There is a small deck attached to the south facing side of my house. I use it for one purpose – cloud watching.
On different days, clouds pass the sky in various shapes. There are horses galloping in tall grass, witches riding on their broomsticks, pandas in the Zoo munching bamboo shoots. Or sometimes it is King Kong atop the antenna pounding his chest, Cupid aiming his arrow to open air, and the Buddha reclining to contemplation in Lion’s pose.
When a storm is brewing, there are black drapes with silver linings. Or if a twilight is glowing, purple velvets are embroidered with crimson ribbons or golden lace. And orange surf may overflow a pink beach, while a new sun is uprising …
Sometimes, besides the clouds, a sequence of wild geese cackle past the sky, in a lineup that resembles Chinese character 人, meaning ‘people’.
From my deck I see people riding winds and clouds, roaming in emptiness, grasping impermanence, chasing meaningless … People I know or don’t know. People from all walks of life. I am adrift among them, perching on my own cloud-castles, overstocked with obsessive compulsive disorderly thoughts of all sorts, willful, wishful, cynical, dismal, insane, deranged, primitive, pathetic, contrived, hypocritic, futile, pointless …
We the people are like migratory birds, goaded by seasonal rhythm and compelled by hormonal riots, performing our life cycles like circus animals on the wheels – how many more rounds of repeats are still ahead? The concept of samsara means the endless cycles of death and rebirth in material world, but it can also refer to the constant flux of old thoughts and new ideas.
When we replace a foolish old way of thinking with a sensible new insight, isn’t it a life cycle completed as well?
It’s said an average person has 50,000 thoughts going through his mind every day, which means 35 thoughts per minute. By the time he reaches 85 years old, 1.5 billion thoughts would have been passing through his mental sky.
If we count the relinquish of an old thought as a death, and the adoption of a new insight as a rebirth, what an abundance of life cycles we are destined to complete in this lifetime.
A samurai came to Zen master Hakuin to question him if there are really paradise and hell. “Who are you?” Hakuin asked. “I am a warrior,” the samurai replied. “But you look like a beggar, your sword is probably too dull to cut off my head,” Hakuin commented. The samurai got angry and drew out his sword.
“Here open the gates of hell,” Hakuin remarked.
Upon hearing this, the samurai was awakened, he sheathed his sword back and gave Hakuin a bow.
“And here open the gates of paradise,” said Hakuin.
Just like a mere notion could make a hell or a paradise, a simple replacement of thought could be the achievement of a lifetime.
Life is a journey to tame the mind and transform the self. A journey of never-ending process to disarm, surrender, purify and sublime. With the 50,000 thoughts dissolved during the day, a bright full moon will appear on the nightly sky.
Sitting on my deck, with a cup of spring tea in hand, I watch the clouds drifting by, just like watching countless lifetimes flashing before my eyes.