Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Unoccupied Mind

When Brad and I and Laurence were in Rome many years ago, we went to a Mozart Requiem, performed in a non-denominational, plain church.  We sat in the balcony that had a broad walking space that ran around three quarters of the rectangular space, high above the congregation.  During a particularly sad part of the requiem, a young girl was dancing and swirling up and down the passage.  Such freedom!  Delightful!

Last week I was at Kaiser.  A young physical therapist was explaining in detail all the movements I would have to avoid after a left hip replacement.  I hadn’t given the details much thought; the descriptions of the pain and how I might dislocate the artificial joint were disturbing. 

“Do you have any questions?” he asked.

 “Yes.  What is your fundamental nature?” I spontaneously asked. [I had been giving a lot of thought to this matter.]

 He paused only a second, and then he said, “To help.”

“That’s fantastic!  That’s great!”

I was impressed that he did not think my question strange (which it probably was considering the circumstances).  He had answered spontaneously from his heart.  To help!  The bodhisattva’s vow spoken without philosophical analysis.  Such freedom!  Delightful!

I wonder if I could ever answer a question about my fundamental nature now that my mind is so full of Zen words and concepts.  I am reading (of course) a book about the Zen ancestors, and they all warn against the trap of words.  Zen master Deshan Xuanjian said,

If you have no affairs in your mind, nor mind in your affairs, then you are unoccupied yet animated, empty, and wondrous.  But if you allow yourself to stray from this upright state, all words will deceive you.

Of course, the obvious irony is that all these Zen masters talk about not talking.  But I guess they have to, because we love words.  I love words.  Somehow we need words.

What is this tightrope between reading the dharma and being free of the dharma?  Free like the young girl dancing, not knowing this was a requiem.  Free like the physical therapist, who could answer what might be perceived as a difficult dharma question with just a moment’s pause.

Is it too late to be innocent?  To go back to a clean slate?


  1. never too late . . . who said the slate was unclean

  2. you 2 are a perfect pair. like the front and back foot in walking.