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Author of this essay:

Yin Cai Shakya
(September 28, 2009)

by Yin Cai Shakya

Home is where I want to be, Pick me up and turn me 'round. Home is where I want to be, But I guess I'm already there.

-- Taking Heads, This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)

Not getting anywhere in your Zen practice? Feeling that all the prostrations and the time spent on the cushion have gained you little more than pins and needles in your posterior and frustration in your mind? You're not alone. You can join the rest of us who know exactly what Hsu Yun meant when he said that sometimes when we try to meditate it feels like we're "sitting on an ant hill."

I'm speaking from personal experience. My meditation success-and-failure ratio resembled the way pilots describe flying: long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. Only in my situation it was long periods of meditation drudgery punctuated by moments of spiritually sublime, indescribably wonderful states.

Usually, when the glow of a successful session faded and the frustration began, I'd buy a book on meditation methods and try them one after the other, or else I'd immerse myself in the sutras, but I never seemed to shorten that long blank phase. On my most recent blank period, I happened to re-read an essay by our late master Yin Zhao. He had attained exalted states of consciousness listening to rock and roll music. He would alternately concentrate on the lyrics and on applying root, abdominal, and neck locks to generate heat and raise the Kundalini. He insisted that if a person listened carefully to the lyrics, he would discover new and significant meanings in the words. The result would be a startling intuitive certitude, replete with all the joys of discovery.

In this method, the Talking Heads quotation above could be read by a meditator, "The kingdom of God is within."

I didn't start out with much enthusiasm. It seemed like a stretch. But I gave it my best. I chose an album I liked by Silverstein, a Canadian band. The album was entitled A Shipwreck in the Sand. One song in particular grabbed my attention and wouldn't let go. I Am The Arsonist. To my amazement, I got the result Master Yin Zhao predicted.

Since the method succeeded so well, I'll relate in more detail my experience. The meaning I found pulled me out of my slump and gave me a way to enter the meditative state with regularity.

Many of us have experienced the phenomenon. We might be relaxing in our easy chair at home, exploring the soundscapes and textures of a new recording, or taking a long drive with the radio blaring; and suddenly a little piece of a song hits our ear drums in just the right way, causing a reaction in the brain - a brief nano-glimpse of the "other side." A mild euphoria combined with tiny goosebumps washes over us.

I Am The Arsonist did that to me. Bad. The specific lines that triggered the response were:

They'll see your fire through the dark night sky
I hope you're home when I arrive
If there's a fire in the afterlife
I'll be there again to light the match

I am the light that warms up your body
And sets free the demons inside
I am the one that never ignores you
That never will let you down

It stuck with me. I can remember moments at work, or at home while doing chores where I'd catch myself listening to the lyrics in my mind. It played over and over again, and I'd catch myself mentally circling it.

On the surface, the song is about a fellow who's obsessed with starting fires, and is written from his perspective as he challenges somebody he once knew and loved. But, when contemplated, a much grander meaning can be gleaned from these simple words. For me, the chorus became a conversation between a believer and Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, who lives within each of us as our Buddha Self. It went this way:

The Believer says, "They'll see your fire through the dark night sky," which I took to mean the Infinite Light of Lord Amitabha Buddha, functioning as a kind of beacon. It also signifies the luminous nature of the Mind, the dazzling light seen in rare occasions during meditation.

The Believer adds, "I hope you're home when I arrive..." meaning that the Believer wants to communicate with his Buddha Self, but he doesn't have the faith that He'll be there when he tries to seek him out.

The Buddha Self responds, "If there's a pyre in the after-life, I'll be there again to light the match." This is a reassuring declaration, delivered by the Buddha Self to the believer, that He will indeed be there to light the way and greet the devotee, provided certain conditions are met, ostensibly, the "pyre in the after-life."

What are we referring to when we mention "a pyre in the after-life"? As Zen Buddhists, we don't recognize the existence of an "after-life" in the conventional sense of the term. So why would the Buddha Self say to the Believer "I'll be there to ignite the blaze once again, if there's a pyre in the after-life." The answer to that question lies in "Dying to Self," the necessary extinction of the ego. This is also called, "Killing the fool." It essentially means that we have stepped back from our constant desires for the people, places, and things of the material world and have begun the liberating process of humility. When we attain this state, we automatically convert loneliness into solitude, and the serenity of our mind becomes the hearth on which the pyre is laid.

Further reassurance is in the divine declaration: " I am the light that warms up your body and sets free the demons inside. I am the one that never ignores you, that never will let you down." Pronouncements of this kind are found in every religion.

Am I reaching? Is this really so far-fetched? Perhaps it is. If we asked the author of the lines if this is what he meant, he probably would say no. But that is not the point. When we concentrate on something so thoroughly that we enter deep parts of our brain, we experience a euphoric high that we call, "Zen Disease." It's as if we've discovered a buried treasure. We are ecstatic. As the days pass, the euphoria dissipates and we settle down to a normal appreciation of having had a really nice spiritual experience. This is made clearer by a quote by an old Zen Master: "Before I came to Zen, mountains were mountains and rivers were rivers. And then I experienced Zen and mountains were MOUNTAINS! and rivers were RIVERS!. And now that I am experienced in Zen, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers."

When we transcend our egos, we cease observing the world around us in terms of "I who observe and that which I observe." The Buddha Self steps forward to show us the Ultimate Reality beyond our illusory world.

So many of us want more than anything else to get to that point. And often, when we try, we get no place at all. Sometimes we think we've made some kind of break-through, only to discover that we have misinterpreted an insignificant event and have succumbed to wishful thinking. We've gotten no where at all.

And then, one afternoon we're listening to a new record and we find a kind of magic embedded in verses and chorus. It is precisely these flashes of intuitive wisdom that ought to remind us that yes indeed, we are, in fact, getting somewhere. The importance of this Transcendental Wisdom cannot be understated.

Concentrating on an object until we penetrate it and grasp its inner meaning can open the doors to transcendence, doors which on the surface may look formidable, imposing, or even ridiculous. We have two options: we can allow ourselves to wallow in frustration or we can put on some music, sit down, relax, and actively contemplate the words.

Finally, we need to remember that frustration comes hand-in-hand with anything we love enough to devote serious attention to. Trial and error occur in all adventures. Accept this and keep a positive attitude and those periods of frustration won't last so long.

Humming Bird