Verse of the Kesa

I gave this talk on Thursday, November 10, 2022, at the Greater Boston Zen CenterA recording is available here.

I want to speak briefly about the Verse of the Kesa tonight.  This is the short verse people are chanting silently to themselves before our sits when you see them kneeling at their cushions with their rakusus on their heads.  I’ve recently started using an alternate version of this verse, which I prefer to the one I was taught.  

The version I learned, and which most of us here chant, goes like this:

Vast is the Robe of Liberation,

A formless field of benefaction.

I wear the Tatathagata’s teachings,

Saving all sentient beings.

The alternate version goes like this:

Vast and wonderous is the Robe of Liberation,

Formless yet embracing every treasure.

I wish to unfold the Buddha’s teaching,

That I may help all living things.

Subtle differences.

The first line adds “wonderous” alongside the adjective “vast.”   I like that.  A sense of wonder, of awe, is at the heart of our practice.  To wonder is to not know—to not know in a very positive way.  To marvel.  To be awestruck.  

We’re not trying to understand in a narrow sense in Zen; to reduce existence to syllogistic formulations.  To sum it all up.  We’re cultivating an ever-deeper realization that we’re part of it all.  We’re learning to recognize ourselves and all else as Buddha.  We’re feeling ourselves ever more tightly woven into the Robe of Liberation.

The second line:  I always have loved the image of a “formless field of benefaction,” yet I think the alternate version both captures its spirit and adds something lovely. 

“Formless yet embracing every treasure.”  Emptiness, the Absolute, manifesting as the 10,000 things, each a treasure.  I like that word “embracing.”  It evokes the ideal of agape, of the highest love, for me.  To embrace also is to hold.  Each treasure, including you and me, held.

The third line:  I like the formulation “I wish to unfold the Buddha’s teachings” much more than “I wear the Tatagatha’s teachings.”

“I wish” speaks to our intention, our aspiration, as we step onto and continue walking along this path.  And “unfold” suggests ongoing discovery and learning.  Buddha—this—is ever revealing its teaching, and yet ever mysterious.  The vast universe is ever pouring itself out, wonderously.

It’s possible to hear “I wear the Tatagatha’s teachings” in a way that seems more pridefully descriptive, with an air of exclusivism, though I’m not suggesting that’s intended.  The intention is that I’ve accepted the teachings completely—so completely I’ve wrapped myself in them.  Yet I suppose it’s possible to hear these same words in a tribal or sectarian way: Buddhist doctrine is my uniform; that with which I identify and which identifies me distinctively compared to you.  

And the last line: I like “That I may help all living things” so much better than “Saving all sentient beings.”  Having been coerced in my youth into converting for a period from Roman Catholicism to a fundamentalist strain of Christianity, I’ve always felt uncomfortable with this notion of “saving” others.  I don’t care how you spin it, I just don’t like that idea.  Even viewing it from what we call the intrinsic perspective in Zen, from the perspective of the Absolute, where there is no one in need of saving, it still smacks of absolutism and missionary zeal to me.  Helping, however:  Yes, I can pledge to try to help.  

And why limit our sphere of concern to sentient beings, however broadly we might define sentient?  Why not try to help all living things?  Yes, I like that better, too.  And, by the way, all is alive, including the zafus and fish drum.  The whole of this vast and wonderous Robe of Liberation is alive.  All is Life.

Kesa means robe.  Buddhist renunciates have made and worn a robe of died fabric scraps since ancient times.  Our rakusus are mini robes.  No one is quite sure when and why they emerged, but it happened in China, most likely in response to persecution of Buddhists as Buddhism fell out favor and Buddhists were persecuted for several years during the mid-ninth century.  Monks may have made rakusus to wear under their street clothes, much like the tallit worn by Orthodox Jewish men.  

Dogen saw Chinese monks wearing rakusus and chanting the Verse of the Kesa and brought these practices to Japan.  Dogen gave important talks about the kesa.  He put these practices and what they symbolize at the heart of the expression of Zen he taught.

Now we have these practices.

