Awakening to Discouragement

This is an approximation of a Dharma talk I gave at the Henry David Thoreau Zen Sangha in Newton, MA, on June 8, 2015.

Our liturgy book changed recently. There are some new verses, two of which we chanted tonight.

I’d like to focus on one of these in this talk:

Awakening to Discouragement

(by Joan Tollifson, from the book Nothing to Grasp)

Part of waking up is becoming sensitive to how we become discouraged, how we close down, and where we go for false comfort. To wake up is to become aware of the tendency to judge ourselves, to take our failures personally, to fall into despair, self-pity, depression, frustration, anger, or wherever we tend to go when we believe the story that we are a person who can’t do it right. Seeing all of this is enough. Awareness is its own action. We don’t need to analyze it or impose changes based on our ideas of what should be happening.  Just being awake to the present moment, as it is, and seeing clearly what is happening: this is transformative. We are simply awake here and now.

I found this verse unsettling the first couple of times we chanted it at Greater Boston Zen Center, where I sit. I still do.

That unsettled feeling is usually valuable, I find — a call to pay attention.

This verse is unsettling to me, I think, because it doesn’t really feel encouraging in the way I’ve been socialized to think about encouragement.

Encouragement as I’m used to thinking about it would be telling me things will get better. Maybe telling me how to fix these problems.  (They’re clearly problems, right?) Or, at least boosting my confidence in my ability to find solutions.

But this verse says seeing is enough. There’s no need even to analyze this experience, let alone do anything.

Really?  That’s it?  This is just part 1, right?  Tell me Part 2 of the encouragement is coming.

But if we sit with encouragement like this long enough — and it is encouragement — and if we just sit, this sort of encouragement may begin to shift our perspective in time.

The part of me that has difficulty seeing this verse as encouragement is the part of me (the frame of mind) that is sure there’s something wrong with my life, even something wrong in the universe; that’s sure things just have to be made better; and that I must do something about it. Now.

This is the me which gets tempted to think that things are falling apart — at home, at work, in the world — and that I need to hold them together.

For me, the encouragement this verse provides is a challenge to that perspective.

The truth is, each world-moment is always hanging together.  Without me needing to take control, as if I could.

Nor can we withdraw and disappear, if that’s our default mode for trying to deal with our anxious feelings.

I speak German (poorly), and I’m still sometimes amused by how literal the language can be.  For instance, the word for mitten is handschue (hand shoe).

The word for participate is teilnehmen, which literally means “part taking.”  It’s like our word partake, or, better yet, the phrase “take part.”

Here we are. We’re just taking part, whether or not we want to, and whether or not we believe that’s all we’re doing.

My anxious feelings are just that.  They’re taking part, too.  Just a part of me.  We’re just a part of the universe.

Myriad Dharmas.  The first and wholly sufficient step is just to see them.  That’s enough, this teaching tells us.

And even that isn’t required.

Zen is often accused of being a quietistic religion, and it certainly can tend in that direction.

But how much suffering is created and compounded by so many of us walking around with the sense that there’s something fundamentally wrong with all of this? Something fundamentally amiss in the universe.

How much more skillful our plans and actions and interactions would be if, as some Hindus would say, we thought, at every turn, “The god in me bows to the god in you”?

And won’t we be better at helping solve this world’s problems, so many of which are responses to and avoidance strategies for these feelings of dis-ease, if we can just learn to sit with our own feelings? The god in me bows to the god in my anxious feelings. Perhaps we’ll become better at seeing those feelings as they arise in and propel others, and become capable of responding more compassionately.

This is hard, I know, and I suppose it’s one place in Zen where faith comes in. Faith in the teachings. Faith in our teachers. Faith in each other. Faith in this path. All helping us develop faith in our experience. Faith in this. Faith giving way to knowledge in our bones that “every day is a good day,” as old Yunmen says in that famous koan about life and death. About the Great Matter.

One of the main fruits of Zen practice is progressively waking up to the reality that the world is cohering all the time, and me with it, no matter how much I might be tempted to doubt that at any given moment.

My falling apart is the world cohering. And, as James Ford says, “If you’re lucky, your heart will break.”

