I’ve been studying a koan with Zen teacher Joan Sutherland Roshi in her koan salon. It is the first koan in the Blue Cliff Record. A lot of things happen in this koan but the bit that claims my attention is when the Emperor fails to recognize Bodhidharma. Then he feels regret, in fact he feels it his whole life and has that regret engraved on his tomb.
This part of the koan maddens me. First of all, isn’t compassion available to us moment by moment, and so how can the spirit of compassion be gone for good? Some of the traditional commentaries point to this.
But mostly my problem is that I’m not big on regret. I don’t usually feel it. I might regret I didn’t buy land in Pagosa Springs when it was cheap, but that isn’t the kind of regret in the koan.
My friend Natalie is friendly with regret. She waxed poetic: “I regret I do not live in Cleveland.” She was showing off, that she could feel regret–that soft nostalgic emotion–for anything.
My lack of regret is how I experience fate. Heraclitus said: character is man’s daimon. I feel not only that what is done is done (and therefor true) but that fate is what I seek, have even made.
Bodhidarma crossed the river in the dark. Maybe I just don’t want to see that things are always coming and going, like the two lanes of traffic, upper and lower, glittering at the bottom of the George Washington Bruidge, the beautiful suspension bridge of my childhood, on a winter’s evening.
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Joan Sutherland Roshi