I was poking around the web as I wrote this talk, taking in what others have said about the kesa and the verse we chant as we put it on.  I found a lovely website called Zen Universe that’s maintained by three Zen adepts in Eastern Europe.  Their page on the kesa is wonderful.  It includes this passage:

Heaven and earth, the entire universe, are one single kesa.  No world exists outside of the kesa.  We do not fall into hell or rise up to heaven – we go nowhere, we come from nowhere.  There is only one kesa.  We owe it to ourselves to wear the kesa.

When we wear our kesas we affirm to ourselves and others that there is only one kesa.  That we “do not fall into hell or rise up to heaven.”  That we ourselves and all others have never needed saving, though we might need some help realizing this, and it is right and good to offer what genuine help we can give.But here’s the point I really want to make, and that I hope we all internalize.  Whether you’ve taken Jukai or not, please think of getting dressed each day as putting on the kesa, because that is what we’re doing.  We can say the Verse of the Kesa, or just call it to mind for an instant, as we put on our jeans.  Let’s see the ordinary clothes we wear, and our pajamas too, and our very skin, even when we’re alone in the shower unclothed, as the Robe of Liberation.  Because they are.

What is Enlightenment?

I gave this talk on Saturday, November 5, 2022, at the Greater Boston Zen Center.

This is Case 6 in The Gateless Gate, The World-Honored One Twirls a Flower:

Once, in ancient times, when the World-Honored One was at Mount Grdhrakūta, he twirled a flower before his assembled disciples. All were silent. Only Mahākāśyapa broke into a smile.

The World-Honored One said, “I have the eye of the treasury of right Dharma, the subtle mind of nirvana, the true form of no-form, and the flawless gate of the teaching. It is not established upon words and phrases. It is a special transmission outside tradition. I now entrust this to Mahākāśyapa.

The title of this talk is “What is Enlightenment?” I want to respond to this question very directly today. This always has been a tricky thing to do, and it’s especially tricky these days.

It’s always been tricky because—as so much Zen literature tells us—words can’t capture it, even as they are it. We can never get our minds around it because we are trying to make subject object, and there ultimately are no objects; no subject either, really. It’s sort of like wrapping paper trying to wrap itself.

Speaking about enlightenment is especially tricky, or maybe even dangerous, these days because the Zen tradition is evolving in important and necessary ways in response to justifiable critiques of how some of our predecessors have represented and related to the notion of enlightenment. Enlightenment sometimes has been portrayed as a personal attainment that elevates one above others in presumed worldly and metaphysical hierarchies.

This representation of enlightenment is misaligned with Western Buddhism’s growing—and very welcome—emphasis on social justice, on the natural world (with us very much just one feature of it), and on less hierarchical, more egalitarian forms of community life. Zen’s core teachings arguably always have pointed us in these directions, but there’s too often been an element of pride, elitism, and authority games in how enlightenment has been represented in practice. The notion of “Zen stink” is a corrective to all that, but also proves its existence.

Anyway, like others who have been aware of the challenges and dangers of addressing this topic directly, I feel compelled to do so periodically. People frequently ask me some version of this question, and maybe the same happens to you. The word enlightenment is so magnetically attractive to so many people, there’s so much confusion surrounding it, and this confusion carries real potential for harm. As one of my favorite law school professors used to say, there’s good confusion and bad confusion; productive, generative confusion and unproductive, even harmful confusion. The idea of enlightenment, as opposed to the reality of it, seems to produce both types of confusion.

I guess this is all a way of saying, here I go. I’m doing the best I can, and I hope this is useful to some of you.

I could have opened this talk with any number of readings, but I chose the famous koan I read earlier for several reasons. In Zen lore, this is where it all begins.

In the second part of this koan we hear that Zen is “not established upon words and phrases.” It is a “special transmission [from teacher to student] outside [Buddhist] tradition.” I think it’s very likely this stuff about the Buddha making self-aggrandizing claims about his own insight and authority and his transmission of that authority to Mahakasyapa was added to reinforce the credibility and claims to authority of early Zen teachers in whose footsteps we walk. There were a lot of disagreements among schools of Buddhism and emerging sects of Zen in those days. There still are disagreements today.

