Beyond Belief

I gave this talk on Saturday, September 3, 2022, at the Greater Boston Zen Center. A recording follows at the end of this post.

This is from the Record of Tung-shan:

[Tung-shan asked Yün-yen why he could not hear nonsentient beings expound the Dharma.

Yün-yen raised his fly whisk and said, “Can you hear it yet?”

Tung-shan replied, “No, I can’t.”

Yün-yen said, “You can’t even hear it when I expound the Dharma; how do you expect to hear when a nonsentient being expounds the Dharma?”

Tung-shan asked, “In which sutra is it taught that nonsentient beings expound the Dharma?”

Yün-yen replied, “Haven’t you seen it?  In the Amitabha Sutra it says, “Water birds, tree groves, all without exception recite the Buddha’s name, recite the Dharma.”

Reflecting on this, Tung-shan composed the following verse:

How amazing, how amazing!

Hard to comprehend that nonsentient beings expound the Dharma.

It simply cannot be heard with the ear.

But when sound is heard with the eye, then it is understood.

Tung-shan is the Chinese teacher to whom the Soto Zen stream in which we swim traces its start.  He lived in the Ninth Century and was a contemporary of Lin-chi, to whom the Rinzai stream traces its start.  These two streams really weren’t so different then, and they aren’t so different now, but we humans tend to magnify and objectify distinctions to assure ourselves we exist.  

Today I want us to consider Tung-shan’s journey as we reflect on this tendency to amplify and thingify distinctions.  It was a journey on foot to the center of the universe.  Let’s also consider how our practice can help us relax that tendency and the good things that may come from this relaxation.

As we meet Tung-shan in this reading, he’s been traveling around for some time visiting teachers.  He’s been searching for someone who could answer the burning question that fueled his wandering:  If inanimate objects expound the Dharma, why can’t I hear them?  

There was a big debate in this era about the nature of, well, nature.  Existence.  What does it mean to be alive?  Who and what counts existentially?  I move.  Rocks don’t (unless I move them).  The difference seems to be about some vital life energy that I have and the rock doesn’t seem to have, or at least to have so evidently.  Maybe it’s also about the will and cognition, which I seem to have and the rock doesn’t seem to have.  

But what about the temple dog?  It seems somewhere in-between the rock and me?  Does the dog have it, too?  Tung-shan was a contemporary of Chao-chuo, to whom another monk famously asked whether the temple dog has Buddha Nature.

Many people before and after Tung-shan, including some of us, also have had a burning question.  Dōgen wanted to know why we must practice if we’re Buddhas from the start.  I wanted to know when I could stop practicing: where does practice lead and when will I get there?   Tung-shan’s question, Dōgen’s question and mine, the monk’s question about whether a dog has Buddha Nature, and maybe also your questions are really all the same sort of question: Do I have Buddha Nature?  Who or what am I?  Am I okay in the universe?

Though questions like these arise and agitate us from a much deeper, pre-cognitive place, our neocortex, the verbal part of our brain, turns them into linguistic formulations.  And so we go looking for linguistic formulation answers.

“Tung-shan asked, `In which sutra is it taught that nonsentient beings expound the Dharma?’”

Tung-shan is doing what brainy people do:  seeking a tidy conceptual understanding, rather than just standing under, standing in, truly meeting, and trusting his own experience.  He doesn’t know yet, or doesn’t yet trust, that his very life is the non-conceptual answer he’s seeking.  A conceptual answer—an object of thought—will never satisfy.  

It’s ironic, but this thought-producing faculty of ours both seeks conceptual answers to the type of questions it produces and senses that no conceptual answer it could produce is likely to put an end to its restless questioning.  You’re sitting in a zendo, so you probably have learned that the standard fare in most religious traditions—beliefs, or ideas that have become rigid objects—ultimately can’t satiate and stabilize us.  They might be capable of anchoring us for some time, but many of us begin to feel unmoored despite them.  We ultimately must develop comfort with being unmoored, and so discovering ourselves as the ocean itself—not as an idea; not as a belief.

How does Yün-yen respond when Tung-shan asks which sutra—which textual, conceptual authority—verifies the claim that nonsentient beings expound the Dharma?  He skillfully points to a text that points to water birds and tree groves.  And Tung-shan has an initial opening.

Yün-yen had tried to open this gate for Tung-shan earlier in their conversation by holding up his whisk.  But Tung-shan couldn’t hear the whisk expounding the Dharma.  Tung-shan was a senior Zen adept at the time, so (supposedly) “advancing” on the Zen path.  But as one (supposedly) advances on the Zen path we encounter the same old obstacles in more subtle forms.  One can imagine Tung-shan thinking, “Don’t hold up your whisk, you old fool.  Don’t offer me that standard Zen trope.”  Meeting a whisk or a finger, or three pounds of flax, or the oak tree in the courtyard this way also is meeting it conceptually.  The I is declaring it can sum up, contain, and possess Yün-yen’s presentation of the whisk within its ideas about it, about Zen, and about tropes.

Tung-shan continued his wandering for some time after his extended stay with Yün-yen.  It often takes some time to integrate an initial opening to the reality that the light shines in and as all things, including oneself.  It can take years for that realization to sink in, ripen, and transform us.  We ultimately find this transformation never ends, because we and all things, sentient and nonsentient, are transformation.  And by now we should know that the notions of sentient and nonsentient are just labels assigned by the analytical part of our mind; useful for some purposes, perhaps, but also likely to be harmful in other ways if we thingify them and lose sight of this thingifying.

Tung-shan had a second, deeper opening sometime after he left Yün-yen.  He glimpsed his own reflection in a river as he crossed it.  Rather than becoming narrowly transfixed on that relative manifestation of the light that shines in and as all things, as Narcissus did upon seeing his reflected image, Tung-shan realized in that instant that he himself expounds the Dharma.  In that instant, he realized his kinship with all things.  With whisks, with all the ancestors of meditation in the still halls, with ants and sticks and grizzly bears.

