Norman gives the first talk of the Mar de Jade December 2010 Sesshin on Darkness and Light.
Darkness and Light – Talk 1 Mar de Jade
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Dec 05, 2010
Transcribed and edited by Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager
This is the dark time of the year. The days are short, and the nights are long. So it is quieter this time of year, and maybe in some places in the world, it is cold and sad and a little depressing. This time of year, in some places, people are very despairing. At this time of year, all over the world, and in almost every religion, we light a candle. It is the time of year when we search for a small point of light within the darkness. That small point of light, just a small light, little by little, becomes stronger. Then the year changes, and we come to the part of the year where there is more light.
Spiritually, we can experience this darkness and light. They always seem to go together and depend on each other. Darkness and light, joy and sorrow, good and evil, God and human confusion – it seems that all of this is within ourselves. The two sides depend on each other, and we can never escape from this. This is our human life, and this is our human nature.
Our goal is not to illuminate the darkness, and make the darkness go away, and have a world flooded with light. We may think that that is what we are trying to do, but I don’t think that we can do that. If you want to have day, you have to have night. If you want to have light, you have to have darkness. If you want to be happy, there must be some sorrow. If you want to live, you have to die.
The Bible says that in the very beginning of the world, everything was empty. There was only darkness over the face of the deep, and the spirit of God was moving over the waters. God said, Let there be light, and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day” and called the darkness “night.” There was evening and there was morning – one day. That is, pretty much exactly, what it says in the Bible.
What does this mean? I think that it means something about our life, something about how we have to live our life and understand our life. It says that even before there was light and darkness, there was darkness – some kind of darkness before darkness, a kind of nothingness. I think that we don’t even have a word for this, because if you don’t have light and dark, you can’t have any words.
Of course this story is not just about creation, something that happened a long time ago. I am sure that it is about the creation that happens on each moment. It is about how time and consciousness are created in us on every moment, so that we can be alive. First, there is the condition of emptiness, a kind of darkness beyond darkness. Within that emptiness, or nothingness, there is something profound, a sense of complete belonging and complete union before anything exists. Even a moment before our consciousness arises, even before we know that we are here, before we are aware of our own life, there is already a sense of belonging, a sense of union. Then all of a sudden: light! Because there is light, darkness.
Maybe the darkness is this original union, this original belonging. Out of that comes the light. Then we find ourselves alive; we find ourselves persons. Then we look back at the darkness, and we are afraid. We don’t know where we came from. We don’t know where we are going. So we are afraid. Maybe this is the cost of being a person: to be afraid of the dark and imagine that darkness is our enemy and that it threatens us.
According to the teachings of Jewish mysticism, the light of the world is just a thin, small light, and most of the light of the world is hidden. As it says, “God saw that the light was good,” but there wasn’t enough light, and the world was mostly dark. So God hid the light of the world. God gave human beings the job to find the hidden light and to make the light stronger, and then to take that light and light up the whole world. So that is our job. A hard job, but we have to do it. But in order to find the light, we have to go into the darkness. We have to face the darkness and stop running away from it.
This is the symbolism of the candles that we lit last night for the Jewish celebration of Chanukkah. It is based on a historical incident that the great rabbis of the past, I think, made into a spiritual holiday. It was a time of great darkness for the Jewish people, and with great courage, they faced the darkness. They defeated the Hellenists, and they re-dedicated their temple. The word “Chanukah” means “dedication.” It means “devotion.” The people were very dedicated and devoted and courageous. They were willing to do what they had to do to face the darkness. They were patient with it, and finally they could re-enter the Temple.
In the Temple, a small light burns all the time, and it never goes out. When the Hellenists came and took the Temple, there was only enough oil to burn for one day. The oil was an eight-day journey away. It was a miracle! The light that was supposed to last one day lasted for eight days. So the light never went out. It was a miracle of light. That is why we light candles for eight days.
It strikes me that the story of the Buddha is very similar to this. It also starts with the Buddha facing the darkness. The Buddha’s story really begins when he realizes that it is impossible to run away from the deep problem of being a human being: that we suffer; that we undergo loss and fear; that we get sick; that we grow old; that we die. There is no way to avoid this, he realized. It’s built into the nature of our body. It’s built into the nature of consciousness. It’s part of our perception. It’s time.
