A Solstice Kōan

Imagine that you were on the Tropic of Capricorn where it passes through Kruger National Park in South Africa at 12:02 PM South Africa time (2:02 AM PST) on 21 December 2020.  Besides the amazing animals, you would see the sun reach its southernmost point and for a brief second it stops directly overhead and seemingly turns back northward. You would have witnessed the solstice. What we call the winter solstice and they would call the summer solstice. Scientifically, the solstice is the moment of that change.

(Getty images)

Commonly we claim the whole day as the solstice. In the northern hemisphere, some celebrate it as the longest period of darkness and others as the return of the light.

Therein lies the paradox. An event happens and two different observers in two different points, claim it and call it their own. Add in eight billion people in eight billion other observation points, and now eight billion people claim the experience.

And what are they claiming…the longest or the shortest day. Or for some folks on the equator, the same length of day as always. But as a scientifically verifiable event, there must be someone who is right.

Can anyone here tell us that that they have seen or experienced the shortest or longest day happen? The sun is not doing anything by itself that it does not do all of the time. Yet we believe that the sun really stops its movement in the sky. Are we making this all up?

I am not trying to debunk the scientific explanation and accuracy of this observable phenomena. Nor am I trying to ignore the human race’s long history of marking the solstice, starting with Neolithic structures such as the 5200-year-old temple Newgrange in Ireland. I am curious about how we think we know things from our relative perspective and act in the belief that our knowledge is shared by all.

As Dōgen, the person who brought Zen to Japan in the 1200s, addressed this question in his greatest work the Genjō Kōan:

“If one riding in a boat watches the coast, one mistakenly perceives the coast as moving. If one watches the boat [in relation to the surface of the water], then one notices that the boat is moving.”

This is our kōan of the solstice. Where are we looking? What do we bring to the act of observing and interpreting? What is it that we think we are observing and experiencing?

The most general understanding of the word kōan is an enigmatic Zen teaching story. Shohaku Okamura Roshi, whose translation of the Genjō Kōan I just quoted is one of the foremost living Zen scholars of Dōgen.. He translates the word kōan as “absolute truth that embraces relative truth” or “a question that true reality asks of us.” For Dōgen and Okumura, absolute truth is our interconnectedness and relative truth is our individuality.

This deeper dive into the word kōan helps us better understand their purpose, particularly in Rinzai Zen. Kōans are a specific tool to understand the connection between the inter-being and our individual sense of awareness.

Last week, Steven Tierney talked about the paradoxes in Zen using the text from the Sandokai, the Harmony of Difference and Equality.

Looking at the solstice as a teaching kōan, can we hold our notion of the solstice, our relative individual truth at the same time we hold the absolute or universal truth that we have nothing to hold or that we can hold?

Okumura points out that Dōgen in particular loved these sorts of paradoxes for their effect on the mind. Buddhist teachers often refer to the mind rather than our or my mind, to signify that the mind is not entirely owned by each of us. Our mind is the biggest block against accepting and experiencing the absolute reality of interconnectedness. This mind wants us to believe that the individual is the most important and nothing else exists. Our practice is to realize that the absolute and relative exist within each other. Hundreds of thousands of words have been written about understanding this and Dōgen exceled in using one method for obliterating the mind’s hold over us.

In his teachings, Okumura suggests that Dōgen uses paradoxes to try to force our mind to give up its attempts to reconcile the unreconcilable. If we let the ideas clash, if we breathe and sit, we experience what it means to have the absolute and relative co-exist as a unified, interconnected whole. When he talked about this in a recent retreat I attended of his, a light went on for me. Stop trying to understand and instead feel.

Of all of Dōgen’s writing, the Genjō Kōan is considered the text from which everything flows in Soto Zen. Written in 1233, and translated into English, the Genjō Kōan is only thirteen paragraphs long. Okumura translates the title Genjō Kōan as such:

“to answer the question from true reality through the practice of our everyday activity.”

Here true reality is the absolute inter-connectedness of all beings and phenomena and everyday activity is the relative way we live our lives.

As we ponder the solstice and try to wrap our minds around it, I want to share some words from paragraph nine of the Genjō Kōan. I consider this particular section as some of the most beautiful poetry that Dōgen wrote.

Before, I read this short section, let’s prepare our bodies and mind to take in the words as Okumura suggests we should. Please take a few deep breaths in and out, and settle into your body. As you focus on the breath, imagine it is not your breath by the shared breath of all beings. As I read the words of the poem, I would suggest to you to imagine hearing and feeling the words in your body…in your chest and belly, in your arms and legs, in your shoulders and throat, through the floor, walls and ceiling.

