Seeking and Finding Meaning

I gave this talk on June 3, 2023, at the Greater Boston Zen Centers Spring Sesshin held at the Providence Zen Center. A recording follows the text.

This is Case 12 in the Blue Cliff Record:

A monk asked Tung Shan, “What is Buddha?”

Tung Shan said, “Three pounds of hemp.”

This koan, and others like it, seems to express many of the qualities for which the Zen tradition is famous, or perhaps infamous, among them obscurity, irreverence, and paradox.

A Zen practitioner coming to a teacher with a question like this is just trying to do what human beings try to do: make meaning. The late developmental psychologist William Perry said, “Organisms organize, and the human organism organizes meaning.” We are meaning-makers.

The question, “What is Buddha?” can be reformulated as, “What’s it all about?”  And also, “Who or what am I?”  And also, “How do I fit in?”  Needless to say, if we’re asking questions like this, we’re not quite sure what it’s all about, or who or what we are, or how we fit in.  This sort of uncertainty, or not knowing, can feel intensely, existentially uncomfortable.  We want relief from that discomfort, and we start seeking relief by seeking conceptual answers to questions like, “What is Buddha?”

We’ve made meaning, or made sense, when everything seems to fit together; to cohere.  We’re seeking integration; a sense of wholeness and integrity; coherence.  We feel disjointed “inside” and the world seems disjointed “outside.”  We want all the parts “inside” us to fit together harmoniously; we want all that’s “outside” us to fit together harmoniously; and we want “inside” and “outside” to fit together harmoniously, too.

Tung Shan (aka Dongshan) was the ninth century Chinese teacher to whom we trace the start of the Soto school of Zen in which we practice.  He was a famous teacher during the Tang Dynasty, the heyday of Zen in China.  Some of our most important Zen texts are attributed to him.  Hundreds of years later, Dharma heirs of Tung Shan developed koan practice based, in part, upon recorded encounters between Tung Shan and the monks he taught—stories like the one with which I opened this talk.

On first blush, Tung Shan’s response to the monk’s question—“What is Buddha?”—may indeed seem obscure, irreverent, and paradoxical.  Hearing Tung Shan’s response in this koan for the first time, many of us may think, “Huh?  The monk is asking a clear question about Buddha nature.  Why does Tung Shan respond so obscurely by referring to three pounds of hemp?  The monk is asking a serious question about a sacred matter.  Why does Tung Shan respond so irreverently, seemingly dismissing the monk’s question and referring to something so mundane.  The monk is asking a straightforward question.  Tung Shan’s response seems like a joke or a riddle, not a sincere answer.”

Tung Shan indeed is responding sincerely.  His response is not obscure, irreverent, or paradoxical.  To the contrary, it is as clear, serious, and straightforward as the monk’s question.

If Tung Shan’s response initially seems obscure, irreverent, and paradoxical to us, that’s because we’re expecting a different sort of answer.  We’re looking for, and think we are inquiring about, something extraordinary; something extra-ordinary.  Tung Shan instead points to something completely ordinary and concrete, and so his response seems wrong or intentionally confounding.

Hemp was used to make paper, cloth, and rope, among other everyday items, in ancient China.  Tung Shan’s monastery and others like it were major cites of literary production.  There would have been 30 or even 300 pounds of hemp at his monastery at any given time, used to create paper on which monks transcribed sutras, the robes the monks wore, and other everyday items.  Hemp would have been as ordinary as rice or water.

Tung Shan is telling the monk in the simplest, most straightforward way possible that Buddha is right here.  Teacup Buddha.  Morning dew Buddha.  Temple dog Buddha.  Questioning monk Buddha.

Tung Shan is telling the monk that the meaning he is seeking is in plain sight.  That the robe he is wearing, and also what’s inside it, is the very robe of liberation.  He is telling the monk that the answer to his question is not an esoteric or abstract idea, but this very life; each and every feature of it.  He’s saying that the knowledge we seek isn’t a philosophical or theological formulation, but the experience of knowing oneself and all else as interlaced threads of this vast robe of liberation.

Nothing could be less obscure, more reverent, or less puzzling than the way of being to which Tung Shan is pointing.  We simply need to welcome and live into it.  Zen practice is a context and path for living into this truth.  Our resistance to it—our desire to contain and control reality—tends to decrease if and as we walk the path.  We ultimately discover ourselves and all else as the meaning we have sought.  It was ready-made; already waiting here for us, as us.