Instead of continuing to imagine that he could avoid this problem, as he had been doing all his life up until then, and as, perhaps, we also have been doing, and as the world around us is constantly doing, the Buddha did the opposite. Instead of running away from the darkness, he turned around and faced it, and he fully embraced it. He was willing to be completely honest about his humanness. If you want to understand the greatness of the Buddha, that’s it: he was willing to be completely honest about his humanness. That is where he took his stand. He went through many hardships in his determination to overcome human confusion. As we know, he was finally able to do it. He meditated for seven days. After meditating all night, he looked up to see the morning star, and the light from that star illuminated his heart. He found peace, the kind of peace that sees the light within the darkness. Because of this, he was truly calm and content.
We need to take these stories to heart this week. We could, if we wanted to, do what we usually do. We could sit here all week thinking about our busy lives, thinking of all the things we have to do, all of our tasks and problems – this is what we usually do. It a great distraction from the darkness. So, we could sit here all week like that, but I think that we all realize that this doesn’t really help. No matter how much we try to distract ourselves, the darkness is going to be there anyway. Even if we avoid thinking about it, and we avoid noticing it, I think that we all understand that it will take its toll on us anyway.
So we can do what we have already done. We can take the time to come to retreat for the purpose of turning toward the darkness, just as the Buddha did. At first, we might understand the darkness as something negative, as something to be eliminated or overcome, as something in us and the world around us – our fear, our greed, our arrogance, or, maybe, our sorrow, our grief. But we can also appreciate the darkness as something necessary. We could even see it as something beautiful. Not so much the opposite of light, the enemy of light, but the source of the light. Maybe if we could see the darkness deeply enough and truly enough, we could see it as the endless, formless, God, as the mind of awakening that the Buddha discovered under the enlightenment tree.
So maybe we have to understand darkness in this double sense. On the one hand, we have to be honest about our confusion and our despair; fear of ourselves and fear of others; fear of what might happen to us; fear about what might happen to our children and our world in an uncertain future. There is no avoiding all of this.
But maybe that is only one side of what darkness is. Maybe darkness is also a return to what is most fundamental in the human heart, to an unspeakable understanding, to something beyond what we can name, to God beyond God, beyond existing and non-existing, before the separation of light from darkness, of life from death – a sacred and perfect darkness. The darkness is there when the sun sets over the water, and the night grows deep, but it is also there when the sun rises, and when the day is bright, and when the sand on the beach is shining.
This is something that we can practice. First and foremost, we must practice keeping the silence, gathering our presence strongly where we are and in everything that we do. Paying attention to the body and to the breathing, to the sitting and the walking, to the standing and the working, the eating and the resting. Paying attention, paying attention, over and over again, coming back to paying attention. When we forget and we lose track of ourselves, as we will many, many, many times each day, maybe even each minute – just gently coming back. Coming back to right here, in the body and breath, in this moment. Over and over, endlessly coming back. And not counting the days, and not counting the hours. Each day, as it says in the Bible, evening and morning: one day. Sometimes they translate that – when you heard about it as a child – “evening and morning: the first day.” Actually it says, “Evening and morning: one day.” There is only one day, one hour, one moment, and it is endless. That is the way we have to practice, coming back in that way with strength, without counting or measuring anything. Then we will be able to see. We will be able to be there for what actually arises in our heart. You will see that so much arises, maybe some joy, some beautiful ease. Also, maybe, some difficulty, some grief, some pain, some shame, some sorrow. It doesn’t matter.
Whatever arises, we practice just the same way. We remain close. We remain present. Whatever it is, we know we are breathing; whatever it is, this is the body, on the earth. And we continue to practice like this. If we stay close enough, and if we have enough continuity of practice in these days, perhaps we will be able to sense, around the edges of our minds, a larger mind, a quieter mind; a mind of unity and belonging, that holds our minds in the palm of its hand.
In this way, we will return to a deeper darkness, and we will find right at the heart of this darkness, a small ray of light. You will see that light. And then it will be for us, just like it was for the Buddha, seeing the morning star, just like the moment of creation, when the first light appeared out of the darkness. We will realize that no matter what is our thought or feeling, on every moment our life arises, fresh out of nothing, exactly like that first light of creation, exactly like the miracle of light that comes every day. We will see that this light has been given to us as a gift. That is itself a miracle, the miracle to be alive. Not only to be alive, but to be alive together. Not only to be alive together, but alive together in this world, made so perfectly for us. The sky and the ocean – so beautiful.
Actually, there is nothing beautiful about the sky and the ocean. It is beautiful, because we are the way we are, because we are made for the sky and the ocean, but usually we don’t know this, because of our various problems. But this week we have a chance to return to the beginning before the beginning, and see the beauty of this miracle of light.