He is never certain what to do on days like this one, when the winter takes a particularly nasty turn, the temperature hovers at utter emptiness, and the wind elects to try to enfold everything it can reach in a coat of frost, that bleaches life away. He walks each day, through the nearby park if the weather is the least bit cooperative, through the neighborhood when not, where at least he can take a small shelter from the wind in the shadow of houses closed up tightly, life walled away within, smarter, he imagines than he is, his fingers ill-gloved, slowly losing all feeling, but this is his practice, something he does because it requires doing, heeding an edict from an unspoken voice. And later emerging from a hot shower, feeling limbs restored, he glances at the weather in hopes the next day will be kinder, and slow in coming.
Today was downright exhausting, and my hour long walk along the river left me dripping and drooping. It wasn’t different than most days, same time, same place, and the usual 756 miles, according to my old friend Orion, who was watching from his usual perch, unseen, as he prefers it by day. When I was done, I started to complain about how I felt, when Orion interjected, “Just be thankful you’re not in Florida today, its hotter by far, and your usual walk would have covered a full 930 miles today, and there you’d have reason perhaps to complain just a bit.” Heading home to shower, I called out to Orion, “You know you are one heavenly pain in the ass.” “Yeah,” he replied, “that’s what Artemis said.”
If you ask who I am I will have you close your eyes and walk behind you, or I may step to your left and take your right hand. If you are perplexed, I will ask you, do the four gates open into the city or out to the world beyond, and if I stand still sideways under a gate in which direction am I headed?
A reflection on case 46 of Dogen’s True Dharma Eye (Shobogenzo).
He has been walking for hours, or, perhaps for days, it doesn’t matter since he is precisely where he should be at this moment. He is tired, so he sits in seiza and watches a colony of ants working away in a crack in the path, each doing his assigned task. He knows ants have Buddha nature for when they walk, they just walk, like he does, and when they eat they just eat and he has never seen a solitary ant wobble.
Each morning, as he went out on his walk, he would check the street light pole just down his block. He would carefully read the missing cat and dog posters, pause to think whether he might have seen any of the missing animals. He often wondered how many had been found, the missing notices left to fade in the sun and peel away after enough rain. He knew that some had found new homes, wondered briefly what they might have been escaping, hiding out from their owners. And each morning he scanned the pole to see if anyone had reported him missing, but he was the sort of person no one missed, he knew, and so he continued on his walk.
You may seek to follow the path of the dove, for a fool knows many roads. You may wrap yourself in fine linen, an infant wears only his skin and knows this moment is already gone.
Think long before you speak of how to walk along the path, of where it leads. The baby says nothing, will not speak of where he has been, where he is going, for to him there is only here, and silence is descriptive enough.
Birth, he said, is the first and only real terminal disease. You only realize that, of course, when it is far too late and there is nothing at all you can do about it. Cancer and all manner of diseases merely shift the timeline, but once you’re on the path, there is only one way off, and that is a step few are willing to take. For some, this is a source of terror, for others it is no more than a slow walk around the block, with the promise you’ll eventually arrive back at the place you began, although it is no longer the place you began but one from which you begin, not again but anew. Again. This is what the Buddha said 3000 years ago, more or less. He confirmed that the just the other day, outside the soup kitchen. “Hey,” Buddha said, “even the once or twice enlightened need to eat from time to time. Join me?”