May 7, 2023
Michael O'Neill

All At Sea


No matter how long we have been practicing life can still be disheartening. Michael O’Neill shares his recent experience as a Zen practitioner.



One of the nice things about coming back to live in Ireland after a 40-year absence has been reconnecting with old friends. We had dinner with some friends for our University days. As my wife recounted the many twists and setbacks in our story, the withdrawn offers on our London house, the crash in the house prices caused by “external events” and many more minor tremors along the way, our friend commented “..and you Michael, we hear you’re a Buddhist now. You must have sailed through all of this.”

I smiled and said nothing and the conversation soon moved on. In fact, I could not bring myself to admit that it has been a very difficult time. I did not want to “let the side down”. In the midst of all of the  commotion of moving house and country, I should add that a big business project that I was working on fell apart. The investor was experiencing difficulties due to those “external events” and had withdrawn the proposed funding. The break with my former life was far more drastic than I had ever imagined.

All my life I have been a drawn to the story of the Odyssey. The Iliad is a dark and brutal thing. The Odyssey has elements of an adventure story and mythical hero’s journey but essentially it is the story of a man trying to get to his happy place, home. The price he pays for that is everything; his companions are all eaten, turned into animals or drowned, the plunder for which he sacrificed all, long abandoned or at the bottom of the sea, and some very angry gods pursuing him along the way. For all his daring and cunning, he arrives home as a penniless wanderer in little more than his sandals. Somehow after all my wanderings I had arrived home without loot or booty. Like Odysseus, on coming home, I had another battle ahead of me. It was not the material challenge that lay ahead that I found most daunting. It was the sea of disappointment and broken dreams that overwhelmed me that I found most difficult to manage.

Like any good shipwrecked sailor, I clung to whatever I could find. All I had was the Daily Life Practice.  I continued to work with the timetable. The Irish winter nights seemed very long and dark. The bed felt like a warm refuge and it was a battle to leave it in the dark mornings to go to sit on the cushion. Somehow, most days, by force of habit, I made it. All my books were packed away and inaccessible. I had packed Torei Enji’s “The Discourse on the Inexhaustible Lamp” in my hand luggage so I had this by my side. It is a hefty tome and a daunting one. It is easily the length of a classical epic and has its own Hero’s Journey in it. I had made a few sorties into it in previous years. As I began to read it, I found little sticky-notes on passages I had read and highlighted on a previous attempt to read the book. I had no memory of this reading. Even worse, I could see no reason why I had highlighted one passage rather than another. I could not even remember what was going on in my life at any time that made one passage resonate with me more than another.  If you ever want to test the reality of your worries, try to remember what preoccupied you two years ago. Whatever it was, it was long gone.

The Discourse on the Inexhaustible Lamp is a training manual for the Zen practice. It was written by Master Torei when he was gripped by a terrible illness. He thought that he would not survive and dedicated his last efforts to expressing the core of Zen practice and correcting the errors of Zen as it was practiced in his day. The book comes to us with the commentary of Master Daibi, who wanted to explain elements of the ancient text to the pupils of his day. It begins with an outline of the lineage of our Zen school and then proceeds in nine subsequent chapters to lay out the path of the Zen student.

In the next instalment I will explain more of how the twin pillars of the Daily Life Practice and Master Torei helped me through my dark times.

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