“Even in Kyoto, I Long For Kyoto”

Dharma Talk March 2020

By Sensei Deirdre Eisho Peterson

Earlier this month I read a book review, and in it was a very interesting word:  “Solastalgia”. Apparently it was coined by a contemporary Australian environmental philosopher named Glenn Albrecht, and it is a word that comes out of the climate crisis.  This word solastalgia combines the words solace, desolation and nostalgia.  According to the article, “Solastalgia conveys the distressing homesickness we experience without leaving home, when home has altered beyond recognition, such as when seeing a familiar and beloved environment that has been destroyed by drought, fire or flood, by the extremes of climate change.”

Solastalgia was described by Glenn Albrecht as the suffering caused by a lack of solace or comfort, by a sense of isolation and dislocation, and by an erosion of a sense of place or a sense of belonging.  Albrecht could see that there were many analytical data points and scientific terms being used to describe the devastation of our earth that we are witnessing, but as a philosopher he also felt that there wasn’t yet a language or vocabulary for the complex and profound mix of feelings that arise from this.  A language that might allow us to communicate in a more intimate way about our experience.

Every day we are confronted with news stories, photographs and films of what is happening to the earth, and it comes right into our desks or our phones, with the morning coffee or tea. Every day the unrelenting reminders  that the world we used to know and love is slipping away.

The word Solastalgia is focused primarily on the environmental crisis, on the external world.  But we can of course also experience a similar kind of distress and dislocation when our personal world changes or our health changes, when the rug is pulled out from beneath our feet, when we wake up in uncharted waters, when we feel that “the way it was before” is lost.  We can feel this way on a national level as well, about our country and what has been lost.

On a similar note, I was struck recently by a piece of writing in National Geographic by the Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid entitled, “We Are All Migrants.”  The piece was ostensibly about migration, both of humans as well as birds and fish and animals, but it was about much more than that, and there is a lot of dharma in it.  He too touches on this pain of loss, the pain of the world we knew slipping away. Hamid writes: “To be human is to migrate forward through time, each second like an island where we arrive like castaways and from which we are swept off by the tide, arriving again and again in a new instant, on a new island, one that we have, as always, never experienced before.  Over the course of a lifetime these migrations through the seconds accrue, transform into hours, months, decades. We become refugees from our childhoods;  the schools, the friends, the toys, the parents, that made up our worlds all gone, replaced by new buildings, by phone calls, photo albums.

“We all experience the constant drama of the new, and the constant sorrow of the loss of what we’ve left behind.  It is a universal sorrow and one so potent that we seek to deny it, rarely acknowledging it in ourselves, let alone in others.  We’re encouraged by society to focus only on the new, on acquisition, rather than on the loss that is the thread uniting and binding us. ~

So while there is a unique combination of elements in the current situation we face with our planet, many of these feelings – of loss, of displacement, of yearning, of homesickness for a passing world — are as old as humanity.  From 2500 years ago, one of the Buddha’s Five Remembrances is that “I shall grow different, separate from all that is dear and appealing to me.”  Much of our greatest literature, poetry, and music touches on this pain of loss, and the kind of yearning or longing that we can experience.

Even in Kyoto

Hearing the sound of the cuckoo

I long for Kyoto

That’s the 17th century Zen poet Basho.

We might all have different ways that we understand or connect with this haiku.  It touches on and evokes this sense of loss, of the passing of time, of a memory of what was, a kind of nostalgia, a longing for something that is gone or perhaps something that existed only in our own personal experience…. A sound, a song, a fragrance, the angle of the light, an old photograph can all can trigger this.  There is a loneliness to it, a kind of haunted quality, a sense of being outside the gates, exiled from The Garden.  Even in Kyoto I long for Kyoto.

So when these feelings arise, it is important to acknowledge them, to honor them, as part of the depth and sensitivity of our hearts.  These feelings of sadness, or loss, or the uneasy feeling you get when you realize how much of your life has gone by, how much and how quickly the world is changing, things passing away, slipping away.  …. This too is something deep in our human life.  So to treat these feelings with kindness, and to know that we are not alone, that this feeling is shared by many others. ~

At the same time, as Zen practitioners, it’s really important for us not to become lost in this.  We all have known people who have become lost in the past.  Who are not able to see or appreciate the present, to see things with fresh eyes, being stuck in the past, in old and mechanical ways of being and experiencing.  From there it is easy to become bitter and unhappy.  These feelings lead to a real separation from what is here right now.  That’s part of the alienation that is a hallmark of modern life. But over and over again, our Zen practice is to come back to what’s right here, to acknowledge our feelings and our suffering, but not to be stuck there, to come out of the dream of the past, the dream of how it could have been or how it should be now.  And to actually, breath by breath, be right here.

The 14th century Sufi poet Hafiz asks:  “What do sad people have in common?  It seems they have all built a shrine to the past and often go there to worship.  What is the beginning of happiness?  It is to stop being so religious like that.”

