The Reality of Enso

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

At 6:30am, at the gentle sound of the Burmese gong, I emerged from a deep state of absorption to find myself in the meditation hall of the Chuang Yen Monastery in upstate New York, surrounded by twenty shuffling men. I hadn't twitched a muscle for one hour and hadn't eaten since noon of the previous day, but neither stretching nor hunger were on my mind. I was aware of one and one thought only, which instantaneously pierced the very core of my being: everything I had read about the Japanese Enso symbol was real.

I do not mean "real" in a handwavy philosophical sense, with a lingering shadow of a doubt that it could be just nonsensical "Eastern mumbo-jumbo". I use the word "real" in a very physical sense, in the same way one would use it to describe a chair, or the beating of one's heart, or the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I saw it with an unprecedented clarity of mind. Occasionally, I had approached similar clarity in the Russian baths when I jumped from a hundred and fifty degree sauna into a pool of ice cold water. The heated body, forced to deal with a tremendous temperature gradient, violently contracts the blood vessels to preserve heat, ridding the mind of every last thought in the process. The baths, the sauna, the pool, life's trials and tribulations, victories and defeats, are momentarily eradicated from consciousness along with the everpresent notion of self, leaving for only a few precious moments the magnificent clarity of pristine awareness.

But the clarity of mind induced by the ancient ritual of Russian baths disappears as quickly as it appears. For an untrained mind it is clarity without insight - a mere glimpse of a glimpse of freedom that is possible to achieve. It was only with the slow, painstaking effort of meditation that my mind was able to relax long enough to see for just a few brief moments the reality of Enso and the remarkable beauty and harmony it symbolizes.

Making a pilgrimage from the comfortable Western life of fast food and flat screen TVs to the raw asceticism of a Buddhist monastery to see Enso is not unlike going on vacation from the urban jungle of an inner American city to a picturesque European village. Initially, returning to the previous way of life seems like a personal sacrifice, but after a short while the routine takes over and the memory of what could have been dims. In the same way, momentarily seeing Enso is only intellectual sightseeing. Being one with what it symbolizes every moment of one's life requires a far greater effort than moving from the New World to the Old, in exchange for a far greater reward. I would trade any material fortune to have that clarity always with me, if only because I now know that the purity of mind it affords would allow me to rebuild this fortune effortlessly. I say this because for the contemporary mind this prospect is far more attractive than the real gift - that one who has purity of mind needs no fortunes.

So far I've been using the familiar possessive verbs when talking about attainment of clarity, but in reality it is not a process of acquiring but the process of letting go. It is about letting go of the idea that following one's breath for an hour is a stupid practice, letting go of the feelings of discomfort from sitting on the floor, letting go of the tenseness of the large muscles on one's back and the tiny muscles on one's skull and face. It is about letting go of the desire to move, just a little bit, just this once, and of the overwhelming desire to get up and do something, anything, anything to avoid sitting quietly with one's own thoughts. It is about letting go of furious anger directed at the creaking door that keeps stealing one's attention, letting go of a dozen itches that inevitably arise all over the body, and letting go of the desire to laugh because of the absurdity of the situation.

Then follows letting go of the racing thoughts about everything but the breath - thoughts about hunger, and what's for lunch, and how you haven't had lunch with some friend for a while, and what gift you'll get him for his birthday. It's about letting go of the expectation that you could follow your breath for a little longer than you could before, and letting go of the worrying that your mind is filled with so much trash. It's about letting go of planning, and remembering, and randomly arising sexual images, and the archetypal fantasies of saving beautiful women from dire situations in order to win everyone's admiration, and fears that one day your parents will pass away, leaving you in the world completely alone. It is about letting go of everything and just following the breath, the beautiful, radiant, subtle, magnificent breath amidst infinite emptiness, admiring its gentle tides... only to hear the gong and open one's eyes, and remember that you are you, sitting on the floor in a room among other people, and that you're hungry, and noticing that your leg fell asleep, and realizing that you have a million neuroses that you were able to briefly let go of by the magic of following the instructions left by some ancient sages.

It is then that you realize that your neuroses, and thoughts, and worries, and expectations, and projections, and addictions creep into everything you do, from intimate relationships, to casual conversations, to writing essays, to building software, to sweeping the floor. And you know that if you could free yourself permanently from restlessness, and dullness, and anger, and lust, and fears, and doubt, just like you did for a few precious minutes just now, in a twitch of a finger you could amass fortunes, or change the world, or paint a perfect Enso, or... you could just be content with listening to your own breath.

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