Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Heart of Devotion

I live a half mile up the side of a mountain overlooking Tianmu, an area of Taipei. Every morning I walk my dog on a mile loop on that mountainside. It is quite steep. I am fit and relatively young, and yet I almost always break a sweat. No one would call it a particularly easy walk.

Besides the beautiful views of the nature all around, and vistas of the city below, one of my favorite things about the walk is it takes me past two temples. The temples are situated very close to one another. One is large and sits above a smaller one, like a parent watching over a child. Some days there will be a ceremony going on at the large one. As I walk past, I hear chanting and bells. It fills me with a sense of the sacred, reminds me to open my heart to devotion. The small one sometimes has incense lit, the scent flows out to the street. I breathe it in like medicine. There is a powerful healing agent in ceremonies and all the elements involved. The senses are awakened to their own divine and holy nature, a deep knowing, open channels to heart and soul.

Another staple of my walks is a man. I pass by him nearly every day. We say "zao" (good morning) and smile at each other, and that sums up our interaction. The language barrier keeps locals at an arms distance or more from me. Although I have never spoken more than that one word to him, he has had a significant impact on me.

Every morning, there he is walking, slowly, and it often appears, painfully. He walks with a cane, the kind with four small legs at the bottom, in one hand. He uses the other hand to grip a stick of incense. The incense is held right up close to him, at heart level. Over time I have surmised that he walks down the steep downhill stretch to the temple, he gets the incense there, and then he ascends back to where he lives, and burns it at a family altar on the side of the road.

I can tell that this daily regimen must take all his strength. There is a look of will, his furrowed brow, a quality of determination. What strikes me though is the clear dedication, the insistence in this action, committed, faithful. I don't need to know a single thread of his story, or detail of his life to know that it is centered in disciplined devotion. I don't need to know the words of the prayers, or what god, goddess, or divine force they are spoken to. I am inspired in the mere witnessing of his action.

I see him, and I think about willful action. I believe in the power of such action, though I have not nearly achieved a practice of it in the ways I imagine I could. And he reminds me to hone it down, potent action can be singular, simple.

He takes one step at a time, slowly, he holds his incense, makes an offering of it. I am probably one of very few people who know anything about this act of earnest devotion he does, loyally each day, and yet, I know even when I am gone, even if no one passes him on the road, he will be there, doing what he feels called to do. He does this in the midst of pain, in the midst of suffering. There is suffering that can be seen, one hand gripping a cane, shuffling, but I am sure there is much more being carried, held close with the incense, clutched at the heart.

Human suffering. We all carry it.

I have been down lately. I have spells like that, some life events are pulling me there. I feel heavy. I slump toward immobility, a broody lethargy. I drop the ball on my practices and prayers, and then I am weighed down by guilt and shame, that I am in this state again. I always hope this time will be the last, but that has never been the case to date. Brightness always fades to grey, and back again. Moods like the weather on the mountain.

Clouds roll in around the mountain, sometimes a fierce storm, clouds roll out again. The mountain simply stands. The mountain does the action of being, it holds the space for all expression without judgment. It asks nothing of us, of me. I find that idea peaceful.

The earth is always underneath us. It is one of the few reliable things. Such a powerful and strong container, it bears all things. That is the comfort to be realized, to lean back into, soften, release, deeply receive. This truth. Everything that happens is held, all of the doing or not doing, all of the cycles, each change of season, the bright and the grey, day and night, life and death and every single thing that occurs in between. All of it perfect, to the earth.

The life that happens on this patch of mountain may seem of little importance in the larger world, but I find it profound. I am so deeply touched by the man who walks and prays, and the chanting and drums in the temple, the smell of incense, sweat and tears, struggle and mercy mingled. I honor myself in that as well. I am equally included, and I need do nothing to be whole and healed. The heart of devotion is like the mountain, the earth that supports us all, embracing the dedicated action, the weighted inaction, all of it taken, equally sacred, the smoke of prayers and incense, things being burned away. All of it a beautiful offering.

We are here. That is enough.

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