Adventures in Original Awareness

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When in the autumn we go to the woods and see a pool of water, the water seems stained by red and yellow leaves. But when we take the water in our hands, it is pure. Defiled mind is your delusion. The pool is your mind, and when you return to original consciousness, you know that your mind is not stained. There is no more reward and no more punishment in that state of original consciousness, for it is complete emancipation. You as a separate individual cease to exist during the experience of that original state; you go back to the bosom of Great Consciousness. In your present state, where you know and experience yourself only as an individual and know and experience everything else as separate from yourself, you are ignorant because you do not know and experience this Great Consciousness of dharmakaya [reality of unified totality of infinite Consciousness-and-existence].

This Great Consciousness is original oneness with the universe. When you go back to the original body of the universe, this discreet ego ceases to exist. When you realize this, you know that your delusion came from your own ignorance, your own arrogance and pride, your own feelings of jealousy. These are really obstacles to coming into realization, the lived experience of enlightened Mind. You cannot enter the gate of realization through philosophy or science. There is just one avenue.

When I was young, about nineteen, and studying art, I studied sculpture from Egyptian to Greek, to Roman, to modern French. Then I went back to Oriental art and finally came to modern art with living models. I was sketching outside, carrying my canvas under my arm. How I adored nature! I surrendered absolutely. The farmers thought I was crazy to join my hands and kneel down before a brook or tree or little flower. I came into realization through art. But there is another way, through daily life. From that humility before nature, I came to the gate of realization. If you have no pride or arrogance in your mind, to enter the gate is quite simple.  

–Sokei-an Roshi  (1882-1945), Greenwich Village, NYC, 1930


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Holy Cross

The next day [in February, 1926] I left my flat in Greenwich Village for a winter retreat at the Anglo-Catholic [Anglican] Holy Cross Monastery on the Hudson across from Poughkeepsie.

On the way up I discovered that I had lost my ticket, but the Irish conductor, when he found out that I was going to a monastery, told me to forget about it. Instead of taking the West Side Line and getting off in West Park, I went to Poughkeepsie and crossed the river to discover — afoot with a suitcase in a below-zero night with ten inches of fresh snow on the ground — that West Park was several miles on up the river….

The monastery lay on a bench above the Hudson in a little meadow surrounded with woods, a big Georgian hotel-like building for living quarters, and a little rough, native-stone Romanesque chapel all shrouded in snow. Everything was dark and I pounded on all the doors without rousing anybody. Finally a long white face above a white habit appeared at one of the windows. The community was at evening prayers, and they had ceased to expect me. After supper of milk and bread and cheese, I was ushered to a typical rough-plastered monastic cell about eight by ten feet, with a cot, a commode and washbasin, a table and chair, a crucifix, a prie-dieu. At dawn I was awakened for morning prayers and Mass. I should explain that the regular prayers said by priests and members of religious orders are said eight times a day. In a semi-contemplative order like Holy Cross they are sung in chapel, except when the members are traveling. They are called Matins, Lauds, Prine, Tierce, Sext, Nones, Vespers, and Compline. After Mass we all went in individually to the refectory and helped ourselves to breakfast from a large sideboard. At the other meals the community filed first into the chapel reciting a Psalm, and then back to the refectory, where we were served by novices. No one spoke at meals or, for that matter, at any other time except on feast days and Sundays, and during meals a lector read a brief life of the saint of that day and then a continued selection from some religious book. Although I was just a guest and not a postulant, I was given a white habit without cowl or scapular (a scapular is a long panel of cloth which hangs down to the hem of the skirt, front and back, and is worn only by those who have taken final vows). I took part in all the offices and other activities, served every morning at Mass, and otherwise comported myself like a member of the community.

The Order of the Holy Cross had been founded in America at the beginning of the century and was modeled, more or less, on a combination of the Augustinian and Dominican rules. The priests of the order spent half their time traveling as preachers, and the other half at the monastery, living a rather strict and cloistered life. Most of the founders were still alive, a small group of impressive, white-haired men.

