Sometimes a single unexpected event can change our lives forever. One such event happened to me over a decade ago …
It was a normal, sunny day in Phoenix, Arizona. I was picking my daughter up from Kindergarten. My three-year-old son was holding my hand as we all walked back to the car. Few fathers picked up their children from school so the mothers often gave me an encouraging smile. On this day, traffic was particularly heavy around the school. As we left, for whatever reason, I was determined to make a difficult and perilous left turn from the school. I knew it would be easier to make the right, but today, the hell with it, easier was not part of my thought process that day. I didn't care that I was holding people up. This was one of those days where I would get my way - or so I thought.
To make the all important left, I went into a left turn lane at a traffic light, hoping to weasel my way into traffic from there. The light before me changed, stopping all traffic. This was not going to be easy. I heard a truck next to me honking, and I looked over to see the driver pointing at me. I immediately assumed he was upset about my stopping where he needed to be. Either way, I was there, he was not - too bad.
At this time my daughter said, "Daddy, he wants something." I knew what he wanted. He wanted to give me a hard time about my dominant position, wrong as it was. I did what I thought was the best way, or at least the most satisfying, to handle the situation: I flipped him off. He shook his head and continued to point at me. He didn't seem to react to my posturing, which seemed to agitate me even more. I flipped him off again, this time mouthing a particular insult. He could not hear it, but I knew he could read my lips. Still he continued, pointing again at me several times. By this time the light changed and he began to drive off, finally out of my life, with a shake of his head as if he was embarrassed for me. But sure to get the last word in on the situation, I continued one last, firm middle finger as he sped away. Who was this condescending individual that had such audacity to mess with my life the way he did? I held my finger up, following his departure, hoping it would linger in his mind and teach him exactly who he was messing with. I felt victorious when he didn't make the left turn I thought he had intended.
An opening occurred, and I finally entered traffic on my way home. I was studying my children's faces through the rearview mirror, I suppose for some kind of reassurance that I had done the right thing. My daughter was flicking her long hair back away from her face as a princess would do. My son was sucking his two middle fingers as he would do. Yes, they knew their dad was strong and wouldn't take crap from anyone. This is what a father should teach his children. As I was looking at my children's faces, projecting beaming pride in their eyes, I noticed my daughter's pink backpack flying through the air behind the car. I had left it on top of the car when I was buckling them in the back seat.
I stopped the car, pulling off the road to retrieve it, realizing what an embarrassing ass I had just been, and what I must have looked like. 'Mr. Tough Guy' flipping people off, mouthing obscenities, two kids in the back seat - and a pink backpack sitting on top of my car.
There were a number of things going on in my life at the time which might lend one to understand what led up to that day. In the end it didn't matter. I was driven by ego, emotion, and a total lack of mindfulness. That man in the truck was a compassionate, kind, attentive individual - attributes I would expect from a person of Zen. Was he a person of Zen? I seriously doubted it. But what he taught me that day lead me toward the Seven Factors of Enlightenment (sapta bodhyanga): mindfulness, investigation into the nature of being, energy, joy, relaxation or tranquillity concentration, and equanimity.
At that time I knew nothing about Buddhism, or of any spiritual path, but on that day, he was, to me, a Zen master with a blunt keisaku, and I, his not so humble student. Although I certainly was not in the moment that day, the day was eternal. Now, some ten years later, I still reflect back on it and on how fortunate I was to have had it. It was a turning point for me - an awakening. About a year after the incident I began my journey into Buddhism and Zen.
Like many aspects of Buddhism these factors are very fluid. One is the other, the other is the one. We can study these factors of enlightenment with our intellect, but that will only get us so far. These factors are interdependent and co-arising.
Years after, when I began sitting meditation, or zazen, it certainly did not feel like anything special. Sitting there motionless for extended periods of time, to say the least, seemed to do nothing except cause numb legs and a sore back. And it was tortuously boring. But slowly -- very slowly -- things began to change. I stretched and became more limber, helping my posture. My back didn't hurt so much, and my legs didn't feel like two lumps of wood at the end of a session anymore. None of the factors of awakening happen by striving to attain something, it comes through many, many hours of engaged practice, in my case, that practice was zazen.
In my daily life I developed some confidence in my abilities to wrap my head around concepts, but zazen was different. I was asked to sit, count my breaths, and do nothing. If a thought popped up in my head, I was instructed to let it happen, but also let it disappear. This can be visualized as the moon being reflecting in a pond. Clouds would sometimes pass overhead, but they would always pass. I continue to practice being a pond with very still water reflecting that moonlight. Everything is Zen. Even in the most obscure parts of our lives, the spiritual essence of our lives, the Dharma, is there. Each and every moment, Zen is there whether we're attuned to it or not. It was there that day in the car when I was flipping-off the Zen master, and it's here right now. The difference between then and now is merely awareness.
An awareness that began developing many years ago because of a single pink backpack flying off a car . . .