As Dōgen says in Buddha Sutra,

“receive and emit the sutras through our nostrils and receive and emit them through the tips of our toes.”

Hear the words with your eyes, feel them with your lips and tongue and smell them with your ears. Let your brain take a deserved vacation.

“When a person attains realization, it is like the moon’s reflection in water. The moon never becomes wet; the water is never disturbed. Although the moon is a vast and great light, it is reflected in a drop of water. The whole moon and even the whole sky are reflected in a dop of dew on a blade of grass. Realization does not destroy the person, as the moon and even the whole sky does not make a hole in the water. The person does not obstruct realization, as a drop of dew does not obstruct the moon in the sky. The depth is the same as the height.”

When I first read these words several years ago, my breath became deep, my mind quieted as I was transfixed. I might have stayed on this paragraph for minutes or hours, I don’t really know. I could not find any reason to move on and to read another word. My entire body was enveloped in the moonlight and dewdrop and inclusiveness of the universe.

In this paragraph, Dōgen does a wonderful thing. He takes a paradox that we can understand and visualize, the moon and its reflection in water. Through experience, we intuitively understand the difference between the moon as an entity and its reflection, the water as an entity and it its ability to reflect, the grass as an entity and its ability to hold a drop of water reflecting the moon. The objects are relative truth, things we can sense with our sense organ. And in this case, the reflection is the absolute truth of the inter-being or interconnectedness between all of the objects and beings. Both of the realms exist within each other.

He then makes a jump to ourselves as humans. When he says realization or to use another word enlightenment does destroy the person, he is telling us that enlightenment or absolute truth contains the relative nature of the reality we perceive. He goes on to further say the person living their individual lives with their habits, thoughts and decisions reacting to and in a particular environment, time and place does not prevent one from experiencing realization, enlightenment or oneness.

This the core of Dōgen’s teaching. Much of the rest of vast collection of writings is about the practice of living with this teaching in our lives.

In the future when you come across a confusing and paradoxical Buddhist text or kōan, try to do so in this fashion. Explore the words with your body and breath. Linger and luxuriate in image, smell, sound and sight. This is how we are meant to experience the dharma.

Our Shelter-in-Place offers us unlimited opportunities to explore Dōgen’s verse. On a daily basis, spend some time in this special dharma space, seeing the world in a blossom, listening to the song of the wind, smelling the aromas of faraway places in your cup of tea, letting the story of the cold in the night coming from the polar reaches chill your bones, feeling the rumblings of the earth whether it is music blasting from a car squealing down the street or the shifting of tectonic plates. We are never separated from this absolute reality.

For the past thirteen years, a group of us has met in the AIDS Memorial Grove to remember our beloved friend Debra Kent who died on the solstice. Today, this gathering happened on Zoom just before our sangha meeting. Our time together was deepened by the recent death of Pat Dunn, a member of our circle and likely a friend to others of us in our sangha. Thus the solstice has been transformed for me as a time of remembrance of an AIDS warrior, who left us too soon but made sure that her daughter (my god-daughter) Sofie was in good hands before she died.

Many a gathering around the boulder in the Grove, emblazed with her name and the words “Generous, Compassionate Tenacious, Full of Life Mother, You are in our hearts forever” were marked by tears and laughter in the late afternoon, as the sun set and the damp coolness of the Grove descended around us. For a few moments, she was with us in our memories, in our stories, amazed that we were still there, amazed that we continue to honor her. The leaves on the trees, yellow and brown would fall silently as our witnesses to the cycle of life and death, of love and loss, of dark and light. What started in the last rays of the day, ended in the darkness of the evening, which shrouded the trees and rocks and path that were so clear when we arrived.  A chill would settle in, and despite our down coats and hats, our noses would get cold and we would all begin to rock back and forth to keep ourselves warm. Our time with our memories would pass, yet the surroundings held us. Even in the dark, our hearts beat stronger, warmed by the love of life within the existence of suffering and death..

The next day we knew would be longer and somehow brighter. It was the end and the beginning. The Genjō Kōan of our existence answering the question from true reality through the practice of our everyday activity.

This talk was given at the San Francisco LGBT Sangha on 21 December 2020. and can be heard there. The title image is from Getty Images.

One Reply to “A Solstice Kōan”

  1. I am thinking of friends who perceive things differently. So many of us today cannot communicate because the reflections are so loud, the smells on the breeze are so bright. What is real seems obscured.

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