Sengcan’s “Affirming Faith in Mind” II

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

This is Case 98 from the Blue Cliff Record:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sengcan’s Affirming Faith in Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Zen Peacemakers’ Three Tenets: Reflections on the War in Ukraine

I gave this talk at the Greater Boston Zen Center on Saturday, March 19, 2022.  

I turn 60 in July. The world has changed a lot in my lifetime.

One change I have been very grateful for, in some ways at least, is the end of the Cold War. I grew up in an era when the possibility of nuclear annihilation was ever present. We were reminded of it constantly, with tests of the civil defense system that would interrupt the cartoons we watched on Saturday morning. With bomb attack drills at school in which we would crowd into the basement or take cover under our desks, as if that really would protect us from a nuclear blast or its fallout.

I was in Jerusalem and Ramallah last week doing the conflict and peacebuilding work I’ve been involved in there and elsewhere for many years. While I was away, my 13-year old daughter had a nightmare about being someplace that was bombed.

To the extent I even thought about it these days, I thought those days were gone. The days of kids having nightmares about nuclear bomb blasts. That was just something my generation had to endure, right?

Not so much, it sadly seems. Of course, that view—that near-certainty that this era had passed—was conditioned by my location in a rich, powerful country with a vast stockpile of nuclear and conventional weapons. Much as I thought I could relate more than some to people living in war zones—I have been to a several—I really don’t know what it’s like to go to sleep every night not knowing whether a bullet, or a missile launched from a drone or a plane (perhaps even one with a U.S. emblem on it) might disrupt my sleep, or even take my life or those of loved ones.

I imagine some of you, or your loved ones, are feeling as anxious as my daughter these days. Like her, all of us see the images of what’s happening in Ukraine, and the stern rhetoric coming from all directions.

I thought I’d talk about this a bit today, tentatively, through the lens of the Zen Peacemaker Order’s Three Tenets.

Not Knowing

The first tenet is not knowing, a theme—and, I hope, an experience—we encounter frequently in Zen practice.

We sometimes talk of our certainties in terms of delusions—delusions which are inexhaustible, and which we vow to transform.

Why are our certainties a type of delusion and ignorance, and a potential source of conflict and other forms of suffering?

The more certain we become about our own views and convictions, the more we close ourselves to new information, perspectives, and experiences. Our capacity to perceive and know is always limited, but the less curious we become, the greater the risk we’ll descend down a rabbit hole, missing things that are important and behaving in ways that cause harm to ourselves and others whose needs and interests lie outside our present field of vision or comfort zone.

I suspect this is how most big blunders happen—in whatever domain, from our personal lives to wars within and among nations. Many so-called “mistakes” and other calamities likely occur because someone is invested in a partial story with a foregone conclusion. These stories are partial in two senses: they serve our own perceived (or misperceived) interests, and they omit important information and perspectives, including others’ perspectives. We also tend to be too confident about how these stories will end if we don’t buy into them, as if we alone had a crystal ball.

Zen encourages a very different orientation, or default setting. Time and again, Zen teachings emphasize not knowing. This is not an abstract principle or aspirational ideal or virtue. It is, in fact, the only sensible orientation self-aware people of good judgment and goodwill could embrace: acknowledging we actually don’t know what we do not, and perhaps cannot, know. There are many things we simply don’t know, and likely never can know, despite our evident discomfort with this seeming predicament and our strong desire to know.

Sometimes we must act in the face of uncertainty, and at these times our core values, like those expressed in the Bodhisattva Precepts and the Zen Peacemaker Order’s Three Precepts, can help guide us. But we shouldn’t cling to them blindly or apply them on auto-pilot. We must do our best to remain curious and open in difficult situations; to acknowledge the limitations of our vision even as we act.

Bearing Witness

One of the most remarkable examples of bearing that I have encountered personally is the Katsuzo Sawada.

My family lived a stone’s throw away from Boulder, Colorado, in the late 1960s and the first half of the 1970s, and I was in college in nearby Denver from 1976 to 1980. I lived in Boulder off and on between 1985 and 1995, first as a grad student, then working as a young lawyer. Throughout most of this time, spanning nearly three decades, plutonium parts for nuclear bombs were being manufactured at Rocky Flats, a massive, underground, top secret facility just outside Boulder.

