There is a small deck attached to the south facing side of my place. I use it for one purpose – cloud watching.
On different days, clouds are passing the sky in various shapes. It could be horses galloping in tall grass, witches riding on their broomsticks, pandas in the zoo munching bamboo shoots. Or sometimes it might be Cupid aiming his arrow to open air, King Kong atop the antenna pounding his chest, and the Buddha reclining to contemplation in Lion’s pose.
When a storm is brewing, there are black drapes embroidered with silver linings. Or if a twilight is glowing, purple velvets are enhanced with crimson ribbons or golden lace. And orange breakers may deluge a pink beach, while a new sun is uprising.
Besides the clouds, occasionally a sequence of wild geese cackle past the sky, in a lineup that resembles the Chinese character 人, meaning ‘people’.
From my deck I see people riding the clouds, roaming in emptiness, pursuing meaningless, grasping impermanence … I am adrift among them, perching on my own cloud-castles, overstocked with obsessive compulsive disorderly thoughts of all sorts, willful, wishful, cynical, dismal, immoral, insane, pathetic, primitive, versatile, futile.
We the people are like migratory birds, goaded by seasonal rhythm and 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 I suspect it must also refer to the constant flux of old thoughts and new ones.
When we replace a foolish old idea with a sensible new insight, isn’t it a life cycle completed itself?
It’s said an average person has 50,000 thoughts going through their 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 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.
When you’re a reality show host and you say something funny, you open the gate to entertainment or even heaven; when you’re a President and you wasted crucial time in babbling, you open the gate to magnitude coronavirus deaths and maybe hell.
Life is a journey to tame the mind and transform the self. A journey of never-ending process to disarm, surrender, purify and sublime. Just like a mere notion could make a hell or a paradise, a simple replacement of thought could be the achievement of a lifetime.