Could the lint on my cushion really be Buddha?  Could my life really be a Buddha’s life?  As Bodhidharma, the first great Zen ancestor, wrote, “that which is real includes nothing worth begrudging.”  Nothing is excluded from the Buddha realm; nothing exists that is not Buddha.

That perspective can create some confusion with respect to questions about ethics, justice, and social action.  I’ll try to dispel that confusion in a future talk.  For now, I’ll just say that I think our capacity to respond and engage in the most skillful way possible depends greatly upon a non-conceptual awareness and experience that all is Buddha.

Thanks for listening. As always, our dialogue is what I most look forward to about our time together.

Emptying our Teacups and Teachers

I gave this talk on April 22, 2023, at the Greater Boston Zen Centers Spring Sesshin held at the Providence Zen Center. A recording follows the text.

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.
The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. It is overfull. No more will go in!

Like this cup,” Nan-in said, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?

As I read a text like this for the first time, my mind usually begins doing its sorting thing, quite naturally and imperceptibly. It immediately notes key words, like “teacher,” “professor,” “inquire,” and “Zen” and the standard concepts they represent. It makes standard associations among these concepts and other features of the text. Finally, it reaches a conclusion in light of these associations, in the form of the major point the text seems to convey.

Our everyday minds rely heavily on default settings and heuristics. The mind sifts phenomena according to categorizes and patterns. Actually, it’s not just passively perceiving and interpreting our experience. It’s playing an active role in constructing it. Our everyday minds shape reality, literally filling in “data gaps” with what we expect to perceive and then responding to that construction as if it were a solid object wholly external to us.

Most of us likely think, for example, that the route from our eyes to our brain is one-way; that our eyes register comprehensive visual data and send it to the brain, which then combines it with other sense data and memories to reach a conclusion. That’s not true. Most of the signals in our visual system travel the other way. The brain is telling our eyes what to see.

This functioning of everyday mind serves us well for many purposes much of the time. Returning to our text, there is nothing wrong with seeking insight and utility in the point the teacher-character in a story like this seems to be making—and arriving at the standard conclusion about it. I do think the teacher-character in this story (and in many other Zen stories) is making an insightful and useful point.

Yet it’s important to be aware of how our everyday mind works, because meeting constructs—meeting our pre-existing ideas about anything or anyone—is not meeting the thing itself. In reality, there are no things to meet. There is only meeting and the fleeting opportunity to shape experience.

For some time now, it’s been my practice to keep sitting with a text a bit longer—days or weeks, if I have time—noting my early cognitions, but not latching onto them immediately as the only take-aways, or even the main ones. When I can do this, a kind of softening often occurs, and a previously unseen opening may appear, offering something new; some fresh way of experiencing the story. The characters, and happenings, and even the seemingly obvious point of the story often become less solid, more permeable and yielding, more like the cells in a living organism and the mutually supportive interchange between them; or like living things in a thriving ecosystem. The seemingly solid elements of the story begin to decompose.

As I sat with this story about the professor who calls on Nan-in for a week or so before sesshin, my attention eventually settled on, and I began to center in, the tea and the teacup. What is this tea? What is the experience of tea? What is this teacup? What is the experience of teacup?

The tea flows from the spout of the teapot, crashing into the bottom of the teacup, rushing up and tickling its sides. The tea settles in the cup as it fills, but soon it’s escaping over its edges. The teacup seems so solid and still as the tea it can’t grasp or ultimately contain keeps flowing.

But the teacup, solid as it seems, actually is no more graspable or containable than the tea; the tea no less solid and still than the teacup. Both comprised of elements. (Imponderable elements. Like the word Zen, I don’t really know what the word element means as I use it. Does anyone?) Elements in constant flux, some, like those posing as teacup, just appearing to us to stand still. All these elements, part of this vast, flowing tea-river we inhabit.

Tea and teacup—at once constructs and ultimately real. Visitor, teacher, and teaching, too. Teacher is not only a construct but also a real role that comes with real responsibilities and real opportunities to be usefully present to others. Teacups really make it easier to drink tea.

My first readings of the story render the characters in it as little figurines in fixed positions, with fixed positions. A visitor who is too full of herself and her own ideas. A teacher who who offers a wise and insightful teaching, cleverly communicated. Or, looking at it from a perspective 180 degrees opposed to that, a teacher who is a bit too clever and theatrical and a visitor who could be forgiven for finding little value in this encounter.

It’s not that my first take on a story like the one we’re exploring here is wrong. It’s true that Zen and other contemplative practices invite us to empty our teacups of some of our ideas to make room for the intimate experience of life itself. It’s just that my first interpretation is just that, an interpretation. Even our best ideas—including ideas about emptying our teacups, and about emptying teachers and teachings, and about emptying our stories—are still just ideas, no matter how insightful they are or how much they seem to improve upon earlier ideas.