The chapel had been built by Ralph Adams Cram and was a perfect example of his Romanesque work. He had planned to have it decorated with frescoes or mosaics. For this reason, and others, the order was anxious to obtain an artist member. Several postulants had appeared, and some had even served their novitiates, but they had all left after obtaining an expensive art education paid for by the order. At one end of the building, above the kitchen, there was a large studio with a big skylight, an extremely fancy easel, and every imaginable kind of artist’s equipment. Into this I was ushered, and invited to make myself free. I had hardly expected anything like this. I had expected that the new men at the monastery — “fish,” as they are called in prison and the Army — spent their time scrubbing the toilets, wearing hair shirts, and living on bread and water. When I came back to my cell after lunch, the table had been moved out and a desk and typewriter substituted. The monastery had the best small library I have ever seen. There was everything anyone would ever want in theology and related subjects, but there was also a vast amount of secular philosophy right up to date — all of Ogden’s Library of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Method, and all of Muirhead’s Library of Philosophy, for instance, and all the leading journals. So, if I wished, I could continue the regimen I had set up for myself in Chicago. The food was simple — I suppose, monastic, but the cook was an excellent chef. So even though it was Lent we certainly ate well, if modestly. Immediately above the monastery the Catskills rose steeply over the river — one of the most beautiful settings in America.

Every day I painted, prayed, wrote, and walked through the snowbound forest. Next door had been the home of the naturalist John Burroughs, recently dead. I made friends with his family and was permitted to use his little cabin off up in the woods. So began what is certainly the happiest period in my life.

I had arrived on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, so I was able to experience the unfolding of the great two months’ long liturgical drama of Lent, Holy Week, and Eastertide. I suppose I am just a natural-born monk. Everything about the life satisfied me completely. I felt no temptation for any of the worldly pleasures. Sex, for instance, never entered my mind. If I had been exalted riding night herd or climbing in the Cascades, or fishing in a mountain stream, I spent the days at Holy Cross transfigured. It was all one orderly rapture. …

Immersed in it, I found it totally convincing. At the end of Eastertide I went for a long walk by the river and through the mountains. All the trees were in bud and as varied in color, but far more subtle, than the forest of the New York autumn. Birds were singing everywhere. The underbrush was full of migrating warblers. That evening I had a long talk with the novice master. I explained to him that I found myself adapted to the monastic life. There was nothing whatever about it that I didn’t like. I had felt no hardships but had enjoyed every minute of it, more than anything I had ever experienced. But I had no vocation whatsoever. Father Anderson was deeply moved and assured me that he understood me perfectly and respected my decision. “I think, Kenneth,” he said, “this experience will turn out to be more valuable to you than you can know now. Let’s hope it will always provide a memory which will be a focus and stable foundation for all your later life.” And so it was. I went down to New York the next day. …

From earliest childhood I have had not rarely but habitually the kind of experiences that are called visionary. They came long before the possibility of intellectual or even emotional qualification and they have never acquired such qualification in any definite or enduring sense. Not only has such experience been like that described by William James and other unbiased psychologists of mysticism; the first experience I remember clearly was like many such cases in precise detail. I was about four or five years old sitting on the carriage stone at the curb in front of our house on Marion Street in Elkhart, Indiana. It was early summer. A wagon loaded high with new-mown hay passed close to me on the street. An awareness, not a feeling, of timeless, spaceless, total bliss occupied me or I occupied it completely. I do not want to use terms like “overwhelmed me” or “I was rapt away” or any other that would imply the possession of myself by anything external, much less abnormal. On the contrary, this seemed to be my normal and natural life which was going on all the time and my sudden acute consciousness of it only a matter of attention. This is a sophisticated description in the vocabulary of an adult but as a five-year-old child I had no vestige of doubt but what this was me — not “the real me” as distinguished from some illusory ego but just me. I talked to my mother about it, and the curious thing is that although I remember that she was sympathetic I have no memory whatsoever of what she said.

Anyone who has ever read the slightest moiety of the literature on this subject will recognize the universality of the experience. Before I was ten years older I had encountered the same experiences in authors as different as Richard Jefferies, H.G. Wells, Huneker, Rousseau, and some improbable eighteenth-century rationalist, I believe Diderot — including the new-mown hay. As is well known, this latter factor occurs so often in autobiographical literature that people have searched for a hypnogenetic principle among the esters and glucosides to be found in ripe grass. I am inclined to think that ripe grass is only one of many factors that enter into the composition of the poet’s rare day in June when everything can actually slip into perfect tune and the situation triggers total realization. …

I believe that an ever-increasing capacity for recollection and transcendence is developed by a kind of life rather than by manipulation. Buddhism is certainly pure religious empiricism. It has no beliefs, only the simply and purely defined religious experience which becomes for the experiencers an always accessible and ever-abiding present reality. The foundation for this is neither nervous-system gymnastics nor theological notions. It is the Noble Eightfold Path, whose culmination is the “unruffledness” — Nirvana — which underlies reality.

–Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982), An Autobiographical Novel, 1966.


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