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Around the Kitchen Table

By Lloyd Ratzlaff

11/05/2014

This column, like my last kitchen table talk, is a reminder to myself of things I forget a hundred times a day, which life nonetheless requires me to remember.

When through meditation and authentic prayer we learn to transcend the world, we don't come to despise it and look down on it from some lofty religious height; rather, we learn compassion, feel an urge to re-enter the world and celebrate life while also helping others to celebrate. Now, in the (relative) absence of the ego's fear and pride, its lusts and hatreds and jealous compulsion to rob life as if it were a bank full of other people's wealth, we begin again to see miracles. The world becomes re-enthused - full of gods (which is what "enthusiasm" means).

SOMETHING INSTEAD OF NOTHING - Autumn, Lloyd Ratzlaff

To an awakened mind, it's astonishing that there is anything at all - something instead of nothing. It's a jaded life that rushes through this world and finds mainly obstacles to happiness, and keeps on hankering for new spectacles to boggle the mind into belief. What greater miracle could there be (for instance) than the Brazilian bell-bird? This pigeon-sized creature puffs itself up into a ball, opens its beak, and with a shrill Dong! returns to its normal size and shape. Or consider the stupendous tailfeathers of a peacock, or the improbable bill of a pelican (in my childhood Uncle Art used to sing to us, What a marvellous bird is the pelican, its bill can hold more than its belly can).

One day standing in line at the grocery checkout I heard a child ask his father if he could buy some candy. His dad said yes, and the boy picked something from the shelf. Then he asked if he could have another kind, and the reply was affirmative again. The kid came through the line clutching candies in both fists and loudly broadcasting glee, "LOOK! I got TWO things!" and it was precisely his glee that made us adults nostalgic for such innocence, wishing again for some re-birth or reincarnation, only to be able to start fresh like that again.

There was one saint who said, "Sometimes no matter where I look, I see only God. Then to whom shall I preach?" Another sang, "How marvellous this is - I chop wood and draw water!" Science may postulate a law of gravity to account for how the apple fell on Newton's head; spiritual vision marvels that the apple got up there in the first place.

If we can see creation as an artwork rather than a product of labour, our own work and play begin to coincide, and the banalities of "how did things get this way and whose fault is it?" are gradually displaced. The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says that spirituality does not mean thinking about religion while we peel potatoes, but peeling potatoes as celebration. It means making peaceful, happy steps when we walk, enjoying today's non-toothache, letting go of our miserable anxious compulsion to survive - which always ends up turning into a threat to survival, as is shown in what Paul Scherer terms "this recurrent messiah of war" which augurs to belie every noble humanitarian aim we profess to hold.

If worlds are manifestations of divine creativity, it follows that anything may be a symbol of deity, provided we have a certain kind of vision. Christ made the dire observation: "You have eyes, but you fail to see the at-hand realm of heaven." The Greek word symbollo means "throwing together" things that appeared to be separate. Its antonym, diaballo, means "throwing apart." So things can be viewed either symbolically or diabolically, in union with their source, or cut off from both the source and other things. D. T. Suzuki once said to a group of western clergy, "God against man, man against God; God against nature, nature against God; nature against man, man against nature - very funny religion!"

On the other hand, Thich Nhat Hanh shows us how to see a cloud in a sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there is no rain; without rain, trees do not grow; without trees, there is nothing like paper. And there's sunshine in this sheet, for trees won't grow without sun. And in the paper is the logger who cut the tree, the wheat that made the bread the logger ate to cut the tree, and the logger's parents are there, and we are in the paper with our minds - in fact, Nhat Hanh says, you cannot point out a single thing that is not in the scrap of paper on which you scribble a grocery list - time, space, earth, rain, minerals in the soil.

This smiling Buddhist monk has coined a word for seeing in this way: "inter-being." It's another example of seeing through symbols into the source.

Ratzlaff is the author of two books of literary non-fiction, The Crow Who Tampered With Time and Backwater Mystic Blues. Formerly a minister, counsellor and university instructor, he now makes his living as a writer in Saskatoon.