This is a teisho I gave on July 30, 2020.
I said my next talk would be in honor of Tim and Kathleen, and their lovely series of talks on Zen and cooking. This is it.
Please settle yourselves, and close your eyes. Gently take in, and let out, a few breaths. Notice and feel your mind and body settling. Notice your chest rise and fall. Notice your heartbeat. In that still place, with your eyes remaining closed, just listen as I read a poem by the Vietnamese Zen teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh.
Please Call Me by My True Names
Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow —
even today I am still arriving.
Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive.
I am the mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
his “debt of blood” to my people
dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.
My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion.
You can open your eyes.
Thich Nhat Hanh, or Thay, as he is known to his community, is one of the leading proponents and examples of Engaged Buddhism, a term he coined. Martin Luther King, with whom he was friends, nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. As a young monk during the Vietnam War, Thay became a peace activist, organizing relief efforts for victims of the war, among other things. He was eventually exiled from Vietnam, founding the Plum Village community in France, which has grown to become a global sangha. His 100+ books have been translated into many languages and inspired millions of people. One bestseller, Being Peace, which I read over 30 years ago, is among the reasons I took up Zen practice and committed myself to peacebuilding work.
Zen is about waking up in the way Thay invites us to realize through this poem. Waking up in this way is enlightenment.
When I was a graduate student in religious studies at Harvard, I took a mega-class on world religions with Diana Eck, a famous scholar of comparative religion. She read this poem to us at the start of our unit on Buddhism. Some students objected to it. How could Thay seemingly put the rapist and his victim, the emaciated boy and the arms dealer, on the same plane? How could he see himself in all of them?
Many of the students in that class no doubt were Christian. Thay is simply expressing something in the Gospel of Matthew these students had no doubt heard or read:
God’s “sun rises on the good and upon the evil and his rain descends on the just and on the unjust.” Matthew 5:45 (Aramaic Bible in Plain English).
The sun illumines the good and the evil; rain nourishes the just and the unjust. The peace activist risking his life to feed starving war victims, and the pirate who harms another human being because his heart isn’t open.
We are in the stew together. Much as we pretend otherwise; much as we try; there is nowhere to hide from one another. When we stop hiding from ourselves—when we truly open our hearts—we discover our true name. Our true names.
What are we doing in our practice? We’re marinating. Softening. Soaking up the flavors of other ingredients. Becoming porous, so what’s inside us comes out. Opening up, and expressing ourselves. Our true selves. Exposing what has been hidden.
We are not getting out of the pot; we’re not transcending this. Quite the opposite: We’re becoming ever more this.
The heat and pressure of that pot—of our practice, of our lives—is disintegrating that sense that I am a separate self, mending the universe and “me” at once. As that construct, the “self,” disintegrates, becomes porous, we come to see the luminance everywhere; in everything and everyone, including oneself.
How should we respond to those who object to Thay’s poem, perhaps unaware of the life story of this remarkable contemplative, activist-poet?
Let me answer by reading a brief passage from David Loy’s book, A New Buddhist Path: Enlightenment, Evolution and Ethics in the Modern World, which I’ve recommended to you:
“If awakening involves transcending this suffering world, then we can ignore its problems. If the Buddhist path is psychological therapy, we can focus on our own individual neuroses. Yet both of those approaches reinforce the illusion that I am essentially separate from others, and therefore can be indifferent to what they are experiencing. If `I’ am not separate from others, [however,] neither is my wellbeing separate from theirs. Today this means we are called upon not only to help other individuals deconstruct their sense of separation (the traditional role of a bodhisattva), but also to help our society reconstruct itself, to become more just and sustainable—and awakened.” (Loy, pp. 63-64, emphasis mine.)
The Heart Sutra proclaims that emptiness is form; form is emptiness. Transcendence is immanent; the immanent is transcendent. The Absolute is the relative; the relative is the Absolute.
Zen teaches, and helps us come to realize, that this land is the Pure Land. This realm of suffering is Nirvana.
Many of us are compulsively searching for and trying to construct a personal Heaven on Earth, all the while oblivious to the reality that Heaven is Earth; Earth is Heaven. Or, as the prophet Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” In other words, right here, now. In our midst. Hidden in plain sight. Shining in and through everything.
Yet, while the Absolute and the relative, the higher and the lower realities, or truths, are the same, they also are different. Not one, not two. David Loy makes this point nicely, connecting it to the imperative that inner transformation lead to outer transformation, to social and environmental action, at least on a small scale; at least in the context of our day-to-day interactions with other sentient being and what our deluded consciousness calls the material world. In the brief portion from Loy’s book I’m about to read, he is commenting on a long quote by someone else that he’s included in his book: It’s an account by the English minister and poet Thomas Traherne of his own enlightenment, expressed from a Christian perspective.
Relating Traherne’s personal story to the Buddhist perspective on kenshō experiences, Loy says:
“In Buddhist terms, the `higher truth’ that [Traherne] describes so well is sundered from the conventional `lower’ truth that we are more familiar with.”
Buddhism’s higher truth is that this very world of suffering is Nirvana. Heaven. One feature of the lower truth is that, for most of us, we don’t yet see this, and so we think, speak, and act in ways that pile needless, avoidable forms of suffering on top of the forms of suffering that are unavoidable as embodied beings.
“Traherne’s heavenly world has no problems; each luminous thing is a way that `empty infinity’ presences, including the children playing in the street . . . but do they go to bed hungry at night? Although everything manifests eternity . . . in his day many of those particular manifestations died before their second birthday. Yes, the `higher truth’ is that they really didn’t die because they had never been born; from the perspective of the lower truth, however, there is birth, and death, and suffering. Patriarchy and slavery were the norms in Traherne’s time. His society was organized hierarchically, for the benefit of those at the top of the class pyramid—something that seems to be increasingly true of our society.”
We, and our intentions; the commitments we make, including our commitment to practice; the values and goals we embrace; the insight we cultivate; and our words and deeds all matter. They are the activity of the infinite, whatever their quality, but only a certain quality of activity will produce the relative reality—the Beloved Community—that MLK and John Lewis envisioned.
A kenshō experience and $2.00 will buy you a cup of coffee. Enlightenment in the sense that Thay shows us through his poem, and the poem that is his life, is well seasoned; marinated through-and-through. It manifests outwardly in the large and/or small ways he exemplifies, not just inwardly.
God has no hands but these hands, as the Christians say. The universe has no hands but our hands.
We sit here in the midst of a global pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests. The pot is boiling, with us in it. How can we stay as we are? How can we remain impervious to the pressure and the heat?
How can the door of my heart, the door of compassion, remain closed? How can these hands not be lifted and lent?