And in being right here, we can perhaps learn to recognize this moment of being present, as our home, our foundation, our refuge.  The traditional Buddhist vows of taking refuge in Buddha Dharma Sangha means to take refuge, to find our home, in our awakened nature,in the teachings of wisdom and compassion, and with the support and company of others on the path.

This is not a refuge built on something solid or unchanging. It is not a refuge built on conditions being to our liking, our specifications.  Rather this is a refuge that does not depend on conditions.  It is a refuge that we experience breath by breath, and from which we gain groundedness and composure.  Whatever this fleeting moment of life presents, that our intention is to be open and awake to it, to meet it fully, to be intimate with the moment –to-moment ingredients of our life.

You might feel, not without reason, that this doesn’t sound like much of a refuge.  Nothing solid, no guarantees. But to have oriented ourselves to be awake and present for this moment is a great and healing gift that can carry us through our entire life.  None of our lives would be the same without it.

Those of you who were here a few years ago may remember that we looked at a verse from our Chinese Zen ancestor Shitou.  In 8th Century China, he wrote a verse called the Song of the Grass Roof Hermitage, which we chanted for several months.  Here are a few lines from the verse he wrote:

– I’ve built a grass hut, where there’s nothing of value.

– The person in the hut lives here calmly.  Not stuck to outside, inside, or in-between.

– Though the hut is small, it contains the entire world.

– People can’t help wondering, “Will the hut perish, or not?”

– Perishable or not, the original master is present.  Not dwelling south or north, east or west.

– Turn around the light to shine within, then just return.

So in this verse, this grass hut is finding our home, finding our refuge.  Like our lives, it is not permanent.  It is perishable, vulnerable, made of flimsy materials.  But the person in the hut abides there calmly, not stuck to any one point of view, but having a wide and spacious view.  Thus although the hut is physically small, it is open to the entire world.  Just as our own practice is to open ourselves to the entire world.  And Shitou encourages us, using words that Japanese Zen Master Dogen will use again hundreds of years later, to turn around the light to shine within, then just return.  The returning is this returning home, to true home.

In the chaotic and confusing time that we find ourselves living in, perhaps true home feels like some nice Buddhist idea that doesn’t have much reality in our own life.  But this concept of true home is something that the Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Naht Hanh has written a great deal about.   I am always inspired by the strength, dedication and compassion of his practice during the terror of the Vietnam War in the 1960s.  Despite the chaos and brutality around him, he and his fellow Buddhist nuns and monks made the choice that they would rest in this true home.  They would work for an end to the violence, an end to the war, they would help the people of Vietnam as much as possible.  And:  through their Zen practice, they would also cultivate this true home within themselves, even in a war zone.  That seems so important.  So that, as Thich Naht Hanh says, we are not drowned in forgetfulness.  So that we are not drowned in the confusion, the noise, the chaos of a world that is undergoing tremendous stress.

What is this true home?  Thich Naht Hanh says this:  “Who among us has a true home?  I have a home, and I feel very comfortable in my home, even though I was exiled from Vietnam for decades.  My true home is not at the meditation center that we started in France, nor is it in the United States.  My true home, and all of our true home, is the present moment, whatever is happening right here and right now.

“Our true home is a place without discrimination, a place without hatred.  Our true home is the place where we are no longer seeking anything, no longer yearning for anything, no longer regretting anything.  When we return to right here and right now with the energy of mindfulness, we will be able to establish our true home in the present moment.

 “Your true home is something that you have to create for yourself.  When we know how to make peace with our body, to release the tension in our body, then our body becomes a comfortable peaceful home for us to come back to in the present moment.  When we know how to take care of our feelings – how to cultivate understanding and compassion, and how to handle a painful feeling – we can restore a peaceful home in the present moment.  Home is not something to hope for, but something to cultivate.  There is no way home;  home is the way itself.”

I really appreciate that last statement – that home is something that we cultivate.  And this zazen practice that we have, of sitting in silence and presence, sitting through our physical aches and pains, our moods, the chatter in our minds, the rain, the wind or the lawnmower outside …. that’s the garden where this cultivation takes place.

Dogen is speaking to the same thing in his famous instruction to “take the backward step and shine the light inward, illuminating the self.”  This is to connect clearly and intimately with our moment to moment experience. This would be coming home, healing our alienation and our separation from life and from ourselves.

In many ways the teachings of Zen are all about connecting with this home.  It is about coming home to ourselves.  And as I said, zazen is where we experience that, and where we practice it and cultivate it.  Our meditation practice in the zendo always begins with the sound of the bell – a reminder to come home to ourselves.

I’ll close this morning with a poem from Zen Master Dogen.  It speaks to both the home-sickness of our hearts, and our home-finding:

Traveling along in this dreamlike realm

Without looking for the traces that I may have left behind.

A cuckoo’s song beckons me to return home

Hearing this, I tilt my head to see who has called me to turn back.

But do not ask me where I am going

As I travel this limitless world where every step I take is my home.

Every step I take is my home.  Let’s open our dharma eye to this, and practice this True Home today.  ~