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The Zen of Otis Redding
by Michael McCormick
The other day, I was driving around in my car and I happened to be listening to Otis Redding's "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay" and it occurred to me as I was listening to the lyrics that this song is all about the practice of "just sitting." So I thought I would share the thoughts and associations that came into my mind while hearing this song:
Sitting in the morning sun
I'll be sitting when the evening comes
This is the practice of just sitting from morning til evening, from birth to death, in every moment of our life. "Just sitting" even when we are not just sitting. Being upright and present in the midst of it all - sunrise to sunset, birth to death, womb to tomb and back to womb again...
Watching the ships roll in
And I watch 'em roll away again
Things come and go, both our thoughts and feelings, sensations and conception, cars and trucks and singing birds and radios and everything pass by as we just sit and become our meditation. As the Four Foundations of Mindfulness Sutta instructs - we just become aware of the body and bodily states both internal and external as they arise and vanish, and the same for internal and external feelings, mental states, and all phenomena. That is to say awareness embraces all things just as they are without judgment or clinging or preconception. Upright presence springs from them and takes them in and lets them go: an everflowing wave of "clear awareness in the tranquility of no-thought." (gassho to Garma C.C. Chang for that definition of silent illumination).
Sitting on the dock of the bay
The world of birth and death is often referred to in the sutras as "this shore" whereas nirvana is "the other shore." Here Zen Master Otis is sitting on the very edge of "this shore." But is he longing for the "other shore" or is he pining for a lost love on this shore? Or is he just sitting there? The answer is coming right up.
Watching the tide roll away
The tide is the rising and falling tide of all phenomena. Ideas, emotions, relationships, gain and loss, fame and infamy, birth and death - all are passing and all come about and pass in accord with changing conditions. Sometimes a rising tide lifts us up into heaven, sometimes it sinks and we are cast down into hell. To just watch this and see it for what it is - that is being awake and that is the starting point of objectless compassion.
I'm just sitting on the dock of the bay
And there it is. Just sitting with no purpose. He is not trying to lose the world of birth and death or cross to the other shore of liberation. There is nothing to lose and nothing to gain and in letting things be as they are this shore and the next become just a dock on the bay where one can waste time just sitting. In that upright presence and from out of that upright presence all things will be accomplished.
I left my home in Georgia
Headed for the 'Frisco bay
In Buddhism the Pure Land is often spoken of as the Western Pure Land of Bliss of Amitabha Buddha - whose name means Infinite Light and Infinite Life. The West has often symbolized the world after death, the transcendent goal of spiritual practice, the final resting place because it is where the sun sets and escapes our conscious and finite daylight awareness which is so involved in activity, work, pay, and gain. The sun dies each day sinking into the West and so we too will die and enter the other world, and if we learn to be fully awake we may allow our finite self-centered mind to set and thereby make way for the illumination that has no boundaries - an infinite light and infinite life of the unconditioned that has no birth or death, no rising or setting. Here Zen Master Otis crosses from the East to the West and comes to the limit. How will he pass that limit?
'Cause I had nothin to live for
And look like nothing's gonna come my way
This can be tricky. Someone who is at the end of their rope might say this but it is not awakening, just despair or apathy. But it can also be the Lion's Roar of someone truly awake and fully present, and overflowing with selfless compassion and bliss bestowing hands. Such an awakened one has nothing more to gain, nothing to cling to, and no longer seeks for anything outside the complete unfolding of the living moment. Every breath, every drop of water, every sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and even passing thought or feeling or daydream of the mind just as it is become gratuitous and completely fulfilled and self-liberating as it moves on to the next fulfillment. This gratuitousness even takes in the pain of loss, death, cruelty, misunderstanding and countless tragedies large and small just as it does the great triumphs, the small unassuming joys of life, and the many innocuities. Sometimes compassion is called for, sometimes sympathetic joy, and throughout a mind full of loving-kindness, at rest in and balanced because there is nothing to gain and nothing to lose and no need for division into this or that, self or other, now or then. Just this unborn deathless immensity - in this case an immensity of rotting wood, sea-salt, a chill winter wind, perhaps the sealion's roar, and the company of passing tourists and tour boats.
So I'm just...
As above but deepening even further and becoming more and more what it is.
Look like nothing's gonna change
Everything still remains the same
When one is caught up in birth and death, things never stop moving. Our children get older, our gray or silver hairs begin to appear, crows feet appear, our favorite shoes fall apart on us, relationships grow, strengthen and deepen or wither on the vine, our favorite t.v. shows are canceled. It's all happening and we can't grasp any of it and make it hold still. And then we awaken to the ungraspable nature of it all and suddenly the bottom falls out of the bucket and we become aware of the unconditioned nature of conditionedness and contingency. Right under our nose the Deathless was hiding in and through the things of birth and death. Now the dock is in Shanghai! Zen Master Otis has crossed over without moving a muscle. He has arrived where there is no arriving or departing and can greet the Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha as an old friend.
I can't do what ten people tell me to do
So I guess I'll remain the same
Buddhists sometimes speak of the ten worlds - hells, hungry ghosts, animals, fighting demons, humanity, heavens, disciples of the Buddha, privately awakened ones, bodhisattvas and buddhas. All these worlds have their voices and spokespeople around us and in our heads and hearts. They all have something to say, some way for us to change or get it right or undo something. We look to the ten worlds and run from some and long for others. Tempted by these voices of hell-dwellers telling us to despair and that there is nothing more than suffering or oblivion, hungry ghosts telling us that all will be well if only..., animals telling us to watch out for our territory and grab each meal as we can, fighting demons telling us to look out for number one, humans telling us to be more reasonable and responsible, heavenly angels telling us we have got it made and to give ourselves a pat on the back, disciples telling us to pay heed to the teachings, privately awakened ones telling us that none of this matters, bodhisattvas telling us to reach out and give our all, buddhas telling us to snap out of it because there is nothing really wrong with us. But in the end, all these voices have to go. They and we become phantoms if we chase after them. Better to just sit on the dock of the bay and waste time.
Sittin here resting my bones
And this loneliness won't leave me alone
Just sitting at one with no other. Is this a lonely and confused Blues singer running from his problems or is it Zen Master Otis telling us that there is no self or other when one just sits and that all things have come together seamlessly in the midst of seabreeze, sealions, aching bones, dampness, laughing children, and hungry seagulls?
It's two thousand miles I roamed
Just to make this dock my home
At home within one's own skinbag. The Buddhist monks were originally "homeleavers" in a literal and metaphorical sense. They had given up their homes, their position in society, their families, their duties, their wealth (if they had any to speak of), and any status they may have had. In return, the whole world became their home as their practice allowed them to see that this world of Endurance is also the Pure Land of Tranquil Light. A mythic image to be sure, but the reality allowed a king to laugh in joy when he escaped the bonds of palace burdens and treachery for the cool liberation he had found beneath the shade of a tree where he sat and slept and ate leftovers while clad in cast off rags. Today we have homeless who should be housed and cared for and housed who are locked out of the joy of homelessness. Zen Master Otis has found out how to be at home no matter where he goes. If only he had found out before wasting his time on such a long trip.
Now, I'm just...
And again "just this, just this, just this..." The dock of the bay has taken in everything without even a slight change and Zen Master Otis is still sitting there waiting for us to join him wherever and whenever we are.
Namu Myoho Renge Kyo,
Ryuei Michael McCormick
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