Don’t Separate from this Skin-Bag Here and Now

This is an approximation of a Dharma talk I gave last night at the Greater Boston Zen Center.


These are the final lines of Shitou Xiqian’s lovely poem, Song of the Grass-Roof Hermitage, which is sometimes part of our liturgy:


If you want to know the undying person in the hut,

don’t separate from this skin-bag here and now.


Many of us come to Zen practice with this nagging sense that there must be more to life than this.  There must be more to me than this.


There’s something missing.


And so we go looking for it.  The undying person in the hut.


“Dukkha,” the key word in the first of the Buddha’s four noble truths, is typically translated into English as “suffering.”


But it’s apparently a richly nuanced word in Pali, and the physical suffering caused by hunger or a broken bone doesn’t capture its full meaning.


It includes this sense of uneasiness about who we are and about this life we’re living.


Somehow this isn’t the real deal, the whole story, we feel.


It seems quite significant to me that Siddhartha Gautama chose to call attention to the fact that we have this sense of something being amiss as the first point in his first public, spoken sermon.


That the first thing he wants to say to us is that we should take note of and investigate this sense of uneasiness.


This sense of absence is so present for many of us.  It drives so much of our thought, speech and action.


And yet many of us never truly get close to it, get to know it.  We push it away, and so it pushes us around.


It seems the human heart and psyche, like nature, abhor a vacuum, real or perceived.


So we try to fill the vacuum.


Taking up the Zen path can be great way to begin to get up close and personal with this uneasiness.


And we also may use it to fill the vacuum for a while.


Much earnest practice.


Much reading.


Much speculation.


All with a goal in mind.


Much searching for a way out of our discomfort, a way into an imagined better state.


Like the historical Buddha before him, Shitou Xiqian is telling us in his lovely poem that this sense of something amiss might itself be a fertile place to begin to look for that which fills the void we perceive.


The undying person we seek is no other than this skin-bag that’s looking for the undying person.


The skin-bag having this experience of something missing is the path, Shitou tells us, and here and now is the entry point, the trailhead.


He tells us not to separate from this skin-bag, which obviously implies that this is what we’re often trying to do.


This practice ultimately is about inhabiting this skin-bag.


Becoming at home in our own skin.


This includes our greed, anger and ignorance.  Getting to know them; seeing how they arise for us.


Our aversions.


Our anxieties.


Our rough edges.


Even the really uncomfortable stuff.


Biases we discern in our thoughts, words, and actions.


The things we’ve said or done in the past that we just know have royally and irreversibly screwed up our lives.


Our bodily characteristics, and limitations.  Let’s not neglect the fact that this skin-bag is a body.


All the stuff we try to separate from.


All of it, opportunities.




Dharma gates.


Opportunities for growth, perhaps.


Invitations to work compassionately to right a wrong, perhaps.


Gates into new territory; the sense of absence a gate into a deepened sense of presence, perhaps.


I have long been haunted and inspired and called by a line at the end of another favorite poem, this one by the romantic poet Rainer Maria Rilke.  You can take or leave the theistic perspective.


Rilke’s poem ends:


For the god wants to know himself in you.


What if it’s true?


What if what you’re experiencing right now, and this week, and in this life, truly is god’s gift to the world, so to speak, and the world’s gift to you?


Not in some grandiose sense, but in the sense that your life is just as it should be – which is to say, the only way it can be, which is just as it actually is right now.


That feeling of absence a part of it, and a prompt, perhaps, an invitation.


What if the universe really does want to know itself in you?


Will you let it?


How might we meet this moment from that orientation?


How might we meet others as the universe wanting to know itself in them, too?