By Christopher Keevil
What is Zen? A crocus in early spring? Evening quiet as the sun goes down? Maybe it is stilling the mind in deep meditation? Or austere practices in a monastery?
After thirty years of Zen practice, I see it as training that begets openness to the truth of my life and the lives of others. Through the awakening beauty of a flower, through the practice of regular meditation, an awareness of this is it arises throughout my daily life.
Is it discipline? Not really. It is intention, perseverance, and openness to the vast miracle of this one true life we each have.
Joys and sorrows rise unceasingly. Rather than striving toward, or turning away, if I stand upright in each, I receive my own life, my whole life, and my true relation with others. Zen practice helps me do so. Coming from this place, I grow in loving compassion, seeing myself in others and them in me. My life becomes more of a gift to all.
The following two stories demonstrate these principles and are excerpts from my recent book, Finding Zen in the Ordinary.
Years ago, I worked as a consultant for a manufacturing plant in Worcester, Massachusetts. At the plant they made industrial valves, such as those used to regulate flow in large water pipes. The manufacturer wanted to reduce errors in the process. I was working with a team of employees to achieve this.
One of the men on the team would always get the extra chair for someone who arrived late. He would reach for a pile of napkins if someone spilled their coffee. He would ask team members to say more, to make sure he understood. He was a beacon of kindness and humility.
One day during lunch break in the cafeteria, I sat down across from the man and we fell into conversation. We learned where each other lived, and what we did on weekends. After several minutes, I took a leap and told him I was touched by his way of kindness. Had he always been that way, or had something in his life caused it? He reflected for a moment, then said, “I changed after the death of my son. You remember the Lockerbie bombing? My son was on that flight. All 259 people on board were killed.” He continued, “After that, I was so sad, and so very angry. It was eating me alive. So I started a support group with other parents of those who had been lost on the flight. That helped. Over time, my grief changed to compassion—for the parents, for their children, and for the bombers too.”
For years I had wondered if any real people were enlightened. I left the plant that day feeling I had met one.
When the Door Opened
Tony, a friend of mine, got hit by a bus while walking on a sidewalk in upstate New York. He spent weeks in the hospital healing from internal injuries and broken bones. Once he had recovered enough to walk, he was discharged.
At the time, Tony had no money, no job, and no home. He headed back to New York City where he had lived prior to the accident. He was still recovering and in a lot of pain. A friend offered a room in his apartment where Tony could stay. The friend, who worked as a mover, was often away on long-distance jobs. In the top drawer of the bedside table, he’d left take-out menus; the bottom drawer he filled with money—so Tony could order food whenever he wanted.
After some weeks, when the two of them were together in the apartment, Tony’s friend told him, “We need to go out.” “I can’t,” said Tony. “I’m hurting all over. I don’t want to see anyone.” “That’s exactly why we need to go out,” said Tony’s friend. “But I don’t have any pants,” said Tony, who had only the hospital pants he had received after his injury. “There’s a bag of clothing in the corner,” said Tony’s friend. He walked over and dragged the bag toward Tony. “Find something in here.” Tony tugged an old pair of jeans out of the bag and laboriously pulled them on. Finally, he buttoned the waistband with a grunt, tucked in his shirt, and was dressed to go.
Together, Tony and his friend went to the elevator foyer. “Push the button,” said Tony’s friend, wanting Tony to take the initiative—so Tony pushed the elevator button. When the door opened, a man with crutches and only one leg was standing there. The man smiled. Tony gasped. He looked hard at the man, then said “How do you do?” The man smiled again, and said, “Come on in.”
Tony and his friend stepped forward into the elevator. Together they all rode down to the lobby and went out the front door of the apartment building. The man with one leg went swinging off down the street with his crutches. And Tony said, “Let’s go over to the garden at Hudson and Barrow. They’ve got nice tulips this time of year.”
Christopher Keevil is a Zen teacher and founder of Garden Oak Sangha. The two pieces above are excerpted from his book “Finding Zen in the Ordinary,” published by John Hunt Publishing of London, which includes forty-eight brief stories, vignettes, and reflections. You can find the book’s website here, and the book on Amazon here.