Zen doesn’t ask us to believe anything.  It simply entices and supports us toward the sort of shift in perception and experience that Tung-shan had.  To a life both beyond and encompassing all ideas and beliefs.  A life in which we can take diverse ideas seriously, on their own, always limited merits, but in which we don’t mistake the whisk (or the universe or existence) for our ideas about it.

This has everything to do with ethics, the subject of Jill’s talk last Saturday and the Precepts Discussion Group that begins on Wednesday.  We’re really talking about one of two essential elements of Zen’s approach to ethics.  This first element is compassion.  True compassion for oneself arises from perceiving oneself as Buddha.   True compassion for other people arises from perceiving them as Buddha.  True compassion for water birds and tree groves—for the environment that encompasses and is all beings—arises from perceiving this realm as Buddha.  

The other cornerstone of Zen ethics is wisdom: use of our discriminating awareness, now appropriately embraced and guided by compassion.  Our analytical mind is again part of the equation, but with our tendency to magnify and thingify distinctions, and to isolate and elevate or diminish oneself, in view and modulated down.  

We act wisely and ethically when both capacities are working in concert.

Earlier I said Tung-shan’s journey was a journey to the center of the universe.  Physicists today tell us that the center of the universe is everywhere.  That each of us—indeed, everything—is the center of the universe.  

As Hakuin’s successor, Torei Enji writes in his beautiful enlightenment poem, “Boddhisattva’s Vow”:

This truth never fails: in every moment and every place 

things can’t help but shine with this light. 

Realizing this, our Ancestors gave reverent care to animals, birds, and all beings.

Tung-shan glimpsed this reality, then progressively let go into it and lived it. 

Each of us is called to do the same.

We, too, are called to turn our ear to see the water birds.

Open our eyes to hear our face in the babbling brook.

Beyond Belief

We’re Off to See the Wizard

I gave this talk on Saturday, August 6, 2022, at the Greater Boston Zen Center.

This is the final verse of the Five Ranks, Dongshan’s great poem about the spiritual journey:

Who would presume to join their voice with someone

who has surpassed “there is” and “there is not”?

Everyone longs to leave the mundane stream, yet finally

you return to sit in the charcoal heap.

My thoughts drifted to The Wizard of Oz earlier this week, shortly after meditating.  I’d just returned from sesshin, during which our talks and discussions took up the topic of spiritual authority, in multiple senses.  One sense was about wise and unwise ways to think about and exercise spiritual authority for anyone who provides guidance to others in this domain.  Another was about realizing that spiritual authority ultimately must be discovered and centered in oneself, which is the objective that guides the guidance of our wise guides along the Way.  Beware of any guide whose approach seems entangled with other objectives.

I’m guessing most or all of you have seen The Wizard of Oz, perhaps multiple times.  Yes?  I’ve watched it at least a dozen times over the years, both as a kid and with my own kids.

Dorothy is a young woman living in rural Kansas, as you know.  Life seems mundane and uneventful to her, until one day everything turns upside down.  Her little dog Toto bites a snooty, wealthy lady, who gets a court order to have Toto euthanized.  Dorothy and Toto run away from home, but a charlatan fortune teller they encounter persuades Dorothy to return to her heartbroken family.  A tornado strikes as Dorothy approaches, she’s knocked unconscious, and she wakes up in a mysterious, enchanted land.

You know the rest of the story.  Dorothy is told she must walk a long, winding path to meet with a wizard in a castle who can help her find her way home.  Along the way she befriends other seekers who feel lost; feel they’re missing something this wizard can give them.  

A wicked witch and her minions try to prevent Dorothy and her friends from reaching the wizard.  Dorothy and her quest are forces of goodness that threaten the shadow forces represented by the wicked witch.  Dorothy, her friends, and Toto reach the wizard against all odds—and what an impressive, imposing wizard he is!  Unfortunately, he will not grant their requests until they bring him the wicked witch’s broom; her staff.  It’s an impossible task, yet, again, they achieve the impossible.  They’ve now improbably defeated the wicked witch and reached the wizard’s castle twice.

Now will the wizard grant their wishes?  No.  He huffs and he puffs and is about to give them yet another impossible task when little Toto pulls back a curtain exposing the mighty wizard as an ordinary human being.  Dorothy scolds the wizard, putting him in his place so to speak, but it’s clear enough that her boldness and anger at the wizard aren’t yet accompanied by deep insight and a sense that she has found and is securely inhabiting her place.

Anyway, this ordinary human being helps Dorothy’s friends see that what they’ve each been searching for—a heart, a brain, and courage, or a will and spine to keep one upright—are things they’ve had all along.  And, Dorothy?  The wizard tells Dorothy that he’s also from Kansas, and that he knows how it feels to long for home.  He offers to take her and Toto back in a hot air balloon.  Toto jumps away from this sack full of hot air as they take off, and Dorothy chases after him, seemingly missing her opportunity to return home.  Fortunately, another guide, Glinda the good witch, tells Dorothy what the wizard had told her friends:  That she has always had the power to return home.  All she must do is affirm that she never really left, and that there is, indeed, no place like home.  With three taps of her heels, Dorothy is back in Kansas.

Dongshan’s Five Ranks, the poem from which I read earlier, and the Oxherding Series, the story told in the pictures hanging in our zendo, are Zen versions of The Wizard of Oz.  They are stories about our longing and searching for what seems missing; for the home from which we believe we have gone missing.   We’re living an ordinary life, but something begins to feel amiss.  We set off on a journey; step onto a path.  Along the way, strange things happen and we overcome challenges—maybe even pass through some koans.  

Eventually, if all goes well, we return home—but now we and home are refigured.  It’s at once the same home and not the same home.  Much like Dorothy is received upon her return, people might chuckle at us in a patronizing way if we try to talk about our journey and what we’ve experienced and come to realize.  But we truly have been on a journey, and we really do see things differently now.   We return to sit in the charcoal heap, but the ashes, and the three pounds of flax, and the cypress tree in the courtyard pulse with and give life in a way we missed before.

