May 14, 2023
Michael O'Neill

Looking for Solid Ground


With his future plans thwarted and feeling dejected, Michael O'Neill comes back to his training in Zen to find a way forward.



Feeling lost and dejected on my return to Ireland, I set about reading Torei Enji’s “The Discourse on the Inexhaustible Lamp”.  It would be foolish for anyone to attempt to summarize the wisdom and power of this book. When I started, I would underline interesting passages and put sticky notes next to what I thought were important sections. Soon whole pages if not chapters were underlined and the book was littered with dozens and dozens of sticky notes. I stopped trying to select passages and just tried to understand what I was reading. I limited myself to no more than a couple of pages a day so as not to race through it to the end. What remains with me is the relentless demolition of any sense of progress or achievement in the practice. Master Torei mercilessly rebukes any monk who imagines that simply because they have come to some level of understanding or to have reached satori that they can somehow relax in their efforts. As he leads the reader through the levels of insight required to understand the Way, the feeling grows that one has not even started on the path, we have not even begun to understand the depth of our addiction to lust and greed. We are addicted to a transactional view of life where we do something in the expectation of a certain result. These expectations might be deeply suppressed but come to the fore when we meet with a challenge such as a loss or a disappointment. We might not even have been aware that we had been piling these expectations high on top of each other until they come crashing down and we are bereft and we might not even know why.

The Discourse on the Inexhaustible Lamp puts us to work on dealing with all of this. The responsibility comes back to us. We have to work with the passions as they arise. These dark moments in life are a real insight into what is really going on inside of us.  They are not us, as we would like to be, or like to be seen, but who we really are. We have to admit our greed, our lusting after power, wealth and position. We know on an intellectual level the folly of attaching ourselves to these things but the attachments are far deeper than we imagine and no amount of arguing with them can shift them. We have to look somewhere else.

We are told we have to work with our most difficult feelings. Having nothing left other than a literal interpretation of that phrase, I went to work in the garden. The big old house came with a big old garden, equally neglected and abandoned, but more suited to my limited skills than doing any work in the house. I gave myself into clearing overgrown areas, digging out long establish weeds, raking out abandoned flower beds and clearing enormous quantities of debris. The weather was unusually kind for February in Ireland and in a week, I had transformed the space into something that looked like it had the makings of a garden. Only as the last bag of rubble was removed and I stood looking over the garden did I realise that something else had shifted. My low mood felt as if it had lifted a little. I bowed to the garden, my teacher, and went inside.

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