February 22, 2009

No I Won't, Yes I Will

The wholehearted attitude "yes" has to be deeply rooted in Zen practice.  A willingness to pick up after one another, to do what is needed to be done without question is at the heart of practice.  Learning to say yes teaches us to see how the ego acts in us when we are asked to do something we may not like.  Learning to say yes teaches us to be selfless and to let go again and again to the endless resistances that hinder our progress in Zen practice and in life.  Nevertheless, there were numerous instances in the life of Ryokan in which Ryokan said that all important word "no."  These were important pivotal moments that helped to shape his life.

There's no doubt that there has to be the freedom to choose yes or no so that either one is not a rote response to life.  In that moment of decision however, both yes and no appear in a split second.  We say no, not that way, but yes, this way.  No and yes are present in every decision.  Ryokan knew very well that life is very much a matter of choice, and he was willing to live through the consequences of his choices no matter how difficult.

The first major "no and yes" occurred when he refused to follow in his father's footsteps as head man of his village.  His yes was to take vows as a monk.  A later "no and yes" occurred when he said no to being abbot of the temple following his teacher's death, and yes to a life as a mendicant.  He said no to living in his family home when he returned to his birthplace, and yes to remaining in a life of begging.  There were numerous other decisions such as these that clearly marked his life's Way.  He didn't waffle between these decisions, at least as we can see.  He may have taken a time of discernment before the decision, but when he made his choice, he made it with confidence, not only in his life, but in life itself. 

Many dear friends and family around me are struggling with yes and no, no and yes, right now.  It isn't easy, especially given the difficult times that appear in front of us.  Sometimes we are able to double back if we realize our decision was not wise.  Sometimes we cannot.  But, my grandmother's fireside wisdom transmitted to my mother and to me still holds up.  "What is for you cannot get away."  It has its karmic inference, of course.  It also has a simple wisdom that confirms a deeply positive matter of life.  The good we hope that will be there for everyone cannot simply disappear.  Life is bigger than we imagine.  "Yes and no" and "no and yes" are just life and one or the other makes all the difference.