We can and should cultivate and share new ideas, about Zen practice and everything else. We can and should discard old ideas that no longer suit our purposes for more useful ones. And we also should remain alert to our tendency to reify and fetishize ideas, even our new and improved ones. We can refill our cup after we think we’ve emptied it, making it too full again. In fact, we tend to do this repeatedly.

Always there is more to a story than meets the eye; more to be seen and felt if we can enter the story and abide in and remain present to all that’s emerging and yet-to-emerge. Always more of the whole to be encountered and integrated. That “more” often includes what we have abandoned; often we must rediscover, refigure, and reclaim what we’ve rejected. We must transcend it and then (re)include it, as the philosopher Ken Wilber says.

There’s always more to this, because this is not an idea. If we think the story has ended, and that we’ve now got the point—if the space we think we’ve emptied becomes too full of something else, even, perhaps especially, “Zen”—we’re missing the point.

And the tea.

May our cups runneth over.

Kyōgen’s “Man Up a Tree”: A Jukai Reflection on Lineage and the Precepts

I gave this talk on April 8, 2023, at the Greater Boston Zen Center.

This is Case 5 in The Gateless Gate:

Master Kyōgen said, “It’s like a man up a tree, hanging from a branch by his mouth; his hands cannot grasp a branch, his feet won’t reach a bough. Suppose there is another person under the tree who asks him, “What is the meaning of Boddhidharma’s coming from the west?” If he does not respond, he goes against the wish of the questioner. If he answers, he will lose his life. At such time, how should he respond?

This is one of those koans that has stuck with me over the years. The image of this man up a tree is at once so odd and so relatable. He’s clenching a limb with his teeth, holding onto his life precariously. He must be panicked, painfully aware this is going to end poorly no matter what, even before someone else comes along seeking help.

How much longer could he hold on? Thirty seconds, maybe? A minute? Still, he hesitates to let go of the tree to face the inevitable; hesitates to respond to another soul appealing to him as a Bodhisattva.

I remember feeling so pained for the man up the tree the first time I read this koan. Anguished. I feel for him still. Of course, we are the person up the tree. Which of us hasn’t been stuck before, and felt it?

We’re going to celebrate Jukai this afternoon. Three of our friends here today—Eliot, Kent, and Rebecca—will take up the Bodhisattva Precepts, formally dedicating themselves to the Zen way of life.

This koan is perfect for today, because Jukai also is about a certain tree. During Jukai one receives a scroll tracing a lineage of Zen ancestors from Shakyamuni Buddha to oneself. This lineage traditionally is understood as a family tree—a new family tree. Many Asian cultures, including those of China and Japan, which sequentially formed the Zen tradition as we initially received it, place great emphasis on ancestry—upon one’s identification with and location within a community conceptualized in terms of kinship through time.

It can be a bit hard for us Westerners to fully imbibe what this means to many Asians even today, in all its complex valences that entail both benefit and burden. But for many this sense of lineage is deeply felt. Many people in parts of Asia still deeply appreciate and honor this attention to lineage. That’s not to say this strong identification with ancestral lineage doesn’t feel limiting and otherwise burdensome at times. For example, tensions between the old and the new, and between the individual and the community, are prominent themes in Chinese poetry, prose, and proverb throughout history.

In Jukai, as in rituals in other traditions in which one affirms one’s commitment to an intentional way of life, one receives a new name. This happened to me—and, I think, some others in this room—when I participated in the Catholic rite of Confirmation many years ago. Today, Eliot, Kent, and Rebecca each will receive a Dharma name. In Japan to this day, Zen monks, and likely also some non-monastics, actually change their name in the civil legal records after taking the precepts. This is no small matter in that cultural context. Symbolically and practically, they’re saying they’ve jumped from one family tree to another.

How do we make sense of all this today, from our cultural perspectives and for our purposes? How can and should we think about lineage when focusing so much on ancestry seems foreign and anachronistic to us; when the traditional lineage we depict in Zen draws attention to some people to the neglect of countless others; and when some of the people depicted were disappointing (or worse) in some ways, however insightful and helpful they may have been in other ways. Viewed from one angle, our Zen tree looks pretty gnarly, even rotten or hollow in places.

