Picking Up the Pieces With Joy


We’re here to pick up the pieces

Here to pick up the pieces

Let the place be good, my brothers

Let the place keep clean, my sisters

Come along, my brother

Come along, my sister

Come along, come along

Hurry up, hurry up

I recently was struck listening to this lyric from the song The Youth by the Jamaican Reggae legend Burning Spear (Live in Paris,1989). I saw Burning Spear once, in Queens I think, around 1995. I should say that while I was indeed in the hall, and not even that far from the stage, I mainly just listened to Burning Spear due to this thick haze of mysterious, strongly fragrant herbal incense pretty well obscuring any actual view. The place was full of what appeared to be the entire Rasta community of greater New York; I remember towering piles of dreadlocks stuffed under hats and long locks trailing to the floor, and very few if any other white people. It did all seem quite ceremonial, very religious, though I understandably felt a little alien and outside of it. No matter the contact high, or basic enjoyment of the music; it seemed appropriate to respectfully appreciate, but have no pretense to being “inside” (unlike this guy.)

I have read a bit about Rasta history and theology over the years (and listened to my share of the music, well beyond Bob.) It’s really fascinating stuff, and moving. It is no doubt a genuine spiritual revelation, and it appears to be a real yogic path of awakening and practice for many people truly called to it. Fundamentally, the Rastas see a world corrupted by greed, anger, and confusion. They recognize that people of color have long born a disproportionate brunt of this corruption. And they are guided to each personally heed an inner call to check aggression, and seek a spiritually-rooted response to all problems: physical, mental, social, and political. Samsara could be called Babylon; there are inner teachings and outer teachings, non-mandatory rituals, and simple, flexible directives toward a holistic response to life, not unlike the Noble Eightfold Path, including preferring organic, locally sourced vegetarian food, abstinence from alcohol, simple dress, right livelihood, etc. Good stuff. There is the shadow stuff too, but every human road has that.

It might seem a polar opposite religion to Soto Zen, and on the face of it, that might be true. But as with any path that is truly a path, I think that there is a place where the hearts meet. This lyric for me touches on that place. It seems like excellent Zen teaching in certain respects.

We’re here to pick up the pieces.

Suzuki roshi would say (echoing Dogen,) “life is one continous mistake.” My first Zen teacher, Seung Sahn, used to say “being born was your first mistake.” He had a kong-an or koan that I feel addresses this. It goes, “the mouse eats cat food, but the cat bowl is broken. What does this mean?” For me, it speaks to a fundamental brokenness and upsidedownness that we inevitably encounter during our journey in this life. If we didn’t know it, we certainly wouldn’t ever turn toward the “higher power” of zazen (or Jah, for that matter.)

Sitting zazen is picking up the pieces. Work as zazen is picking up the pieces. Sleeping as zazen is picking up the pieces. Engaging in political activism as zazen is picking up the pieces. I love the story about Shunryu Suzuki’s wife, Mitsu, breaking a prized cooking dish. A student watched her break it, be sad for a moment, then with closed eyes, sweetly press a shard to her cheek in farewell – and throw it all away. That is literally and figuratively picking up the pieces.

We have a human job to do in response to the gift of this human life. This is picking up the pieces.

Let the place be good, my brothers

Let the place keep clean, my sisters

I love this. He doesn’t say “you broke it; you buy it. Now clean up the damn pieces!” In this lilting, chill-out way he says to his fellow human beings (whom he knows to be and addresses as his own flesh and blood,) let it be good. It’s already good. Let that shine forth. Reveal it, to yourself and others. Let it be clean; it’s originally clean and bright.

This makes me think of living in Zen training temples; there quite naturally grows this sense of joy to just maintain things. Some people are angry at first to be guided how to mind things at all; this can even swing to the other extreme. One can become the dreaded… “Form Nazi!” Sooner or later you see through that hang-up, too. You stop thinking, “those shoes should be neat!” and begin to feel, “the shoes are just so happy when they are next to each other, taking care of each other.” You learn good wholesome routines of collective existence and care for things, and you feel good. And clean – with no need to be compulsively germ-free or anything.

Come along, my brother

Come along, my sister

First I notice that he is an elder presumably from the title addressing younger members of the community. He addresses them (and us) as peers, not patronizing anyone as unruly children, or bad people. Second, this can be heard as a Bodhisattva call for people to join in. It’s good to feel good, especially about taking care of things simply and uprightly. We love this, and it spreads outward; so we hope, and pray.

Come along, come along

Hurry up, hurry up

There is a little urgency here. We shouldn’t be freaking out. But we can have a little sense of hustle in our bustle. Like our chanting. Our chanting can suffer from people expecting others to carry the load, or folks not digging it so they sort of drag behind. We’ve been giving a little coaching, and its getting much better. And the main instruction is to just give it full attention and energy. You can hear it, and the whole room feels it. It’s got that bounce, that gentle energy swelling through it. It has purpose. Purposeless purpose. Our zazen can feel like this too, have this direction. Settled but lively. 

We feel the urgency of our times, and our own personal call to awaken. Burning Spear says to hurry up, but notice how he is saying it: patiently, smoothly, without giddiness, as if there is all the time in the world.



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