I can’t remember precisely when I first heard Sawada’s steady drumbeat come and go, but it was definitely during the time I was a student in Boulder. I was in the little cabin in Chautauqua Park where I lived, in a coffee shop, out on a run. The first couple of times I heard Sawada’s drum, it was a sonic apparition. I turned to see the source of this unusual sound, but couldn’t locate it. The next time I heard it, I turned quickly and caught sight of Sawada, taking broad, swift strides, in full monk garb, beating his hand drum.

This was Sawada’s practice. Morning to night. For decades.

Sawada is part of a Buddhist sect that emphasizes walking meditation and work for peace. Much to his parents’ dismay, he became a monk as a young man and ultimately moved to Boulder, alone, to bear witness to the madness of the nuclear arms race. Many years later, a couple of other monks from his order eventually joined him in Boulder, perhaps, in part, to lessen the physical toll this form of protest must have taken on Sawada.

Sawada’s presence in Boulder–the sound and sight of him at random times during the week–made a deep impression on me. I really appreciate his example of bearing witness. It has stayed with me. He must have been deeply moved to move to Boulder from Japan and spend long days in motion, circumambulating a nuclear weapons plant. His incredible patience and presence and commitment and determination and calmness and spirit of ahimsa (not harming) are among the qualities of his bearing witness that have made the deepest impressions on me.

Taking Action

Yes, we must act. But if our actions are not grounded in the practice of the first two tentets, beware.

There is a war in Ukraine. What will we do? What can people like you and me possibly do?

Rent apartments in Kiev on Airbnb.

Hug our frightened children.

How will we respond?

Buffalo Tails and Russian Dolls:  Reflections on Spiritual Growth

I gave this talk at the Greater Boston Zen Center on Saturday, January 29, 2022. There’s also a link below to a recording of the version of this talk I gave at our Full Moon Zen sit on Thursday, January 27, 2022. 

This is Case 38 in The Gateless Gate:

Wu-tsu said, “It is like a buffalo that passes through a latticed window.  Its head, horns, and four legs all pass through. Why can’t its tail pass through as well?”

Here’s Wu-men’s commentary on the koan:

If you can get upside down with this one, discern it clearly, and give a turning word to it, then you can meet the Four Obligations above and give comfort to the Three Existences below.  But if it is not yet clear, pay close attention to the tail and you will resolve it at last.

And here’s Wu-men’s verse:

Passing through, falling into a ditch;

turning beyond, all is lost.

This tiny little tail –

what a wonderful thing it is!

Our daughter, who is 13, has strong likes and dislikes.

One thing she really likes is birthdays—her own, for sure, but others’ birthdays, too.  She looks forward to celebrations so much, and that brings all of us a lot of joy.

One thing our daughter really does not like is change.  I don’t think she’s yet forgiven my wife and me for our move from a suburb into Boston two years ago.  As much as she’s come to like where we now live, she still feels the sting of leaving the only home she’d known until we moved.

Our daughter’s love of birthdays and her distaste for change met head on eight years ago, as she was about to turn five.  At times, she seemed excited to celebrate her birthday; other times, she seemed anxious and down.  

I sat with her at bedtime one night to try to understand what was going on.  She said she was sad that she wouldn’t be four anymore; that four would be lost.  

I had bought our daughter a set Russian nesting dolls on a trip I’d taken several months earlier.  Many of you have seen these dolls, I’m sure.  This set had five dolls: five hollow, brightly painted dolls, each one a bit larger than the next.  The four largest dolls separate at the waist, so you can put the smallest doll inside the doll one size up; those two in the next one up; and so on.  When they’re all packed up, the largest doll is the only one you see.  Now it contains all the others.  

I reached for the set of dolls on a bookshelf nearby, took it apart, and started reassembling it.  As I put the smallest one inside the next size up, I told my daughter this was just like when she turned two: one was still inside two.  When I put those two in the third, I made the same point about when she turned three; and I made that point again when I put the first three dolls in the fourth.  By the time we got to the fifth doll, she understood that turning five didn’t mean losing four.  Four would still be part of her.