So where’s the wizard in the Five Ranks and the Ox Herding series?  Conspicuously absent!  I think that’s both strange (in the sense of oddly funny) and appropriate.  These metaphors for the spiritual journey were produced in communities led by Zen teachers.  Dongshan himself was a teacher.  For millennia, people like you and me have been going to see Zen teachers, much as Dorothy and her friends went to see the Wizard of Oz.  In the end, Oz tells them he has nothing to offer them.  He affirms they lack nothing, as any truly wise, caring, and skillful guide to a seeker should do.  In the end—from the beginning, really—there’s no wizard and no magic.  Or, to say the same thing differently, you are the wizard and it’s all magic, even the charcoal.

It’s tempting to think of the Wizard of Oz as a big fraud.  He’s portrayed as hiding behind an impressive, imposing façade, projecting an air of magic, wisdom, and authority, setting up challenges for Dorothy and her friends to overcome.  Or so it seems.  Might they have rendered him larger than life?  Any good wizard should be trying just to meet others earnestly, offering them what the wizard senses they really need at each encounter, doing a wizard’s best to honor them wherever they are at, while not investing personally in their projections.   In the case of the great Wizard of Oz, maybe the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  Maybe some elements of this particular wizard’s personhood were still too willing and eager to indulge seekers’ projections.  That’s a danger; we know this happens.

I met my most helpful guides—in Zen and in life generally—at times when I was feeling particularly lost.  (I’ve had some very flawed guides, too.)  Each of the best guides had a knack for meeting me earnestly where I was at, making skillful use of the resources they had at their disposal, whether teaching staffs and koans or on-the-job training, while sidestepping my projections.  There really is something to discover in Zen—we call that something nothing, in all its manifestations—and my best Zen teachers were laser focused on using all the resources at their disposal to help me realize it for myself.

By the way, my favorite character in the Wizard of Oz is little Toto.  Toto is the only character who never changes, outwardly or inwardly.  Tenacious little Toto nips at the bitter, pretentious, old critic character—our inner critic, really—the wealthy woman who shows up as the wicked witch in the land of Oz.  He exposes the wizard as an ordinary human.  He jumps away from the wizard’s bag full of hot air, putting Dorothy in the predicament in which she discovers her own power.  Toto’s significance in the story is easy to miss.  Toto is Dorothy’s own still, small voice, and that mute voice is Dorothy’s truest guide.  Toto never leaves home, because home is everywhere.

Spiritual Authority

I gave this talk on Friday, July 29, 2022, during our Greater Boston Zen Center summer sesshin. You’ll find a recording of the talk at the end of this post.

This is the koan “Dr. Doctor Rides the Bus” from the Book of Householder Koans, a new collection of contemporary koans—koans from our time and place—assembled by Zen Roshis Eve Myonen Marko and Wendy Egokyu Nakao:

Dr. Doctor has a common cold, but he still rode the bus to work.
He began to cough and sneeze into his handkerchief. Every time
he coughed, all the people on the bus tried to cough. Every time
he sneezed, all the people on the bus tried to sneeze. Finally,
the doctor exited at his destination.
“Whew!” the driver sighed. “What would we do without good
medical advice?”

The name of the central character in this koan, Dr. Doctor, tells us we’re dealing with a revered authority figure. This isn’t just Dr. Smith; it’s Dr. Doctor.

And the first line tells us immediately that something is amiss. Dr. Doctor is riding the bus, exposing other people to their illness. Shouldn’t the good doctor know better?

All the passengers riding with Dr. Doctor seem to believe coughing and sneezing is what they should be doing too. If Dr. Doctor is saying or doing it, it must be what they should do, right? The driver even praises the good doctor’s example as Dr. Doctor leaves the bus.

Replace “bus” with “zendo,” replace “Dr. Doctor” with “Sensei” or “Roshi,” and it becomes clear this koan is inviting us to take a hard look at authority in the realm of spiritual practice.

Let’s imagine the story continues. That night, one of the passengers starts feeling sick. Now her coughs and sneezes are real, not feigned; Dr. Doctor really was ill, after all. Now this passenger also is exhibiting these symptoms, but maybe she tells herself it’s okay. She denies or suppresses doubt. Or maybe she calls a co-worker with whom she rode the bus and learns he also now has these symptoms, but they minimize their own feelings of discomfort. These colleagues assure one another it’s no big deal. The koan tells us Dr. Doctor has a common cold, not something more serious, after all.

Let’s say they both go to work the next day, and one goes to dinner with friends that evening. That weekend, someone who was at that dinner, infected but not yet coughing and sneezing, visits his aging mother in her nursing home. Several residents catch the cold, and one particularly vulnerable person doesn’t survive it. Dr. Doctor’s conduct, and the riders’ acceptance of it, has caused great loss and pain.

Like one of my favorite novels, Catch 22, we the readers of this koan readily see there’s something wrong with the picture it paints, even though the characters in it do not. All of them—Dr. Doctor, the bus driver, and all the passengers—are just too enmeshed in the field they inhabit. They are not really subjects in it, they are subject to it.

I’ve extended this koan’s story in a dramatic way, with a tragic conclusion. This community knows all too well that such tragedies are possible—that teachers can behave in inappropriate ways, whether minor and seemingly benign or wildly inappropriate, and that they can fail to realize the depth and breadth of the harm they are causing. Authority figures even may come to believe, consciously or not, that they’re so special the rules don’t apply to them. One key teaching of this koan is that we need to be on guard against this. We need to be aware of our own needs and desires that can create a propensity toward enmeshment and blindness. We need to heed signs, including our own discomfort. That teaching is critically important.