So let’s focus on the first part of the koan. The Buddha “twirled a flower before his assembled disciples. All were silent. Only Mahakasyapa broke into a smile.” I think it’s much more probable that something like this really happened.

Heard from one perspective, it sounds like this is a story about an esoteric, secret teaching only Mahakasyapa gets; a realization he alone attains. But is this the best reading of the story? This clearly is a koan about enlightenment as a core feature of our tradition. But what is enlightenment?

Here’s my understanding: Enlightenment is this unfathomably vast and wonderous universe; multiverse, perhaps. Boundless. Enlightenment is this vast and wonderous universe just as it is right now, with me as a feature of it. You and I and all features of this wonderous universe are distinct, but in no sense are we separate.

When the Buddha holds up a flower and twirls it, that is what he’s saying. This is it! Behold!

We can also talk about enlightenment experiences, and that is what Mahakasyapa’s smile of recognition represents. When we are aware that this wonderous universe, with oneself as part of it, is enlightenment, that is an enlightenment experience. The universe is looking itself in the mirror in these moments. The wrapping paper is unwrapping itself; recognizing the unity of giver, receiver, and gift, as we chant during Oryoki practice (meal practice during susshin).

But—and this is important—all those listening silently to the Buddha who didn’t flash a smile of recognition are no less enlightened—no less enlightenment, that is to say—than Mahakasyapa with his knowing smile.

Talking about all this renders the notions of enlightenment and enlightenment experiences too noun-like when what I’d really like to convey is more of a verb-like quality— changing, awakening, interbeing. That verb-like spirit is conveyed in the dedication verse we heard chanted earlier this morning: “Infinite realms of light and dark convey the Buddha mind. Birds and trees and stars and we ourselves come forth in perfect harmony.”

Have you ever seen a lava lamp? You know what I’m talking about, right? Imagine a large blob floating around inside the lamp. It’s shaped like one of those inflatable punching clowns kids play with. The blob has a large, oblong body, a thin neck, and a small head.

We can think of our conventional experience and awareness as a view from the head of this floating, shape-shifting blob when the head is all the head knows. But the whole blob is the realm of enlightenment, and the head is not separate from it. When the head realizes that— really realizes this, experientially, not just grasps it conceptually—that’s an enlightenment experience. That perspective and experience can sink into our bones, becoming pervasive and ever-present. We realize everything is the center of the universe, myself no less or more so.

What’s more: This realm of enlightenment, Indra’s Net, the Great Robe of Liberation, isn’t a blob. Not only is everything center, there’s no inside or outside. It’s boundless. It isn’t an it. Physicists like Carlo Rovelli, who have found inspiration in Buddhism, are discovering the universe is boundless and nothing exists apart from anything else. So I’m just describing the natural order, mind-blowing as this may seem from the perspective of our conventional awareness.

So what? What is this realization good for?

Well, here’s the negative response; what it’s not good for. It’s no good if we seek it and, once glimpsed, hope to possess it as a personal attainment, though many of us will try. It can’t be grasped that way—which is only to say it can’t be grasped at all.

I’ve titled this talk “What is Enlightenment?”—as a question in this specific form—for a personal historical reason. When I was a student at Harvard Divinity School in the mid-1990s, there was a modern-day New Age guru in the area that I used to see around Harvard from time to time. His name is Andrew Cohen, and his organization used to publish a magazine titled “What is Enlightenment?”

That question struck me as pompous then, at least when coming from Cohen, because Cohen himself struck me as pompous. I heard that question, coming from him, in a bait-and- hook sort of way. Like: “What is Enlightenment? Sure, let me tell you, since you’re dying to know but obviously don’t get it. It’s this thing I’ve got that you don’t have, but if you hang with me it may rub off on you.”

I saw Cohen around Cambridge a couple of times, always with a few fawning acolytes in tow. He clearly was as impressed with himself as they seemed to be with him. He was quite rude to them, in fact. Cohen’s organization ultimately collapsed as students, and even his own mother, came forth with allegations of psychological abuse and financial impropriety. If you relate to the notion of enlightenment that way, you’ll eventually get what you deserve—and those around you unfortunately won’t get what they deserve. It’s just rotten.

