Last month one of our members, who lives in the Middle-East, brought me a beautiful little glass jar filled with red desert sand. It sits now on a bookshelf in my office next to a statue of Bodhidharma, and he seems to throw a pensive glance at this red sand as if he remembers it from his long travels. Remembering plays a strong part in meditation. We remember and want to return home. It can even grow into a tremendous sense of nostalgia. Dogen Zenji calls it “Longing for the Ancients”. When he quotes from the old masters, he often says, “I remember”. It’s as if he had been listening to one of those masters just the other day.
Once in a while I drive to my hometown in the south and follow memory lane. The past is gone, and yet it can still be so vividly present. Conversely, the present can become a memory on the spot. I got instant nostalgia leaving Bar Harbor, Maine, where our sangha had lived for three years. When the car finally turned the corner of Ledgelawn Avenue, I saw the other sangha members, who would be leaving soon too, waving goodbye on the sidewalk. And as I was looking back, right away that image of all those arms waving turned into a black and white photograph in my mind.
I have lived in many places, many homes, so I seem to have an endless potential for nostalgia. But then again, where is home? If this life is the life of everything and everyone, then obviously we have lived in many places. Traditionally, a Zen monk’s ordination is a ‘leaving home’ ceremony. It means that they leave their comfort zone to find the home we all long for, the innermost source of our being. Yet to physically depart and arrive home somewhere else can help. It gives us a chance to literally find other homes. Can’t certain places where you haven’t been before give you a sense that somehow you have, as soon as you arrive?
When you arrive at Toshoji in Japan, where Tammy is now, it is hard not to be overcome by a sense of deep nostalgia. The temple is hundreds of years old, and the whole atmosphere is imbued with practice; it is like bodhi mind manifested. Seeing that gives one a deep longing and appreciation for the dharma. And of course, the more we feel that, the more the wish comes up to protect the dharma and to make sure that it remains accessible. Through the nostalgia for the physical place, we can enter the nostalgia of the heart, the longing to go back home. That is why Buddhism needs temples.
When you really turn your own light inward, you return home. It is a different kind of home than we expected. In fact, it is not a home at all, and yet we call it home because it can make us feel at home wherever we go. Of course it takes courage to settle in this dark and mysterious nowhere land. If we really do, though, our functioning becomes more natural, like Kanzeon who in the middle of the night reaches behind her head to adjust her pillow. We also start to feel more at home in the classic scriptures. This can actually be a very strong experience. Reading the words of the old masters can become like reading the lines in your own face, so intimate.
Tenkei Coppens, May 1st, 2013