Shoveling Snow With Reality

A friend of mine, who teaches science, and who I might describe as a "Mystical Materialist", sent me the following poem by Billy Collins. It is entitled "Shoveling Snow With Buddha", and I think it says volumes about how to be present to the experience of Ultimate Reality in the midst of the reality we experience every day:

In the usual iconography of the temple or the local Wok
you would never see him doing such a thing,
tossing the dry snow over a mountain
of his bare, round shoulder,
his hair tied in a knot,
a model of concentration.

Sitting is more his speed, if that is the word
for what he does, or does not do.

Even the season is wrong for him.
In all his manifestations, is it not warm or slightly humid?
Is this not implied by his serene expression,
that smile so wide it wraps itself around the waist of the universe?

But here we are, working our way down the driveway,
one shovelful at a time.
We toss the light powder into the clear air.
We feel the cold mist on our faces.
And with every heave we disappear
and become lost to each other
in these sudden clouds of our own making,
these fountain-bursts of snow.

This is so much better than a sermon in church,
I say out loud, but Buddha keeps on shoveling.
This is the true religion, the religion of snow,
and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky,
I say, but he is too busy to hear me.

He has thrown himself into shoveling snow
as if it were the purpose of existence,
as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway
you could back the car down easily
and drive off into the vanities of the world
with a broken heater fan and a song on the radio.

All morning long we work side by side,
me with my commentary
and he inside his generous pocket of silence,
until the hour is nearly noon
and the snow is piled high all around us;
then, I hear him speak.

After this, he asks,
can we go inside and play cards?

Certainly, I reply, and I will heat some milk
and bring cups of hot chocolate to the table
while you shuffle the deck.
and our boots stand dripping by the door.

Aaah, says the Buddha, lifting his eyes
and leaning for a moment on his shovel
before he drives the thin blade again
deep into the glittering white snow. 

"Shoveling Snow With Buddha", by Billy Collins

This was a great piece to evoke thought on a Sunday afternoon. The poem evokes for me something like the distinction between illusion and enlightenment (in Eastern religions) or between idol and icon (in Western religions).

The essence of illusion and idolatry seems to revolve around something like the human propensity to raise our interpretation of Experience above the Experience itself. We experience "The Experience", and then we analyze, codify, and define the Experience. Then we say "the really important thing" is that our experience correspond with the Orthodox interpretation / definition of experience. Those who interpret the experience the same as we do-- using the same categories, the same terminology-- are the ones who have it right. And those who do not interpret the experience in our Orthodox way never really "had" the experience at all.

Thus the man in the poem interprets "this experience" as better than Church, more of a sermon than a sermon, more prayerful than prayer, etc. While the implied antagonist-- the Western Churchgoer-- would presumably say the chatty snow shoveler is having no "spiritual experience" at all, because true spiritual experience happens only within a certain liturgy, using certain concepts, saying certain words.

Both are really a kind of second-order Orthodoxy: An orthodoxy of tradition versus an Orthodoxy of anti-tradition (which, in Hegelian fashion, will one day become some group's orthodox tradition).

And in raising their second-order interpretations above the actual "being-present-in-the-moment" experience of Reality, they have both committed to a form of idolatry by embracing a form of illusion.

The Buddha stands a nice antithesis in the poem. He is fully present to the experience, fully mindful of the embodied knowledge that is his encounter with Reality. He has no need to comment, to define, to capture the Experience. Instead, he is fully present to the Reality that is fully present to him.

That fully-present-mindfulness allows the Experience to become an icon: A window to encounter the Really Real in the midst of human experience. What the Zen Buddhists call "tathata": Literally the "suchness" or the "this-ness" of Reality. Experience is not reducible, but is a Gestalt whole that must be taken as it is, in all its fullness. Experience is ultimately not able to be broken down into constituent parts, because that is not the Experience itself (capital E), but a series of discreet abstractions which are experiences (small e) in themselves. To dissect, to analyze, is to destroy the Experience. It evaporates even as one describes it. And all that is left is one's definition, but not the Experience itself.

The only way for the Experience to maintain its role as "icon" and as "tathata" is to take it as a whole, beyond words, beyond concepts. It is what it is. And perhaps through this, the Real says "I am what I am", without being able to be described, dissolved, categorized, or reduced to some combination of other finite abstractions.

So, when Moses says the Really Real is the personal YHWH who speaks from the burning bush, saying "I am what I am", perhaps this is not too far removed from the Buddha saying that the Really Real is "tathata" which transcends personhood, contingency, and categorization, which was revealed in his burning heart. And perhaps this unspeakable Real which is encountered in shoveling snow, and making love to one's spouse, and watching sunsets, and taking morning showers, and pushing up that last rep, is that to which Wittgenstein points to when he says "That which cannot be spoken must be passed over in silence".

Granted, I am sure this could all be taken in a decidedly luddite direction as some kind of screed against knowing and studying and analyzing the Reality we inhabit. But it is not. Because I don't think a person can fully grasp how vast and wonderful and beautiful and good the Unspeakable is, unless one has first pushed themselves to the limits of what they can know and understand and analyze and say. And furthermore, health of body and mind is necessary as a pre-requisite to both empirical analysis and transcendent experience. And health of body and mind only comes about by human science (in the broad and narrow senses).

But beyond all our science and philosophy, beyond our words and categories, beyond our theologies and a-theologies, there is a Totality to the Real that ever evades capture, escapes dissection, and transcends definition. This Totality is glimpsed and grasped through finite Experience. But like a bird darting through our peripheral vision, it is lost as soon as we train the full gaze of our consciousness upon it.

I think at this base level of encountering the Totality of Reality, and in affirming the life-giving values and virtues that flow from such an encounter, there is much to connect the Western Saint and the Eastern Guru and the Modern Materialist.

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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.