The Sky Above, the Mud Below

We all possess behavioral potentials that are consonant with our sense of self — and  potentials that are buried, rejected, submerged, or disowned.  The energy of those submerged or disowned potentials is cut off and unavailable to our personality.  The more potentials we disown, the more narrow our range of adaptation and the more enervated and weakened we become.  The more we attempt to perfect ourselves and live according to some idealized image, the more cut off and depleted we become due to the loss of rejected potentials that fail to fit the image.  Attempting to live up to some sort of Buddhist ideal of perfection —  serene, non-grasping, imperturbable, endlessly compassionate — is one way to choke off our sources of vitality.  We cut ourselves off from a wide range of human potentials — ferocity, passion, lust, and ambition, just to name a few.   An inherent tension exists between Buddhist teachings of perfecting ourselves by striving to live up to a Bodhisattva or Arhat ideal and the contemporary Western Zen notion of being present for all of life.

When we examine the ideal of non-grasping serenity, the first thing we notice is how far we are from it.  Most of our thoughts are centered on ourselves and the things we want or don’t want, and selfish thoughts and impulses vastly outnumber generous ones.  Ambition, greed, desire, jealousy, resentment, irritation, and anger are frequent companions.  The Pali Canon says if we follow the eight-fold path we can reach a state where all of that simply ceases — where desire, aversion, and delusion stop arising — the original meaning of the word ”nirvana”.  When we observe the gap between the way we are and this imagined end-state, we’re as far from that end-state as we can possibly be.  We may also wonder just how desirable that imagined end-state actually is.  Do we really want to be that seemingly bloodless, endlessly calm, desire-less being?  Or do we just want to be more human, vulnerable, open, and alive?

Compare the Nirvana ideal to the life Jelaluddin Rumi (1207-1273) recommends in his poem ”The Guest House”:

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

Some momentary awareness comes

As an unexpected visitor.


Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

Still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out for a new delight.


The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

Because each has been sent

As a guide from beyond.

(Translation by Coleman Barks)

Rumi’s Guest House metaphor offers a Sufi parallel to the contemporary Western Zen ideal of Zen as a continual opening, widening, and acceptance of life as it is.  As we sit we create a space for our full human being —  no cutting off, suppression, or delusion about who or what we are in this moment.

How does the Zen ideal of fullness of being square with the aspirational aspects of Buddhism — the Bodhisattva vows — the widening of compassion, lovingkindness, and equanimity?   Because a part of us would truly like to be more compassionate and kind — to the extent this cruel and capricious life allows us to be.  Buddhism contains a variety of techniques like Theravada lovingkindness meditations and Tibetan tonglen meditations to help us develop our capacity for compassion and lovingkindness.   Can one widen one’s capacity for care for others without choking off the sources of one’s vitality?

We can if we stop pretending to live up to an ideal.

One can water the seeds of compassion without pretending to be more compassionate than one actually is.  One can hope over time that compassion will grow without denying that ambitious, competitive, and aggressive parts of ourselves exist and are an important part of who we are right now.  We can also do more than ruefully accept their continued existence, but develop a friendly ongoing relationship with them.  We are not trying to eliminate them, but to integrate them in with the other parts of ourselves — to, in essence, tame them and harness their energy for higher purposes — much like the fierce Tibetan protective deities were tamed by Padmasambhava and enlisted to serve the Dharma.  We have this idea in the West as well — Freud called it ”sublimation,”  Jung called it ”individuation,” and Perls called it ”being whole.”

On one of my early ten-day meditation retreats, I had the following experience:  The more calm, serene, and peaceful I became during the day, the more violent my dreams became at night.  Not only were the dreams violent, but I was the perpetrator and I was enjoying it.  It was if a part of me was reminding me ”I’m still here, don’t forget me.”  On yet another meditation retreat I became paranoid about a fellow yogi — fearful he was a serial killer and I was his next intended victim.  I’ve written elsewhere about how I overcame that fear, but it occurs to me now that this was another message about how I was disowning a part of myself  —  this other yogi was the container for my own projected aggressive capacity.  Two retreats, the same message.