The people listed on the traditional scroll our Jukai participants will receive are mostly men, and almost all of these men were monks. Eliot, Kent, and Rebecca also will receive a chart tracing the lineage of some prominent women and non-monastic ancestors as a way to begin to acknowledge and honor the fact that this tree has long been sustained by a much more diverse community of people committed to the Zen way than has been formally recognized, including people like us living ordinary lives.

Some people listed on the traditional charts, whether in my White Plum lineage or other lineages, transgressed one of more of the Ten Grave Precepts in some grave way. Some did so repeatedly.

Perhaps a bit like the man in Kyogen’s koan, we find ourselves up a tree that we discover to be gnarly and rotten or hollow in some places. We find ourselves out on a limb. What a precarious position. Should we hold on? Can we hold on? What is there to hold onto? What will we be avoiding or neglecting if we continue to hold on by our teeth?

Perhaps the best place for the man in the tree to be at this time is exactly where he’s afraid to be—on the ground. Perhaps things won’t end as he fears if he lets go of the branch on which he’s found himself, and to which he’s clinging. With a view from the ground, balanced on his own two feet, perhaps he will be able to see the whole tree more clearly; discern and appreciate the parts that seem more solid and secure; get some distance from and perspective on the parts that seem less so.

Perhaps falling from the tree branch to which one has been clinging can be more like Alice’s experience falling down a rabbit hole (much as I hesitate to use that term in this age of social media-fueled partisanship). Down the rabbit hole, Alice became larger than other things at times. If we can think of our Zen lineage tree depicted on the traditional chart as something smaller, like a bonsai tree, our perspective on it may shift.

In the art of bonsai, we both take the tree as we find it and we actively shape the tree. We need to think of our Zen tree this way. We are not only shaped by it; we can shape it; we must shape it. Even now, Zen adepts across the globe are reshaping the Zen tradition in myriad ways, opening it to people who have been excluded or marginalized, altering old forms and creating new ones.

Our sangha has been questioning the traditional forms and structures for the past few years, as well it should. We are looking at how what we’ve received has shaped us and how we want to shape this tradition and our practice within it going forward. We’re becoming more like the bonsai artist than the man up the tree.

I’d like to mix metaphors for a moment as I wrap up this talk to touch on the other primary element of Jukai, the precepts themselves. I want to relate them to lineage and, as I do, try to refigure both. Instead of thinking of lineage only, or even primarily, in the traditional way—as a line traced through a succession of formally recognized teachers—I see it more fundamentally as Indra’s Net, another Buddhist metaphor. Indra’s Net includes each of us. We’re all jewels in this net.

It’s easy—too easy—to focus on the jewels in this image, but the rope that connects the jewels to one another is equally important. In fact, in a real net, the jewels, or nodes, are literally formed with the rope. Each jewel is a meeting of beginning-less rope; each jewel is constituted by encounter.

I see the ropes in Indra’s Net as the precepts. They’re what connects us; binds us; in a very real sense, forms and constitutes us. The precepts show us how to be in right relation with one another. How to manifest together as the clear, colorful, bright, and variously shaped jewels we are.

Conceived this way, as a net, our lineage chart doesn’t trace in a single, temporal line of successive generations of teachers. The lines, or ropes, of Indra’s Net extend and crisscross in all directions through space and time, connecting each of us. Each and every node in the net is the net’s center. Many centers, none of them primary.

Many of the traditional forms we’ve inherited communicate these ideas poorly, but I choose to see them in this other way, too. This is part of the logic behind inviting people to create a personal lineage chart for Jukai. I also want to encourage anyone who has taken Jukai to have others in and beyond our sangha place a mark on the back of their rakusu, in addition to the inscription and stamp a teacher has made.

Each of us is an heir to and custodian of the gnarly, wonderful, living tree that is the Zen tradition. It needs constant shaping and tending. Let’s not relate to it like the man up the tree, clinging to it for dear life with our teeth. Let’s tend and shape it well together.

I Am of the Nature to Die

I gave this talk on Thursday, February 2, 2023, at the Greater Boston Zen Center. A recording of the talk follows the text.

I am of the nature to grow old;
There is no way to escape growing old. 

I am of the nature to have ill health;
There is no way to escape having ill health. 

I am of the nature to die;
There is no way to escape death. 

All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature of change; There is no way to escape being separated from them. 

My deeds are my closest companions.

I am born of my deeds; and I am their heir.
My deeds are the ground on which I stand.

I’ve reread The Five Remembrances we recited earlier tonight because I’d like us to reflect on the neglected topic of our own mortality.  I hope tonight’s conversation will help each of us reflect on it more frequently—even daily—if we do not already.

