“Old spring, new water.”
I heard this short poem recited by a young Japanese Zen monk at Zenshuji Temple in Los Angeles. It was the New Year’s Day celebration, and he was marking it with his favorite poem. Zen poetry illuminates the larger issues of life by illustrating them with seemingly unrelated things. Flowers on a hillside, the mist on a river in autumn, fish swimming freely through a stream – these images from Zen verses are windows into the awakened life, beckoning you to look through them.
What is the poet trying to illustrate here? Short as it is, this poem can open up new worlds for us and balance our perspective by revealing the underlying wholeness of life. The water is the spring, and the spring is the water, yet the spring is ancient and the water is bubbling new and fresh.
You can view the water as representing all the constantly-changing details of your life – always flowing, continuously presenting new challenges and opportunities. Like each drop of water, each day is a new day, similar perhaps to earlier ones, but completely unique. The sun rises, so you wake from your dreams and launch your morning routine. But today there’s a call from your supervisor saying you have to be at work early to handle an emergency. Quite different from yesterday, when nothing exciting happened at work. Yesterday and today are similar but different drops of new water.
When I heard this poem it was a new year, a new day, and the young monk was beginning his new life as a priest. This is clearly “new water”. But what about this old spring? It is both the source and the sum of the water, producing and containing every drop and trickle. What could it represent? What is it that contains all the details of your life along with all your influences and potential? Is it enough to say “my life itself”? What does “my life” include? Does it exclude anything? What about your parents and children? Your friends, colleagues and neighbors? How are they part of your life? How about the works you have completed and the ones you are just now dreaming up? What about the air you breathe and the ground you walk on? To really be all-inclusive, there can be no boundaries to this spring.
We all see the droplets, the details of life. We put a great deal of time and effort into arranging them the way we want them to be, riding the roller coaster of joy when things go our way and frustration when they don’t. But we don’t easily see the other side, the big unified picture of life. When we do see it, whether through chance or as the fruit of a spiritual practice, we find a peaceful world, a world of no lack and no contention, one that has always been right here waiting for us. This is the foundation of Zen – the world of no boundaries where equanimity of mind and heart is found, appearing naturally the way the moon appears in the sky when the obscuring clouds dissolve away.
This section of the cloudbook presents a way to clearly experience and integrate these two sides of our life, the world of no contention and the one of hectic, day-to-day existence. As this is a step-by-step method, I recommend reading it straight through and spending careful time with each exercise to get the most benefit from it.
Mindfulness is something we can do continuously, letting us return to this integration moment after moment, and allowing us to accept each moment of our life as naturally as the old spring accepts each drop of new water.