American Buddhist teachers have a name for aspiring to be ”spiritual” without really working through and integrating all of oneself to achieve a genuine reorganization of the personality at a higher level.  They call it ”spiritual bypassing” — the attempt to take a short cut on the Enlightenment Superhighway.   It’s a good word.  We live in a world with the sky above and the mud below.  While we may reach for the stars, we’re grounded in the earth.  Like Prospero in Shakespeare’s Tempest, our inner world contains both Ariel and Caliban — the airy sprite and the chthonic mooncalf.  We move forward by integrating opposites, not by embodying one while denying the other.  We must honor not only the Sky God, but the Earth Mother as well.

This is an aspiration to a wholeness in which nothing is left out.  We move forward in the world with all our capacities, all of our energy, all of our engagement, and all of our complexities and contradictions.

As we practice Buddhism, let’s take care.  Let’s not put ourselves on a Procrustean bed.  We don’t need to kill our egos or deny our true being.  We don’t need to magically become the epitome of an imagined perfect Buddhist — calm, selfless, inhuman.  We bring our whole selves to practice. It’s our gift to the Dharma.  It’s the way we transform ourselves by becoming who we more truly are — only a better, deeper, more whole version of that self we imagine ourselves to be.







21 Replies to “The Sky Above, the Mud Below”

  1. You succinctly and accurately described what had been in my mind for the last few months while progressing with my practice. Thank you for reassuring me that my passions and ambitions are not something to be dissolved, but rather to be integrated and streamlined into my practice.

  2. Seth –

    Thanks for this thoughtful, probing essay. Perhaps the tension between the ideals of openness to experience and the perfection of a compassionate self might best be resolved in action, which is to say, in meditation followed by acts of compassion. Thich Nhat Hanh has often remarked that we must address our own suffering before we can address anyone else’s. As he puts it in Living Buddha, Living Christ, ”we have to dissolve all prejudices, barriers, and walls and empty ourselves in order to listen and look deeply before we utter even one word.”

    I’m not so sure that the ”notion of being present for all of life” is unique to ”Western Zen” or is even a defining attribute. Versions of that ”notion” appear widely in Buddhist texts, many of them Theravadan, and though the idea of being open to it all may seem to be at odds with cultivating a more loving or compassionate self, in practice that need not be the case. Perhaps you are pointing to an underlying tension between Buddhist meditation as mental cultivation (bhavana) and meditation as awareness (djana). Even so, I think that the same person can practice both, if not necessarily at the same time.

    1. Ben — thanks, as always, for your thoughtful comments. The idea of full presence is common to many contemporary forms of Western Buddhism and I didn’t mean to limit it to Western Zen, although I think it has more prominence there than elsewhere. I didn’t intend to limit it to the contemporary and the Western either — I was just being cautious — I’m not a good enough historian to generalize to other times and cultures.

      I agree that being open within oneself and becoming more compassionate of others are not mutually exclusive goals. Carl Rogers may have been the first to posit that people who are more accepting of their own internal experience are more accepting of others as well. I certainly embrace both polarities within my own practice.

      My biggest issue is what the “end state” of Buddhist practice is. [If there is an “end state” — I don’t personally believe there is, but 2,500 years of Buddhist doctrine asserts its existence.] The Pali Canon model — as best as I can interpret it — which may be closest to what the Buddha actually taught — doesn’t stir me these days. The end of desire and aversion and preternatural calmness doesn’t seem all that attractive. My practice seems much more alive and vital and, dare I say it, human. I worry about practitioners who in trying to live up to (or pretending to live up to) that goal may be sacricing their own humanity and aliveness in the process.

      But yes, being open to and connected to all of life is not incompatible with being a more decent human being.

  3. Seth, the part of the problem is not just with ourselves pretending to live up to this impossible ideal, but also with members of society projecting it onto us. Pity the poor Buddhist who displays some impatience, irritation, or anger. He or she is then subjected to ”Where’s all that deep wisdom?” or ”Pretty far from enlightenment, aren’t we?” So, we find ourselves confronted with this stereotypical image of a Buddhist from both within and without.