Growth in most domains of life is like this.  Our perspective and experience may be transformed, but they’re transformed in a way that integrates and refigures our prior perspectives and experiences.  The old and the new; this way and that way; the things that used to seem like binaries, and that used to generate discomfort, become synthesized into a new way of knowing and being that we never could have imagined.  

Like Alice, we can peer into the looking glass, but we can’t know what’s through it until we’re through it.  In this case, however, “through” isn’t exactly a way out.  Getting to the other side; well, what we find might not exactly be another side. 

In the koan with which I opened this talk, the window is a metaphor for enlightenment, of course.  The buffalo—which is you or me—wants to pass from someplace she doesn’t want to be to someplace she imagines to be better.  But she can’t quite get through.  Her tail is stuck.

Hakuin, the 18th century teacher who revived the Rinzai school in Japan, and koan practice with it, regarded this koan as one of eight that are especially difficult to pass through.  I suppose it is, if we conceive of enlightenment as a passage to someplace completely other than where we’ve been, and if we expect to become someone completely new, other than who we’ve been.

To be clear, the Zen way entices us toward a particular sort of growth.  Its teachings and practices both support and embody that growth as we take them up.  I suppose we can call it spiritual growth if we must call it something.  It’s a paradoxical sort of growth, not unlike those Russian dolls.

Why is spiritual growth paradoxical?

On the one hand, our practice may help us grow beyond the existential angst many of us feel; that acute, uncomfortable, fragile sense of existential isolation that propels so much action and inaction which can compound our own and others’ suffering.

The biggest Russian doll is bigger than the whole universe; it is hidden in plain sight, as everything and nothing.  Taking up and continuing along the Zen Way, we may discover and center in this reality—experientially, as the fabric of our being, not as an idea.  We may come to discover and feel ourselves, and everything else, as arising and boundlessly coterminous with that biggest of all Russian dolls.

We can think of enlightenment experiences or insights, if we have them, as glimpses of that biggest Russian doll reality.  But I think it’s best to think of enlightenment, if we’re going to think about it at all, as progressively becoming securely anchored in that awareness and experience.  And not just from the universal perspective, the perspective of that biggest of all Russian dolls, important as it is to cultivate it, and as much as Zen practice is about helping us do so.  But also from one’s own very concrete and particular perspective, as a being interdependently present with other beings.

There used to be a brushwork piece hanging here that depicted a candle burning from both ends.  At one end it said, “Sometimes swiftly.”  At the other it said, “Sometimes slowly.”  

This image depicts the eventual resolution of a debate that raged for some time in the early days of the Zen tradition.  Back in 8th century China, the so-called Northern School of Zen claimed enlightenment comes suddenly, and the so-called Southern School claimed that enlightenment comes gradually.  The image represents the synthesis that eventually emerged: both perspectives are valid.  It can happen either way.

My view of how that ancient debate should be resolved is just a bit different.  Instead of “sometimes swiftly, sometimes slowly,” I’d say, “sometimes swiftly, always slowly.”

And that’s a good segue to what makes spiritual growth paradoxical.  It’s all about that tail.

Striving to pass through that window, we may think our tail has us stuck.  If so, we certainly are stuck—but the other end has us stuck.  There’s no escaping our tail-ness, and no need to escape it, as if we even could.  We’re stuck because of how we’re conceiving of enlightenment and striving for what we conceive.

Enlightenment is a slippery word; some might even say it’s a dirty word.  It certainly is a dirty word if one projects into it the pretense of completion; the end of growth.

Our enlightenment is ongoing; never ending.  We can sink ever deeper into the realization that we are what we were seeking—not in a grandiose way, but in the sense knowing ourselves both as distinct beings and as not separate in any way.  We continue to open; to marinate.

And as buffalos with tails, we always will have blind spots.  As distinct beings, there are experiences and perspectives that are not our own.  We can miss things about ourselves or about the world around us.  Each of us needs others to help us see and learn from what we presently do not see.

I once met a teacher who said Zen has nothing to do with ethics.  His point is that Zen is fundamentally about realizing that biggest of all Russian dolls insight, and he believes that awareness has nothing to do with ethics.  That’s a view from the perspective of the absolute, but one that, to my thinking, neglects the unity of absolute and relative.

