People often make spirituality into something complex, argumentative, esoteric. They consider there's a right and wrong way to meditate, to worship, to live life.
I used to be one of those people. I'm a lot less dogmatic now.
Recently, like today, which is pretty damn recent, I've been both entertained and bemused by a rash of comments on this blog where people have been arguing about this and that.
I enjoy those sorts of interchanges. Except when I don't.
In those latter times, I try to remind myself of how simple spirituality can be. And how it really isn't necessary to bring in that often-contentious word, spirituality.
Why not just say, how simple life can be.
I've started reading The Wooden Bowl, a book recommended to me by a visitor to this blog who emails me interesting messages about what's going on in his life from time to time.
It's out of print, but I found a used copy on Amazon that cost me just a few bucks. It took a while to arrive by media mail, but it was worth the wait.
I really like the down-to-earth approach to meditation, and life, that the author, Clark Strand, describes. Here's the first chapter, "Teaching is Impossible."
"Meditation cannot be taught." So said my first teacher, Deh Chun, an elderly Chinese hermit who lived the last years of his life in Monteagle, Tennessee. "Only learning is possible," he said, "sometimes."
What he meant was that meditation can only be practiced. If it is taught, then, by definition, what is taught is not really meditation at all, but something else. Some method or philosophy, but not meditation itself.
When I consider the years of our association, the most remarkable thing is that I cannot recall any particular thing I learned from him. I can't point to a particular conversation we had and say, "Well, you know, then Deh Chun said such and such and everything was clear."
At the time, nothing was clear. When I think back on it now, I realize that his entire teaching consisted of being in the present moment, with nothing else whatsoever added on.
Being with Deh Chun was like dropping through a hole in everything that the world said was important -- education, progress, money, sex, prestige. It was like discovering that nothing else mattered and all I needed was now -- the moment -- to survive.
Sitting there in the little house, listening to the water boil, to the twigs crackling in the wood stove, I was temporarily removed from the game. That was the genius of his teaching, that he could bring forth that transformation without even saying a word.
His was a state of complete simplicity. Like water, the direction of his life was downward, always seeking lower ground. When I met him he lived in a ramshackle two-room house heated by a wood stove the size of a typewriter. There was no furniture, only a few turned-over crates and several cardboard boxes in which he kept his clothes.
His bed consisted of two sawhorses on top of which he had placed a 3 x 5 sheet of plywood. and a piece of packing foam. I remember thinking once that this bed suited him perfectly, his body was so light and small.
A similar structure in the other room served as a desk for writing letters and for painting his ink-wash Chinese landscapes. Propped against the back door were spades, a shovel, and a rake, tools he used to tend a plot of land the size of two king-size beds laid end to end.
With the exception of tea, soybeans, peanut butter, molasses, and occasional wheat-flour, whatever he ate came from there.
We would sit in his little house without saying much of anything. Early on I learned that he was not disposed to give instruction in any formal way. He would serve me lunch, or sometimes breakfast if I'd managed to get there early enough, and then I'd wash up.
Afterward we would talk about his garden, or more likely we would remain silent for a long while and then it would be time to leave.
Nowadays, in books on meditation, it has become standard practice to say that your teacher was a mirror that allowed you to see your true self. But that was not my experience with Deh Chun. It was more like floating weightless on the Dead Sea and looking up at an empty sky.
There was a feeling of tremendous peace and freedom, but that was all. I didn't know anything after I was done. Trying to pin him down on some aspect of meditation was as pointless as trying to drive a stake through the air. He taught one thing and one thing only, and that he taught to perfection: meditation happens now.
After the first few visits to his house, I realized nothing pivotal was going to happen, but I kept returning anyway without knowing what it was about him that held my attention.
I was a college student, and fairly typical of other nineteen-year-olds in that I was not particularly interested in spending time with someone four times my age. Especially someone who by ordinary standards was little better than a bum.
Deh Chun was completely simple. He lived on fifty dollars a month. He was a Buddhist monk who never spoke of Buddhism, an accomplished landscape painter who never sold his work. He wore only secondhand clothes and was without pretension of any kind.
Long after his death, it is finally clear to me that he taught only by example.
Recently, a friend of mind said of a certain Catholic priest, "He practices what he preaches, so he doesn't have to preach so loud." Deh Chun practiced so well he didn't have to preach at all.