I’ve been compelled to reflect on my own mortality lately for a rather mundane reason.  I turned 60 last year, so the prospect of retirement is nearer than it has seemed in the past.  We have been updating our financial plan to ensure we are prepared for that moment when it arrives.  In the process, I’ve had to use life expectancy and longevity calculators to estimate my remaining lifespan.

Taking a tip from a book on financial planning, I downloaded an app called Countdown, set a countdown timer with my estimated expiration date, and made that timer a widget on my phone’s home screen.  I now see a current estimate of the number of days I have left every time I pick up my phone.  Who knows when I’ll go, of course.   The best of these longevity calculators is not a crystal ball, and its output doesn’t come with a life-time guaranty, but it can provide the best probabilistic estimate of how long any one of us might live. 

If this practice of counting down the days to my projected expiration date sounds morbid, it’s just a way to visualize and operationalize The Five Remembrances we chant each time we meet. This chant is an element of our spiritual tradition that can be found in many others. In Christianity, for example, there’s the notion and practice of momento mori, which translates to “remember that you die.” When you see a human skull or bones, or an hourglass, in Christian artwork, it’s there to remind you that you will die. Monks in another stream of Buddhism practice a form of meditation in which they minutely visualize the stages of their own death, including the decomposition of their bodies.

We go to great lengths to hide death in our culture.  When I traveled around Latin America in my 20s for the first time, I was surprised to see coffin vendors in retail areas alongside fruit stands and shoe stores.  Years later, in Nepal, I was equally taken by the outdoor funeral pyres—massive bonfires, tended by monks, ignited to cremate the departed.  In Italy, Israel, and Iran one regularly sees Christians, Jews, and Muslims, respectively, carrying coffins through the streets in funeral processions.  Here we tend to be reminded of death only when we get news that someone we know has died or is terminally ill, though our experience obviously was much different during the height of the pandemic.  People in China are experiencing now what we experienced two years ago.

The anthropologist Ernest Becker wrote an influential book in the 70’s called The Denial of Death.  He argued that much of human culture, and most of our behavior, is geared toward helping us ignore or evade the anxiety we feel when we are aware of the reality that we will die.  As far as we know, we are the only species that can reflect on our own mortality—and also the only species that can create elaborate ways to buffer ourselves from the fear reflecting on our mortality provokes. 

One element of this theory is the idea that we construct and cling to shared worldviews that help us feel we are meaningful members of a meaningful group in a meaningful universe.  Knowing vaguely that we are part of something larger that will continue after we are gone decreases personal death anxiety.  A corollary of this idea is that encounters with people who embrace a different worldview can feel threatening to our own sense of identity and worldview, and that this can contribute to prejudice and hostility.

Scholars later decided to test Becker’s ideas empirically, developing many creative experiments that seem to support the theory (which does have its skeptics within the social sciences, I should note).  For example, an experimenter might stop people on the street to interview them.  First the researcher asks whether the person they’ve stopped is conservative or liberal, or maybe whether they practice a religion and, if so, which one.  Then the researcher asks how the person views members of a different group—say, liberals if speaking to a conservative person or Christians if speaking to an atheist.  The researcher conducts these interviews in two different locations, one in front of a funeral home and the other in front of someplace like a bakery that we don’t associate with death.  It turns out that people stopped in front of the funeral home tend to express less charitable views about members of other groups.

But there’s also good news: These researchers have learned it’s often possible to counteract and even reverse this unconscious tendency to feel threatened by people who are different than oneself. They have found, for example, that simply making people aware of this unconscious tendency and its link to our natural anxiety about death reduces feelings of hostility toward people who view the world differently. Even more positively and hopefully, they even have found that affirming one’s own worldview can make one more accepting of and charitable toward people with another worldview.

We don’t even need the other to affirm our own worldview, though this can help; it’s enough to affirm it ourselves.  For example, in one study very conservative Muslims in Iran and very conservative Christians in the United States assessed members of the other group very negatively when asked about them.  However, when members of each group first were prompted to reflect upon a core value within their own tradition—say the Beatitude “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” for the Christians—these study subjects expressed very moderate, even friendly, views about members of the other group.

Spiritual practices like The Five Remembrances help us face and get used to the reality that we die—that “our little lives are rounded by a sleep,” as Shakespeare wrote.  Practicing them repeatedly—even every time we touch our mobile devices throughout the day—keeps this reality ever-present.  Over time, these practices tend to make the seemingly inconvenient and anxiety-producing truth that we are mortal rather matter of fact, even boring. 