I’m with the 20th century teacher Yamada Roshi, who summed up the whole of Zen practice and its goal as the refinement of character.  That biggest of all Russian dolls insight can and must contribute greatly to the refinement of one’s character.  If that doesn’t yet seem to be happening, there’s reason to question how securely one is anchored in that awareness and experience.

As we grow in insight, wisdom, and maturity, we hopefully become less subject to baser impulses and delusive ways of thinking that possessed those smaller Russian dolls within us, cute as they are.  But real maturity is accepting their presence with all humility and tending to them skillfully; never thinking we’re free of blind spots or have otherwise fully passed through some mythical, ultimate gate; and remaining open to new insights from wherever or whomever they may come.

So let’s please each pay close attention to our own tail.

The Dark (Rōhatsu 2021)

I gave this talk, as guest teacher at the Greater Boston Zen Center, on Saturday, December 11, 2021. You’ll find the text and a video of the talk below. If you prefer to listen, you can access the audio recording on GBZC’s website.

We’re approaching the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. Our days are shortest and our nights are longest this time of year.

This is the season when most of the wisdom traditions that originated north of the equator have a festival of light. Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains celebrate Diwali. Jews celebrate Hanukkah. Christians (and many secular people) celebrate Christmas.

In each of these traditions, we find narratives of light breaking through darkness. Good triumphs over evil. True knowledge dispels ignorance.

In Zen we also have a holiday this time of year, as you know: Rōhatsu, or Bodhi Day, which was this past Wednesday. It’s the day on which we recall and honor Siddhartha Gautama’s great realization. Legend has it that the historical Buddha spent the whole night meditating. As the morning star arose, he finally found what he had been seeking. We Westerners later called that moment his enlightenment. Rōhatsu often is observed by meditating all night, as the Buddha did.

We don’t really know whether things happened according to legend, of course, let alone whether the Buddha’s great realization occurred at this time of year.

So what are we to make of Zen’s winter holiday, in which we recall and reenact the Buddha’s experience of enlightenment as dawn broke? Is this another traditional festival of light?

I suppose each of these holidays is meant to inspire hope in some sense. In Zen, “hope” might best be understood as bodhicitta, the desire to realize our own enlightenment for the sake of all beings.

But metaphorical references to light are slippery in Buddhism, particularly in Zen.

Let’s take a close look at some of the sources that tell us about the Buddha’s enlightenment experience, on the one hand, and about how light and dark are conceived in the Zen tradition.

Let’s start with the Pali Cannon, the ancient Buddhist scriptures, which include teachings attributed to the Buddha himself. There, we hear the Buddha say that “liberation of the mind is like the quenching of a lamp.” The Pali word translated as “quenching” is nibbāna; Nirvana in English.

If we accept this passage as the gist of what the Buddha taught, he is telling us that his great realization—and our own—is like a light being extinguished. There are many other passages throughout the sutras in which the Buddha uses this simile of Nirvana, of a light going out, to describe his own experience of liberation. This image is the opposite of light in darkness.

Scholars agree that bodhi, the word Westerners translated as “enlightenment,” implies direct knowledge, understanding, or realization. But it doesn’t imply conceptual sorts of knowledge; if anything, it implies the cessation of them. Enlightenment as Buddhists use the term should not to be confused with the Western Enlightenment tradition, which is about rational thought, among other things. Buddhism isn’t in the least bit opposed to rational thought, but that’s not primarily what it’s pointing us toward.

Bodhi and Buddha come from the same root word; a word that’s associated with awakening. But, again, scholars agree that word does not suggest “light” or “illumination,” like the sun rising at dawn as one awakens.

So what’s the Zen tradition’s take on light and darkness?

There are many references to light and darkness in Zen, including in “in the light recall this; in the dark recall this” in the Kannon Gyo and “infinite realms of light and dark convey the Buddha mind” in one version of our dedication chant.

Harmony of Relative and Absolute, one of our most important texts, is another example. There, we read:

Light is also darkness, but do not think of it as darkness.

