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at home in heaven and hell

' In this world we walk on the roof of hell gazing at flowers. "

Kobayashi Issa (1763 - 1827)

This is heaven, call it home. This is hell, call it home. Whatever it is, become intimate with it. To become intimate with it is to own it.

These lines by the Japanese haiku master and Buddhist priest Issa are consoling and speak to us in a direct way about our human condition.

What is touching here is how the poet expresses the fundamentally ambiguous nature of the human condition where beauty cohabites with horror, tenderness with misery, in terse words with such intensety of feeling and equanimity of regard.

Just seventeen syllables (in the original Japanese) suffice Issa to give us an over-arching vision of the complexity of what it is to exist in this world in human form.

Many of us embark on a journey of personal inquiry because we wish to make sense of our suffering and dissatisfaction in the hope that once we know enough, see clearly enough, realize enough, open up enough, let go enough, practice enough then, as if by magic, we are forever transported to the Elysium fields of eternal bliss and unending happiness.

The unavowed idea behind our quest is that enlightenment, or any other salvific project we may have in mind, once and for all transform us from head to toe so that all things hell related (manners of anguish,irritation, dissatisfaction, emotional pain and suffering subtle and gross) be gone forever so that we be left chilled and blissed, redeemed and saved, with nothing left but the beauty of luscious flowers to gaze at. No more pain and frustration, please, ever!

I am sure many of us will find the idea of roof of hell as a depiction of life disconcerting while we would without hesitation subscribe to the vision of having nothing but flowers to look on.

What Issa is trying to express here, so seems to me, is not just that hell and heaven are contemporaneous and complementary, but that they are part and parcel of the same experience; impossible to have one without the other.

While that is true, the subtler sense of inextricably pairing these experiences the way he does in this haiku is that not only are they inseparable, but what is more, they are intimately connected and non-dual. While not the same they are not opposed or separate either which means the only way of understanding one is by understanding the other. In yoga this is rendered through the slogan: no mud no lotus.

To expand on this metaphor, I would say the non-dual experience of hell and heaven, samsara and nirvana, delusion and enlightenment, from a Zen perspective, is the incessant interplay and intimate co-responding of one of the poles of this continuum with the other. In the end this is one full-spectrum experience, it is whole and indivisible, it is a totality and we are both a part of that totality and the whole of it at once.

What makes our condition so difficult is not so much the presence of suffering in our lives rather our incessant struggle to free ourselves from it; our resistance to who we are and what the world is about. In an ancient Zen text, we read the following: “The path is not difficult, just avoid picking and choosing.” Now, the picking and choosing is what we are addicted to. We could say the mind as we know it, the conditioned, limited and reactive mind, is in great part a process of inveterate attachement to the picking and choosing.

Our confusion is not obstructing our wisdom from appearing. In reality nothing is obstructing anything; we are just walking on the roof of hell gazing at flowers. We are not doing two different things at two different times.

We cannot but see a parallel here between Issa’s haiku and William Blake’s, the great 18th century mystical English poet and Issa's exact contemporary, they died on the same year, epic poem: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. For Blake, the idea that heaven had somehow dominion over hell did not make sense. His experience and mystical realization convinced him intimately of the connection between the two.

Blake, like Issa, did not see heaven and hell apart for, as he put it magisterially: “...everything that lives is Holy.”

It is because everything that lives is holy that we walk on the roofs of hell, gazing at flowers. Flowers tamed and flowers wild.

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