Comments to the Bard High School Early College Graduating Class, June 2012

August 31, 2012

Congratulations on this milestone.

I have been asked to say a few words with the emphasis on few.  I’ll start with a Zen story.  There are a couple of points to keep in mind when listening to a Zen story.  First, the story is always about you.  This one appears to be about a bird, but see how it resonates in your own life as you hear it.  Even if you have heard it before, the reaction today may be different, because the time and conditions are changed.  Second, the story does not have a traditional ending; rather it is your individual response to it that gives it power.

A bird found himself in a cage.  He did not know how he got there. The cage life was really all he remembered and, as such, it seemed like a normal life for him.

The cage was decent sized and there was enough room to move around comfortably, although not to fly.  He regularly toured the cage, often finding twigs, straw, cloth as well as food and water.  Well, the bird thought, since he was here, he may as well make himself comfortable.  So, he began making a crude nest.  As time went on, he found other things around to make himself a first class home, with plenty of diversions and sufficient food.  Not too bad, he thought.  It might be nice to try out the wings, but then again he was comfortable.

One day, during his regular inspection tour, he was surprised to see that the cage had a door!  The cage had not been changed, the door had always been there; the bird had simply not noticed it before.  The bird was intrigued and inspected it further.  To his astonishment, the latch of the door was not locked.  With one peck on his part, the latch disengaged and the door swung open. He was free to go if he chose.

There were never any constraints, just the lack of recognition of the actual situation.  It only appeared to be a new condition. The bird perched at the threshold of flying into freedom.  The bird could go through the gate into the unknown.  Perhaps he would experience the true freedom of the flight of the bird, or be eaten by a predator.  Another option was to stay inside and maintain his comfortable style.

Life is always bringing new situations that require us to act; it is the nature of life itself.  But how do you choose.  What abilities or insights have to be developed or grown in order to proceed well with our life?  It is true for all of us and it is especially relevant as you leave the school and push off in new directions.

The first is to have eyes that see the truth.  Not physical eyes, but the ability to experience life just as it is.  Not how we want it to be, not how it should be, not how our parents or others told us how it is.  Life just as it is in the moment.  Some people may call it understanding one’s own nature, but that is a different conversation.

Second, feet that can function, that can move or stand still as the appropriate for the situation.  Storms often arise in life.  Think about the summer storms—they come on suddenly and with disrupting power, wreak havoc, and then just as quickly are gone, sometimes they may be emotional or physical, but they come through us with power and perhaps leave a mess to be cleaned up.  Our storms may be emotional or physical, we cannot run from them, but stand firm, weather them out.  Other situations are different.  They require initiative action, a stepping out, if you will, into a new situation, a new set of experiences.  Our feet must have the capability to do both.

Third is the heart of intuitive courage.  The strength to be able to choose to do what is appropriate, once the situation has been recognized.  This is not easy.  Internally, it is often a struggle between the intellect and heart.  On occasion, it requires a decision directly in conflict with the mind or emotions.

Eyes that see the truth, feet that can function, a heart of intuitive courage.  Where do these come from?  The good news is that we already have them. It is our responsibility to develop them, allow them to grow and to express themselves in our own life.  The other news is that no one but ourselves can do this.  There are no teachers or books that can make this happen.  It takes work and effort.  Each individual has their own path for this growth, but there are some guides.

One is to be open to the experiences of the world and what they can show us.  This is especially true in observing nature, which is naturally manifesting these attributes.

Step back from making quick and rash judgments and labels about situations and experiences.   There is something to be learned from penetrating into the nature of experience.  Not learned in an intellectual way, but rather into the core of our being.

Then, there are people who can teach us about the eyes, feet, and heart.  They may not call themselves teachers.  In fact, be wary of those who represent themselves as teachers.  If someone says they have the truth for you, a good response is to head in the opposite direction.  Teacher arise as needed.  Paraphrasing Joshu, the great Zen teacher said:  “If I meet a man of 80 and I can teach him, I will do so;  If I meet a child of 3 who can teach me,  I will learn. “ Take teachers and teaching where you find them.”

The continuing theme from these examples is to be aware and make the effort.  The potential is unlimited so the activity is on-going throughout life.  But the path is your own, and you have to find it for yourself.

And a fair question is what is the effect on your life.  As the spirit opens, actions and responses become more spontaneous, appropriate, and even creative.  This is a natural expression, there is nothing forced or even conscious to do.  Second, some people will respond to you differently, again without any conscious effort.  They will sense some difference and seek out your advice and opinions.  There may be more calmness and life can unfold and manifest in a natural way.

Just as the bird in the original story, you are on the threshold of a new situation. It seems major, but there will be many other and you will have to meet each new one head one.  Let your guide be eyes that see the truth, feet that can function, and a heart of intuitive courage.

It has been a privilege to have taught you and  I wish you all the best going forward.