I was once practicing meditation in Benares, India, in a monastery situated right in between a bus station and a train station. In this very urban, crowded place, there was one patch of garden which was a few square feet.
I was sitting outside there one day next to the few little tufts of grass and other growing things, when I noticed that within the garden there was a single cabbage growing. In that moment I had an amazing experience. Sitting there, just looking at the cabbage, I realized oneness with it!
When I looked at the cabbage, what I saw was forces of nature coming together in a certain configuration, at a certain time, with tentative form and tentative color, coming together, arising, being born, growing old, decaying, dying. I recognized that what I called my "self" also was just forces of nature coming together in a certain way at a certain time, with tentative form, having been born, growing old, decaying, and dying. I saw I was composed of elements, with no self entity beyond that or behind that. Just a constant flow of energy. I became totally at-one with this cabbage.
I remembered the Mahayana Sutra where all the Buddha does is hold up one flower. He doesn't speak at all; he just holds up a flower. In that tiny garden at that time I understood how all of the laws of nature, all the inherent truth of life, could be revealed in one moment of seeing deeply into an event or an experience or an object or a person.
This whole experience reminded me of Alice in Wonderland, a young girl one day taking a trip through the Looking Glass. Suddenly, I was looking at everything from a completely different angle, recognizing that there is no inherent substance to anything in our lives, there is no solid entity like an unchanging ego that we need to do battle with.
In spiritual life we are not facing an implacable enemy of self that we need to fight, that we need to overcome or eradicate. Spiritual life is understanding the true nature of things, most importantly our own true nature.
It is as though we were trying to dislodge a tree in a forest; the most powerful and direct way would be to uproot it. The root of the tree that is our daily grasping and fear is ignorance. We can approach the tree and start picking off leaf after leaf and twig after twig and branch after branch, only then beginning to peel away the bark, and start cutting off inch after inch of the trunk, to finally get to the root. Or, we can take the direct way.
In spiritual practice the only true confrontation we have is with our own ignorance. Ignorance is the root of this tree of uneasiness and dissatisfaction in life. All of our effort is directed toward understanding. We do not need to do battle with all the different leaves or twigs, we need to see clearly how things are.
I had a moment like that in the tiny garden in the monastery in Benares. I was a bit chagrined that it was a "lowly" cabbage that was my vehicle for seeing more clearly at that time... I couldn't imagine, for example, a text called the Cabbage Sutra. But there the cabbage was - plain, homey, not ornamental or showy... and there I was, trying to understand my life.