There’s a Zen story about a laywoman, wise and enlightened; a practitioner who many centuries ago, traveled around visiting teachers. She composed the following verse:
Upon the high slopes, I see only woodcutters
Everyone has the spirit of the knife and the axe.
How can they see the mountain flowers
Reflected in the water – glorious, red?
When I read this recently, as so often happens with ancient Zen stories, the relevancy and timelessness of the verse drew me in. “The spirit of the knife and axe” evokes a sense of doom, destruction, divisiveness, death. Sound familiar? COVID, health disparities, Black people being murdered, social and political divides that seem insurmountable. Woodcutters hacking away at the sparse vegetation high on the slopes; so intent on their role that they do not notice the beauty right in front of them…and perhaps in them.
Sometimes I catch myself wielding my own knife and axe (out of habit or hurt) or in outrage and judgement of others doing so. Yet, every time — without fail – that I stop, relax, drop my attention into the body, and return to my senses even if just for one moment, not only do I notice what otherwise I might have missed, I also find that my subsequent actions, my response to the woodcutters, knives and axes around me has a chance to be more sensible, perhaps more artful.
This is, I believe, the essence of these teachings, clearly presented through the Four Noble Truths. The first Truth, a truth which the Buddha says is to be seen and understood, reminds us that as humans, we will feel discomfort and pain. We will lose what we love and there will be times when we get what we do not want. The Second Truth offers for our reflection that when we react habitually, mindlessly to our very human experience by struggling against what is, suffering arises.
Thank goodness the story doesn’t end here with just knives and axes. Despite our habits and the conditioned roles we play, the Third Noble Truth shows us that we can learn to respond to life’s vicissitudes with awareness and kindness and that in a wise response is where we find the potential to experience a lightness, ease and wellbeing that is always present. We learn that we can open to see the mountain flowers, glorious and red.
Even if only for a moment, when we relax, take a few breaths, notice the aliveness in this moment, connect with what is most important to us, we get a glimpse of the truth of peace, gratitude, joy. The Fourth Truth encourages us to live these truths out in every aspect of our lives.
There is much pulling on our attention these days; some of it unwholesome and even harmful. Too much news watching, the rabbit hole of Netflix, maybe too many snacks while teleworking. Much of it important, laudable, and necessary. Helping the growing number of hungry people in our communities, marching in protests, having hard conversations about race, taking care of our families and ourselves. In the midst of it all, we can be reminded to pause, pay attention to how we are responding, and as the wise laywoman in the Zen story reminds us – to not let kindness and beauty go by unnoticed, to not forget to see the reflection of mountain flowers.
Photo by Shell Fischer.