So don’t conceive of enlightenment as something in the realm of personal attainment. If we seek it that way, with neurotic compulsion, delusions of grandeur, and subtle or not-so- subtle aspirations for control, nothing good will come of it.

Many people who manifest as profoundly grounded, wise, and compassionate never have a dramatic enlightenment experience. I’m pretty sure that those of us who do are on the remedial plan. Some of us seem to need a cosmic jostling more than others. If you do have a dramatic enlightenment experience—well, good for you. That and $3.00 will get you a cup of coffee. Stabilizing, plumbing, and integrating that experience will be the journey of a lifetime.

And the positive answer to the “So What?” question? What is this realization good for, positively speaking?

It’s about the relationship between this realization and action—how we show up to life. As Torei Enji wrote in the verse Bodhisattva’s Vow, “Realizing this, our Ancestors gave reverent care to animals, birds, and all beings.”

In Western religious and humanist traditions, “contemplation” is a common word for the experience and embodied perspective we call “enlightenment” in Zen. Though he was no fan of religion, I think the great 20th century philosopher Bertrand Russell got it right when he wrote about the relationship between action and contemplation; the relationship between the fruits of his own reflections and practice and how they compelled him to show up to life. In an essay On the Value of Philosophy, Russell said contemplation—or enlightenment as a personal experience, we might say—is that:

quality of mind which, in action, is justice, and in emotion is that universal love which can be given to all, and not only to those who are judged useful or admirable. Thus contemplation enlarges not only the objects of our thoughts, but also the objects of our actions and our affections: it makes us citizens of the universe, not only of one walled city at war with all the rest. In this citizenship of the universe consists [our] true freedom, and [our] liberation from the thraldom of narrow hopes and fears.

Beyond Belief II

I gave this talk on Saturday, October 1, 2022, at the Greater Boston Zen CenterA recording is available here.

This is from the Record Dongshan (who I spoke about in my last talk, using Tung-shan, another way his name is translated to English):

When Dongshan was ready to leave his teacher Yunyan, Dongshan asked, “Later on, if someone asks me if I can depict your reality, or your teaching, how shall I reply?”

Yunyan paused, and then said, “Just this is it.”

When he heard that, Dongshan sank into thought. And Yunyan said, “You are in charge of this great matter. You must be most thoroughgoing.”

Dongshan left Yunyan and was still perplexed; he didn’t quite get it. As he proceeded he was wading across a stream, and seeing his reflection in the water, he had some understanding. He looked down in the stream and saw something, and then he wrote this poem:

“Just don’t seek from others or you’ll be far estranged from yourself. Now I go on alone, but everywhere I meet it. It now is me; I now am not it. One must understand in this way to merge with suchness.”

Let me repeat those last two lines: “It now is me; and I now am not it. One must understand in this way to merge with suchness.” One must understand that suchness is me, but not limited to me, to merge, or accord one’s experience of oneself, with suchness; with Yunyan’s “just this.

I just substituted the word “experience” for “understanding” because Dongshan isn’t telling us that we primarily must develop an intellectual understanding that I myself am suchness (though I am not the whole of it). He’s telling us we must come to know this beyond belief—in our bones. We must know it in such a thoroughgoing way that we forget it. No more wondering whether the dog, or we ourselves, or the stars in the sky, have buddha nature.

I began my last Saturday talk with a passage from the Record of Dongshan that precedes the one I just read. (You can find a recording of that talk on our website.) In that earlier reading, Dongshan asks his teacher Yunyan why he can’t hear nonsentient beings, like stone fences and tree groves, expound the Dharma. He’s read that nonsentient beings do, indeed, expound the Dharma, but he doesn’t (yet) experience them that way.

Yunyan responds by holding up his fly whisk. Dongshan, focusing on the object in Yunyan’s hand he still thinks can be contained by concepts like “nonsentient” and “inanimate,” misses that this gesture is also Yunyan himself expounding the Dharma. As teacher and student talk a bit more during this encounter, Dongshan has an initial opening. Still, his confusion persists. He’s glimpsed something, but he doesn’t yet grasp it securely—or, rather, he doesn’t yet see that what he has glimpsed grasps him.

