Australian Zen teacher Susan Murphy navigates the landscape of the inner journey in a style that is both direct and poetic. A generous teacher, she shows us the human face of modern Dharma, revealing the flesh implicit in often-misunderstood Zen concepts. Her teaching draws on her rich knowledge of literature, Zen koans and stories of the Aborigines, as well as her own observations of the landscape both in the wild and on the street. Murphy writes in a fresh, appealing manner without resorting to Zen clichés. Instead of using a phrase like “just this moment,” she evokes the power of entering the moment: “your life is being lived as intensely as a house on fire.” In this way, she connects the domestic with the wild. If we meet life unreservedly, nakedly, the lushness of life opens to us, and a sense of abundance emerges in what has already been given. When we enclose life too closely, Murphy suggests that we experience it as “perennially scarce.”
When reading Zen books, I’m prepared to be presented with a series of strange conundrums or enigmatic phrases that defy clear understanding— usually annotated with an unhelpful “That’s it!” When Murphy illustrates traditional Zen Dharma points, we respond simply, Yes, that’s so, that is true, I understand. She presents us with something we can plumb, not because it is explicable but because it is innate to us and we can meet it if we are willing to enter fully without our usual conceptions about things.
For Murphy, the awakened moment is an unprotected meeting with what is—a full-contact sport. She doesn’t equivocate about where enlightenment lives, how it’s found, or what’s possible when we get there. Murphy understands that the journey of practice is located right in the middle of life. She tells us that awakening is embodied in living wholeheartedly, in concert with the passion embedded in life. Our true calling is to find out what it is to be a human being. “Flowers must have bees, the ocean must have rafts of seaweed, deep space must have constellations, old trees must have mossy knotholes, and humans must have obsessions.” Her sympathy with our condition leads her to the discovery that the quest is about transformation rather than perfection. No moment is unwanted and thus enlightenment is possible right where we are.
She finds the Dharma’s circumference as easily in the “olive-grey saltbush, red earth, grey kangaroos and satin bowerbirds” as the “concrete canyon of freeway, the dark, fluoro-lit intestines of a grease-stained car parking station, the urine-desiccated stairwell.” Her verbs suggest we immerse ourselves in what life offers, that we: give over, yield, are willing, accept all offers, bathe in the presence of what is, enter deep ease, be wet through. Always, she invites us to be intimate with the world.
Both a filmmaker and fiction writer, Murphy is a good old-time storyteller. Lyrical, funny, warm and inclusive, she is rooting for the character in the story—that’s us, the readers. This teacher and her book are plainly on the side of life.