I am on a pilgrimage with the Sun Hermit to the Holy Mountain. It’s a bit of a cliche, perhaps. I think in the West we are at times too obsessed with originality. Originality is wonderful, but life thrives by repetition. Repetition, repetition, repetition. We grow by repeating simple patterns that catalyze sudden leaps and shifts. This, to me, is the value of ritual and tradition.
“I’ve been experiencing a recurring world-weariness,” I told the Sun Hermit. It’s an interesting experience that has visited me since I was an adolescent. It accompanied my early contemplations of death.
I have been very fortunate in many regards. I think one of the greatest fortunes I’ve been granted is the innocent honesty of my mom. When I was very young, 5 or 6 years old, I asked her: “What happens when we die?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
What a blessing! So many other parents would have given me some answer to remove this primal uncertainty. But my mom told me the simple truth. I don’t know.
“Maybe it’s like falling asleep,” I said, “and you start to dream…”
“Maybe,” my mom replied, happy with my innocence and imagination.
When I was that age, I had a phrase I would repeat often, to the delight of my family: “Dat weet Tom ook niet.” It translates to, “Tom doesn’t know either.” What a beautiful wisdom, and what an irony that I spent so much of my life trying to become the Tom who does know. This is where I believed happiness lay.
And this is perhaps the source of my world-weariness. A child is in awe of everything, and has no time to be weary.
It is our ideas which make us weary, isn’t it?
When I told the Sun Hermit of my weariness, he said it was time to return to the Mountain.
“The Mountain will rekindle your awe,” he promised.
The creations of humanity can be incredibly beautiful, but the natural world is the creation of God, and brings us closer to the divine source. And perhaps the most potent aspect of the Holy Mountain is the fresh water, which brings crystalline clarity to the mind.
I think of this water like the angels, that order of beings that emanates directly from the Godhead, prior to the accumulation of history, karma, form, matter.
“Teacher, can you tell me about the angels?”
“What can be said? To be in their presence is to know pure Grace. Open your heart to them and steep in their qualities and you will inherit their Kingdom.”
“What are the qualities of the angels?”
The Sun Hermit paused for a moment and I could feel a shift in the energy of the room.
“Timeless, serene beauty,” he said. “A fearless innocence that sees the One Light in everyone and everything. An exquisite, playful dance of Grace. Patience, detachment and compassion.”
They are hidden in plain sight, I thought to myself.
“How can we cultivate these qualities?”
“The first step is to recognize their value, and place them far above material things. This is called ‘getting your priorities straight.’ It’s a mental exercise, but it’s also an invitation. When material challenges arise, we are invited to use these challenges to cultivate our virtues. And then, we can use our virtues to face the challenges. There’s a mental shift–the greater the challenge, the greater the opportunity.”
The sublime gift of seeing our challenges as Grace. This is a realization that goes on returning and returning–a shift in perception can change everything. Not that the challenges necessarily become less challenging, but recognizing them as Grace puts us in touch with a vast reservoir of inner power.
Many of my greatest challenges have come through love and loss. I am a romantic, a believer in true love, but the journey of loving another so deeply can be immensely painful. But I have been immensely fortunate to find this spontaneous prayer well up within: “If this is the price for true love, I am willing to pay.” And with it, a great opening came to my mind. A new perspective, a new spaciousness, and I found the power to go on surrendering.
And I believe there is a universal truth here. Our ability to face challenges is proportional to our aspirations, our ability to imagine what we stand to gain. The whole quality of life shifts when we turn from material aspirations to the desire to cultivate inner qualities and virtues.
“Are there more steps?” I asked.
“Associate with those who embody these qualities. They are God’s most precious gift to you. You may find that these virtues awaken in you spontaneously simply by being in their presence. Take full advantage of their company, but be mindful not to become dependent on another. Ultimately it is your own efforts which will serve you most.”
Thus have I heard, once upon a time Ananda, faithful disciple and care-taker of the Buddha, said to his master: “Lord, I have been thinking, and it occured to me that noble friendship must be half the noble life!”
“Don’t say so, Ananda,” reprimanded the Buddha, “Noble friendship is the whole of the spiritual life!”
