Zen Buddhism and Martial Arts

Home » Literature Archives » Pennies from Heaven

Author of this essay:

Abbot John
(May 10, 2005)

by Abbot John

Isn't the grace of God somewhat like a shadow - a shadow of light? When we are blessed to be walking in that light aren't we humbled by it, thrilled by it, filled by a blissful pleasure caused by nothing more than being within it?

The glowing purity we feel needs to be experienced only once. It is the illumination of enlightenment, itself, and no darkness can envelop or obscure the radiance. It doesn't matter how long ago we first experienced that light, it never becomes just another faded memory of innocence.

Yet the worry persists. I recall the questions I most often asked my teacher. Was I being remiss in my responsibility to the blessing if I didn't repeat the initial experience? Or, to continue deepening my Zen, shouldn't I work to increase the intensity of the present glow? And worst of all, would the shadow fade away into a hopeless oblivion? My teacher invariably answered that I would regret nothing and could lose nothing if I remembered every day of my life that two giants guarded the gates of heaven against me. Pride and Anger. They were the Fafner and Fasolt of my Valhalla.


I assumed that his response was another one of those valuable but ultimately useless parables: "Pride goeth before a fall." So without giving it any conscious awareness, I busied myself with variations on the theme of sophomoric quests: Why are humans conscious? Prove to me that you are not a figment of my imagination. Answering unanswerable questions is the surest way to engender pride. Koans often have this negative result. The enlightenment they are supposed to foster darkens into smug superiority. Pride and, in the disdain, not a little contempt.

Eventually we acknowledge the truth that has been growing in our heart. We cannot ascend the ladder of Wisdom and Truth by climbing rung upon syllogistic rung of formalized reason. That truth that flourishes despite our neglect of it is a confirming intuition that guides and impels us to go deeper into ourselves. Even Sir Isaac Newton spent many long nights gazing into the middle distance between the substances reacting in his beakers and those Ultimate Essences beyond it that saturated his mind.

I forgot my teacher's admonitions, yet, inexplicably, I found myself becoming more tolerant of error, less quick to criticize, shrugging off incidents that once would have infuriated me. Sometimes when things at home or at the office became too hectic, I'd go out for a walk and discover that an aura had suffused the most simple of things.

It was during one of those walks I noticed that I had resumed a habit of picking up pennies on the street. I acquired the habit from my mother when I was a kid in rural Illinois. In those hard-time days it was the joy of found money, a little survival bonus. I remember, too, that if I ever found a quarter in the gutter I could not walk looking straight in front of me for days after. I'd always be searching the gutter for more unexpected treasure.

Times improved and, in the more dignified poverty of high school and college, flush in my new savoir faire, I ceased picking up pennies.

But then came that Light... that ethereal Light that makes all the difference.

So I entered Zen and questioned my teacher about the Glow's longevity. And I got his advice and filed it away. And after the philosophical excess, I entered the business world and, as time went by, like many in my generation, I began to acquire more things than I could actually use. Due to some incredibly good luck and the blessings of unknown Buddhas I didn't have to look for treasure in gutters. But I did. I began to pick up pennies again. I had not realized how deeply ingrained the habit was or how it had taken on another level of importance.

During these relatively affluent times I developed a personal as well as business relationship with an executive of a major firm that my company dealt with. We had many business lunches and social dinners together; and he became aware of this peculiar habit of mine. "Aware" is probably not quite strong enough. He was obsessed with it. A typical exchange between us would be; "Why do you stop and pick up those pennies? You can't be that broke." I would smile and say, "For those that are."

It soon became clear that my behavior was embarrassing to him, especially if we were at a business lunch or arriving at an important dinner engagement.

During those times it became strangely necessary for him to excuse himself from the table early to go to the men's room. He would then return and announce directly to me and all others present that he had spotted a number of pennies in the urinals. And then he'd howl with laughter before explaining to everyone the details of my little habit and how he knew that I would never be able to leave that restaurant without retrieving those pennies. Depending on how many drinks everyone had, the betting would soon begin. How many pennies would have to be in the urinals before I succumbed to the compulsion to get them. I never quite understood the humor; but so it went, on and on, for endless evenings of entertainment.

One windy, cold, and rainy day I was leaving my friend?s office, going out through the lobby and into the bad weather. I was struggling to get my umbrella open and make a dash for my car in the parking lot when I noticed a penny, vertically wedged in the crack of the sidewalk. I made my choice and headed for my car. About half way there a voice came into my head and said, "So this is beneath you now, is it?"

I stopped for a moment, stunned by the voice and the message. But the weather didn't give my common sense much room to maneuver in. I thought, Why act like a complete fool in the rain? I hurried on to my car. Getting out of the rain did not get the voice out of my head; so I decided to pull up to the curb near the place I had seen the penny. It wasn?t there any longer. I actually got out of my car and searched for it. I couldn't find it. I got back in my car and drove home feeling an inexplicable sense of shame.

The experience was enough of a shock to instill in me such a sense of deserved humiliation that to this day I stop and pick up a penny whenever I see one on the street - and I would retrieve one even if it were in the urinals of Fafner or Fasolt, giants though they be.

Perhaps friends it would be good to remember that the Suchness of the Universe never moves and we should check all our frenetic movement as well and whenever a penny from heaven appears, stop, pick it up and say a little prayer of gratitude: "Lord, of all your servants, I am the least, let nothing be beneath me ever again."

Humming Bird
Valid XHTML 1.0 Strict