Thank you, James

We’ve just returned from a goodbye celebration for James Ford at the Boundless Way Temple in Worcester.  James and his wife, Senior Dharma Teacher Jan Seymour Ford, are moving back to California to retire. (Jan is already there.)  James is the senior founder of Boundless Way Zen, shaping it from inception. He is one of the kindest, most gentle, most down to earth, wisest people I’ve ever met, and he’s a brilliant institution builder and religious innovator. I feel so fortunate to have him as a teacher along the Zen way — which is to say, in this one life.  Deep, deep bows of gratitude.

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Great Thought

This is an approximation of a Dharma talk I gave at the Greater Boston Zen Center on April 29, 2015.

 Dongshan asked Yunju, “I heard that a monk named `Great Thought’ was reborn in the Kingdom of Wei and became the king. Is this true or not?”

 “If his name was `Great Thought,’ then even the Buddha couldn’t do it.”

 Dongshan agreed.

I came across this koan last week while paging through Zen’s Chinese Heritage, Andy Ferguson’s wonderful compilation and translation of some of the most important teachings of some of the most important Chinese Chan masters who laid the foundation for Zen as we have received it via Japan and Korea.

Yunju was a great teacher who died at the turn of the tenth century. Dongshan was his main teacher.

Koans are stories of these teachers and their students – and they’re our stories, too, of course.

I thought I’d use this koan as a launching pad for talking a bit about thought in zazen, and in Zen more generally.

The sentiment that may seem to be expressed in this koan and so many other Zen teachings is that the main problem we confront in and through Zen is thought. Mental activity and constructions.

If we just cease to get lost in thought, to cling to thought even when we’re certain our thoughts are right and trustworthy, we’ll be free in the way we imagine Zen can make us free. This is why we came to Zen, right?

And it’s true that our early instruction in zazen is, in part, about developing the ability to disengage from thought gently when we become aware we’re lost in it.

There is a certain kind of freedom – a greater sense of personal agency – that one may gain by gaining a perspective on one’s thought, one’s cognitions.

Much of the time many of us are completely lost in thought, and we just accept whatever is coursing through our minds as our perspective. As the perspective. And so it is, if we let it be so.

We all know the philosophical proposition “I think, therefore, I am.” Much of the time, for many of us, however, it’s really more like, “I am what I think,” but without being fully aware that’s how we’re operating.

Yes, of course, meditation can and does help us develop the capacity to “go meta” on the endless stream of mental matter that’s always bubbling to the surface of our awareness, and this can be a really transformative thing for oneself – indeed, for our relationships, and for the world.

But you’ve probably noticed that it’s hard to stay in that place always. We inevitably become lost in thought again.

It’s not just you. It’s all practitioners, even those who’ve been meditating for decades.

In Zen, this meta observation deck is not someplace we expect and strive always to remain (though there are some schools of meditation that do seem to hold this out as the goal).

Imagine you could remain there. Perhaps you’ve even had what seemed like particularly “good” or “deep” periods of meditation that had this quality and now seem like the standard by which all other meditation periods – even time off the cushion – should be judged.

But what lies beyond or sits above that perspective?  Has one really found IT – the Great Thought, the Great Place, the Great Perspective one has been seeking?

What is this perspective? Is it the One True You? Is it ever-enduring – in the background, even when it’s not my conscious foreground – or is it contingent, like other things we observe? How can you know?

Perhaps it really is just turtles all the way down.

Thinking we’ve arrived somewhere, even that we’ve glimpsed someplace, is just confirmation that we still imagine there’s someplace else to go.

In reality, our thoughts and our being lost in thoughts – monkey mind, as we call it – is it, too.

Thinking there is someplace to go, and searching for that someplace, and the very impulse to search: All part of it. Part of who we are. Part of this.

Yes, we can reduce much optional suffering – our own and others – by gaining a perspective on our tendency to become lost in thought. Becoming better at noticing that; less prone to running completely on autopilot, to being captive to and defined and pushed around by our unreflective throught-stream. We can become more reflective and less reflexive. There’s big upside here.

But we ultimately must gain a perspective on our perspective seeking and perspective gaining, too.

(And, even this perspective is something we can’t let become too precious, precious as it is.)

Zen practice is not primarily about just becoming more cognitively reflective or somehow detached. About somehow occupying some superior mental space.

Zazen presents a chance to sit with all that arises and all that is, including our discomfort and distraction, and the impulse to search for escape from discomfort and distraction.

