The short poem written by the Tang era Buddhist monk, Chiao Jan, has a message for all of us, and it deserves some attention. He begins by speaking about ‘the shores of nondoing.’ This does not mean that after crossing the Great Ocean we come to a place of inertness, of no activity, but rather that the journey takes us to a state where the actor – or the traveller – has vanished. How can there be ‘doing’ if there is no one to ‘do’? That was the experience of Shakyamuni Buddha, and it is the ultimate goal of all Buddhist practice – to stop the endless wheel of desire and disappointment. And although the language used may differ from one tradition to another, it is also the goal of all streams of spiritual practice.
The poem tells us, though, that someone has not yet reached that shore. Who? It has been suggested that these lines are the poet’s reflection to himself, a sort of reminder in his old age, but the title points in another direction. It seems more likely that Chiao Jan must have observed feelings of dejection amongst some monks at a nearby temple, and this was his gentle encouragement to them.
The paradox of the spiritual path is that we pursue a goal until we realise that the goal was never absent from us. Truth cannot be partial, valid in one context and not in another; to be worthy of its name it must be ever-present, even in our limitations and disasters, although it defies our reason and logic to explain how this can be. Nevertheless, before realisation comes we cannot abandon our efforts. That would be roughly equivalent to hoping to win the lottery without bothering to buy a ticket. For that reason the white clouds wreathing the peak on the eastern horizon, the place where the Sun of Truth arises, have meaning for us – their beauty, majesty and purity serve as a banner, beckoning us onward, reminding us that there is only one purpose in life that is worthy of effort.
The white clouds also serve to lift us above the self-defeating emotion of sadness. Hazrat Inayat Khan says that self-pity is the greatest poverty. By feeding our impression of smallness and separation, self-pity closes the door to the treasure which is our divine inheritance. Therefore, as Chiao Jan says, to be sad about our lack of spiritual attainment is simply silly. In this journey, attitude is all important. In Vadan Alapas, Hazrat Inayat Khan encourages us this way : Let courage be thy sword and patience be thy shield, my soldier.
Let us listen to Chiao Jan, then, and keep on moving, whether as soldiers, or as monks, or perhaps as soldier-monks. The hour, the season and the weather do not matter. The goal has not been arbitrarily chosen – it has called to us, and it lies before us, waiting, as long as we do not give up hope. Go forward with courage and patience, and do not accept the thought of defeat.