The inward lonliness


My prayer is for no great thing. I always pray just that, with the hundred-and-fifty-odd families to which I minister, I should live in peace in a state of no-I. But it does not turn out so. One family who were very hospitable to me—I say hospitable, but this is the country so it means a radish or a carrot from time to time—well, they were hospitable … Then the grandfather died and they asked me to perform the funeral rites. When the day came the rain was falling in torrents and the roads were flooded.

A coolie came and told me he had been sent to take my things, including the ceremonial chair and the umbrella which are used in the rite. With kindly intention (and make a note of the kindliness of my intention) I said: ‘On a day like this they surely won’t have the funeral rite in the open, so there is no point in your struggling through the storm with that big chair. Please just take my things. For a chair, they could ask the school next door to lend one and I use that for the ceremony.’ The coolie happily agreed and went off with just the bag.

I followed a little later and came to the front door, imagining that it would obviously be held indoors. The young master was standing at the door with a countenance like thunder. ‘Your Reverence, we are not going to have the funeral ceremony. ’ I had a sinking feeling that something was wrong. ‘Not going to have a ceremony for your grandfather . . . but why?’ ‘Never mind why, but we’ve cancelled it.’ What to do? ‘I can’t think what might have made you cancel it. Now tell me what it is that has happened.’ ‘Abbot, it’s no use pretending you don’t know!’ ‘Pretending? I’m not pretending about anything; please tell me what it is.’ ‘All right then, I will. This morning we sent a coolie who was to ask to take your chair. And what did Your Reverence say? That the chair would get spoilt if he carried it through the rain. So we’ve asked such a mean priest for grandfather’s funeral that he won’t risk spoiling his chair, and we were going to have grandfather saved, but now we’re not going to and the ceremony’s off! ’

When this sort of thing happens, where is the no-I which we are always thinking about in our heads? Where is the satori? It is not easy when one actually comes up against life. Where is that faith and enlightenment which were here just now? And what remains in our heart at this moment? However I pray to be peaceable, when such unreasonable accusations are made I want to shout: ‘ Shut up!’ But I cannot. Let the abbot think. If I give that shout, am I not doing something which I shall never be able to retrieve? That is in another part of my head. I want to shout, but our life is this, that one cannot shout. We are impelled on the wheel of birth-and-death, borne along on the round of karma; and for all my prayers inevitably my character appears, the illusory character appears. However I pray to be without I, my character is that I cannot be without I, and as I come gradually to comprehend this I cannot help feeling an inexpressible loneliness and desolation.

I do not know how much you feel it, but in the contradictions revealed by introspection there is a great feeling of desolation. This contrary life in which we cannot be what we like to be, when examined from within, produces a desolation.

Even with one’s parents, unable to discard the meanness of self; even with spiritual people, unable to throw off our deceits. Yet when I come to penetrate to the very bottom of that desolation, then, as I stand, there suddenly manifests a power of absolutely unconditional forgiveness. It is a power which will never desert man. Impelled step after step as we are in the circling of this life, in which when we want to speak we cannot speak, that power of absolute forgiveness is dimly glimpsed, and then a joy comes to the heart. ‘It was wrong to have caused you anger—but for the sake of your grandfather who has just died, will you not let me take the funeral service?’ To be able to say these words from the bottom of the heart is through no power of my own, it is the joy of the grace of Kannon. When the self seems merged in Kannon, enveloped in the power of absolute forgiveness which is Kannon, for the first time the heart becomes empty. If all I can manage is: ‘Well, let’s pass it over; let me take the service,’ then the joy is only a faint one.

Some people dub it self-intoxication, this spiritual joy. When conditions are favourable (they say) you experience a feeling of well-being within. So they say, and let them say it. I have the deep certainty that it is an ecstasy, something blessed, and the joy comes when the speech proceeds from a heart which has been emptied.

‘The five skandha-aggregates are emptiness.’ It means that the illusion of the five is only an illusion, and when attention is directed to the true character of the self, beyond the feeling of isolation I suddenly find myself embraced by that power absolute, and enter the world of salvation, of awakening, of satori.

Isolation from others

I have described realization in terms of isolation, but it does not mean the isolation of separation from others. That isolation comes from being deserted. ‘I am old and the family don’t want to talk to me now; how lonely I am!’ Such is the isolation of being separated from others.

When I go to a house, as I arrive they say: ‘This way, Your Reverence, go right in, right through,’

and they take me to the reception room It seems like a great honour, but if you ask me I must say that it is no honour at all; it’s just that hanging about the living rooms the old man be getting in the way so it’s ‘this way please’ and I am tucked away safely.

It is a loneliness, to be pushed into a comer. When I come to a house I should like to talk to the young people, but I’m not allowed to and am tucked away without meeting them This is the loneliness of isolation from others.

The old lady of the house doesn’t enjoy being told: ‘Granny, today we are spring-cleaning so you sit in this comer and rest.’ She feels how she is getting old and being pushed to one side. Instead if they say to her: ‘Oh, Granny! There’s no one who can do over the best tea-things like you . . .’ then she feels it is so, and does them with great satisfaction. This is the way to understand old people.

So the loneliness of isolation from others is the feeling of having been deserted. There is a longing to be appreciated, and when this is cut off the loneliness is unutterable. As I see it, our whole life is a demand to be appreciated. Everyone, young or old, is seeking to be understood. Our life is a quest for someone who understands us, and when the sought-for understanding is cut off, what a bitter feeling it is!

These days there is about the deadlock in thought and the deadlock in economics; but in one sense the frustration is the perpetual cutting off of the understanding sought by each one. On this frustration arise all the manifestations of deadlock. In frustration and deadlock we are bound to feel loneliness at being isolated from others, at having been left behind by the world.

But then there comes a reaction to the loneliness; there is a karmic reaction in a desire to find light, in a conviction that there is still one way remaining open. And it is to confront directly our true nature, and in the deeps of the inner isolation to find that one power absolute.

by Abbot Obora of the Soto Zen sect

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