I love the story of the Golden City which the Buddha tells in the Lotus Sutra. It has inspired me. It is all about the journey, not the destination. All of life is a process. All of life is change. There are no final destinations, no final plans.
And yet, this is a lesson in the Buddha’s teaching about the importance of transitional vision, of transitional goals, of transitioning vision to inspire us and sustain us. To be able to hold this vision even while at the same time remaining awake to the transitoriness of all visions is a remarkable gift.
But there is a dark side of the Golden City story which the Buddha doesn’t mention.
It is a sad story. When it is time to move on, when the guide calls they seek to continue the trek, when some complain that they have arrived, that they don’t want to leave, even after the guide has explained that the story of the Golden City was just a story, an aid to help them come this far, even after the guide reminds them that this was not what they ultimately sought in their hearts when they out of their quest, even then, some refuse to leave the Golden City.
They cannot let go of the story. The guide moves on then with the seeks who will follow, but many refuse to leave the Golden City. Even as the years go by and the city decays, they remain behind, clinging to the dream of a final destination.
And the more they cling, the more rapid the decay.
As a Zen teacher, teaching zazen in the Zendo, I have told the story of the Golden City for years.
“It is enough for most of us, most of the time, to sit for a half-hour a day.”
“It takes some of us longer than others to build up the half-hour.”
“Once you are sitting for a half-hour a day, every day, — pretty much every day, you don’t have to be a fanatic, — within three to six months, you will begin to notice changes in your life.”
“Maybe you don’t notice them directly. Maybe you will need to have them pointed out to you.”
I tell the story of how my mother pointed my patience.
“I had taken my mother food shopping toward the end of her life when I had been sitting daily for about six months. We were standing in the checkout line which was moving very slowly.
“’ Kenneth,” my mother said, ‘you are a very patient person.’”
No one had ever accused me of being patient before.
Right then in the supermarket, a glimpse of recognition: This is new. This has to be the Zen practice.
Dharma’s brother, Michel Dubois, found Bernie when he was already a very experienced Zen practitioner when he had already received Dharma transmission from Bernie’s younger Dharma brother Roshi Gempo Merzel. In Michel’s words, “Gempo Roshi opened my heart; Bernie Roshi put it to work”. (1)
In zazen, many students find relief, a respite, an escape from suffering, a City of Gold. And they can’t get off their cushions. Roshi Daido Loori, another of Bernie’s Dharma brothers, described the condition as an “addiction to incense.” I find myself struggling to help students, good Zen students, get off their cushions.
“It is time to move on,” says the guide.
The shadow, the sadness, when the guide moves on, some, — I think probably a great many of the seekers who had arrived at the Golden City, — remained behind. The guide continues, holding the sadness.
As a Zen teacher, working on building charter schools, I have told stories in an effort to inspire our team in the extraordinarily difficult work in which they are engaged.
Part of the energy of building the first school, of getting the first charter, was that what we accomplished could mean much more to American education than just the services we provide to a few hundred Staten Island students, as wonderful as that was. What we build on Staten Island could be a beacon of hope for parents and educators nationally.
And even as the work progressed, we were moving on, I was telling a new story, of building a network of schools, each uniquely providing an integrated college preparatory pathway, so that Staten Island parents of atypical children would have a greater range of educations options than the parents in any other community in America.
And now I am beginning to tell another again, moving on even as we continue the work of earlier projects” “Even if you can’t see it clearly, over the horizon is the possibility of bringing our most successful school design the New Ventures transfer high school, to communities throughout the United States.”
Visions to inspire our teams, to inspire me, to continue on the journey. A journey without end. A journey without a final destination.
In the shadows, at each stage of the journey, some of my companions find themselves in the City of Gold. They are tied to the trek. They don’t want to leave. Sometimes I envy them. Wouldn’t it be nice to settle down and retire? I can feel the allure, the seduction.
Love is a rose but you better not pick it
Only grows when it’s on the vine
A handful of thorns and you’ll know you’ve missed it
Lose your love when you say the word mine
— Neil Young
1. The Bernie Koans, p. ??