My teacher, Kevin Hunt, has been a monk for about 70 years, engaging in these sorts of practices every day over these decades.  A while ago doctors suspected he had an illness that could end his life very quickly.  They were surprised by his placid demeanor when they broke the news.  When they asked why he didn’t seem disturbed, he smiled, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “I’ve been preparing for this moment for a long time.”  He wasn’t so ill as it turns out, but Kevin knows it’s just a matter of time until his time comes.  He’s ready for it.

He also knows he is not living on autopilot.  These practices not only help reduce fear and denial of death, but they also help us value life and live more fully and securely, much like the researchers I told you about have discovered.  That is the ultimate point and purpose of these practices.

In light of this it’s fitting to end with something the Zen teacher Mel Weitsman said not long before he passed away in 2021.  He encouraged us not to use the phrase “life and death,” as we tend to do, but instead to say “birth and death”—because it’s all Life.

Opening to Suffering, Bearing Witness, and the Middle Way

I gave this talk on Saturday, December 17, 2022, at the Greater Boston Zen Center Rohatsu Sesshin.  A recording will be available here.

This is a version of the Rohatsu story, the story of Shakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment:

The story of the Buddha’s enlightenment is not told exactly the same way in all schools of Buddhism, and all include elements of folk history and fable.

Raised in a life of privilege and luxury and protected from all knowledge of pain and suffering, young Prince Siddhartha Gautama at the age of 29 is said to have left the family palace to meet his subjects, at which time he was confronted with the reality of human suffering.

Having been confronted with the Four Passing Sights, (a sick person, an aged person, a corpse, and a holy man) and greatly troubled by them, the young prince renounced his life, then left his home and family to discover the truth of birth and death and to find peace of mind. He sought out one yoga teacher and then another one, mastering what they taught him and then moving on.

Then, with five companions, for five or six years he engaged in rigorous asceticism. He tortured himself, held his breath, and fasted until his ribs stuck out “like a row of spindles” and he could almost feel his spine through his stomach. Yet enlightenment seemed no closer.

Then he remembered something. Once as a boy, while sitting under a rose-apple tree on a beautiful day, he had spontaneously experienced great bliss and entered the first dhyana, meaning he was absorbed in a deep meditative state.

He realized then that this experience showed him the way to realization. Instead of punishing his body to find release from the confines of the self, he would work with his own nature and practice purity of mental defilements to realize enlightenment.

He knew then that he would need physical strength and better health to continue. About this time a young girl, Sujata, came by and offered the emaciated Siddhartha a bowl of milk and rice. When his companions saw him eating solid food they believed he had given up the quest, and they abandoned him.

At this point, Siddhartha had realized the path to awakening was a “middle way” between extremes of the self-denial he had been practicing with his group of ascetics and the self-indulgence of the life he had been born into.

Siddhartha Gautama sat beneath a sacred fig and began to meditate. According to some traditions, he realized enlightenment in one night. Others say three days and three nights; while others say 45 days.

When his mind was purified by concentration, it is said he acquired the Three Knowledges. The first knowledge was that of his past lives and the past lives of all beings. The second knowledge was of the laws of karma. The third knowledge was that he was free of all obstacles and released from attachments.

When he realized release from samsara, the awakened Buddha exclaimed,

“House-builder, you’re seen! You will not build a house again. All your rafters broken, the ridge pole destroyed, gone to the Unformed, the mind has come to the end of craving.” [Dhammapada, verse 154]

Buddhist legends say that Mara, a sort of trickster god, wished to stop Siddhartha’s quest for enlightenment, so he brought his most beautiful daughters to Bodh Gaya to seduce him. But Siddhartha did not move. Then Mara sent armies of demons to attack him. Siddhartha sat still, and untouched.

Then, Mara claimed that the seat of enlightenment rightfully belonged to him and not to a mortal. Mara’s demon soldiers cried out together, “I am his witness!” Mara challenged Siddhartha—These soldiers speak for me. Who will speak for you?

Then Siddhartha reached out his right hand to touch the earth, and the earth itself spoke: “I bear you witness!” Mara disappeared. And as the morning star rose in the sky, Siddhartha Gautama realized enlightenment and became a Buddha.

Source:, by Barbara O’Brien, updated on June 21, 2018 (adapted)

I should say as I begin this talk that I’ll be making a couple of very brief and general references to some of the horrors of war.  I won’t be including much detail, and certainly not any graphic detail.  I hope and expect these general references won’t be too unsettling for anyone, but I just wanted to provide this advance notice that they’re coming to try to help ensure that.