There’s another teaching here I’d like to spotlight: It’s no good to imitate, whether in our individual practice or as a community. We should always be open to good ideas and examples wherever we may find them, yet we always need to tailor them to our needs, circumstances, concerns, and objectives. That’s the balance we need to strike. No other response is truly agentic.

Many people who feel burned by an authority figure, or by our institutions or systems, not only lose faith in the authority of others; they also subtly lose touch with and lose faith in themselves. When this happens, we are prone to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. We can reject what is still of potential value and legitimate use to us.

Most of us eventually get burned and disillusioned by someone or something we’ve looked up to or relied upon to a greater or lesser degree. This community suffered something cataclysmic, yet who among us had not at least experienced a mild loss of faith in another authority figure, institution, or system at some earlier point in our life?

I’m a parent to two teenagers, and I see daily how skeptical they have become about many of our institutions and the adults in my generation. This is understandable, and I share their perspectives to a great extent. Yet I also know they presently are painting with a very broad brush—or erasing with a very, very wide eraser—as they react to what rightly concerns them. As teens, they have not yet developed confidence in their own capacity to separate wheat from chaff, so they are inclined to reject all people and ideas associated with what they have received, reactively pivoting toward what they imagine to be its opposite.

We’re adults, and so we’re hopefully less inclined to do that. Still, when Dr. Doctor has let us down, and we begin to wonder whether the whole medical profession has let us down too, it’s natural to question whether there was ever anything of value there in the first place. It’s possible there was not, but another possibility is that this moment in which we find ourselves is offering us an opportunity to separate wheat from chaff; to discover the real pearl of great price within the shell, the outer packaging, on which we previously were focused.

I’ve always loved that old Zen proverb, “Barn burnt down. Now I can see the moon.” In one way or another, it seems our Zen barn eventually needs to burn to the ground. How I wish it always were a controlled burn that didn’t leave someone scarred and in mortal pain. Controlled or not, however, our barn must burn down to reveal the moon.

We must sift through the ashes in the light of the moon, deciding what’s left of the barn that is still useful. We must decide what to construct in its place—a structure that fits and suits us, now with skylights to receive the moonlight. We must find our own style; our own way of receiving and expressing the Dharma in the context of our own lives, personally and as a community. Many of the forms, practices, and structures we have received from China, Japan, and our forerunners in the West have enduring value to us, but we must honor them by adjusting, stretching, and supplementing them as fits our time and place.

Each of us must discover ourselves as the stable ground and structure we are seeking. Any authority figure worthy of one’s respect and admiration will want nothing less for and from us. They will simultaneously strive to provide an example worth imitating and they won’t accept mere imitation.

Here’s the verse that precedes the koan with which this talk began:

Depending on circumstances,
Everything is medicine,
Everything is disease.
Doctors are no exception.


Interdependence Day

Peter Coleman of Columbia University, a colleague in the conflict resolution field, just published an op-ed piece titled Divided States of America: Why we need an Interdependence Day to restore national unity. As Buddhists, we’re reminded constantly that every day is interdependence day.

And, still, I’m with Peter: This country and our communities could really use an annual, nationwide reminder and collective expression of our interdependence, with many more reminders and new structures and practices to promote thought, speech, and conduct in keeping with our interdependence during the rest of the year.

Turning Toward as Refuge

I gave this talk on Saturday, July 2, 2022, at the Greater Boston Zen Center.

I take refuge in Buddha.

I take refuge in Dharma.

I take refuge in Sangha.

I want to try to weave together three seemingly random things in this talk, using the Three Refuges as the thread that loosely binds them. These three things are:

This feels like a crazy idea and a daunting task; even more so because I don’t want this talk to become too long. I’m eager to get to our dialogue; to hear your thoughts and learn where you would like to take this discussion.

The Three Refuges long have been understood as a declaration of one’s desire to seek liberation, and one’s commitment to finding it, by stepping onto the Buddhist path. I think it’s fair to say that, at the time many of us begin to investigate and then set foot on this path, we conceive of liberation as escape from aspects of our individual and social experiences that feel painful, overwhelming, or otherwise wrong. We turn to spiritual practice and community for what we hope will be a safe harbor.

Here’s the first of the three things I want to try to tie together today: a talk I gave 11 years ago, in November 2011, when I’d just been made a Dharma teacher in GBZC’s predecessor sangha, which was called Waldo (in honor of Ralph Waldo Emerson). Yesterday I came across my notes for that talk. I’ve just spent 10 days isolating with COVID, and I spent part of that time sorting through and purging material in boxes in our attic, which is where I found these note. The title of that talk? Taking Refuge: Nowhere to Hide.

You can find the final version of that talk on my blog, Turning Words. But there were a number of bits that got left out, and being reminded of that was as interesting to me as rereading the talk I ultimately gave. Here’s one bit I wish I had left in (and I’m quoting from those notes). I said that when I learned “a couple of weeks ago that I’d be giving a talk tonight, my reaction was a wave of anxiety. The thought that’s comforted me between then and now is that a Dharma talk is just speaking from the heart about one’s experience, and perhaps relating that to some Zen text or form or practice. If I manage to do that, I suppose this can’t go too badly. At least that’s what I’m choosing to tell myself.”

Eleven years and many talks later, that way of thinking about a Dharma talk still suits me. All any of us can do is try to speak honestly about and from our own experience. I’m very aware that my experience is just that; just my experience. And while it’s true that each of us is as vast as the universe, it’s also true that I and my perspectives and experiences are limited.

Anyway, the gist of that first talk was that this idea of taking refuge once bugged me to no end, but that my perspective on it eventually shifted. Let me quote my former self again, explaining why the idea of taking refuge once bugged me:

  • “I tend to think of myself as autonomous and self-reliant. Taking refuge [used to seem] like submission.”
  • “I tend to think of myself as strong. Taking refuge [used to seem] like surrender.”
  • “I tend to think of myself as engaged and action oriented. Taking refuge [used to seem] like hiding.”

