Emergency Room Zendo

I am finishing up another 10 hours of emergency call, with, as usual, all sorts of thoughts running through my head: “I’m so tired,” “I hope I made correct decisions today,” “How could I have missed another Sunday morning sitting at HCS. Gotta work on scheduling more Saturday’s instead,” “My teacher will think I’m slacking off, “I need a vacation.” It go on and on… You would think one would not have time for such thoughts when one is so busy, but sometimes the mind really is much busier than the body that propels it.

There’s a chapel across from the emergency room where I sometimes will sit for a minute or two. There is silence there; maybe some shining candlesticks under an imitation electric flame and the faint smell of cedar. Reminds me of our zendo and the solace I sometimes seek there. But then more thoughts intrude: Is this setting more real and desirous than what I experience across the hall, where I can hear other bells and claps: a beeper going off, an alarm at a patient’s bedside, the smell of vomit over vaporizing alcohol, a weeping daughter in room 26? Then it occurs to me that the chapel/zendo is not a place to escape (as initially comforting as it may be), but a container  (as the late Joko Beck would call it) to hold and see all those thoughts rising and falling. The very place we sit offers a skillful means, a place where I learn that even one mindful upright breath–maybe even smack in the middle of the ER– teaches me that all of this experience is Dharma. I am always (as are you) always at the center. What I think I hate, love, or simply find neutral are just extra. But sit with that for a while, and that’s Dharma too! It’s empty.

In one of the fascicles of Dogen’s Shobogenzo, he inverts the usual derogatory status of thoughts and ideas as illusory flowers and instead calls them “flowers of emptiness.” Each moment of this samsaric world–including what’s in my samsaric head–is blooming in dynamic flux. All of it is truly empty, and there’s a genuine peace in my accepting whatever grows and dies in this moment, wherever I find myself.
I am grateful for this practice, Joan, our Roshi, and all of the students–senior and novice–under her tutelage. As part of Ango study, I will re-read this wonderful Dogen chapter again and meet you after the new year.


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