Meditating and preaching

Ninth-century Chan master Tung-shan once said: “I preach what I cannot meditate and I meditate what I cannot preach.” This is a straight-forward summary of the great dichotomy of inward and outward, extrapolated to active and contemplative.

We cultivate ourselves inwardly, through meditation and introspection, according to our tradition. But the fruits of our effort are inevitably limited. Who can boast of the perfection of inner cultivation? Society and others may wonder what we are doing, what we think of ourselves.

So we must “preach” what we lack, what inner fruit we cannot express outwardly. We must articulate to ourselves — but especially to others — what we believe, our experiences, our hopes, and desires, our compassion. And do so with the example of our lives, every moment of our lives. And when these efforts are judged by others to be inadequate, ineffective, idealistic, or false, then we must return again to our meditation to “meditate what we cannot preach.”

And so the cycle goes on, the cycle that consumes our very being, the cycle of “perfection.” We enter into it fully, but we cannot dwell on it long or it becomes an object, not a process. It is a cycle that conforms to our very purpose and our purpose conforms to the cycle. It cannot be a contrived purpose or a purpose defined for us by society, but a purpose that grows in our attentive minds the way a flower grows.