Darkness is light; but do not see it as light.

In the West, we’re so used to associating light with special insight and darkness with ignorance. But that’s not what they mean in Zen. As Suzuki Roshi explained:

Light means the relative, dualistic world of words, the thinking world, the visible world in which we live. Darkness refers to the absolute, where there is no exchange value or materialistic value or even spiritual value—the world that our words and thinking mind can’t reach.

Of course, the verse goes on to tell us:

Light and darkness are not one, not two, 
like the foot before and the foot behind in walking.

So what’s known once the lamp is extinguished? What do we awaken to in the darkness?

I don’t know. It’s mystery.

We awaken to the intimate mystery that we are; the intimate mystery that this is. And we begin to live from that realization.

Light and darkness are not one, not two.

I invite you to close your eyes for a moment. I’ll tell you when to open them.

Picture a vast, boundaryless, empty realm that’s half light, half dark. You are observing it from the sidelines, so to speak, midfield, looking down the plane where light and darkness meet. On your left, it’s all light. On your right, darkness.

Now imagine a person beginning to step out of the dark half, seemingly from nowhere, into the light half. But she stops protruding from dark into the light at her own center line. She remains there, looking a bit like one half of a plastic mold of a human figure. Her front half, the half visible to us, is in the light and looking ahead, into the light.

We are like that. 

This is like that.

Except there are no halves.

You can open your eyes now.

Looking into the light, it’s easy to become completely captivated by and engrossed in what we see: other beings; mountains and waters; our own thoughts and feelings; and especially our own “self.” If that is all we know, however, we will never be at ease in the light. We will see shadows everywhere. I will cast a shadow that haunts myself and others. And I will constantly be hiding in and jumping at shadows.

We become at ease in the light by awakening to the darkness that engulfs all light and shadows.

As the days begin to grow longer, may we know the dark in what we see as light. May we experience not knowing in our knowing.

Zhuangzi’s Grief

I gave this talk, as guest teacher at the Greater Boston Zen Center, on Saturday, October 30, 2021. If you prefer to listen, you can access the audio recording on GBZC’s website.

I’m part of a reading group that’s focusing on Chinese literature this year.  Our guide is a Chinese-American poet who grew up in China at the end of the Cultural Revolution.  I thought I’d open with a story from the ancient Daoist text known as the Zhaungzi, named after its author.  

This translation is from a much more recent book called The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us about the Good Life, which I highly recommend.  

Zhuangzi’s wife died and Huizi went to console him.  He found Zhuangzi squatting on the floor with his legs open, drumming on a pot and singing.  Huizi said, “You lived with her, raised children with her, grew old together.  To not cry at her death is bad enough, but drumming on a pot and singing—what could you be thinking?”  Zhuangzi said, “Oh, it’s not like that.  When she first died, how could I not grieve?  But then I looked back to her beginning, before her birth.  Not just before her birth, but before she had a body.  Not just before she had a body, but before she had qi.  In the midst of that amorphous chaos, there was a change, and she had qi; the qi changed, and she had a body; her body changed, and she was born.  Now there is yet another change, and she has died.  This is like the change of the four seasons: spring, autumn, winter, summer.  Now she is residing in the greatest of chambers.  If I were to follow her sobbing and wailing, it would show I understood nothing about our destiny.  So I stopped.”

I’m visiting you at a time when people the world over—and no doubt some of us here—have experienced and are continuing to experience extraordinary loss and hardship. Over the past 18 months, a global pandemic has claimed millions of lives; lives have been lost to hate crimes and some responses to them; political unrest here and elsewhere has claimed lives; storms, fires, and other extreme weather events have taken lives, homes, and livelihoods.  

During the past year, my wife and I each lost our fathers, hers to COVID and mine to declining health in old age.  Our family also lost two dear friends, one 95 when she passed and the other only 12.  Several of our close friends have experienced similar losses or will soon.  

Everywhere one turns these days, hearts seem laden with loss and hardship.  This is always true, of course.  The pandemic and the other extraordinary things I just mentioned have been occurring alongside the ordinary march of old age and illness that ends in death.  

What are we to make of this story about Zhuangzi, as dark clouds gather above us?

