At the end of the third week of a monthlong pilgrimage to Korea some sixteen years ago, I was completely broken. Before we began the pilgrimage, I figured that a shaved head would be the most uncomfortable part of the experience. Otherwise I anticipated lots of leisurely visits to museums and monasteries, broken up by long meals of delicious Korean food, followed by green tea and naps. Instead we arrived in a country hit by shockingly hot weather fueled by a typhoon. Instead of being driven around by country hosts, we walked into the mountains by foot or, when we were lucky enough, hitched rides on old rickety buses and an occasional train. Within days I was so filthy that people backed away from me whenever we were in public, sometimes shoving handkerchiefs up their noses. I was losing half a pound a day, mostly in sweat, and was covered by a rash of infected red ant bites, the bites care of a young monk who hadn’t wanted us in his monastery at all, let alone for an overnight.
Sleeping three hours a night only added to the misery. I was so tired, I couldn’t even whine. All of my energy was focused on simply putting one foot in front of the other. Somewhere in the middle of this plodding, an old woman rushed me. She grabbed my arm, stopping me and forcing me to face her. Then she gave me a cup of vinegar, water, and honey and mimed that I needed to drink it in one gulp. When I finished, slightly more energized, she stared at me for a moment and then started to take small careful steps in front of me for about three feet. At the end, she turned and grinned a huge radiant smile. I thought she was asking me to follow her, but when I started to she shook her head “no” and repeated the steps.
Suddenly I was back in the ninth century in China, hearing the old woman in a Zen story telling each monk she met to only go straight. Here’s the story: An old woman lived on the road to Mt. Wutai. One day, a monk who was walking by on pilgrimage asked her, “Which is the way to Mt. Wutai?” The old woman told him, “Right straight ahead.” She then proceeded to give every monk who crossed her path the exact same advice. Finally the young monks who had met her asked their teacher, Zhaozhou, to check her out. He did, and returning, gave her a big thumbs-up.
She was telling the monks the same thing the woman in Korea was telling me—to simply live my life as it is, step by step, without veering off. It was a life-changing moment. Until then I had wasted most of the pilgrimage mentally redesigning my life, my teacher’s personality, and, OK, most of the teachings of Zen. (Clearly I had a lot of thinking time on my hands.) These women were teaching something completely different—that our job is simply to be who we are. The work of spiritual growth isn’t to change who we are. The work of spiritual growth is to slough off all of the things that aren’t who we are, without apology and with as much grace as we can muster. So if we are artists, our job is to be artists. If we are teachers, we need to be—fully and completely—teachers. If we are introverts, then by gosh and by golly, we need to be perfect introverts. Ironically, the more we become exactly who we are, the more the rest of our lives sync up. And the happier we are—really happy. You won’t believe how happy.
Which brings me to spring. Every spring I think about that woman in Korea, because every spring I watch baby plants poke their heads out of the ground only to blossom into exactly what they are. A daffodil doesn’t unfold as a tulip. A strawberry doesn’t grow into an apple. This, for me, is the miracle of spring, the explosion of “thusness” that happens every year, year in and year out, reminding us in countless ways that each of us, exactly as we are, is breathtakingly perfect even if we have some mud to climb through and a few rocks to traverse.
Geri Larkin spent last fall studying the Lankavatara Sutra when she wasn’t meditating, cooking, or taking care of the hermitage.