It’s dark. The wake-up bell rings for morning meditation in the zendo. Feet hang out the side of the bed. The time has come to do the mundane— wash the face, brush the teeth. The bath in the hot springs will come in the afternoon before tea.

For now, it is morning. The birds crowd on branches to sing near the hall of silence. Meditation has already met me at the door and has entered my body. I breathe slow. Stillness, a must to enter darkness. My feet erase the footprints of yesterday. A humble daughter of former slaves, I have come to a practice I know the old Africans, sold and bought, understood. They knew the importance of silence, of listening for guidance in a life filled with hardship. The gateway to peace came to those who did not give up, those who did not give in to their imposed circumstances. So, I walked the cold floors of the zendo (meditation hall). No one knows I am being escorted by ancestors to my seat. I understand this is where they have brought me to see them, to see myself, to see life.

There is no teacher in the room, as of yet, because the teachings begin with walking and then a bow. Not the bowing of submission but that of recognizing and acknowledging life. Bowing is the silent language of peace. It speaks to the person who is taking their seat with me. It says, we will sit alongside each other with nothing of the world to do, except breathing in the way humans have done long before our birth, long before ancestors. When we bow together, it says let’s begin again, seeing only what we see of each other without looking or knowing each other. As we breathe, we are in a profound moment of stillness, inside a peace we could have never conjured on our own.

An unprescribed, non-religious Zen is an invitation to a ceremony. We know we are to bring ourselves. But we come asking, is there anything else I must bring? Nothing. What must I do? Nothing but be alive. It is a ceremony that mimics life, the breathing of deer, the trekking of bears, the aging of cedar trees, or the dying of eagles. There is no healing to be done by any of the chanting unless you are fortunate enough, in the middle of a chant, to experience the shallow breath of deer, the weary trek of  hungry bears, the sudden illness of cedar trees, or the decline of eagles. You wake up without the superiority of being human; you wake up in the middle of chanting, in the middle of life.

Our bravery to join the ceremony searching for peace inevitably leads to heart-wrenching and heart-opening. Is it possible to return from the grace, terror, sorrow, and beauty of sitting with nothing? If we let it, the silence shakes us. Still, we accepted the invitation to sit because we are daredevils willing to die in the silence if we must in order to live again.  We are thrilled by the possibilities and dangers of silence. We experience silence removing shields so that the earth can speak out loud or whisper in our ears. The danger is that deep silence leaves everything out — all of what you know and think you have.

Imagine being barefoot when the rising tides of life hit like a tsunami in the dark. There will be no need to pull shoes off your feet when you are drowning in your seat with how much of life hurts or how you have no solutions that last longer than a year. The teacher or teachings may come, not to deliver you from your suffering, but to walk with you to the gate of tranquility which is a long walk out into the middle of the ocean, which is to say, you will be walked to the middle of your vast life without drowning. Expect to arrive still seated, older, much older than you were when you first took a seat.

Ah! A few more deep breaths to settle upon bones that have reshaped themselves over the years. One kind of fly eats at the mucous of the eyes, another, bites at the skin, and still another one finds a home in the crevices of ears. The only way to survive torture is to sing, if only in your head. The only protection is nothingness. Nothingness does not hurt.

The bells bring tears — not of sorrow. They are tears of utter love. In-love with radiant darkness and the greater mystery of being. The big bell in the hallway causes the howling coyotes on the hill to yelp. Mating rabbits to scatter. Feet to move in place. Voices hushed. Heads bowed down. Everything is calling in silence, even justice calls us to the quiet so that we can hear with clarity what it has to say.

On the last bell ringing and drumming, we sing the song of liberation. It is not a liberation from what traps us, not liberation from life–but liberation to life– all of it. Free to come to life, to be in it and see it. Liberation is the freedom to awaken where our feet are planted. Awakening is freedom that cannot be given, legislated and then taken away. Liberation that comes with fear that we might not make it is not liberation. In awakening we can trust that our actions will not lead us to our demise. Awakened freedom is living out what we expect of others. What do I choose for my life? Who am I waiting for to give me whatever? Am I enough to bring a freedom of awakening? When asking am I enough, I am not promoting much-needed emotional recovery from the experience of inferiority or unworthiness. I am asking am I, are we, free enough to awaken and then take action in life that might disrupt everything old and unnecessary? Are we free enough to abandon any sense of ourselves being better than anyone else? Are we free enough to resist with love?

Sitting in the open meadow of the zendo I look back at the gate entered. Zen means nothing in itself and there is nothing in this meadow — only what is brought to it. We bring the voices of unabashed pride and ego-driven wondrousness, an idea of Zen, hopes, and the need to not suffer from our own ignorance. And thank goodness this human life can never be known, so that we can’t manipulate it to our own small desires or our ideas of what it should be.

Who is it that crawls through windows? It is the morning dawn. She parts the sea of darkness so that the center of light within it is revealed. The bells ring and the wooden drum knocks calling out ignorance.

The earth speaks silence. It breathes nothing but time and space. Make anything of breathing and you’ll wake in the middle of the dive.

Zenju Earthlyn Manuel – 2019