Failure, Quan Yin, chant
Many years ago, some weeks into a two-month meditation retreat, I landed in something anyone who has stayed with a practice over time knows is inevitable: I was having a Very Hard Time. I was wilting in the face of an overwhelming doubt and sense of failure. Eventually, I sat in an interview with my teacher Jack and admitted that I felt like I had totally failed to progress on the Path. He is known for being a very gentle and kind teacher, and I was ready for him to assure me that I hadn’t failed, but just needed to be more patient, keep going, be gentle with myself. All things that I might say to a student in such a state, and I think all good medicine for such a moment. He didn’t say any of that. He said, “Well, maybe it’s true. You’ve failed.” Ouch. Just because I thought I was right didn’t mean I wanted to be right!
He then suggested that even though I may have failed, and maybe my retreat as I knew it was over, I still would be at the retreat center for another couple weeks, and how did I want to spend my time? I had no idea. All I knew how to do was go back into the hall and sit more, hoping that the clouds would clear. He told me to go walking in the hills (which I rarely did while on retreat — who has time, with all the sitting and moving slowly there is to do!?) and see what came. I didn’t really like this idea, but didn’t know what else to do, so I agreed on faith to do it. Walking glumly, hardly noticing the gorgeous live oak and manzanita forest, over the grass covered rises, I noticed that I was hearing a song in my head, as I often do outside of retreat. I decided to let it play out, and then sat on a rock humming, staring out over the hills toward the sea. I found myself (double entendre alert!) singing a Zen chant to the Goddess of Compassion: Kwan Yin. Namo Kwan Yin Bosa. “I bow to Her who Hears the Cries of the World.”
So I came down from the hills, borrowed a harmonium from one of the cooks, and every day sat in a hut outside the silent retreat grounds singing to this Goddess, who hears the voices of all who suffer. My doubt and loss slowly eased that week, not by immediate certainty and confidence, which didn’t arise, but through surrender, and the honest truth of failure. Years later, singing in surrender and praise of the Divine is a central practice for me, and my heart has leapt at the stories of Hanuman and Rama, Radha and Krishna, Kali and Durga, that are woven through the Hindu yoga I also adore.
After that retreat, I began to work more deeply with the monastic chants in the Theravada Buddhist tradition, in the ancient language of Pali. I have sung them for years now, bringing my western heart and musicality to them, and leavening the traditional austerity of the chants with the influence of the modern kirtan tradition. It’s a strange hybrid creature now, and I don’t know if the mix makes sense, and I’m making it up as I go along. I’m going into a recording studio this month with Geoffrey Gordon, who is a long time kirtan leader and producer, to record these sweet, semi-ancient songs.
In a classic image of Kwan Yin, she looks like she‘s just getting up from meditation, with one foot resting on the floor, and one arm casually draped on her knee. She looks completely relaxed, and in fact one of her names is “She Who Rests at Ease”. Her witness of suffering and sorrow is profound, but she is not distressed, radiating an infinite ease and happiness. She is seeing a far bigger picture than we are, and maybe that’s much of what our suffering is: myopia. Our lens is too small. We get obsessed with ourselves. My drama, My failure, even My surrender and freedom, but we’re not seeing what she sees. From her soft, easeful perch, she just listens, her presence soothes those who realize they’re not alone, and maybe to her ears, the cries of the world all blend together into a vast buzzing, like standing near a bee-covered bush in early summer. Actually there’s nothing to do. No great practice that will automatically save us. But listening quietly, hearing the hum like bees in the bush of the mind, we might find a softer posture possible for us: Resting at Ease, Hearing the Songs of the World.