Last week I was in Sarajevo helping facilitate an ongoing dialogue among senior leaders of key Israeli and Palestinian stakeholder groups seeking a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  This group importantly includes representatives of Jewish and Muslim religious nationalist stakeholder groups.  Prior peace processes have failed largely because they only included secular-political actors and worked only from the top down, rather than from the top down, bottom up, and middle out.  The initiative in which I’m involved attempts to correct for these problems.  It’s beginning to bear real fruit.

I’ve been involved in this particular initiative for the past six years, but I’ve been doing work like it for nearly 30 years.  I moved to Boston in 1995 to study at Harvard Divinity School, where I intended to get a Ph.D. in comparative religion, focusing on intersections between Zen Buddhism and the Christian contemplative tradition.  I started to doubt the wisdom of that decision almost immediately.  Much of my coursework seemed too abstract and disengaged.  

Midway through my first semester the New York Times ran a story about the massacre at Srebrenica near the end of the war in the former Yugoslavia.  Nearly 8,400 Bosnian Muslims—mostly men and young boys—were murdered systematically by Serbian soldiers.  The article included a picture of a Muslim woman who had taken her own life rather than be killed.  That picture moved me to tears.  It made me want to understand how and why religion sometimes gets entangled in and seems to help fuel violence.  I wanted to do something to help.  So I reoriented my studies to focus on that question, and on conflict transformation and peace studies more broadly.

Last week, after my meetings ended, I borrowed a friend’s car and drove three hours north of Sarajevo to Srebrenica, the site of the horrible massacre that had unsettled me so fundamentally, prompting such a major shift in the direction of my life.  The site is now a cemetery, memorial, and genocide research center.  I spent a few hours there, mostly walking among the gravestones, making sure I caught sight of every one of them.  I also read and listened to some of the tributes to those buried there.  Sadly, there are 20 or so fresh graves in the cemetery.  Victims’ remains are still being discovered in the forests surrounding Srebrenica 30 years after the massacre.

What does all this have to do with Rohatsu—our celebration of the Buddha’s enlightenment?  I want to trace three connections: allowing oneself to be moved by others’ suffering, bearing witness, and the middle way.

The first theme I want to highlight is opening to suffering:

In some versions of the Rohatsu story Prince Siddhartha’s father actively insulates him from exposure to the realities of sickness, old age, and death.  We hear that he lived his whole life in his father’s palace without awareness of these features of human experience.  His father even hoped to conceal them from him on the excursion about which we read, but Siddhartha nonetheless was confronted with them.  

I find it hard to believe that anyone could live into their 20s or 30s without awareness of sickness, aging, and death.  I can imagine a parent wanting to protect their child from hardship, however, and I also can imagine a young person in a privileged position delusively feeling rather exempt from the inevitability of sickness, old age, and death.  I can imagine a young person—and older people, too—not tuning into and being moved by others’ suffering.

Whether or not the Buddha’s turning point came precisely how it’s reported in our Rohatsu story, it seems his initial, transformative opening occurred when he allowed himself to notice and be moved by others’ suffering.  He became so affected and unsettled by others’ suffering that he completely upended his life.  We also should acknowledge that the lives of his wife and child also were upended—a feature of his story about which I feel very uneasy, I must say.

Many of us come to Zen practice quite absorbed in our own suffering and seeking escape from it in ways subtle and not-so-subtle.  Many of us hope Zen might offer a ticket into the sort of palace the Buddha left.  We figure Zen as a path to bliss.  It’s very important to see the Buddha’s own felt awareness of suffering not just as his motivation to experience enlightenment but as the inception of his conscious experience of enlightenment.  This motivation—bodhicitta—is enlightened experience, and we must maintain it.

It’s also very important to note that the young Sujata’s compassionate response to the Buddha’s suffering is part of his—and our—enlightenment experience.  This was another decisive moment in the Buddha’s awakening.  He accepted the reality of his own suffering by accepting Sujata’s kindness.  Having pushed himself to ridiculous extremes in search of someplace beyond our ordinary experience, he accepted his creatureliness and dependence.  

The second theme I want to lift up is bearing witness:

We’re told the Buddha, nourished by milk and rice and a fresh perspective, returned to meditation, and soon had a series of deep insights.  We don’t hear much about the nature of his ultimate realization as this version of the Rohatsu story ends.  We just hear that he “realized enlightenment and became a Buddha.”  

What does that mean?  Another version of the story ends with the Buddha saying, “I and all beings and the whole great earth have simultaneously attained the Way together.”  In other words, the Buddha experienced the unity of relative and Absolute, and not as an idea.  He experienced himself and all else as one—as distinct but not separate.

