Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens
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Long ago, two Zen teachers were on a mountain in meditation. Afterward, they talked together. One said, "I'm liberated from all signs and appearances; I've reached signlessness." The second monk doubted this claim.
When the one who had said he was free from signs left to urinate, the second monk, using a piece of chalk, wrote "Phat" - an exclamation often seen to connote "Buddha" - on the rock where the other had been sitting.
When the first monk returned to the rock and saw the "Phat," he did not dare sit down on it. The second monk laughed, saying, "You see? You're still caught by the sign - you haven't reached signlessness."
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In a spiritual path, signs signify intangible realities or truths. They include many things: rituals, rites, words, chants, icons, bodily gestures, holy places, sacred objects, ... Everything in a wisdom path is metaphorical.
While we need signs, for they assist us in connecting to intangibles, they can hinder us. In fact, attachment to signs has led to much violence toward those who adhere to different signifiers. Hence, detachment from signs is an aspiration for those on a sacred path.
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Signlessness is a misleading term, for it does not mean a rejection of signs. Signlessness means an emotional aloofness from signs. Then, we can appreciate signs for their role without assigning them absoluteness. We can, too, be curious about how signs in different paths than our own can enrich the practice of our path. Signlessness is a means of appreciating how the Truth manifests diversely.
With this wise view, it would be okay for the first monk not to sit on "Phat" out of respect for what it indicates. Did the monk refuse to sit on "Phat" out of mindful reverence or emotional attachment? The story has been used to teach detachment from signs. Yet, the monk's refusal to sit on "Phat" does not tell us his motive, for detachment is an inner state. Detachment can be as present in what appears to be attachment as what appears to be non-attachment. If one is attached to being non-attached, that is not detachment.
What signs of your spiritual path help you in connecting with the sacred? Has your reliance on signs shifted over time? Are there signs that once helped you now no longer do? Have new signs become helpful to you? Do you sense you have an emotional attachment to any particular sign or signs? How might nonattachment toward signs aid you in respecting the ways others relate to the sacred?
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*©Brian K. Wilcox, 2022.
*Use of photography is allowed accompanied by credit given to Brian K. Wilcox and notation of title and place of the photograph.
*Brian's book, An Ache for Union: Poems on Oneness with God through Love, can be ordered through major online booksellers or the publisher AuthorHouse.