Coming empty-handed, going empty-handed — that is human.
When you are born, where do you come from?
When you die, where do you go?
Life is like a floating cloud which appears.
Death is like a floating cloud which disappears.
The floating cloud itself originally does not exist.
Life and death, coming and going, are also like that.
But there is one thing which always remains clear.
It is pure and clear, not depending on life and death.
Then what is the one pure and clear thing?
My first teacher, Dae Soen Sa Nim, (the Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn) wrote out this Zen poem for us, “The Human Route,” in his beautiful calligraphy. In a simple frame, it hung on a post in the center of the meditation room at 48 Hope Street, home to the Providence Zen Center in 1974. Between each sitting period, we practiced mindful walking in a circle together, our footsteps padding past the poem again and again. My eyes would fasten on the last line, wondering: what IS it?
The poem asks humanity’s age-old questions, where do we come from? and where are we going? It’s a song of the empty, fleeting nature of all our labels for experience, of our lives, ourselves….What does it mean? The question haunted me as we walked in silence, over and over, past the poem, what is it?
I remember the moment it dawned on me, crystal clear: this, now, AWARENESS is it. That realization brought the relief of recognizing the obvious, but it was profound. Life, death – this is very personal, too! We have all been born. We will all die. This stark reality is a portal to LOVING awareness. Since we’re all floating in the same mysterious boat, our kindred vulnerability calls us to compassion, to the solace of our shared humanness. We might as well be kind, understanding, and helpful to each other along the way!
When we sit with life and death, with someone who has just been born, or just died, there is a vivid stillness, as rich, thick and intense as flourless chocolate cake. Our whole being is suffused with awareness, saturated with the infinite tenderness of the universe. This is our refuge, our home.