When I heard that the Canadian singer Nanci Griffith had died last month, I remembered her beautiful folk rendition of From a Distance, written by Julie Gold and first recorded by Nanci in 1985. (Bette Middler did it later, but honestly, I like Nanci’s.) I’m dating myself, but I was 25 years old when I first heard it. Nanci’s voice, the poignant melody, and the evocative lyrics captured my spiritual imagination and longing. It gave expression to something of the silent spiritual call to peacemaking in an extraordinarily powerful way.
Getting a view from a distance is something we work on as Buddhists. We learn how to step out of the swirl and bring ourselves to a mountain view, where we can see more and let more in. It’s the wisdom perspective. “From a distance” is not “being distant,” as some have complained about Buddhist quietism in history. Rather, it is a way of perceiving that allows you to hear the “song of every one” which, of course, is nothing other than your song. It’s the song about the oneness, difference, and harmony of things – the nature of you, and us together, and all things, and Buddha.
Listening to From a Distance a few times over the past weeks, I am remembering the Dalai Lama’s Millennium Practice. He invites us to take five minutes every day (this song lasts 4 minutes and 14 seconds…) to remember that every single being wants the same things that you do – to be loved, to be at peace, and to be happy.
Zen Master Hakuin also wrote a popular song. It has regularly been on the Zen top hit charts since it was written in the early 18th century! It’s called The Song of Zazen. Here’s an excerpt:
All beings by nature are Buddha
As ice by nature is water.
Apart from water there is no ice;
Apart from beings, no Buddha.
How sad that people ignore the near
And search for truth afar:
Like someone in the midst of water
Crying out in thirst;
Like a child of a wealthy home
Wandering among the poor.
… if you dedicate yourself to practice
And confirm your own true nature,
True nature that is no nature.
You are far beyond mere dogma.
Here effect and cause are the same,
The way is neither two nor three,
With form that is no form
Going and coming -never astray
With thought that is no thought
Singing and dancing are the voice of the Dharma.
Boundless and free is the sky of samadhi
Bright is the full moon of wisdom,
Truly, is anything missing now?
Nirvana is right here before our eyes;
This very place is the lotus land,
This very body, the Buddha.
A lot can be said about the Song of Zazen. I’ll keep that for another time. But imagine for five minutes that, from a distance, all beings by nature are Buddha, that everything we need for inner and outer peacemaking is right in our hands, that there is freedom in the bright full moon of wisdom – which every being gazes upon, and that all singing and dancing is the voice of the Dharma.
With these songs we get the taste of the spiritual call. It’s the hope of hopes. It’s the love of loves. It’s the song of every being.
May all beings sing together in harmony.
Thanks for this.
insert crying emoji and deep bowing emoji- I did not know Nanci Griffith just died until I read your note Joshin. I am so grateful for hearing this news in the context of your thoughts and reflections. She is one of the greats. Time to go pull out one of her albums and listen to it over and over and over as I did in the late 1980s and early 1990s.