I also talked about how I initially misconstrued the notions of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, equating them with someone to idolize; canonical, dogmatic teachings; and an exclusive community.

I went on in this talk to explain that I had come to think about myself, our three refuges, and the idea of taking refuge differently.

I had come to see that the autonomous, self-reliant, strong, engaged, and action oriented me— my persona; the way I prefer to see myself and for others to see me—is only part of the picture. I’m also subject to powerful habit energy that trips me up. I’m dependent upon others who also are dependent upon me. And, you know, sometimes I am inclined to hide or to free ride; to turn a blind eye; to not step out and step up.

I’d begun to think of Buddha not as some supposedly perfect being that our teachers were and that I had to emulate, but as something that exists in and as the human condition—both the mud; the precarious potential for a lotus to emerge from it; and the need to tend to what’s beautiful and fragile for it to take root and survive. I’d begun to think of Dharma as the teaching available to us everywhere; in all that we encounter and experience. And I’d begun to think of Sangha as both the community of fellow travelers who have chosen to journey together on this path and the unfathomable unity of everything, everywhere, and always.

Finally, I said in this talk that I’d come to see taking refuge as an opting in, not an opting out—as a turning toward, rather than a turning away from what we would rather not see or experience or contend with or work through.

And that brings me to the second thing I want to hold up and connect in this talk: our recently published Resilient Sangha project documents, which I finally had time to read in full while I was isolating with COVID. I am so moved, inspired by, and proud of this set of documents and the people and process that produced them. I am so sorry this community had to live through something so awful as clergy abuse and I am so impressed by how the community responded, by how people have been present to and have supported one another, and by what the community is now offering other sanghas and all beings by sharing what it has learned and wants others to know.

Every line of these documents is packed with insight and wisdom, truly conveying the Buddha mind. For me, this community and those documents exemplify taking refuge as turning toward: turning toward the truth and the reckoning with truth that the moment required; turning toward one another, with a particular focus on those most injured; turning toward the possibility of envisioning and creating something new, the possibility that a lotus might bloom in the mud. I bow deeply to those of you who led this community, and continue to lead this community, toward a different future.

I think your Resilient Sangha documents are a profoundly important contribution to the Dharma. I hope they are seen, studied, and practiced, and that their true meaning is realized, by people throughout space and time. I genuinely believe they should be and will be read and remembered for eons; for kalpas. I say this not only for the wise and skillful guidance they provide for avoidance of clergy abuse, and for dealing with it when it happens, but also more generally for the model they offer of how to organize and operate a sangha and the proper place and function of teachers. These documents and the small number of others like them, such as the Zen Center of Los Angeles’s Sangha Sutra, mark a new, full turn of the Dharma Wheel, offering us a stronger foundation for realizing— making real—Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha in our time.

The third thing I want to weave into this talk is the Fourth of July. Our union seems far from perfect these days. These feel like the Disunited States of America—or, to borrow the title of a book by a friend of mine, the Untied States of America. I admit to daydreaming at times about moving to some remote place in some other country, never to be seen again. To wanting to seek refuge in the sense of turning away, not turning towards. Maybe comparable social and political turmoil in their times, and the natural human impulse to turn away, is the reason we have so many Zen koans and other stories about monks living as hermits on mountain peaks. I’m committed not to doing that. I have my own turning toward purposes and projects that help sustain that commitment, and now I also have the Resilient Sangha project documents as inspiration.

I must say, however, that I don’t blame those whose spirits feel crushed, and who turn away. Turning toward is hard. I hope we the people of this sangha can continue to support each other in our various social justice activities and ministries; in our joint and individual efforts to receive and turn toward the cries of the world; in our efforts to treat strangers as our own. We really need many people turning toward others more than ever right now.

The Inner Vinaya

I gave this talk on Saturday, June 18, 2022, at the Greater Boston Zen Center.

This is from The Records of the Transmission of the Lamp:

            A monk asked Kyōgen, “What is the inner Vinaya?”

            “Wait until the venerable monk becomes a layman, then we’ll talk,” replied the master.

I came across this interesting exchange a few weeks ago, and I’ve been sitting with it since then.  It’s interesting to me for a couple of reasons.

One reason is the idea of the inner Vinaya.  The Vinaya is the long set of precepts and procedures that regulate Buddhist monastic life.  In most parts of the world up to the present day, the term sangha has referred exclusively to the community of Buddhist monastics.  Someone who does not live in a monastery—a layperson, we would call them today—is not part of the sangha and not subject to the Vinaya.

By the way, for purposes of everything I say in this talk, I’m counting most Zen priests in the West, and even most Japanese Zen temple monks, as “laypeople” in the strict sense in which I’m using that term here.  In most of the Buddhist world, the bounds of sangha are stark and clear: if you don’t live as a monastic, you’re not a member of the sangha.  Applying the Western word and concept of “priest” within Zen Buddhism is a modern thing; something that began to emerge in late medieval and early modern times as East met West and a clerical path outside monasteries and major temples began to emerge.  Throughout most of Zen’s history, and in most of the rest of the Buddhist world even today, there weren’t laypeople and priests, as those of us acquainted with Christianity think of them.  There were monks and non-monks.  Most Western Zen priests today live householder lives; they don’t live in a monastery or temple.  Even in Japan, almost all Zen clerics marry, eat meat, and drink.  They and their families mostly live in one of the 2,000 or so local temples—think of them a bit like neighborhood churches—but they are living lives that don’t look so different than those of the families nearby.  It’s an uncomfortable fact for these Japanese clerics that most monastics in other Buddhist sects throughout Asia do not regard them as part of the sangha, but as laypeople.  They may have left home symbolically, but they are still living and practicing at home—still living “in the world”—from a traditional Buddhist perspective.  In Japan today, most Zen clerics embrace pretty much the same vows the rest of us take in jukai and relate to them as we do.  And so, happily for them I submit, I intend everything I say here to apply equally to Zen priests.

