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Cracked Bell
by Roshi Robert Althouse

                image by Christine Steyer

                image by Christine Steyer

When the liberty bell was brought over to America from England, it wasn't too long before it cracked. The bell was melted down and recast at an American foundry but apparently, they didn't get it right either and it cracked again. 

A few days ago we did a Gate of Sweet Nectar service towards the end of our Spring Retreat (Sesshin). In the service we invited Leonard Jikan Cohen to become our Honored American Ancestor. There is a beautiful line from his poem, Anthem that you probably know well that goes as follows:

"Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in."

Since we hadn't done the Gate of Sweet Nectar service for some time, we were a bit rusty and it was far from a perfect offering. Traditional Zen practice can easily be afflicted by this desire for perfection. So it can be disappointing when we fall short of the mark. 

I'm turing 68 in a few days, and I'm afraid my body is also falling short of the mark. It's so easy to gain weight, and a nerve in my neck and right arm get's easily inflamed making it difficult for me to sit meditation at all. 

If I learned anything from this retreat, which I could not participate in fully, it was to accept this cracked bell with more kindness and equanimity. I'm grateful for the true wealth in my life, my wife and sangha community. 

I had a dream during the retreat. I was on some beach with many people, and it was like a party, a demonstration or a Trump rally. It felt like a mardi gras because people were dressed in wild costumes. There was electricity in the air - a sense of excitement and danger mixed together. And then I found myself in a claustrophobic parking structure with a group of men that were spoiling for a fight. I was trying to find my way home but this mean looking character would have none of it and wouldn't let me go. And then I woke up. 

Dreams are about ourselves, and they are often about aspects of ourselves we'd rather not see. So this dream helped me see that I have some strong feelings about my country. Clearly, we are struggling through difficult times and it feels like we are, in many ways, a drift. So this dream reminded me of my own passion and aggression and how easily I could project it on to others. Perhaps it would be helpful to remember that our country, too is that cracked liberty bell in Philadelphia. 

What's the lesson here? Isn't it to open the heart? Isn't it to be kinder towards ourselves and others? It's easy to give in to fear and anger and to harden the heart with fixed ideas, opinions and judgments. 

Keizan Zenji, a great teacher in my lineage encouraged all of us to not only be ok with being this cracked bell, but to embrace it as the way itself. 

"Even though the firmament may be as clear as the water in autumn,
How could this compare to the hazy moon on a spring night?
Many want it pure white,
But sweep as you may, you will never empty the mind."

Imperfectly perfect, just the way you are. What could be better than that?

 

Robert Althouse

Zen Life & Meditation Center, Chicago, 38 Lake Street, Oak Park, IL, 60302