For me, this snapshot of Zhaungzi during his experience of loss is evidence of the fruit our practice can bear.

We should first note that Zhuangzi’s response to his great loss is not spiritual bypass, stoicism, or ascetic detachment.  Zhuangzi felt and grieved his wife’s passing.  His first response—his primary response—was to wail and sob for some time.  

But his loss obviously did not crush his spirit.  In fact, his spirit ultimately seems enlarged by this difficult experience.  Zhuangzi embraces the aching part of himself.  It has a welcome seat at the table—and, for Zhuangzi, we’re all sitting together at a very, very large table.

One does not get the sense from this story or others in his book that Zhuangzi approaches practice as an effort to discover and perfect his essential, “true self,” whatever that might mean.  Zhuangzi’s persona and response to life are simple, earthy, and right on the surface.  The picture of Zhuangzi that emerges is that of a tender, vulnerable human being with a wise, open heart.  This tender heart opens to its own stirrings, to silver linings, to the whole of his life as the life of the cosmos.

Realizing, maintaining, and sharing this orientation to life is what Zen practice is about. 

We can and must work to end this pandemic and strengthen public health efforts globally; address climate change; counter hate and violence; and more.  If and as we make progress in these areas, however, we will continue to experience everyday losses and hardships.  

Zhuangzi’s sorrow and his joy are related; they’re of a piece.  As we know, true joy doesn’t arise from the temporary satisfaction of compulsive, personal cravings, or the temporary avoidance of what makes us anxious.  It arises as we lose and find ourselves in and as the vast robe of liberation into which we and all else are woven.

This robe of liberation includes our sorrow.  We won’t experience true joy if we’re defending ourselves against our own pain and sorrow and closing ourselves to others’ hardships.

When people first hear about the Four Noble Truths, some think the Buddhist path is aimed at insulating oneself from suffering; at bypassing—not touching—that which feels painful.  But it’s quite the opposite. 

So much energy today is directed toward finding and magnifying the self—polishing a version of oneself, putting it on display, and defending it.  Sadly, even spiritual practice and our service commitments sometimes are coopted by this program.  If we seek and magnify ourselves in that way, however, the magnifying glass ultimately concentrates the heat we were hoping to escape, rather than reducing it.

We’ve recently been exploring differences between Chinese and American conceptions of the self in the reading group I mentioned, so our guide encouraged us to watch a documentary called The Century of the Self.  It’s about the evolution of modern conceptions of the self in America.  

The late American playwright Arthur Miller is quoted in the film.  He’s reflecting on the death of his ex-wife, Marilyn Monroe, who committed suicide soon after an intensive, weekend-long therapy immersion experience with proteges of Sigmund and Anna Freud.  I’m not against therapy, even in its contemporary psychoanalytic forms, but I do think Miller’s critique nicely diagnoses one illness that plagues our culture more generally.

He says:

“My argument with so much of psychoanalysis, is the preconception that suffering is a mistake, or a sign of weakness, or a sign even of illness, when in fact, possibly the greatest truths we know have come out of people’s suffering; that the problem is not to undo suffering or to wipe it off the face of the earth but to make it inform our lives, instead of trying to cure ourselves of it constantly and avoid it, and avoid anything but that lobotomized sense of what they call `happiness.’ There’s too much of an attempt, it seems to me, to think in terms of controlling [a person], rather than freeing [a person]. Of defining [the self] rather than letting [the self] go.”

Zhuangzi isn’t valorizing suffering, and neither should we, but nor does he push it away.  Our awakening is an awakening to the contingency and vulnerability of our creatureliness—of all that is dear to us and everyone we love. 

And to the vitality and expansive mystery of our existence.  Our practice is a practice of caring for ourselves and each other as the contingent, vulnerable, and imponderably vast beings that we are.

Not One, Not Two:  Why Zen Types Can’t Count

I gave this talk during our Full Moon Zen sit on September 23, 2021.

These are the first four lines from Hsüeh-tou’s verse for Case 2 of the Blue Cliff Record:

The supreme way is not difficult:

The speech is to the point, the words are to the point.

In one there are many kinds;

In two there’s no duality.