There is some variation in the Vinaya across Buddhist sects and regions, but even the shortest versions have around 250 precepts.  In addition to prohibitions on marrying, eating meat, and drinking alcohol, many other activities that many people living ordinary lives must or do engage in regularly, like handling money, are prohibited.  

Many of us would experience life lived according to the Vinaya as rather oppressive, I suppose.  But the idea, or ideal, is that one will find liberation within these seeming constraints; discover boundlessness within boundaries.  Even so, it’s not hard to imagine that some monks might come to experience adherence to so many precepts regulating so many aspects of one’s daily life in a rather “check the box” sort of way.  One might eventually feel neither oppressed nor particularly liberated by these strictures.  One might just feel habituated to them, and one might begin to wonder, “What’s the point?”

I imagine the monk in the vignette I just read as having just this sort of experience.  His practice, including his faithful adherence to the monastic code, has begun to feel like a dead-end street.  He might initially have felt he was (or was becoming) holy by adhering to scores of precepts.  I’ve spent a fair amount of time in monasteries and become close to several longtime monks, and most of them have told me it’s common along the monastic path to regard oneself as holier-than-thou in this way.  But the monk in this story seems to be realizing that just conforming his visible conduct to the Vinaya code isn’t what it’s all about.  It’s about how one orients internally.  And so he brings his question about whether there is an inner Vinaya to his teacher.

The second reason this little vignette is interesting to me is Kyōgen’s response.   Kyōgen, who I regard as my Dharma namesake, was a Chinese teacher in the ninth century.  When he left home and entered a monastery, his teacher Isan gave him a version of the famous koan, “What is your original face before your parents were born?”  He was totally stumped by it.  He was a brainy, learned person, so he did what many brainy, learned people do when they’re stumped:  He started combing through books for an answer.  Not finding it, he burned all the books, left the monastery, and become a wanderer for some time.  He eventually settled near the neglected burial place and shrine of a famous teacher and spent his days keeping it and the surrounding area in shape.  He returned to everyday life, so to speak.  One day while weeding or sweeping, he sent a pebble flying into a stalk of bamboo and—pop!—he awakened.

How does Kyōgen respond to the monk’s question about the inner Vanaya?  “Wait until you’re a layman, then we’ll talk,” he says.  Not, when you’re a layman I’ll tell you.  When you’re a layman, you’ll truly know for yourself, and then we’ll have something to talk about.  You won’t find your answer confined in the four corners of this monastery anymore than you’ll find in confined in the four corners of a page in one of your books.  And any answer I could give you, Kyōgen is saying, would be no good.  It wouldn’t be your answer.

Kyōgen seems to be telling this monk that the monastic life is in some sense the  “easier” spiritual path, at least early on.  It’s like college, maybe, where some of us begin to take up a profession.  But he seems to be saying lay life is like graduate school and what follows it, where the matters become murkier and we can’t always rely on received, canonical ideas as reliably.  We constantly have to chart new ground.  Graduate school and beyond is where we truly achieve mastery of a subject, where we truly can internalize it.  In this case, of course, our subject is the Great Matter of Life and Death.  Kyōgen seems to be saying that we face our comprehensive exams daily, and over the arcs of our ordinary lives, in the world, where we encounter a much broader set of opportunities, challenges, and hardships than one encounters in a monastery.  

It’s not that monastics don’t experience conflict, are not tempted, and are insulated from their own greed, hatred, and ignorance.  Of course, not.  It’s just that they’re challenged and supported in the face of all that by a kind of personal and communal exoskeleton.  The Vinaya and all the routines associated with it is designed to heighten the monastic’s awareness of the myriad ways we can wander unproductively, even tragically, along the way and to nudge one toward awakening and right relations.  But at some point, and though it’s not guaranteed, it may dawn on a monk that mere compliance with the code—important as that is, especially with those precepts that cause grave harm if violated—is not all it’s about.  

This vignette is another example of a Buddhist monastic—in this case Kyōgen, who eventually rejoined the sangha—somewhat surprisingly holding up householder existence as a sort of “higher” ideal and paradigm for life on the Way (though I hesitate to speak of this in terms of higher and lower, because there truly is no North or South in the Way).  Other examples include the Vimalakirti Sutra; the Sixth Ancestor, Huineng; and Layman Pang.  Indeed, our tradition’s poetry and metaphors about the spiritual journey, like the Ox Herding series and The Five Ranks, often point and lead us back to life in the world.

The realm of the unregulated, or less regulated, may be where an inner sense of uprightness and an inner experience wholeness, of integration, is both especially important and even harder to achieve.  We Western Zen adapts, both so-called laypeople and priests-in-the-world, are part of a historical turn in Buddhism that has brought the Dharma more thoroughly into every corner of everyday life, where we are more than patrons who support cloistered monastics who pray for us as they seek spiritual attainment.  We are part of an exciting and important project, for Buddhism and for the world.

Sengcan’s “Affirming Faith in Mind” II

I gave this talk on Sengcan’s Affirming Faith in Mind on Saturday, May 7, 2022, at the Greater Boston Zen Center.

This is Case 98 from the Blue Cliff Record:

Yun Yan asked Tao Wu, “What does the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion use so many hands and eyes for?”
Tao Wu said, “It’s like someone reaching back and groping for a pillow in the middle of the night.”
Yun Yan said, “I understand.”
Tao Wu said, “How do you understand it?
Yun Yan said, “All over the body are hands and eyes.”
Tao Wu said, “You have said quite a bit there, but you’ve only said eighty percent of it.”
Yun Yan said, “What do you say, Elder Brother.”
Tao Wu said, “Throughout the body are hands and eyes.”

Last week I spoke about Sengcan’s Awakening Faith in Mind, that long verse we chanted last Saturday and again today. I focused on three themes raised by that foundational Zen text:

• First, our human capacity for self-reflection is wonderous and useful, and it’s also bedeviling. It can produce an echo chamber or hall of mirrors in which we may remain neurotically trapped. This echo chamber is the “small mind” discussed in the text, at least when small mind is all small mind knows.

