When I put my ticket into the barrier at the station what I am sometimes reminded of is one of the most famous collections of Zen koans – the “gateless gate” of Wu-men Huik’ai, the 13th-century Chinese meditation master. We feel that there is a gate that “separates” us from enlightenment, but once we pass through it – should we be lucky enough – we turn around and realise that the gate was never there in the first place. We are already enlightened – we just don’t know it.
Commuting has much to offer the spiritual seeker, perhaps because it puts our focus back on to ourselves. Public transport, with its enforced passivity, induces a meditative frame of mind. There is something beautifully Zen about the paradox of train travel – we are in motion, but we are also stationary. Nothing encourages more reverie about the meaning of it all than lives glimpsed from a train window: the poignancy of patio chairs, tilted, as if in prayer, to let rain run off them; figures momentarily looking up from sinks, as if in an Edward Hopper painting; a child’s empty climbing frame. Such sights bring home the simple, uniform melancholy of all our lives and can leave one aching for an answer. There are times when it seems I have spent all my life on the permanent way and spent a good deal of it musing on just that, the Permanent Way.
Trains are a good example of Buddhism’s core beliefs about reality. Everything is impermanent (anicca), nothing has an eternal, independent self (anatta) and thus, since all objects, mental and physical, are subject to arising and passing away and have no abiding essence, any reliance upon them can only lead to suffering (dukkha). Your train is far from permanent; indeed, it is often not there at all. It won’t last for ever – rolling stock and liveries change. And suffering? Well, enough said.
The Buddha, whom one can regard as a sort of celestial ticket collector in this context, offered an escape from this predicament. In one of his most intriguing statements he said: “There is a field of experience that is beyond the entire field of matter, the entire field of mind, that is neither this world nor another world nor both, neither moon nor sun. This I call neither arising, nor passing away, nor abiding, neither dying nor rebirth. It is without support, without development, without foundation. This is the end of suffering.”
To Buddhists this is Nibbana; to Christians it is Heaven, perhaps – the ultimate terminus for our spiritual train. The Buddha is describing that which cannot be described. He referred to it as “the unconditioned” – that which needed no conditions for it to arise, that which always has been and always will be – a state beyond birth and death.
How can it be reached? Or, more accurately, how can we become aware of its constant presence? In seemingly the simplest of ways, he suggested – a way echoed in that hiss of breath when the train doors open. It is extraordinary to think that in the act of conscious respi ration, of watching one’s breath, of apparently doing nothing, we can gain everything. Nibbana, God, the kingdom of heaven, the season ticket to the beyond.
The proof? The 2,500-year-old vipassana tradition of insight; meditation, based on the Buddha’s Satipatthana Sutra (four foundations of mindfulness discourse). “Ever mindful he breathes in, ever mindful he breathes out,” states this text. So simple to say, so hard to do. Yet it is claimed that the breath is a bridge from the known to the unknown, and the Zen master Dogen, even said that the whole universe is the breath. Modern teachers like Thich Nhat Hanh bring breath awareness to everyday activities – even commuting. Larry Rosenberg’s Breath By Breath is a good introduction to an inspiring subject.
The Buddha’s teaching on the breath is inscribed on palm leaves in monasteries, libraries and institutes throughout south-east Asia. The west complains about leaves on the line – for many these ancient lines on the leaves provide an answer.