the never-ending story

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This is the fourth talk given by Nona Strong Roshi at the June 2022 zen sesshin at Mercy Center Burlingame.

Despite the sensation we have of time passing, from life’s beginning to its end, life – especially our own life – is really a never-ending story, isn’t it?

When we call up a memory, an image or recording of something that has already happened, that recorded happening lives again. Sometimes we even experience shadows of physical sensations that accompanied the original happening. It’s the same with imaginings of future happenings, although probably not as well defined. We imagine how it’ll be on that beach in Hawaii the next time we go. Remembering and anticipating are normal human faculties.

Our coming here and devoting ourselves to meditation is about putting remembering and anticipating in their proper place and luxuriating in the exquisite experience of here-and-now. So today, I’d like to offer a few words about how we can carry that experience out of this dedicated space into our daily lives.

One thing we can do is make weeks like this one a more-or-less regular – or at least repeatable – part of our routine experience. We can do retreats, with others or even solitary retreats, as a planned feature of our lives. Obviously, our circumstances determine if such is even possible. But if we have this privilege, we should use it.

Failing the ability to go on retreat, we can find a way to sit in community when it’s possible. As you have no doubt discovered, the collective energy that’s generated when two or more are gathered in common pursuit (where have we heard that before?) enhances each individual’s experience. For many, going to church may be the most readily available path to sitting in community. For others, we now have Zoom groups for meditation. And for the lucky few, there are in-person retreats like this one.

When we’re not somewhere contemplating our navel, we can observe our inner workings and abandon stuff we find to be delusive. Thoughts, feelings, judgments, opinions, and the like all combine to create life constructs in which we find comfort – or at least, think we find comfort. When we really look at our situations, though, we often recognize that the worlds we have created out of expectation or desire or regret or whatever are causing us more pain than we really bargained for. So, we determine to let go of all that expectation and desire and regret, and just be in the present. Be here now. What freedom that brings!

I could go on and on trying to call out different ways of doing the neverending stories that make up all our lives, but I’m not wise enough to continue. And you don’t want to hear my story anyway. But I will offer something from a person who has considered many stories and has written about them.

Here’s an excerpt from the “Afterword” in James Ishmael Ford Roshi’s book titled, If You’re Lucky, Your Heart Will Break: Field Notes from a Zen Life. (This lovely book carries a copyright date of 2012 and was published by Wisdom Publications of Somerville, MA. There! I’ve given full attribution! Now nobody can get me for quoting without written permission. Which of course is just what I’m doing…) Here’s how Ford Roshi closes his book:

“… if you find a longing that cannot be satisfied in the ways the world is offering … through secular culture, come to a Zen hall. 

Come just as you are. No need to be someone else. 

Sit your butt down. 

Shut up. 

Pay attention. 

Learn who you were from before the creation of the stars and planets. 

Investigate the ways of differentiation. 

Explore the geography of not knowing. 


And forget. 

And become again. 

And, then when you get off that pillow—for goodness’ sake—do something. 

This becomes the dance of becoming where the stars take their course, and planets teem with life and death and life again. 

It can manifest as healing for your own heart, and it can reveal a way of healing for this poor, beautiful, broken world. 

Indeed, it almost certainly will.”

These strike me as suggestions that are full of possibility and hope. And they are most apt for us here today, as we begin to close out this Zen sesshin.