• Second, this small mind is in the business of slicing and dicing; of objectifying and making relative comparisons among objects. Inside the hall of mirrors, we tend to use our own subjectivity to objectify ourselves and other subjects. This produces much personal and collective suffering. Small mind seeks an escape from the hall of mirrors.

• Third, small mind tries to think it’s way out, but it can’t. Inside the hall of mirrors, small mind imagines itself as having the capacity to find what it’s seeking. Like a hammer, it pounds away at its supposed problem, but without realizing it is pounding on a screw. A better metaphor might be a hammer pounding on a sponge ball. It can’t make a dent. The pounding is futile—properly directed, it’s an expression of bohdicitta, the mind aimed at awakening. The pounding eventually tends to give way to rest and ease as small mind discovers itself in Great Mind.

This week I want to build on what I said last week, picking up on some of the themes presented in your wonderful questions and comments during our discussion following my talk, including the first, excellent question RB posed after my last talk: How does all this play out in our lives? I want to use the lovely and much beloved koan I just read as a touchstone for today’s discussion.

Yun Yan asked Tao Wu, “What does the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion use so many hands and eyes for?”
Tao Wu said, “It’s like someone reaching back and groping for a pillow in the middle of the night.”

Have you had this experience? You’re shifting in bed, still in a sleep state, but conscious enough to know you’re readjusting your position. Without thinking, you reach for a pillow, find it, and put it someplace where it provides support and comfort. And then you slip back into deep sleep. It all just sort of happens.

A few nights ago, I woke in the middle of the night and small mind started spinning. I so wanted to get back to sleep, but I couldn’t find it with that spinning mind. But when I just ceased to engage that mental activity, and when, eyes closed, I centered my mind’s eye in the luminous darkness, sleep found me and I let go into it. It was there all along, ready to have me when I was done trying to have it.

Great Mind always is there for us like this. We often tune into it in seemingly small, ordinary moments, knowing ourselves both as part of it and as it, appreciating it and consciously entering the flow of it. Some people experience this walking in a forest or meadow; others while playing with a child. They may use different religious or secular language than I’m using here, depending upon their way of life, but we’re tuning into the same thing.

Great Mind often finds me as I sit quietly in my home office, the morning sunlight illuminating the papers on my desk. Or as I watch steam rise from my teacup. The steam is dancing, no less alive than I am.

We sense in these moments that Great Mind is not something we possess or achieve. Great Mind is not contained in my skull. It’s not contained period. It’s there as the ground of all being, in which we beings participate.

Zen practice ultimately invites, prods, and supports us toward an experience of harmony among small mind—my personal experience of ordinary mind—and Great Mind—the ground of all being in which small mind can discover itself rooted.

A big, transformative realization of Great Mind sometimes occurs suddenly in Zen practice. But I truly think that deep realization always develops, or sinks in, slowly. We must know Great Mind in our bones, not as an idea or a one-shot experience. We come to know that this no-ground ground is always here, even when we’re not perceiving it quite so clearly or pleasantly.

Sengcan’s chant is about awakening faith in mind, but intimacy and complete trust ultimately are what we are seeking. Perhaps we need something like faith early on, as small mind remains anxious about ceding control; about accepting itself as immersed in Great Mind; unwilling to admit it’s not driving the bus. But the experience to which Sengcan is ultimately inviting us is more akin to trust born of experience than to an intellectual leap of faith or act of will.

It’s true that some Zen texts seem to equate the moment at which we’re first overcome by a realization of Great Mind with completion, and it’s true in a sense. But other texts tell us these experiences are a sort of initiation and encourage us to stay focused on continual integration of small mind and Great Mind. This is important, because there are myriad ways small mind may try to co-opt its recognition of Great Mind.

We can fetishize those moments of recognition, particularly the most dazzling ones. We can inflate them and imagine they make us extra special. We can try hard to reproduce them, usually without success. We can become a samadhi junkie, spending countless hours on retreat, chasing blissed out states and imagining we’re becoming more holy. I’ve been guilty of versions of all of these things along the way.

Small mind can become completely intoxicated with and lost in the recognition of Great Mind. In her book The Awakened Brain, Lisa Miller, a Columbia professor who researches the neuroscience of spirituality, tells a story about a woman who has an initial awakening experience and, in her excitement, enters a Buddhist monastery. She lives there for over three years, dedicating most of that time to meditation practice. She eventually feels disconnected from the world and her own life, so she leaves the monastery. In the first days after her departure, she has a dream that convinces her she must return and that the Dali Lama will be coming to pick her up. She packs a bag and spends the day waiting in her front yard, but he never shows up. Miller’s research affirms that the most resilient, wise, and well-adjusted people among us are not stuck in either place; they’re tuned into Great Mind and small mind is functioning fully, in harmony with Great Mind.

So there are countless ways small mind can and probably will attempt to co-opt and control Great Mind once it perceives it. We must be alert to this possibility. At the extreme, we sometimes see one who has recognized Great Mind get tragically stuck in the perspective of the absolute, from which we say there can be no killing, because there is no life and death; no stealing, because there is nothing to possess; and so on. Small mind confuses itself with Great Mind, becomes grandiose, and perverts these metaphysical truths, finding license in them to do things that cause harm.

Small mind isn’t really knowing itself and manifesting as Great Mind until it’s thoroughly soaked in Great Mind and knows and accepts its humble, joyous place within it. The koan with which I started nicely shows that. After Tao Wu make the reaching for a pillow analogy, Yun Yan says, “I understand.”

Tao Wu said, “How do you understand it?
Yun Yan said, “All over the body are hands and eyes.”
Tao Wu said, “You have said quite a bit there, but you’ve only said eighty percent of it.”
Yun Yan said, “What do you say, Elder Brother.”
Tao Wu said, “Throughout the body are hands and eyes.”

