June 27 – The Monkey and the River – Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening

It is said a great Zen teacher asked an initiate to sit by a stream until he heard all the water had to teach. After days of bending his mind around the scene, a small monkey happened by, and, in one seeming bound of joy, splashed about in the stream. The initiate wept and returned to his teacher, who scolded him lovingly. “The monkey heard. You just listened.”

With the best of intentions, we often build false careers of studying the river without ever getting wet. In this way, we can ponder great philosophy without ever telling the truth, or analyze our pain without ever feeling it, or study holy places without ever making where we live sacred. In this way, we can build a cathedral on the water’s edge, spending all our time keeping it clean. Or we can count our money or say our prayers, without ever spending anything or her feeling God’s presence. In this way, we can play music or make love skillfully without ever feeling the music or our passion.

The apprentice was brought to tears because the monkey, slapping and yapping its way in the river, had landed in a moment of joy, and the apprentice knew that all his reverence and devotion and meditation hadn’t brought him the joy of a monkey.

The river, of course, is the ongoing moment of our living. It is the current that calls us to inhabit our lives. And no matter how close we come, no matter how much we get from staying close with a sensitive heart, nothing will open us to joy but entering the stream.

I once was on a screened-in porch on a lake I used to visit every summer for twenty years. My friend and I were watching it rain, as we had done countless times over the years. Suddenly, like that simple and beautiful monkey, my friend bounded up, slapped the screen door open, tracked his clothes, and jumped into the rain-filled lake.

I watched like the apprentice, feeling the pain of always being dry, and then I shed my clothes and jumped in too.

There we were: in the centre of the lake, water from above in our mouths, in our eyes, pelting us, water entering water, lives entering their living. Each pelt of rain, one us and in the lake, uttering… joy, joy, joy.

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