The impulse to search for the ultimate escape from existential discomfort. To glimpse behind the veil we imagine is there.

In time, we may come to see – even to know, to feel in our bones – that this impulse is like “trying to bite your teeth,” as Josh recently told me some Zen sage once said.

“If his name was Great Thought, then even the Buddha couldn’t do it.”

Zen is not ultimately just about contending with our thoughts. The goal isn’t to replace small thoughts with a Great Thought; our small, local, enmeshed perspective with some imagined uber perspective in which we hope and expect always to abide.

Our small perspective is the big perspective. Like box and lid, or two arrows meeting tip-to-tip in mid-air, as the sayings go.

This is it.

And this is not a thought.

And it’s not not our thoughts.

Our possible impossible vows

This is an approximation of a Dharma talk I gave at the Greater Boston Zen Center one Tuesday night during the summer of 2012. I’m posting it now to complete my series of talks about the major elements of our liturgy.

I’d like to talk a bit about the Four Vows — how I have come to understand and experience them.

Beings are numberless, I vow to save them.

Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them.

Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them.

The Buddha way is unsurpassable, I vow to embody it.

We’ll often hear it said in Zen circles that these vows are impossible to fulfill, and indeed they are.

There are beings suffering everywhere that you and I will never meet; there is suffering in our midst we’ll never perceive.  There is the starving, AIDS-afflicted child in Africa, and also the colleague I see in the hall every day who doesn’t share her sorrows with me.

There are forms and causes of suffering that no person can end alone:  war, poverty, global warming.

The Four Vows are aspirational and inspirational.  They prod us to help as we can, to strive to help more than we think we can – but, of course, we cannot literally save all beings from all forms of pain, sorrow, and hardship, at least not in the relative sense of saving beings.

This is a difficult reality — downright depressing, from one perspective, if we allow this truth to sink in.  And this discomfort, if we permit ourselves to experience it, hopefully does move us to do something.

Impossible as it is to save all beings from all suffering always in this sense, however, the Four Vows also have a paradoxical, even teasing, quality.

Infinite beings.  I nonetheless vow earnestly to save each one.

Really?  You must be kidding.

Actually, our translation of the first vow doesn’t say “infinite” beings, it says “numberless” beings.

What does that mean, “numberless beings”?  Zero beings?  Zero and not zero beings?

Just as this line — each of our vows — truly and profoundly recognizes the distinctness of each and every thing, and the reality of personal suffering, it also, and equally, truly and profoundly speaks from the perspective of that being in which all beings participate.

The perspective from which there is no subject, verb and object.

The perspective from which there is no possible and impossible.

No savior, saving, or saved.

This is the perspective of the absolute to which one’s attention frequently is called by Zen teachers and texts.

Someone very dear to me is an alcoholic.  I have been pained by and struggled with this fact for years, as have others I know who care deeply about this person, who I’ll call Sam.

I have tried — many have tried — to help Sam acknowledge and address this condition.  Over the years there have been individual and collective efforts to appeal to and influence Sam through reasoned discussion, a jointly authored letter of concern, interventions of various kinds, accompanying Sam to AA meetings — you name it.

Sam has seemed to recognize his drinking as a problem and make a real effort to stop at times, but most of these periods have passed, with Sam cycling back into a phase of denial (often belligerent denial), alienation, and darkness.

Alcoholism, as I’m sure many of you know, is a complex condition, with a variety of possible contributing causes that differ from person to person.  Some are genetic; some environmental. It’s no easy thing to address. The data on long-term recovery from alcoholism are not very confidence inspiring.

The periods of struggle and darkness have been so hard for me and for others close to Sam.  There’s the sadness for Sam; the desperate desire to see him happy and well.

And there’s my own fear and anger and frustration and sense of loss of Sam as I knew him, and knew us, in the years when he seemed more in control of his drinking, rather than the other way around.

While sitting with many of you one Tuesday night about a year ago, I had this sense that Sam was sitting with us; that I was sitting here with Sam as I sit here with all of you week after week; as I sit here tonight with the heat and the whir of the fans and everything else.  I had this sense of Sam sitting here in this way, too.

This was a turning point in my relationship with Sam.

I had so wanted to save Sam, but my efforts weren’t paying off in the way I had hoped, and they likely were just contributing to our growing alienation.

