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On Spring and Childhood

First given at Tassajara in 1998; EDZ All Day Sit, Buddha's Birthday, April 30, 2006

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Apr 30, 2006
In topic: Everyday Zen
Spring reminds us of childhood, the childhood lived once long ago and lived again many many times thereafter. Childhood is the dream time, ocean time, full of terror and mystery but also joy unspeakable—a time much larger than the waking life. Zoketsu reflects on spring and childhood.


It's spring and spring is powerful. The human world is compelling and seems so self-contained; we live in it as though it were the only world that mattered. But other worlds surround us, and it may be that our world is merely the dream of another. Perhaps we are figments of the earth's imagination. We are the earth's dream, and one day when the earth wakes up from its dream of humanity we'll be gone. Meanwhile the earth sleeps majestically. It's spring and everything comes to life. The new leaves on the maple trees droop gently, like little parachutes. The wildflowers come out—Indian paintbrush, blue eyed grass, wild iris, larkspur. Blue jays are back and junkos are more lively. Buds are swelling everywhere and grasses are growing fast. Ceanothus is in bloom: blue clouds in all the hillsides. The earth goes traveling, turns round, and Spring returns. No matter how smart we get or how much we suffer this is always true. Spring is the time for flowers, and flowers are fresh reminders of the tenderness of our mind and of all things.

Spring is the beginning. It always starts now. Things are born, arise anew, washed clean and refreshed, and it is surprising. It makes us smile. All smiles on the faces of people are instances of the arrival of spring. The new life comes in spring. People fall in love. Just beneath the desire they feel for one another is springtime's insignia. Dante saw Beatrice and wrote, "At that moment, I say... the spirit of life, which hath its dwelling in the secretest chamber of the heart, began to tremble so violently that the least pulses of my body shook and in trembling it said these words: 'Here is a deity stronger than I, who, coming, shall rule over me.'"

Spring reminds us of childhood, the childhood lived once long ago and lived again many many times thereafter. Childhood is the dream time, ocean time, full of terror and mystery but also joy unspeakable—a time much larger than the waking life, in which chairs are for sitting and tables are for sitting at. In the world of the child chairs dance and tables have faces. Children do not belong to the same species as adults. This is true of human children, and true of all creatures. The young are too new to be from this place, they come from elsewhere. Watch the baby quail cross the road, watch the fawn stumble. Children are among us but not of us. We say of children, they are angels—he's an angel—she's an angel—and I think we mean by this more than we know. Children are angels, the angels in the stories, come to earth to remind us of something we have forgotten. When you touch a child's skin or watch a child sleeping, hear a child laugh or look into a child's eyes you know this is so. Children love the world—they love it completely, and they love it with their whole bodies. They want to touch it, taste it, they want to smell it and hear its sounds. They are always reaching out toward it, as if they could grasp the whole of it and put it in their mouths and eat it. They are sure this is really possible. They keep reaching. They love their own bodies too, for bodies too are part of the world which is so essentially lovely. Children hold their own fingers and toes with deep curiosity. They coo to hear the sound of their own voices.

The child's world contains limitless possibility. Life's paths from here multiply endlessly outward and in each moment of delight all those paths are always present. For the child every moment is like a fan, opening out, like the tail feathers of a peacock, like a branch in new leaf.

We think that life unfolds like a string, along a path in one direction, but life's a tangle. We think we start as children and grow older, but we return to be a child always again. Memory isn't a thought of the past behind us; memory's a vivid experience now, and we relive our lives as children many times, and each time it's new and different. The past keeps changing behind us, like landscape we pass while walking. There's isn't just one past for our lives, there are many pasts, and each past is now. They say that very old people return completely to childhood, live almost entirely there, remember vividly years gone by as if they were actually present and new right now. They say the skin of very old people becomes soft, like the skin of a baby, and their eyes have the sheen of childhood.

Times open out—every moment arises, abides, decays, and passes away. This means that every moment is always new. Comes from nowhere. Carries everything with it. The possibilities of springtime are always here. We are always a baby, always open to surprise, we are always grasping out to reach the world which we understand is not something other than ourselves. Whitman said "I contain multitudes." We are animals, streams, flowers and warm sunshine. Everything else falls away.

Buddha is born in the springtime. He comes into the world without pain, stands up, points simultaneously to heaven and earth, exactly like the angels, who lives between, and says "I alone am the World Honored One." He takes seven steps. The grasses are exactly like this. In the spring the grasses come up with tremendous strength—nothing can stop them. They are straining toward heaven. They too take seven steps and proclaim, each blade, "I alone am the World Honored One." It is good to sit down on the grass in the springtime.

The West mirrors the East. Christ is born in the dead of winter. We bring a green tree into the house and celebrate life. It's cold and dark but we light a candle and hope. We give each other gifts to celebrate birth and beginnings. In the springtime Christ dies and comes back again with the flowers, white lilies. We weep and are amazed. The beauty of the flowers and the gorgeousness of the child is sad because there is suffering in it. Spring is peaceful and solemn. Eliot says, "April is the cruelest month."

A Brief for the Defense

by Jack Gilbert

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving 
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils. 
But we enjoy our lives because that's what God wants. 
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not 
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not 
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women 
at the fountain are laughing together between 
the suffering they have known and the awfulness 
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody 
in the village is very sick. There is laughter 
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta, 
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay. 
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction, 
we lessen the importance of their deprivation. 
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure, 
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have 
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless 
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only 
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil. 
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down, 
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude. 
We must admit there will be music despite everything. 
We stand at the prow again of a small ship 
anchored late at night in the tiny port 
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront 
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning. 
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat 
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth 
all the years of sorrow that are to come. 

From: Poem: A Brief for the Defense at The Wandering Jew (weblog)

© 2006, Norman Fischer