action in this situation is to realize that in some way, my words have made an impression, good, bad, indifferent. But once the impression is made, leave that impression behind, and skillfully make the next one, then leave that impression behind. And maybe eventually our “ash” saves all beings, even though I'll be off leaving more impressions.

Maybe your interpretation of “leave no trace” is different from the way I'm using it here for these examples. It may verge toward a Huayan reading of interdependence rather than a strict Zen one. This turning of the phrase “leave no trace”—if it results in the impression that I'm wrong, Wonderful! If you think it's an interesting take on it, Wonderful!

I'm off to make my next set of proverbial dents in the proverbial sand. Eventually it will return to its natural state.

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