Sitting in that emptiness, with the numberless beings, Sam and I somehow both seemed less in need of saving.

And our fears, anxieties and judgments, and my own and others’ efforts to make Sam a “project,” didn’t seem to have the same ability to hold us captive at that moment.  Our delusions — mine and his — indeed were inexhaustible.  Opinions, fears, judgments, emotions — all bound to keep arising endlessly.

And they could be ended — ended by knowing there’s no need to end them.  Ended by dropping the delusion label, accepting them as features of the moment, and knowing they needn’t color my outlook completely, and always, nor dictate my every action.

A Dharma gate opened during that sit, a gate that always was open, and which remains open now.  Each moment, each encounter, a gate.

The gate is open, even when I see no hope and am sure it’s closed.   The way is boundless, even when I think it’s impossibly narrow.  Sam and I are walking the path, even when I feel lost, when he seems lost.

The Buddha’s way is our way.  There’s no Buddha but us Buddhas.  We can’t help but embody Buddha.

The Buddha way is unsurpassable because it is none other than this.

Right here.  Right now.

This very moment that has arrived.

And this can’t be surpassed, much as we might try in our own ways to transcend it.

Sitting here with Sam, I knew Sam was Buddha, that I was Buddha, that our struggles are the Buddha’s struggles.

Realizing this, encountering Sam in daily life has been different.  Less tension-filled.  For me for sure, but also for him in relation to me, it often seems.

For my part, I’ve found it easier just to be with Sam.  And, when it has seemed appropriate, to encourage in a gentle, un-pushy, less needy way that Sam seems actually to experience as encouragement.  I do think I’m increasingly meeting Sam as Sam, and not as someone who is constantly falling short of my own selfish, idiosyncratic image of what a “perfect” Sam would be.

Sam has been in a considerably better space at the moment, and he has been for some time, but I’ve also found it easier — though not entirely easy — not to freak out completely when there are signs that maybe things won’t be better indefinitely.

[Sam’s condition very much has been up and down during the nearly three years since I gave this talk.]

I’d like to think this capacity to relate to Sam and his condition a bit differently has been one small factor among many others that are helping him deal with his condition differently.  I honestly don’t know.  When we have visibly cheered up someone who was crying, or found a cure for some disease or whatever, it’s more clear that we’ve made a difference, that we’re saving beings.

I do know there’s been a small, but important, shift in our relationship. This shift certainly has helped me, and I do think it likely has helped Sam just a bit.

I can trace that shift back to the realization, sparked by sitting with you, that Sam and I and our struggles are part of this greater stream of life, and that things are always okay from that perspective — or, rather, things just are.  Suchness.

So perhaps holding these twin perspectives together — the relative and the absolute; the reality that there is terrible suffering we should work to end, even though we can’t possibly end it all, and the reality that all is ultimately as it should be at this very moment, which is simply to say it’s the only way it can be, actually as it is — and letting these perspectives be “not one, not two,” can help motivate us to act skillfully to do some good in the world; to avoid a detached complacency, on the one hand, or despair and/or less skillful action, on the other.

Perhaps our impossible vows are possible after all.

Dedicating our practice

This is an approximation of a Dharma talk I gave at the Boundless Way Temple on February 19, 2015, during our annual Coming and Going Retreat. It is the next in a series of talks I have been giving about the major elements of our liturgy.  A recording of the talk, along with many other lovely talks from the retreat, can be found here.

I went skiing with two Swedes a few weeks ago. At the end of the day, I asked them – rather innocently, I thought – “Did you have a nice time?”

One of the two, who has become a close friend over the past five years, and who now lives in the U.S., said, “It was a great day.”

Our other companion, who I’d just met, said nothing. I looked at my friend, wondering whether he’d had a bad day, despite outward appearances.

My friend explained that this is an awkward question for Swedes. Theirs is a fairly collectivist culture, and yet also a fairly competitive culture. This question puts Swedes in a bind.

On the one hand, everyone is supposed to have an equivalent experience.   That’s the ideal. On the other hand, people really don’t have precisely equivalent experiences, and people do desire to have a comparatively good experience.

My friend has known me long enough, and been immersed in U.S. culture long enough, to have felt compelled to respond to my question. Not so for the other Swede.

