Our vision must therefore be a simultaneous forward seeing into the co-created future and a looking back through the rear-view mirror of our traditions. There must be a mysterious integration of the contraries of autonomy and heteronomy, of being our own person and finding our own distinct life and future in the midst of the dictates, guidelines, and wisdom of the traditions we draw from.
Personally, this integration has been a slow and painful birthing process that I assume will not ever end, though the process may become more natural. Between the tradition and my own life, between formal practice and practice in the life-world, between monasticism and life in relationship, and between the sometimes heavy and goal-oriented traditional model of “enlightenment” and the unknown and unknowable “enlightenment” that is forever beyond any concept anyone might have about it, I and many others seem to cycle. These and other such pairs of opposites and dilemmas play out at the center of much of the dialogue that is taking place in the creation of a vision for the future of the Dharma, and they are at the heart of my own quest for vision as well.
It was in this spirit that Mariana and I decided to participate in the “Vision Fast” program at Narrow Ridge Earth Literacy Center. Narrow Ridge takes its name from a motif in the work of another Jewish spiritual giant, Martin Buber:
I have occasionally described my standpoint to my friends as the “narrow ridge”…. I wanted by this to express that I did not rest on the broad upland of a system that includes a series of sure statements about the absolute, but on a narrow rocky ridge between the gulfs where there is no sureness of expressible knowledge but the certainty of meeting what remains undisclosed (Martin Buber, Between Man and Man).
In this we find a deep resonance with Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka, or “Middle Way” philosophy in which dilemmas (or more accurately tetralemmas) are not resolved though one aspect prevailing over another, but through the self arising of a clear and inexpressible vision unbound by concept (pardon the poetic gloss here, Madhyamikas).
To this Buber adds an incredibly important intersubjective element. Dilemmas between extremes are not only dialogical, but illuminated and expressed in the sphere of interpersonal dialogue, along the inscrutable hyphen between the I and the Thou. The “narrow ridge” then also refers to this mysterious space between individuals in which understanding occurs, and to the fragile yet unbounded wholeness in the inconceivable midst of any moment of perception.
We went to Narrow Ridge to find that space within the dialogue of our relationship, and additionally to find such clarity in the midst of traditional Tibetan Buddhism’s transformations and roles in the modern world.
The fast was laid out in three sections, a preliminary three-day period of group council sessions, the three-day fast itself, and three days of incorporation including a sweat lodge ceremony. The group was composed of five 19-22 year old males, one man in middle age, and Mariana and myself. It was led by Bill Nickel and Mitzi Wood-Von Mizener, who are also the directors of Narrow Ridge. They formed an excellent team and it was wonderful to live and learn with them.
For the three days of solitary fasting, I was placed in a somewhat exposed location at the head of the mountain ridge, with views of the sky and valleys on both sides. Mariana had participated in a Vision Fast in 2007 and reoccupied her previous spot just behind my own. In the morning I would sit on a rock platform and look out in blissful weightlessness over a sea of clouds formed by the vapor of the night that collected in the cool valley below. In the afternoon I would sit on the opposite side of the ridge on another rock that was perched above the steep slope of the mountain receding into the trees below. At night and in the morning I would sit against a tree and perform fire offerings with prayers for my fellow fasters and all the rest.
Typically a retreat is spent watching one’s mind and intentionally letting go of elaboration; it is a process of settling into the natural state. Creative movements out of this uncontrived awareness are typically circumscribed by whatever sadhana, ritual, or method one is using. This was the first time in quite some time that I had both the time and permission to simply ruminate. At times it was a distracted rumination because of my weakened condition, and at times it was a very energetic outpouring of possibilities and “visions.”
One of these moments consisted of a four page outline for a book on Mindfulness subtitled “Origins, Horizons, and Dead Ends,” which I will require some as yet unknown motivation or at least some inviolable deadlines to actually incarnate.
At other times I reflected on the future of MOCD, our vision and how we will implement it in the coming years.
There were many other such moments, but what I found interesting in sharing later with the group was that they all shared a common theme of moving from a place of introspection, isolation, renunciation, retreat, and deep inner work to a place of responsibility, activity, creativity, social connection, and an affirmation of practice within daily life. Many images and inspirations of the future unfolded—my personal relationship with Mariana; our proposed move to Asheville; the promise of social and creative networking, collaboration, and stimulation that would bring; and the creation of a further boundary between my professional and private that would hopefully engender an enrichment of both.
There were surprisingly no thoughts of my practice, of losing touch with my discipline or the lineage or the aspiration of enlightenment and so forth. Perhaps it is because I have taken on a considerable practice commitment and planned retreat in the coming months, but these thoughts that have plagued me recently simply did not arise.
Through an exhaustion of preconceptions, through dialogue with others, through the mystery of I-Thou in solitude, sitting still on the narrow ridge, a vision of sorts did indeed arise. Or perhaps the dilemmas of being a Buddhist in the 21st century are by and large simply a function of diet!
In any event, we emerged with a great deal of clarity and lightness of being, having made some important friends in the process. It is our great hope to collaborate with Narrow Ridge in the future, and to continue to learn from them in manifesting the vision of a sustainable future in East Tennessee, and to support each other on this rocky ridge between the artifacts of the past and the possibilities of the future.