If Catholics can’t sing, as they say, then Zen types can’t count.

You’ve heard the phrase “not one, not two” in Zen circles.  This seemingly paradoxical notion also is expressed in the last couple of lines of the verse I just read:

“In one there are many kinds; in two there’s no duality.”

Not one, not two.

Look around.  The world consists of 10,000 things.  Countless things.  

Not one.

This realm of 10,000 things is where we tend to live and know ourselves—physically, cognitively, emotionally, and spiritually.  

There is me and there is you.  My left hand and right hand; your left and right hands.  There is day and there is night.  Thursday and Friday.  This year and next.  Up and down.  And so on.

It’s a dazzling realm, this land of 10,000 things, and yet one in which, paradoxically, we can find ourselves feeling alone amidst so much company.  It’s a house divided, so to speak, and our hearts tend to feel divided if this is the only way we see and know and experience it.

But let’s borrow a little thought exercise from both Indian and Western philosophy and examine one of the 10,000 things closely.  I can’t remember what object my intro to philosophy professor used; that was so long ago.  I think it was a chair or a ship.  

Let’s keep it simple and dismantle a chair.  Break it apart into four legs, a seat, and a back.  Not only do we now have 10,006 things; it gets harder to call those six pieces lying on the floor a chair.  It turns out a “chair” is a contingent, transitory thing.

Zoom in on one of those four legs.  We could break it up lengthwise with an axe.  What is it now?  Kindling, I suppose.

Start a fire with those bits of wood, and we have warmth for a while, then ashes.  The ashes feed the soil from which flowers emerge.

And so on.  

And it’s not just chairs.  Everything is like this, including you and me.

Chairs are real, of course.  Just pull up one and sit in it.  But we tend to walk through the world projecting more solidity and permanence onto everything than we should.

We don’t need a hatchet to expose this reality, as anyone who also has taken a physic course knows.  When we look closely enough at anything, it disappears.  Everything is contingent; everything is decaying and morphing all the time.  That decay is life.

I recently listened to a podcast in which a Harvard Medical School professor I know, Vamsi Mootha, was interviewed.  He studies mitochondria: little organelle that inhabit our cells and those of almost all other life forms.  They’re invaders into our animal kingdom; they’re not animal in origin.

Anyway, the host of this podcast asked Vamsi a seemingly simple question:  How many mitochondria are there in each human cell?  “They’re hard to count,” Vamsi said.  “The number is changing all the time, and sometimes they’re in a state that’s not really one, and not really two.”  

If the 10,000 things are in a constant state of flux, what are we left with?

Not two.

One then?  Show me this one.

The one exists as the 10,000 things.

Our practice, everything we do—sitting, chanting, bowing, and so on—is an expression of the one in the many; the many as one.  

Not one, not two.  Fathomless, and as straightforward as our hands in gassho.

Nonsentient beings expound the Dharma

I gave this talk during our Full Moon Zen sit on August 26, 2021.

From the Record of Tung-shan (aka Ts’ao-tung):

Tung-shan accordingly took leave of Kuei-shan (aka Isan) [whom he had asked whether nonsentient beings expound the Dharma] and proceeded directly to Yün-yen’s. Making reference to his previous encounter with Kui-shan, he immediately asked what sort of person was able to hear the Dharma expounded by nonsentient beings.

Yun-yen said, “Nonsentient beings are able to hear it.”

“Can you hear it, Ho-shang (another name for Yun-yen)? asked Tung-shan.

Yun-yen replied, “If I could hear it, then you would not be able to hear the Dharma I teach.”

“Why can’t I hear it?” asked Tung-shan.

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

Tung-shan replied, “No, I can’t.”

Yun-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?”

Yun-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 gatha:

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.

Today has been a scorcher in Boston.  The Earth is screaming, “Summer!”—and, also “Ouch! Climate change!”

Yet it’s almost September, and Fall is poking through.  Some trees are beginning to shed their leaves.  Birds and squirrels are busy gathering provisions.  Duck and geese are on the move.

The central character in the story I just read, Tung-shan, lived and taught in the 9th century.  In this story, he’s still an ordinary monk, wandering around visiting monasteries, seeking out teachers.  Later, he becomes a teacher who is regarded as the Chinese founder of the Soto Zen stream in which we’re situated.