We human beings influence each other much more profoundly than we typically realize. And I feel that the key insight here is that “energy flows where attention goes.” Are we focused on harmony or conflict? Doubt or faith? Confusion or illumination?
For a master, as far as I can tell, there is no possibility of falling out of the awareness of the perfection of the present moment. They have embodied this fully. And in the presence of such a master, all our projections of imperfection lose their footing and are washed away. Ironically, this is why being in the presence of a master can be deeply uncomfortable. Ignorance will struggle to preserve its illusions.
Our path may be littered with sages and saints, but if we don’t have the eyes to see them, their blessings will pass us by.
“Sit by the fire and drink tea!” the Sun Hermit chuckled. “Speaking of which…” He got up to rummage around the cupboards for tea and a pot. I poured some water in the kettle and set it on the fire.
“Choose pastimes which enrich the soul,” the Sun Hermit explained. “Cherish simplicity, as a child does. Be content with simple pleasures that bring peace of mind and a pleasant afterglow. Enjoy and create art that reminds one of the abundant wonders of living.”
We sat watching the water as it slowly came to a boil. “The art of tea is all about timing and patience. It is about moving from dullness to peace, steeping our minds in the emptiness of waiting.”
Life is short. Too short to waste on distractions that don’t bring fulfillment. There is so much beauty and magic all around, but we have to open our hearts to let it in. We have to learn to appreciate every fleeting moment and feel gratitude for the people in our lives. I notice that when I shift my perspective from how I would like others to be to appreciating them as they are, there is an immediate influx of love and joy. So simple and powerful!
I watch as the Sun Hermit pours the boiling water into the tea pot and gives the tea its first rinse. He pours the tea onto the fire and it hisses into clouds of steam. The second steeping goes into our two elegant clay cups. The cups absorb and transmit the memory of the many teas they have held. It’s like they say–the past only exists in the present. In the inexplicable richness of this cup of tea…
Another parable comes to mind. A young man sets off on a journey of spiritual illumination. He goes to the home of one reputed to be “the wisest sage of the land.” To his surprise, the sage lives in a lavish palace with people running to and fro, a center of art and learning. He is led to the master’s hall, who makes a point of personally welcoming every visitor.
The two exchange formalities, and the master asks the young man why he has come.
“I come seeking illumination, sir,” explains the young man.
The master smiles and assigns a simple task. “I would like you to take this spoonful of oil and carry it through every room of my home without spilling a single drop.”
The young man obliges, happy that his quest will be so easily fulfilled. When he returns to the hall, the master sees that he has not spilled a single drop.
“Very good!” he exclaims. “Your concentration is very strong. But tell me, did you notice any of the exquisite Imperssionist paintings we have in the gallery? Or did you take a moment to appreciate the Indian ragas being performed in the courtyard?”
The young man had missed it all.
“I would like you to go out again, and enjoy the sights and sounds of my home!”
The young man went out and marvelled at the many treasures, and basked in the radiant joy of creation that filled the palace. He returned to the master glowing with excitement.
“I can see you’ve enjoyed yourself!” laughed the master. “But what has happened to your spoonful of oil?”
The oil had long since been spilled.
“Enjoy the world, but don’t spill the oil!” said the master. And this was enough.
The young man understood the point of the lesson. The spiritual path isn’t about abstinence or indulgence. It’s about training the mind on inner stillness and harmony, while at the same time enjoying and contributing to the world. The middle way.
Somehow, it seems that the tea draws my awareness inward, to silence and contemplation. Perhaps it is the lingering imprint of the masters who have handled and cultivated this tea, of the patience it took to allow the tea to age for many years.
“Whenever possible, be a guardian angel for others. Forgive them their faults and celebrate their gifts. Grace is so rare… its touch can transform lives. Don’t underestimate the light within you!”
“Thank you Teacher, I have taken your words to heart.”
I steep in the transmission and feel gratitude for the peace and love it has stirred within me. May you feel this as well. A moment to slow down, relax, and listen deeply, coaxing the beauty out of every moment.
Be well, dear friend!