    I suspect the early Sangha promoted this image of the perfectly peaceful, non-threatening Buddhist as a political expedient, to provide protection from governments and others that might be hostile to Buddhism. It’s also worth noting that this ideal is not that different from the ideal of the sage in Daoism, and that having an ideal, something to strive toward, is not altogether a bad thing, when tempered with some reason.

    If we interpret the teachings in such a way that we feel we’re being asked to become something inhuman or to turn ourselves into a sort of Stepford Buddhist, then that’s our mistake. Realistically, I think all that’s asked of us is to try, to strive. That’s why Shantideva wrote, ”To unify and discipline my spirit I will strive.” And why Nichiren wrote, ”Austere practices are for saints and sages, but not for ordinary people. Yet even common mortals can attain Buddhahood if they cherish one thing: earnest faith. In the deepest sense, earnest faith is the will to understand and live up to the spirit, not the words, of the sutras.”

    If Buddhahood is a process, then the ideal, or “end state,” can never be fully realized. But then ideals are merely archetypes, examples — something to strive for. The sky above looks blue, but that’s an illusion. Yet we like lotus flowers that can only grow in the mud, nonetheless rise up, and strive to reach for that lovely halcyon and wild blue yonder.

    1. Thanks, David. We are in agreement on most points. But I think you are letting the early Sangha off the hook too easily by suggesting they promoted the nirvanic ideal for reasons that were in part political. The Pali Canon is steeped from start to finish in promoting this end-state in which desire (and aversion and delusion) cease to arise completely, permanently and irreversibly. I don’t mean to be dismissive of the Canon. There’s a lot in it that’s beneficial — learning to discriminate between skillful and unskillful desires and detach from one’s that lead to harm, developing the ability to monitor internal and external process and respond more skillfully to unfolding situations, learning how to cultivate a still, quiet center and create an internal space to contain all our inner experience. All good stuff. But it’s all intertwined with not-so-good stuff — misogyny, Puritanism, and an ideal of detachment, celibacy, and a constricted range of human experiencing. I experience the Zen reformulation of that ideal as a marked improvement. It’s just that all too often Buddhist commentators fail to note that there even is this internal contradiction in Buddhist teachings.

  4. I added ”end-state” as more or less an afterthought, but it wasn’t in my mind so much. I was thinking more about how I suppose the Sangha promoted the image of the harmless bhikkhu, just happy and peaceful, spending most of his time indoors or secluded in the forest, no real threat to anyone, politically or otherwise.

    Now, I have to ask, what is there that does not have some internal contradiction, some tension? Is there no tension in Shakespeare? How about existentialism? No tension there? Any internal contradiction in modern science?

    You do have a point about the nirvanic ideal. It’s definitely oversold. And it’s not just in the Pali Canon, it’s all over Zen and the Mahayana canon, too. They all say pretty much the same thing, which is that desire etc. can cease to arise completely, permanently and irreversibly. So, are we to take that literally, or view such statements as spiritual metaphors?

    The bodhisattva vows is a good example. The first vow is to save all living beings, and the fourth is to attain complete enlightenment. It’s said that if a bodhisattva fails to achieve the first vow, then the fourth one can never be realized. But how can ALL livings beings be saved? Do we just say well, that’s no good and forget about it? Or, should we try to capture the spirit behind the thought of saving all beings?

    This is what I think so many people miss. I really kind of hate to give Nichiren kudos, but he was right on about this point: it is the spirit behind the words that are more important than the words themselves.

    Sure the sutras were misogynistic. It was a pretty misogynistic world back in the day. We don’t to carry that forward. Puritanism? I don’t know if I’d agree. Detachment is good. Celibacy, overrated. And a constricted range of human experiencing, I completely disagree with.

    1. Science contain contradictions? You mean like in quantum mechanics vs. relativity? How dare you point that out!

      I guess the place where tensions and internal contradictions meet is the place where the rubber hits the road. Psychologist Marsha Linehan developed a therapy called Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. Borrowing from Hegel, she thought that all forward progression involved the synthesis of opposites. In therapy that meant telling patients that they were “fine just as they were” and they “had to change”. Fritz Perls thought the same thing – that opposites were really polarities in need of integration. The trick is figuring out how to do that in a way that enlarges oneself and doesn’t simply tie oneself into knots.