But before the Buddha has this realization he is visited by Mara, who attempts to prevent the Buddha from having it.  The figure of Mara, and other “gods” we encounter in the early Buddhist scriptures, may seem anachronistic—quaintly mythological—to many of us today, but the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment parallels some other ancient stories about religious figures in this way.  Think of Jesus, who also is said to have gone on a solitary quest, spending 40 days and nights in the desert, where he was tested by the anti-god Satan much like Mara tested the Buddha.  

However else the ancients thought about demons, they certainly understood, as we do, that demons can be in our heads.  We can think of Mara as the voice of delusive separateness that breeds violence and other forms of suffering; that voice in our heads that tells us we’re separate from other beings and there’s someplace other than here that we should be.  Mara’s soldiers bear witness to this delusive view and aspiration, just as those Serbian soldiers attested to and acted upon the deranged view that they were separate from and superior to the Muslims they slaughtered; that they could reach a promised land if they could just be permanently, existentially separated from specific others.

When Mara asks who speaks for the Buddha, he doesn’t conjure a chorus of angry soldiers. He simply turns one palm up and touches his other hand to the ground.  Heaven and Earth speak for me, he is saying.  They bear witness to me and I to them.  Each thing bears witness to and speaks for all others; no separation.  Were I to harm another being, I’d be harming myself.

It’s interesting and important that, in this story of the Buddha’s enlightenment, he is contesting a god.  Mara is asserting that he is above humans; that Buddha is trying to transgress the divine realm.  The Buddha’s response to that assertion, and the path he opened, is summarized well by a line in the Heart Sutra we just chanted: “Far beyond delusive thinking, right here is Nirvana.”  The binary that lies beneath all others that bedevil us is the heaven-earth binary.  Buddhism pierces that binary, and Zen Buddhism absolutely obliterates it—as a rigid binary, or dualism, that is.

We are called to bear witness to and act in accordance with the reality that form is exactly emptiness; emptiness exactly form.  That heaven and earth are one.  We’re called to bear witness to our inter-being; our interdependence.  This bearing witness demands that we practice non-harming and speak out and act up against harming when we see it.  It demands that we act to promote healthy connection among all beings.  We can never be disconnected, but we can act as if it’s possible to disconnect.  We are sure to cause harm if we do.  The Srebrenica massacre is an extreme example of that delusive line of thinking and the harm it can cause.

Finally, the third theme I want to highlight is the middle way:

The Rohatsu story is a story of one person’s discovery of a middle way.  It’s a very personal story in one sense, but this person obviously goes on to try to help others find their middle way, personally and also collectively.  We absolutely must find the middle way collectively, not just personally.  There really is no solitary middle way.  Finding our middle way is increasingly urgent on so many pressing issues, like climate change, for example.  The conflict transformation work I’ve been involved in in the Middle East and elsewhere is about finding a collective middle way in hope of averting more tragedies like the Sbrebrenica massacre.  

It is possible to bridge our differences—even our most intense and seemingly intractable differences involving our core, identity-defining values.  I see this happening in the work I do.  This work makes me hopeful.

A common misconception about this sort of work is that it inevitably resolves toward a facile, perhaps even dangerous, both sides-ism.  The assumption is that seeking a middle way in conflict inevitably leads to a mid-point between the parties’ starting points—and one that requires unacceptable compromises of one’s values.  This is simply not true.  

Parties sometimes meet in the middle through well-structured dialogue around deep differences, but sometimes one party moves completely to the other side; moves entirely to the other person’s perspective.  Either way, parties have opened to one another, at least if the outcome is a product of genuine, deep dialogue and deliberation.   If you doubt this, email me, and I’ll send you a study that proves it.  Actually, proof is in the news: the recent Respect for Marriage Act is one good example of this possibility.

So, to sum up, these are three lessons from our Rohatsu story that speak to me deeply right now, following my visit to Srebrenica:

  • We need to let ourselves be moved by others’ suffering and accept others’ responses to our own suffering;
  • We must bear witness, actively and concretely, to the reality of our non-separateness and inescapable interdependence; and  
  • We must continually seek and open up a middle way, not just personally and “spiritually,” but collectively, socially.  Genuine spirituality is social.

The enlightenment story is a story of continual opening to our own and others’ suffering.  It’s a story of one person who set foot on a path of engaging others in goodwill, conscious of our radical interdependence, to address and transform our suffering.  It’s our path, too, and it’s indeed the only Way.

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.


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