The younger monk gets it, but he’s still skimming the surface. The older monk attests to his experience that the eyes and hands of compassion permeate every cell of one’s body; that they are every atom of this vast universe. This is small mind manifesting as Great Mind.

Our Zen practice nudges and supports this awakening to and trust in Great Mind in multiple ways:

• Through zazen, in which we allow small mind to relax, step back, and rest in Great Mind.
• Through koans, if we take up that practice. Small mind wants to approach them as puzzles or dilemmas, but we discover that satisfying responses to them don’t originate from small mind.
• Through ritual, chants, and other forms in which we enter the stream of activity of Great Mind, moving, vocalizing, and giving of ourselves.
• Through sangha, in which we can discover the Bodhisattva of Compassion in our midst.
• Through the Precepts, which help us know how to harmonize small mind with Great Mind in those situations in which our experience of sangha—of community—is most at risk.
• Through service, from which we can discover there is no distinction among giver, receiver, and gift.

Sengcan’s Affirming Faith in Mind

I gave this talk on Sengcan’s Affirming Faith in Mind on Saturday, April 30, 2022, at the Greater Boston Zen Center

Today I want to offer just a few observations about the longer verse we chanted earlier, Segcan’s (Seng-t’san) “Affirming Faith in Mind.” We don’t know much about Sengcan, who is regarded as the third ancestor of Zen, successor to Bodhidharma’s successor Huike. We don’t even really know whether he composed this poem, but it’s attributed to him, and it’s become a foundational Zen text.

The first observation I want to share is about the wonderous and bedeviling phenomenon of reflective self-consciousness. We humans are both gifted with and burdened by it. I can think about my “self,” and even think about the thinking this self does. And think we do!

We are subjects, like all beings, and yet we humans mostly seem to use our subject-ness to objectify ourselves and all else. We project and defend a self, rendering ourselves separate in a universe in which the fundamental reality is interconnection. Reflective self-consciousness is humanity’s superpower, I suppose, but it’s also our Achilles heel. Like all else, it’s empty.

Our reflective self-consciousness is immensely useful (in a limited way) if we relate to it as a capacity. Instead, it becomes an echo chamber, or hologram, that we don’t recognize as such. We get lost in it, wandering about as hungry ghosts. Reflective self-consciousness is marvelous and useful, and it also separates us from our own experience in some painful, even harmful ways—for ourselves, others, and all creation—if we remain captive to it, rather than experiencing it simply as one capacity and way of knowing.

The second observation I want to share is about this notion of “Not One; Not Two.” “From One-mind comes duality,” we are told, “but do not cling even to this One.”

We are not separate. In fact, there is no such thing as “separate.” Separate is an idea. We must stop looking outside of ourselves to find ourselves.

We must stop looking inside, too, though perhaps that is a better place to start, so long as we remain lost in such distinctions. We turn around the light, and our outward projections, to find ourselves as the light. We might think of this as turning inward, and in a sense it is, but there is no inside or outside—not one, not two—once we find what we are seeking.

And what are we seeking? That’s the third observation I want to share. It’s about the small mind and Great Mind discussed in the verse. The word mind is used ambiguously in Zen texts, but here the author clearly is making a distinction between two modes of perception. We’re being told that a shift in perception can occur, and that this it brings a shift in our understanding and experience of being itself.

Small mind is always seeking and battling likes and dislikes. One thing it’s seeking is a way out of this supposed trap. It senses there’s something more to this picture, Great Mind. Small mind wants to think it’s way to Great Mind, but this text tells us we can’t get hold of Great Mind by using the small mind.

What is this Great Mind we’re trying to get a hold of with our small minds? Throughout the text it’s also referred to as the Great Way, the One Way, simply the Way, or as the “root” or “Source.” There are pointers sprinkled throughout the text that guide us to think of Great Mind not as something separate and “out there,” but as who and what we are. Small Mind, everyday mind: It’s not separate from Great Mind, from our absolute identity, but it creates and is the echo chamber, the hologram, if it doesn’t yet recognize itself as Great Mind. It’s like a bubble floating on the surface of an ocean, not aware of its ocean-ness.

We’re being told that the capabilities of everyday mind can’t get us to a realization of our absolutely identity—at least not in the way it tends to go about things; slicing and dicing reality into pieces; making existence into a puzzle it then tries to solve. This doesn’t work precisely because everyday mind is simply a dimension of Great Mind. Great Mind sliced is still Great Mind. Great Mind is fundamentally indivisible.

Everyday mind has a role to play in the recognition of Great Mind, for sure. It can direct its curiosity toward pursuits that have proven helpful to people seeking Great Mind: reading Zen texts, koan work, and the like. It can learn to get out of its own way and help us open up and become more receptive through these and other practices, like meditation. It can help us cultivate important virtues, like humility. Its analytical prowess is useful in discernment and the cultivation of wisdom.

The point is not that small mind is inferior to Great Mind. No! It’s an amazing capacity we have. The point is that small mind’s full potential is unrealized until it grasps Great Mind and one’s whole being is reoriented to it. Small mind can’t think its way all the way to the realization and experience of Great Mind, but, once Great Mind is realized, small mind knows itself as Great Mind.

Zen practice is one context or path, among others, for catalyzing and navigating this shift in orientation—a shift that may have enormous implications for us, individually and collectively. I hasten to add that this shift in perspective is not enough. Many people on the Zen path gain some awareness of Great Mind and then small mind promptly coopts it. The process of discovery, integration and maturation is never ending.

From the vantage point to which Sengcan invites and entices us, subject and object ultimately disappear. The disappearance of subject and object also disappears. Distinctions remain clearly visible. But all is refigured, and we progressively cease to objectify ourselves and others beings in ways to which we might have been more prone in the past.

I look forward to hearing your comments and any questions you may want to raise.