“I am a poor wayfaring stranger, while travelling through this world of woe.
Yet there’s no sickness, toil or danger. In that bright world to which I go.
I’m going there to see my mother. She said she’d meet me when I come.
I’m only going over Jordan. I’m only going over home.”
A classic American folk and gospel song, it resonates with one of Buddhism’s four Noble Truths that all is suffering, all is woe, and impermanence is one of the great causes of suffering. But a bright world exists to which we can go.
Last week the rains stopped and the fruit trees blossomed, a month before expected, but nonetheless spectacular for their early arrival. The plum trees in my yard shimmered in the February sunset, still winter by the calendar. The blossoms will not remain long. But long enough to tarry in my dreams, haunt my imagination, and find their way from brush to canvas to capture the beauty of impermanence.
This weekend we will say goodbye to a good friend, my second mother, who has gone over Jordan. There is no sickness, toil or danger, in that bright world to which she goes. Someday we’ll join her, going there, no more to roam. She said she’d meet us when we come. She said she’s only going home.
The Sanskrit word samsara means to wander, and in the context of Buddhism it means to return, confined to rebirth, locked in an endless cycle of ignorance and suffering, until after dedicated work following the path to end suffering, enlightenment is reached, and the eyes are opened. According to Donald Lopez Jr. in The Story of Buddhism, “wisdom is the insight that everything is of the nature of consciousness and the product of one’s own projections.” To become a buddha, it is necessary to be empty, as the sutras repeatedly teach “not to see anything, is to see everything…..in Zen, there is the saying ‘mountains are mountains,’ referring to the dictum that before one begins the practice of Zen, mountains are mountains; during the practice of Zen, mountains are not mountains; after the practice of Zen, mountains are mountains.”
At the edge of the void, one can see the emptiness from which all matter comes into being, and from which all things evaporate. Form gives us a means to learn and build confidence; form provides a path to experience the teachings and verify the teacher. Like an elephant’s footprint, form is a sign, here today, but gone tomorrow. Objects are material, ever changing in state; the spirit alone is precious. Tibetan Buddhist Monks create beautiful sand mandalas only to sweep them away to symbolize the transitory nature of material life. Their creation and their dissolution is an act of faith, revealing the beauty and truth of impermanence. At the edge of the void, one finds the beginning of the possible.
Big flakes of snow melted on our faces as we cross-country skied, breaking trail on the ridge above Cold Stream Valley watershed. The soft quiet storm shattered by the sound of the train swiftly rolling up the mountain to Donner Pass. Joyous, we made our way through the meringue-like forest. Deep snow, grey sky, frozen blue pond and the charcoal scrawled tree scape now frosted, defined the sunless day.
Like thirsty pilgrims arriving at a well after a long journey, we gave thanks, knowing each snow filled hour meant sustained water for drought stricken cities and fields. Magnetized, we were drawn to the snow, both day and night, awestruck by this magical and rare occurrence. Never again taken for granted. A midnight stroll found us by the bank of the Truckee, laughing in joy, as the river, roared her song into the night, balance restored. In the heart of darkness, the snow-covered landscape reflected warmth, restoring our parched souls.
John Muir wrote in My First Summer in the Sierra “measureless mountain days…days in whose light everything seems to show us God…the blessings of one mountain day; whatever her fate, long life, short life, stormy or calm, she is rich forever.”