Cross-Post: The Post-Rock Way – Presence | Each Moment is the Universe

This post was originally on my other blog about exploring spirituality and philosophy through post-rock music. I recently wrote a post on the best albums of 2021 in post-rock, so I recommend checking that out if you find the music in this post interesting. A recent release of an old favorite band inspired this post.


A few weeks back, an old post-rock favorite released a revamp of a previous album. The second song grabbed me in particular, leaving me almost in tears due to several layers of personal meaning in the album.

First, this album was one of the first post-rock points of connection between myself and the woman whom my heart was still broken over. Second, the album was being released on the 2nd anniversary of the day we met. Third, the song feels like an exploration of the faith in facing each day with perseverance, even in the difficulty of a human life.

I had meant to write this post earlier. Now, it feels out of tune with my emotional landscape, but I still feel the poignancy of that idea/sentiment should be shared: the presence of getting up and doing one’s best to be present, kind, and open-hearted to whatever arises day to day, no matter the difficulty involved. In my other blog, I’ve spoken many times about the Zen saying of “before enlightenment, chopping wood, carrying water; after enlightenment, chopping wood, carrying water.” So much of the pursuit of release from suffering, no matter the pursuit (including many practitioners takes of Buddhism) falls into an idea of deliverance from suffering, such as nirvana/enlightenment being a fully different realm or life, but that’s not the case. I touched on this in my most recent post on my other blog – the Buddha lives in the burning house, i.e. nirvana is right in the middle of the burning suffering of samsara. There’s no other life or existence out there. Opening to the moment vulnerably and being present to the full unfolding of it is key to showing up with an appropriate response that is the wu wei skillful action of a buddha. I struggle to express this, but ultimately, this comes forth in the realization of selflessness and the interdependence of all things: each moment is the universe.

Another much more beautifully poetic and philosophical way for us to express this is some evocative statements from Dogen’s Genjokoan (my title here is somewhat inspired by Katagiri Roshi’s book on Zen and Dogen of the same title). Warning – these truly are confusing to the extent of almost being infuriating to standard logic: truly a koan. I posted some of this on facebook years ago, and several friends got full on annoyed because they didn’t understand. However, in philosophy, and especially in Zen koans, we need to open ourselves to the conundrum and let it break our standard conceptual barriers.

Since the Buddha Way by nature goes beyond [the dichotomy of] abundance and deficiency, there is arising and perishing, delusion and realization, living beings and buddhas.

Therefore flowers fall even though we love them; weeds grow even though we dislike them. Conveying oneself toward all things to carry out practice-enlightenment is delusion. All things coming and carrying out pratice-enlightenment through the self is realization. Those who greatly realize delusions are buddhas. Those who are greatly deluded in realization are living beings. Furthermore, there are those who attain realization beyond realization and those who are deluded within delusion.

To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be verified by all things. To be verified by all things is to let the body and mind of the self and the body and mind of others drop off. There is a trace of realization that cannot be grasped. We endlessly express this ungraspable trace of realization.

When a person attains realization, it is like the moon’s reflection in water. The moon never becomes wet; the water is never disturbed. Although the moon is a vast and great light, it is reflected in a drop of water. The whole moon and even the whole sky are reflected in a drop of dew on a blade of grass. Realization does not destroy the person, as the moon does not make a hole in the water. The person does not obstruct realization, as a drop of dew does not obstruct the moon in the sky.

When we make this very place our own, our practice becomes the actualization of reality (genjokoan). When we make this path our own, our activity naturally becomes actualization of reality (genjokoan). This path, this place, is neither big nor small, neither self nor others. It has not existed before this moment nor has it come into existence now. Therefore [the reality of all things] is thus. In the same way, when a person engages in practice-enlightenment in the Buddha Way, as the person realizes one dharma, the person permeates that dharma; as the person encounters one practice, the person [fully] practices that practice.

Translation of Dogen’s Genjokoan as presented in Realizing Genjokoan: The Key to Dogen’s Shobogenzo – Shohaku Okumura (pp. 1-4)

This may all seem obscure, but it’s worth summing up with pointing out how Dogen focused on the practicalities of life. Practice was outlined in such examples as how a cook should prepare food to stay fully present to the process. The day in and day out is precisely this: the actualization of reality that is chopping wood; the actualization of reality that is carrying water. In other words, it’s a mindful openness to the interdependence of each moment, and furthermore, that engagement is not one where delusion is forever left behind, it happens within our deluded life. Buddhas are those who greatly realize delusions – sitting awake right in the middle of them. The Buddha lives in the burning house.

When I listen to this song, “When I Rise & When I Lay Down”, I feel this engaged, living practice. Another way we could think of it – that realized delusion – is the creative affirmation of Sisyphus that closes out The Myth of Sisyphus. Even in struggling to push a damned boulder to the top of a hill in the afterlife over and over, we have to imagine Sisyphus happy in some of the most poetic, heartlifting, Nietzschean words you’ll ever read:

One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus. Trans: Justin O’Brien (p. 123)

Oddly enough, Old Solar is a Christian band with religious themes resonant throughout – the album is called “Quiet Prayers” and has other songs with titles such as “Help Us to Be Faithful”. As such, taking a deeply spiritual tone as a call to holding to a faithfully engaged life throughout the burdens of the day to day is perfectly on point with this song, just with a very different perspective of what that kind of practice entails: not one of the grace of God, but one of the practice of actualizing this moment in its totality, even in the midst of suffering.

This song may have made me cry for personal reasons, but these considerations I’ve outlined are so much deeper and more profound, and I hope you’ll find them in listening to it too.

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