Saturday, April 4, 2009

Peeling The Zen Onion

This week I had a really nice phone conversation with a "Dharma" friend I haven't seen in a while.  I will put a moustache and dark glasses on her to protect her identity and keep me from getting into trouble with the people I love.  She had been on holiday with her partner and made the interesting comment that their last holiday together had been a "renewal"  and this most recent holiday had been a "retreat".    She was hinting at the deep and difficult terrain we can get into on retreat (and with those closest to us).  It's like you go off for a sunny hike in the mountains and the storm comes in.  You get soaked, almost freeze, the stove doesn't work, the tent leaks, your boots rub your feet raw.  It is not the imagined trip you had in mind.  And yet, and yet....

She did not go into the details and yet I could feel deeply what she was talking about.  It's about the little dances we do with those closest to us.  And then finally one day we see what we're up to.  Maybe we've done the weird thing, the dysfunctional thing for the 999th time and the light finally goes on.  It is the rubbing up against another, sometimes until we are both rubbed raw, bleeding, scratched, and skinned.  It takes as long as it takes, my Zen teacher would say and then we wake up.  The first step is the seeing and the next step is saying I don't want to do this anymore.  I'm done with that.  And then there we are standing in the wilderness.  We don't know what to do.  The old response doesn't work but we don't have a new one yet.

My friend came to an understanding of how deep the habitual karmic pattern of her behaviour was.  She said she could see it reverberating through previous lifetimes.  In a strange but not fully understood way she perceived the origin of the deeply rutted groove of her behaviour.  When I talked to her, she and her partner were still working through their "stuff, exploring the shrapnel of their "retreat" experience.  It was the beginning of a new and deeper relationship with each other, one where another layer of pain and separation has been peeled off.  It's kind of like peeling an onion, this work of the heart.  We keep peeling and getting closer to the centre, to the truth, to our essential self, to our Buddha nature.  We get to see the first noble truth, the truth of suffering.  We get a first hand view of how we cause suffering for ourselves and others through our deeply habitual and often unconscious behaviour.

Do we ever get that pungent, "makes you cry", onion peeled all the way down to the centre, to the point of emptiness?  I don't know, but it seems worth the work.  And if I were a smart ass I might say something like, when life gives you onions, get out the cheese and toast and make onion soup.


  1. i thank you for your daily words--reminding me that everything is "practice," each thought and action "zazen."

    as to the onion analogy, i imagine that when all layers are peeled away there will be Nothing; meaning no self, no me, no you, just eternal bliss.

    manwhile ...

  2. yes that's it, isn't it? Thanks, Peter!

  3. after writing to you, my words seemed just too orthodox. Just now found a mention in Stephen Levine's "A year to live"(p.121) of a Thai teacher asking "What is still there after an enlightened person dies?"


    "The truth remains!" he said.

  4. well I'll buy that too! maybe they're both right? maybe zen is like math, although I will admit to knowing little about both ..... there's more than one way to arrive at the "answer"