  5. I believe all sentient beings can be saved and that the vow of the Bodhisattva can be taken completely seriously. All we have to do is stay here long enough with enough compassion– and love– and the desire for joy for all beings. It’s not all that intellectual. All beings can be saved, and every grain of sand will be enlightened. I just know this to be true.

    1. Ladybelle,

      One of Allen Ginsberg’s rules was “Don’t give up on anyone.” It’s a wonderful rule! Given enough time all beings can be saved. The question is, how much time do we have? If one believes in endless rebirths until enlightenment, we have all the time we need. If we believe we only go around once, well, we have to set more limited goals. I’m glad you know we have enough time. Me? I’ve no idea.

  6. Seth, I do have a strong sense that those who take the Bodhisattva Vow (have you ever heard the Beastie Boys version? It’s great!) have all the time they need in one way or another to help all sentient beings to achieve enlightenment. Time, Einstein said, is “only a very persistent illusion.” Space, too– same thing to him… I don’t know if we have one lifetime or many but I do think that the generous and compassionate things we do in this life spread onwards and assist other beings in ways we cannot predict in the future.

  7. PS. Glad you have not given up on me, evidently! 😉
    I knew Allen Ginsberg — just a little…

  8. This has just been the weekend of the All Night Dance Party (people wear costumes and dance all night and then eat blueberry pancakes at Brion’s and my house in the morning). It’s an ancient, deeply religious rite drawn from the holy preference of my daughter Joya Lonsdale to stay up all night. At some point we coudn’t do it any more (every night), so we all agreed to stay up with her on that one night of the year. It’s Aug. 3. We usually do it the 1st weekend in August, but this year for some reason it happened to be on my birthday, Aug. 12.
    I began to think of all the birthdays that happened before I was born and all those to come after I “go.” For no apparent reason, this made me very happy.
    It seemed a good night to not only have fun, but to be compassionate in every way that we could… and we tried our best. Those who have had nowhere to stay since the Great VT Flood of 2011 have sought shelter here and some are still here. I’m glad we’ve been able to do this for them. I really don’t think compassion is a matter of accumulating merit, but simply of answering a need for someone to have something you have that they don’t. My son, Andrew McFarlin, came to me one day and said that we have a guy living in an almost worthless building down in the corner of the meadow, but not really paying anything to stay there. He pointed out to me that no one would want to stay there anyway, and since I was always yammering on about compassion, now would be a good time to actually practice it and let him stay there. He does do some stuff like mow the lawn (on a riding tractor, as he’s rather disabled) — and he is still in that little house. That night I was thinking of things like that. I was glad to have been able to give something to someone as a birthday gift to myself for this particular incarnation.

  9. “Welcome and entertain them all!

    Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

    who violently sweep your house

    empty of its furniture,

    Still, treat each guest honorably.

    He may be clearing you out for a new delight.”

  10. “One can hope over time that compassion will grow without denying that ambitious, competitive, and aggressive parts of ourselves exist and are an important part of who we are right now. ” I think that is right on. We are not fully realized Buddhas yet so we have to start from where we are. Agree, you can water the seeds of compassion and kindness in yourself while still be true to who you really are, flawed, but still a beautiful work in progress. I just discovered your blog and really like it a lot. With your permission, I quoted your post here, and gave you a permanent link from my blog, Zen of Water, from a related post I just made called There is a Kindness featuring a poem by Rumi where he compares our own evolution to “transforming dust to gold”. Like your post and your blog.

    1. Not only that, but fully realized Buddhas are each singular and unique expressions of the dharma–their authenticity as beings shines forth. They aren’t playing at some preconceived role of holiness.

      1. Love your comment. Agree we can sometimes have this preconceived notion that a Buddha is some kind of perfect angelic person who walks on water. It is dirty business being a lotus that thrives in the muck and mud. Since most of us are not fully realized Buddhas it’s hard to recognize the work of another Buddha I would imagine. But they are out there spreading their kindness and love. Thank goodness.

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