To some extent, in our culture, we associate calm with a certain relaxed dullness, like lying in a hammock on a summer afternoon after a hard day's work. On the other hand, we are often alert but tense, as when we face danger or financial problems ... We associate alertness with a crisis mode. But this polarization is not intrinsic to human consciousness. What we are gradually learning in this practice is utter calm that is highly alert, like the frog that Suzuki Roshi used to talk about, sitting on a lily pad.
Larry Rosenberg, Breath By Breath: The Liberating Practice of Insight Meditation
I experienced this utter calm during our weekly class at the zen center last night. As people talked about their experiences, or ideas about the teacher's talk, I found myself listening simultaneously to what was being said and what was coming up within. I took in the visuals - the lights outside our zendo, the piles of dirt from the road construction, my dharma brothers and sisters, the jagged crack along the floor. And I sat with the rising and falling of my chest, the entering and fading away of every breath. Until a few lines from Shantideva's Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life arose, I experienced the familiar anxiety that comes before wanting to share, and then I spoke them:
There's nothing that does not grow light
through habit and familiarity,
putting up with little cares,
I'll train myself to bear with great adversity.
I've been working with these lines for about two and a half years now. In order to keep them with me daily, I chant them silently to myself as I brush my teeth every night before bed.
Sitting here now, I can see where this teaching is a gateway into that utter calm I experienced, and Rosenberg and Suzuki were speaking about. Because all of those "little cares" that arrive in our lives have the ability to muck things up greatly, if we can't meet them as they are in the moment. The pain in your back, for example, easily can lead to tension, and then irritation, and then angry acting out of some kind. So it often goes.
Many people come to Buddhism seeking calm and peace, but don't really understand what calm and peace actually are. And since it's easy enough to get to that "relaxed dullness" through things like television, drinking, eating, and other such commonplace activities, some of us fail to notice the presence of actual calm and peace.
I know I used to meditate like mad, associating calm with boredom, and thinking zazen was kind of an endurance contest I had to win somehow. In this, there was no room for the world to fully enter, to be "confirmed by the ten thousand things" as Dogen once said.
Can you be like the frog, taking it all in, ready in a moment's notice to eat the meal that comes?