I ended my talk last time by foreshadowing today’s reading. I mentioned that Dongshan eventually would have a wider and deeper, more penetrating, opening when he saw his reflection in a stream. In that moment, Dongshan would realize that he, like all else, constantly expounds the Dharma. Dongshan goes on to become an eminent teacher, of course, establishing the Chinese predecessor to the Soto School of Zen (in which we are situated) and leaving us The Five Ranks, one of our most important texts.

Good for Dongshan. But what about us? Can you also hear yourself expound the Dharma? Learning to hear what Dongshan heard, resonating with what he heard, is one aim of our practice, even as our practice expounds the Dharma whether it presently feels that way or not.

Learning to hear what Dongshan heard, resonating with what he heard. Resonating.

Sometimes as I sit, as my monkey mind stills and tension I hadn’t even been aware of begins to leave my body, I sense a sort of purring or humming. It’s not a sonic sensation exactly, it’s somehow vaguely more physical. I feel it subtly coursing through my body, I feel my body as it, and yet it doesn’t seem to originate from or be isolated to my body. It doesn’t seem to originate from or be isolated to any one thing. It seems to be a feature—a base level feature— of everything. At these moments, it seems I’m just consciously tuning into and noticing something that’s always there, even during moments when I’m not tuned into it consciously. There’s really no activity on my part, and yet I become aware that I’m a part of this. I’m just opening myself to experience beyond my four walls, so to speak. Beyond, or through, all walls. I’m making myself receptive.

I don’t have any idea whether I’m describing something that’s known to and verified or verifiable by science—some sort of wave energy humans are capable of sensing, which resonates in and through all phenomena at a specific frequency. It doesn’t really matter, because I experience this sensation as a Dharma gate whatever may explain it—even if it’s a figment of my imagination.

For me this sensation is one experience that transports me out of the myopia we seem to be prone to inhabit. Our small mind awareness. When this sensation arises, small mind begins to experience itself as lovingly and securely nestled in Great Mind. I experience myself as a distinct feature of Great Mind but not separate from it.

And I realize that this experience and Great Mind and all that exits, even myself, is not my doing. I didn’t will the totality of “just this” into existence. I don’t singlehandedly sustain it. I have some limited scope of agency over my own experience and the experience of others near me. I do contribute in small, mundane, mysterious ways to creation and the maintenance of it. I have some weaker (if still significant and potentially consequential) ability to cause ripples that affect others’ experience throughout space and time.

But I realize there is no justification for the grandiosity our small minds can claim for themselves when they don’t feel lovingly and securely nestled in Great Mind. Sometimes this grandiosity shows up in our stories that claim too much credit for things. And sometimes this grandiosity shows up in our stories that pin too much responsibility on oneself for unfavorable causes, conditions, and consequences; stories that leave us feeling too much guilt and shame.

If and as we cultivate an abiding sense of small mind nestled lovingly in Great Mind, we become increasingly free to develop and express our gifts, and to enjoy doing so, without a compulsion to attract attention or to boast publicly—or, perhaps more likely for many of us, even to boast privately, by elevating oneself above others in one’s own mind. From this perspective we can take appropriate responsibility for our own conduct and its consequences, feeling remorse and apologizing when we have caused harm, but knowing with great confidence that our admission won’t be used against us in a trial in which we can be banished from the Universe.

From this perspective of small mind feeling lovingly and securely nestled in Great Mind, concepts like sentient and nonsentient, animate and inanimate, fade. Everything expounds the Dharma. I hear, or feel, and know myself expounding the Dharma in my own way, and I experience everything else expounding the Dharma, too.

Suchness.

We know the universe ultimately has “got this.” And that “this” includes me.

What teaches you this? What reminds you of this, on or off the cushion? What helps you stay centered in this awareness and to be gentle with yourself if and as this awareness ebbs and flows? I look forward to our discussion.

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.

Indeed.

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.