Failing to Grasp

pictures from Frank’s Blog 

Last summer I spent a couple of days at Tassajara – the wide sky, the endless mountains. The temple bell, the main gate, the fan that turns slowly on the kitchen roof. I climbed a little ways up the slope above the hill cabins, felt the hot sun on my skin, and thought, I’d like to really be here again sometime. I’d like to have this again.

I had a plan to spend the three-month fall practice period there, and that comforted me, as I sat on the hot hill, hearing the rush of the creek and the shuffling of squirrels. Oh, good. I will get to have this again. I’d lived at Tassajara for about five years, but already it felt like a long time ago.

Now that three-month practice period has come and gone, and I confess that before, during, and after have been marked by much the same feeling I had on the hillside. I’d sure like to really be here sometime.

A couple of old sayings come to mind. Basho, and Dogen:

Even in Kyoto / Hearing the cuckoo’s cry / I long for Kyoto

When Dharma fills your body and mind, you understand that something is missing.

The truth seems to be that Tassajara, like Green Gulch, like Kyoto, like Albuquerque, isn’t actually graspable. We can never really arrive, because the world and things aren’t really like that.

We can never really get a hold of anything, not because we “aren’t present enough” or are “too distracted” or “not there long enough,” but because what we think of as objects aren’t actually objects, and what we think is this subject isn’t really a subject like that. What we think is of the nature to be held is in actuality completely unholdable.

Frequently people come by Green Gulch, where I’m living now – a different deep beauty I am now failing to grasp – and they tell me how lucky I am to live here. They are right – I can’t account for the rare fortune of this life.

But behind that kind of talk I also hear the same glimmer I felt on the Tassajara hillside: “You must be able to grasp this place, since you live here. You must have it.”

But of course I don’t. I don’t have Green Gulch, and can’t hold it for even a second. I don’t have a family – a beautiful, wise wife or an adorable, brilliant child – because I can’t keep them either. Not in the long haul and not even right now, right in this flash of beauty.

I can appreciate. And I strive to appreciate. And moment by moment that appreciation can be renewed. But that doesn’t mean I get it. It doesn’t mean I’ve exhausted it, or own it, or can get my fingers or mind around it at all in the slightest.

A sense of loss, perhaps, but a sense of relief, too. A sharpening of this unkeepable, fierce beauty.

(A note to our email subscribers:  sorry about a couple of recent notifications for drafts of posts.  A keystroke error I seem to be making consistently is publishing posts prematurely, sending you all an incomplete post with a broken link.  I hope it doesn’t happen again!  Thanks.)


9 thoughts on “Failing to Grasp

  1. Your post reminds me of one of my other favorite Dogen quotes:

    “It’s like reaching into a mountain stream and trying to grasp it in your hands – at best it slips through your fingers, and at worst you end up al wet.”

  2. I’m so glad you chose to develop a little this theme of your parting remarks at our final work circle of the fall Tassajara practice period. Ironically, writing about our ‘failures to grasp’ produces another failure to grasp — the writing itself. But if the writing rings true, in the moment of writing it there is no such failure. There is instead the delicious affirmation of practice/enlightenment. Onward!

  3. My favorite haiku ever. I first encountered it written in sharpie on a bureau in a co-op I was visiting, long before I ever had any formal whiff of Zen–and it has stayed with me, always–stayed with me in ways that things less graspable can’t. (Is that what poems can do? Give us something to hold in our mind, even while acknowledging the greater truth of ungraspability?) Being at Tassajara for interim briefly this winter, I was pierced with that same paradox–“I’d like to be here again/I’d like to have this again–wait a second, there were so many long stretches here when I lived here and it offered itself over and over and I still didn’t have it, oh yeah… shoot, but still, I want this”. And there is a thirst that being physically at Tassajara quenches, and falling into the stream that Dogen talks about and getting a good ducking is such sweetness. Missing you (singular and plural).

  4. “Turning away and touching are both wrong,
    for it is like a massive fire.
    Just to depict it in literary form
    is to stain it with defilement. ”

    Why does this keep coming into my mind over and over these days…

  5. Jiryu san – thank you for lovely diamonds mined from the rush of experience. I wonder though who “we” is? I notice that “spiritual” writers use this a lot. Is it possible that it’s a gambit of persuasion? Makes me feel Catholic all over again. In any case, it’s an honour to be part of your “we”, though the minute I disagree with you I respectfully excuse myself.

    Best JMJ

  6. too many buddhas, everyone’s in the know, while the sound of silence passes right through and the magic goes missing. wendell

  7. “If the cart doesn’t go, do you strike the ox or the cart?”

    Beating the ox to death or pulverizing the cart to dust are of no consequence.
    Thoroughly investigating the hand which hods the stick, is something else entirely.



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