From this cultural frame of reference, revealing how he felt about the day – good, bad, or in-between – would have been to engage in a comparison of experiences, which is verboten.

Because we do have different experiences, and experience things differently, my skiing companions explained that this taboo often leaves Swedes feeling jealous, but not having any way to contend with that feeling. As a result, they said, it can be hard for Swedes to take joy in others’ joy.

My friend tried to explain how these cultural patterns are born of the cold and darkness that makes life up north so hard. They’re a recipe for group survival in harsh conditions.

I told them that the ideal I’m more acclimated to, at least in my little corner of the U.S., is taking joy in other’s joy, even though most of us probably practice it quite unevenly. It’s a nice idea, they agreed.

I was also thinking, of course, of one of the closing dedications for our sutra services:

Buddha nature pervades the whole universe, existing right here, now. The wind blows, waves fall on the shore, and Guanyin finds us in the dark and broken roads. We give thanks to all the ancestors of meditation in the still halls, the unknown women and men, centuries of enlightened women and men, ants and sticks and grizzly bears. Let wisdom go to every corner of the house. Let people have joy in each other’s joy.

I really appreciate our dedications. For me, they answer the “So what?” question about our practice. What is our practice about?

And I’ve always loved this particular verse.

Buddha nature pervades the whole universe, existing right here, now.

Other dedication verses also open with this reminder. I find it so interesting that this verse, which is about dedicating our practice, opens with something akin to a statement of fact; some might also say an article of faith:

We’re alive. All is alive. And all is blessed.

Notice this! Wake up!

After this or another opening reminder, other verses tend to transition into what we might think of as more clear cut dedications: to all being; to those who suffer from calamity, cruelty and war; to specific people who we know are suffering.

With this verse, we chant:

The wind blows, waves fall on the shore . . .

The alarm clock rings.

The dog scratches its neck.

An email arrives.

Buddha nature pervades the whole day.

. . . and Guanyin finds us in the dark and broken roads.

Compassion does have a way of finding us in our “dark and broken roads.” We may be particularly open to others’ helping hands and the compassion that fills the universe, including our own broken hearts, in moments when we feel lost or down. And, of course, that’s precisely the same love available, and that we may feel, in the wind blowing on our face; the surf pounding against our chest on a warm summer day; that email arriving. Whatever our current life circumstance and disposition.

We give thanks to all the ancestors of meditation in the still halls, the unknown women and men, centuries of enlightened women and men . . .

We dedicate ourselves to this practice, for all it gives us, and enables us to offer to others, with gratitude to those who have sustained it and transmitted it to us. It’s truly something to be cherished, preserved, and developed.

And we dedicate ourselves to . . .

. . . ants and sticks and grizzly bears.

Chanting and hearing this for this first time was one of the moments when I knew Zen was for me. I remember laughing out loud. I was hooked.

This is both playful and serious, of course. Matter of fact. Buddha nature pervades the whole universe, ants, sticks and bears included. The 10,000 things.

And it is our animal nature; the baser parts of our human nature. We, too, are crawling on the ground, like ants. We are dirt and sticks. We can be grumpy and brutish, like bears. We dedicate ourselves to these parts of ourselves, too. We’d might as well face them. We’re enmeshed in it all. We’re in the stew.

Let wisdom go to every corner of the house.

I hear this less as an expansionist, missionary aspiration, than as yet another reminder of what’s here already. This practice is so much about just noticing, I find; about letting be; about getting out of the way – or, rather, coming to know in our bones that we are part of this, and this is the way.

Let people have joy in each other’s joy.

Can there be any doubt that we’d all be happier if we could learn to practice this collectively and consistently? This is the pithiest little ethical mandate I know.

And, like the phrase before it, I think it’s as much descriptive as it is prescriptive. People taking joy in others’ joy. This is the way. The motion and frequency of the universe, to which we can tune in and with which we’re invited to cooperate.

Such a simple principle.

Yet, it’s the work of a lifetime, it seems.

And of generations, across cultures.

The Answer

This weekend I was sitting near the fire in the main base lodge at Mt. Snow, contemplating life.

Looking up, I noticed for the first time the circular object in the lower right hand corner of this photo, with its “What is it?” inscription.

Then I noticed the word above it and to the left.

This is it.

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