In Tung-shan’s day, people were obsessed with a certain type of philosophical question. It’s a question that continues to preoccupy philosophers, physicists, neuroscientists, ecologists, and ordinary people, like you and me, to this day.

I seem to be alive and conscious. You seem to me to be alive and conscious. But, what else is alive and conscious? Birds? Trees? Stone walls?

Chou-chou, the teacher who gave a provocative “No!” when another young monk asked him whether the temple dog had Buddha nature, was a contemporary of Tung-shan.  

In the story we’re looking at tonight, Yün-yen, one of the teachers Tung-shan visited, gives Tung-shan the same answer Chou-chou gave the young monk who questioned him about the dog.  But, Yün-yen gives that answer in the form of a provocative “Yes!”

Yün-yen affirms that birds and trees expound the Dharma. Everything hums the song of the universe.

Tung-shan had been trying to reason his way to this realization, but seemingly wasn’t getting anywhere. He put his hand to his ear, hoping to hear what he thought he was listening for. His thinking mind was sure it must be hidden; an esoteric, coded message of some kind. A riddle only the thinking mind could solve. But all he heard was birdsong or silence—and, well, that just couldn’t be it, he thought.

Tung-shan sought answers in the sutras, as if words on a page could resolve the matter and put his heart at rest.

This encounter with Yün-yen does seem to have been a turning point for Tung-shan.  That’s evident from the verse he composed after it.

After this encounter with Yün-yen, who eventually made Tung-shan one of his successors, Tung-shan realizes we can’t “hear” birds and trees expounding the Dharma with the ear. We hear it with the eye.

In other words, we develop a new kind of insight; a new kind of perception.

Zen practice is about learning to hear with our eyes in this way.  It invites a shift in our perception; in our orientation.

This shift is what we call enlightenment.  It’s not something we can grasp for and achieve, like running a six-minute mile or baking a souffle that doesn’t collapse.  It’s something we seep into, and that seeps into us, through our practice.  Like tofu soaking up soy sauce; soy sauce permeating tofu.

Dōgen described the shift this way:

“Before one studies Zen, mountains are mountains and waters are waters,” he said.

We’re like young Tung-shan, in other words. We see people and animals and plants and rocks. We’re sure people are conscious and consciousness is a good thing to “have.” The poor, dumb rocks don’t have it. Plants? We’re not so sure.

Dōgen goes on, “. . . after a first glimpse into the truth of Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and waters are no longer waters; . . .”

As one begins to awaken to the awakened nature of all that is, many become lost in Oneness for a time.

Finally, Dōgen says, “after enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains and waters once again waters.”

Rocks are rocks, yes, but now we do hear them expounding the Dharma.  Yün-yen’s whisk is Yün-yen’s whisk—and if he swats you with his whisk or his staff, as Zen teachers were prone to do in that era, believe me, you would feel it!  Getting whacked by Oneness stings!

But now we truly know that whisk is the One.  The relative and the Absolute are one and the same.  Form is emptiness; emptiness is form.

In the countless, slapstick-style koans in which a Zen adept has a breakthrough insight when a teacher slaps his face, or closes her leg in a door, or cuts off their finger, this is what one is realizing.

And, once we realize this, birds and trees and stones are no longer dead to us; the world is alive to us experientially, not alive as an idea. I have to believe that this shift is much needed today, on a broad scale, at this moment of global ecological crisis.

We often hear meditation practitioners, and some teachers, say that mediation is about developing our powers of attention and concentration.  I suppose mediation has that effect.  

But I prefer to think of our practice as more about attending, than attention—though one must be attentive to attend.  

Meditation is about attending.  Showing up.  Participating.  Taking part.  We are just a part—and every much a manifestation and microcosm of the One as anything else.  Nothing more, and certainly nothing less.

Through our practice, we open up to our own experience; to all experience.  We come to sense the hum of the universe within and without.  Let it bubble up and seep in.  

And our ideas of within and without, up and in, begin to soften.

We turn our ear to see a bird.

Open our eyes to hear it sing.