Merran Dawson – 'An experience of Practice'
When I came to Zen Open Circle in 2004 I was starting to cycle down in my working career. Meanwhile my two daughters were making careers of their own. I had been a teacher; a policy developer and journal editor; a course designer and trainer of teachers; a training manager in the public service and a university; and an independent consultant providing organisational development and training for businesses and government organisations in Australia and in Asia.
In my busy life I had managed to enjoy family and friends, and my work, yet there had been something missing for a long time. This was a hard thing to explain to my husband, an atheist, however he supported the mysterious urge I had, and my tramping around for years – to ashrams, and Theravadan and Tibetan Buddhism sanghas. But I never really quite found a spiritual home.
Until finally, I found myself climbing the steps to the Buddhist Library and my first visit to Zen Open Circle. I was late, and I remember loitering at the top of the stairs as I watched people walking around selecting cushions to sit on. I wondered what I should do. Then a woman came up the stairs. I remember her grey shawl, the silver bangle on her wrist, and her somewhat business-like attaché case. I introduced myself, thinking she was also a new student.
“I am the teacher, Susan,” she replied with a friendly grin.
I knew then, that this was my teacher at last.
Surprisingly my teacher was not to be a monastic, but seemingly an everyday person like me. I think now of Kuan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, who is usually depicted in the dress and jewellery of the householder woman of ancient times.
Merran Dawson (Left), Roshi Susan Murphy – after Merran took jukai at Gorricks Run in 2005.
ENMEI JIKKU KANNON GYO
KAN ZE ON
NA MU BUTSU
YO BUTSU U IN
YO BUTSU U EN
BUP-PO SO EN
JO RAKU GA JO
CHO NEN KAN ZE ON
BO NEN KAN ZE ON
NEN NEN JU SHIN KI
NEN NEN FU RI SHIN
Ten verse Kannon sutra of timeless life
I venerate the Buddha;
with the Buddha I have my source,
with the Buddha I have affinity –
affinity with Buddha, Dharma, Sangha,
constancy, ease, assurance, purity.
Mornings my thought is Kanzeon,
evenings my thought is Kanzeon,
thought after thought arises in mind,
thought after thought is not separate from mind.
In Zen Open Circle we sometimes chant a much loved sutra (sutra = a writing about the Dharma, usually very old), called The Ten Verse Kannon Sutra for Timeless Life which is focused on this same Bodhisattva of Compassion, known as Avalokiteshvara in Indian texts; Kuan Yin in China; and Kannon (male) or Kanzeon (female) in Japan. This short sutra of just 10 lines, addressed to Kanzeon, embodies and evokes for me the bedrock, qualities and results of practice: Affinity, Constancy, Ease, Assurance, Purity. These are powerful, classic words and these days you don’t find them in corporate documents or performance indicators. They are turnstone keys, and for me, the foundation key-stone is affinity.
Affinity is quite mysterious and as you know cannot really be explained. Affinity may begin with a picture, a book, a place, a sudden awareness: something inexpressible which is an unbidden feeling of deep kinship. Affinity is the basis for falling in love and can be the key to keeping love alive. Affinity was the way I felt at the top of the Buddhist Library stairs.
Affinity is one of the aspects that I think helps a beginner to persevere, as they experience the initial strangeness of Zen practice, then sets about making it into something more comfortable. I realise now that affinity – silently worded into Susan’s Teishos (talks) – was my touchstone on my first Sesshin (7 day silent retreat) when a ceremony or chant seemed incomprehensible. Affinity was my consolation when I felt too tired to get up early, was clumsy chopping Sesshin meal vegetables, and doing all the other things that made me feel inept, foolish and stroppy. Affinity brought me to tears of deep gratefulness during the early morning greeting walk of the teacher. Affinity held me through some emotional and physically painful times, sitting, when I thought I couldn’t keep going. Affinity, holding on to me like a hand over a cliff, was my reason for clawing back to the top.
Affinity was the earth that nurtured my growing love of the sangha – my sisters and brothers in the Dharma. Affinity became the channel for greeting any patient and building relationships in the five years I was a Buddhist hospital chaplain. Affinity became a supposition I used in meeting any stranger: in the end, affinity means there are no strangers.
I have discovered that affinity leads into the prism-like aspects of the constancy, ease, assurance and purity we see in Kanzeon – a being who wears my face and yours. The aspects we attribute to her, and need to find in ourselves, all shine as one jewel. Yet we can see the facets of that jewel. After years of Zen koan practice, I see that each facet has continually reshaped its meaning as I have met the events of my life. I have learned that life is truly why we practice, and practice is why we can truly meet life with the assurance of Kanzeon.
Since I was in my early forties I have had a series of health events with extended recovery periods. In 2015 I was finally diagnosed with Psoriatic Arthritis, an autoimmune disease affecting both joints, cartilage and soft tissues, which is subject to “flares.” This means there are times when a dangerous and very painful inflammation can occur. So, without asking, the opportunity was given to me during two recent flares, to sit constantly for most of two years…the kind of sitting which comes when standing and walking are in limited supply!
My kinhin walk most days was a stagger back and forth to the bathroom. I lived in a kind of micro world, with some similarities perhaps, to that of monks or nuns in a monastery or on a constant Sesshin. Consequently I know the rhythm of the magpies in our garden; I greet the Noisy Mynah each morning and evening who inspects every inch of our pot-plants and eaves. I know the movement of the sun as the shade of the tree outside my window moves a fraction each day. In such a long time of sitting the world comes to you.
Through this I have found that chronic pain is a great teacher: you soon realise you cannot stay on morphine forever or even Panadol. Besides, painkillers of any strength arc through a cycle where relief is a short and foggy peak, followed by a most unsatisfactory trough. I have kept in mind the experience of a Buddhist kidney-transplant patient I met when I was a chaplain. To the amazement of hospital staff, he reduced his drug use by 50% after his transplant operation by meditating away his pain. Constancy of practice proved its worth!
On the other hand, there are the side effects of the drugs you must take with a chronic illness like mine, to reduce its devastation on the body and bring about remissions. Kanzeon, the conveyor of ease, chanted in my head on days when I was in a drug-induced mental fog, and sounded her beat in harmony with the deafening trumpeting of the MRI machine.
And I am more naturally in the practice of what some traditions might call mindfulness these days, especially in times when taking a shower can be a slow and dangerous business. Then I really know the ease of being simply in each moment, without choice but with gratefulness. Constancy then is adhering to, and fully noticing, this moment… and then the next moment… nothing else.
Each health event has been a hugely helpful in a Zen practice which has woven itself like the spider web I can see outside the window now. We work on the web of our lives blindly without a blueprint, but as I practise I feel a sense that the shape doesn’t matter – the intention does.
I feel my essential nature, never wasted and shared with all beings, arising in my life of peculiar and seemingly meandering ways, is purity. So my sense is that there is no need to aspire to the purity of Kanzeon, but rather to constantly uncover it in ourselves and others, wherever we are, whatever we are doing. I think I have proved to myself that there is no one situation more perfect than another for doing this. And the greatest fruits of practice are quiet miracles that we witness – not on television or the internet – but in ourselves, on any ordinary day.
The Bodhisattva dogs of constancy, ease, assurance and purity: wise old girl, Caper, and Pickles, in his sleeping bag. When he was a pup, Pickles figured out how to get in and out of the pillowslip that covered his little doggy futon. He would drag his sleeping bag into the room where I was sitting, and then crawl inside, like a little worm in a cocoon. He was with me each day when I was very ill, and every now and then he would stick his head out of the sleeping bag and look at me directly, as if to say, ‘Every day is a good day.’