A CIRCLE OF COMPLETION

My housemate Tim has tightened up the fence to prevent Aussie from escaping. The only change is that while Aussie used to break through the fence and then break back, she now still escapes through the fence but can’t get back. Instead, I find her lying down on the steps to our house, waiting for me to open the front door.

I know she’s gone when I see Harry sitting by the fence looking sadly out, whimpering to himself. I go out and comfort him:

“She’ll come back,” I say.

“How do you know?” he asks right back.

Indeed, how do I know?

The first koan in our book, The Book of Householder Koans: Waking Up In the Land of Attachments, is called Ensho’s Circle of Completion. It’s about a man called Ensho who lost his mother as an infant, and this loss accompanied him throughout his life; he felt it deeply. Seventy years later he unexpectedly received her ashes. He found a special place, sprinkled them on the ground, and made three deep prostrations.

The koan asks: Why did Ensho bow?

I was reviewing the galleys of this book yesterday and as I read this koan—and I have read it many, many times—I was so moved I had to stop what I was doing.

Classical Zen koans—stories and spontaneous exchanges between teachers and students—date back to China in the first millennium and come mostly from the monastic life. They often end with questions, and a student working with koans has to present his/her answer.

What Egyoku (Abbot of the Zen Center of Los Angeles) and I did was to ask students to send us their own personal situations, their own stories of the difficult aspects of modern householder life. These include the challenges of love and romance, raising children, relationships with parents, friends, and neighbors, work situations, illness and death, and so many more. Our reflections on these koans focused on basically one thing: How do you use this uncomfortable, even fearsome situation to awaken to the essential truth of your life? What is that truth?

Yesterday I felt deeply that Ensho’s situation was my own. Things can go awry. In the 10 months since Bernie’s death not just his loss comes up for me, but others as well. Old bugaboos of being left alone, of being unloved and unlovable, left weak and a victim to circumstance—all these are there to greet me in the early morning when I open my eyes.

The name Ensho, a dharma name given to someone deeply practicing Zen, means Circle of Completion. It points to the fact that he, motherless that he was, was complete as he was. That I, a widow now (I hate that word!), and still feeling old, childish things, is complete as I am. That even when we think that things are missing, nothing ever is. That you don’t escape suffering by hiding from or denying anything, and that your life has an unimaginably broad scale that you experience not by trying to control the outside, but by penetrating deep inside.

It’s not enough to read that in this blog, or even in the book. The question is always: How can I experience my life and myself in this way? How do I experience my life so wholeheartedly that nothing is left out? Otherwise, I will always be afraid of something. Otherwise I will always be picking and choosing, i.e., I like this, I don’t like that, I want to be here, I want to be somewhere else.

I don’t want to pick and choose, I want to participate fully in my life. With full devotion, as a Zen master said.

The Book of Householder Koans comes out next February. You can pre-order it here.