HOW TO GROW A LOTUS BLOSSOM: Reflections in a Disciple's Life

by Rev. Koshin Schomberg

Section V
The Great Circulation in a Day

The sound of the valley stream is his great Voice.
The colors of the mountains are His Pure Body.
In the night I have heard the eighty-four thousand hymns.--
But how can I explain it in the morning?

--enlightenment poem of Sotoba, a lay trainee



My retreat in 1980 introduced me to my own natural contemplative rhythm. I had been training for seven years as a monk. Now I was of necessity having to learn to train completely outside the normal monastic schedule. I had to trust my own instinct as to what is good to do at any particular time. I was regularly drawn into deep meditation and then brought back out of it. I was regularly drawn to reflect upon my life. And, of course, the needs of the body have their own rhythms. The same principle of natural contemplative rhythm applies in ordinary daily training outside of the context of a retreat.

I will attempt to describe my natural cycle of meditation and activity, and show something of how it helps the work of conversion. Again, I use my own training as an example because it is what I can use. This is not intended in any way to be a prescription for the training of others. I do not assume that because a particular pattern has worked for me, it will work for everyone--or, indeed, anyone--else. In my own temple, we follow the normal daily schedule of meditation, ceremonial, work, etc. that I was trained with when I was a young monk. This schedule works well for most people suited to our way of training: it is moderate and balanced. For both monastic and lay trainees, I recommend beginning training with a strong emphasis on morning and evening meditation (perhaps morning or evening meditation for the new lay trainee). Like any responsible Buddhist teacher, I also strongly recommend training under the guidance of a qualified teacher, and meditating and training regularly with others who are doing the same practice and following the same teaching. Finally, I cannot overemphasize the importance of studying the Precepts and taking them to heart. These are the foundations of correct training, and they make it possible to find one's own natural contemplative rhythm.

Finally, I would like to caution those who would look for shorcuts. Establishing a solid foundation of training takes years. There are no shortcuts.

Morning of the Contemplative Day

Rev. Master sometimes observed that the real day of training begins in late afternoon or early evening as the more active part of the day comes to a close. I found this to be true for me during my retreat in 1980, and it has been true ever since. My training day begins after supper with an informal period of contemplation done in "corpse pose"--that is, lying down. This is usually my deepest meditation of the day. It happens quite naturally and effortlessly. This time of relaxed contemplation is the perfect prelude to the evening meditation in the meditation hall with others. When we do not have formal meditation in the evening, the earlier contemplation is still complete in itself.

There are times when I have not been able to do this early-evening meditation. I am always very aware that when I miss it I am missing something important, and that if it were to continue to happen I would become depleted spiritually. This relaxed contemplation sets up the spiritual field of my body and mind for the night to come. It is as if the furnace of meditation in which the next lot of ore is to be refined is getting fired up during this meditation.

Ore Refining

During my retreat in the summer of 1980, I began to wake up and meditate in the middle of the night. I have done this somewhat irregularly ever since. There have been periods of up to a few weeks at a time when it has not happened, usually when I have been deeply fatigued. But most nights for the last thirty-five years I have done this midnight meditation.

Most of the time, the duration of this meditation is short--sometimes only a few minutes. I just sit up in bed and meditate, usually kneeling on my mattress. I do not light candles or turn on lights. For many years I sat on my mattress in the middle of the night with a scattered, foggy mind. But I had learned not to judge the quality (or seeming lack of it) of meditation. I always trust that meditation is accomplishing good: that is enough.

This midnight meditation has been very helpful to me, probably mostly in ways I cannot imagine. I do not know whether it is true for everyone, but for me the hours between about midnight and 4 or 5 am seem to be a time when karmic tensions rise to the surface. I think that when they get right up to the surface I wake up. I have found that when this happens, it is very hard to go back to sleep unless I sit up and meditate for awhile. But if I do the meditation, then when I lie down again I usually fall asleep right away.

I think of this night meditation as a small investment of effort that yields big returns in refining the raw material--the "ore"--of enlightenment. Over many years, my mind has very gradually become less scattered and foggy during this meditation--an unexpected bonus.

There is another level from which I view and treasure this meditation: there is the whole expanse of the night in which to be with the Eternal. For years I sat in the night with a scattered, foggy mind, but with a glad heart.

Afternoon of the Contemplative Day

The time of morning meditation is late afternoon in the spiritual day that I am describing. Morning meditation is completing the spiritual work of the night. It is as if the gold refined from the ore is being poured into ingots. I view the morning expression of faith and gratitude in some form of morning service as being as important in my training as morning meditation. The morning chanting of scriptures, bowing and offering of merit mark the transition from the refining of the gold to putting it to use for the good of all beings in the activities of the day.

The gold is not mined and refined in order to be hoarded, but to be used with compassion and generosity of spirit. The hours between morning service and the midday meal are the main time of work. This is where the gold gets reinvested in the equipment and labor of mining. It is important to balance the practice of meditation with the practice of generosity We receive innumerable benefits from the Eternal through opening our hearts in meditation. In our daily work we have the opportunity to express gratitude to the Eternal through service to living beings who, after all, are of the Eternal. This is another aspect of the Great Circulation. I have always loved Great Master Dogen's observation, "It is an act of charity [generosity] to build a ferry or a bridge and all forms of industry are charity if they benefit others." Or, as a verse in the Bible expresses it, "Do everything as unto the Lord."

Night of the Contemplative Day

The afternoon is the night of the contemplative day. Just as the last hours of night anticipate the dawn, so the last hours of the day anticipate the drawing within in evening meditation.

I try to do quieter work in the afternoon. It is as if the mining equipment has been packed away and the ore is being transported to the furnace where it will be refined into gold.

Going In and Out

Meditation and activity alternate in this continual cycle. Meditation is the "going in"; activity is the "going out". This is like a spiritual inhalation and exhalation. When the mind and heart of meditation is brought into activity, this is called "mindfulness." When the mind and heart of selfless giving are brought into meditation, this is called "offering up". Thus there is "stillness in activity" and "activity in stillness."

I wrote a poem in the early 1990's about the "going in" side of this continual cycle, especially as it is expressed in meditating in the meditation hall with fellow trainees. It is entitled "Lord of our Hearts." There is a link to the Poems at the bottom of this page.


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Click here to go to the Poems. Scroll down the page to read "Lord of our Hearts"


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