I gave this teisho during our Full Moon Zen regular weekly practice session on February 25, 2021.
I gave this teisho during our Full Moon Zen regular weekly practice session on January 28, 2021. You’ll find a recording of this talk after the text.
Soon, at the end of our service, we’ll chant the Four Great Vows:
Creations are numberless; I vow to be one with them.
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to transform them.
Dharmas are boundless; I vow to be teachable.
The enlightened way is unsurpassable; I vow to embody it.
These vows, which are chanted by Zen practitioners at the end of their services everywhere today, were probably formulated in China, perhaps 1,300 years ago. They may relate back to an older Indian Buddhist source.
In light of all that’s happening in the world today, I want to call our attention to the second line of this chant:
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to transform them.
What are these delusions that are inexhaustible, and what might it mean to transform them?
In three of the traditional languages of our stream of Zen—Sanskrit, Chinese and Japanese—the words translated here as “delusions” variously mean pain, affliction, or mental distress. There’s certainly an association with the passions; with impulsivity and captivity to our emotions. There’s also an association with the Three Poisons, for which we atone as we open our gathering: greed, hatred and ignorance.
The English word “delusions” conveys a sense of misperception, misconception, or even mania, as opposed to clarity of mind. In light of this, it might surprise you to hear that some contemporary Zen teachers actually think of delusions, and of ignorance, the last of the Three Poisons, in terms of too much clarity, rather than too little—in terms of misconceptions born of our certainties.
This interpretation expresses a key Buddhist insight—the emptiness of all forms—that we realize and manifest through Zen practice. We desperately need more people capable of putting this insight into practice today.
As some of you know, I’ve devoted a portion of my time to teaching, writing, and practice in the conflict resolution field for many years. My primary interest always has been those conflicts that implicate our most deeply-held, identify-defining values. Sacred values, whether “religious” or “secular.” I teach a course at Harvard called Negotiating Across Worldviews that explores this domain. I’ve also been working with Israeli and Palestinian leaders for several years, helping them explore possibilities for resolving their conflict in some way that could work within multiple worldviews simultaneously.
Why are our certainties a type of delusion and ignorance, and a potential source of conflict and other forms of suffering?
Well, really, how could they not be? 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.
Neuroscientists are discovering that our brains preferentially seek information that reinforces our existing beliefs, and that our brains also tend to interpret ambiguous information in ways that align with our beliefs. This may make some sense from an evolutionary perspective. The world, and life within it, is complex and confusing, and organisms need strategies for orienting—for reducing complexity, in order to survive. Preferentially relying upon a view of the world and game plan that have helped us survive uncertain situations in the past seems like a reasonable default setting, in the absence of a crystal ball.
These days, however, I’m not so sure this default setting still serves us well, at least with respect to some types of contemporary problems. It’s hard not to think this while watching militant partisans storm the chambers of a citizens’ assembly that aspires to be a model for reasoned deliberation, but is too often stuck in partisan gridlock, unable to meet the pressing challenges of our time.
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, that 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.
Unique among spiritual traditions, Zen is a nontheistic—not atheistic, but nontheistic—tradition. It provides plenty of friendly passageways to both atheism and theism, if you’re inclined in one way or the other, but it largely resists binaries of all kinds.
Zen isn’t primarily about ideas. If you want a single idea, or short phrase, that sums up the core teachings of Zen, however, you could do worse than the title of one of Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn’s books: only don’t know.
This not knowing default setting may be what the world needs most at this point in the evolutionary history of our species, at least if we hope the evolution of our species will continue.
Lin Jensen, a Zen teacher and activist in California, makes this case well in the following passage from his book Pavement. He says:
“When I don’t know something for certain and don’t try to convince myself that I do, I’m held momentarily in the hand of restraint and the world is safer for it. Without designing answers, I’m forced to hold the question open. It might seem doubtful or even absurd that the world of our understanding is unreliable and that the possibility of peace lies not so much in what we know as in what we don’t. Something I know for a certainty often solidifies into the sort of unquestioned fact that outreaches doubt and curiosity. If a question has been answered to my satisfaction, I’m not likely to see the need for further inquiry. Nations will readily go to war in defense of such an unexamined answer. Is it so far-fetched to imagine that a little modest doubt might bring people nearer to a peaceful resolution of differences?”
And yet, and yet. Like the ensō—the broken circle that is the most familiar visual symbol in, and of, the Zen tradition—even this insight and orientation eventually comes `round to nip at its own tail.
It’s also possible to get stuck in uncertainty; to become paralyzed. We can also be too certain about our not knowing, clinging to it as a false refuge. At some point, we must let the bow string slip from our fingertips. Let the arrow fly. Ultimately, we must make a move and make our mark. Inaction is a form of action.
Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, Zen practice tends to free us from this sort of paralysis, even as we surrender to the experience of not knowing. As we lose our cognitive certainties–our stories about the universe and our own lives–our experience of the universe and our own lives within it feels all the more real and true. Fragile forms of conceptual knowledge are replaced with a knowing that’s in our bones; that is our being. It’s a knowing that clarifies and quickens our presence-in-the-moment, allowing us to respond more readily, wisely, and compassionately to what the moment invites or requires, rather than responding from a small and brittle sense of oneself, with its conceptual certainties or conceptual uncertainties. We show up, move, and make our mark as an expression of the broader, inclusive, connected reality in which all of us participate, whether or not we yet see ourselves that way.
I’ll close with one of my favorite poems by Jālal a-Dīn Rumi, a master of another great spiritual tradition, Sufism:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.
I highly recommend this podcast interview with Jack Miles, professor of English and Religion Studies Emeritus at the University of California, Irvine, about this latest book:
Jack Miles: Religion As We Know It
What is religion? Is Buddhism a religion? How about democracy? And how religious (or not) do you have to be to ask? In the latest episode of Tricycle Talks, Tricycle’s Editor and Publisher James Shaheen speaks to Jack Miles, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and scholar of religion, about what we mean when we say something is a religion and how Miles’s own life has led him back to this question time and again. Miles’s latest book, Religion As We Know It: An Origin Story, was released in 2019. In it, he explores the commonsense understanding of religion as one realm of activity among many, and how this definition serves and fails us. Miles is also the author of God: A Biography, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996, as well as the general editor of the Norton Anthology of World Religions and professor emeritus of English and religious studies at the University of California, Irvine.
Listen on Apple Podcasts: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/tricycle-talks/id695108281?i=1000496384208
I gave this teisho Thursday night during our Full Moon Zen regular weekly practice session. You’ll find a recording of this talk after the text.
One day, when the Layman and Sung-shan were out for a walk, they saw an ox plowing the fields. The Layman pointed to the ox and said, “He’s having the time of his life, but he doesn’t know anything about it.”
Sung-shan said, “That is, unless Mr. P’ang wants to bring the issue to his attention.”
The Layman said, “My master always said he never knew what he was doing.”
Sung-shan said, “Since I never saw Shih-t’ou, it would be better if I didn’t say anything about it.”
The Layman said, “What would you have to say after you’d seen him?”
Sung-shan clapped his hands three times.
(Case 29, The Sayings of Layman P’ang)
Layman P’ang is an especially wonderful, enigmatic character in the history of Zen, which is a tradition that has more than its fair share of wonderful, enigmatic characters.
He was born around 740 CE and died in 808, so he lived during the Tang Dynasty. Many consider this the high point of ancient Chinese civilization.
P’ang lived in Hengyang, in Hunan Province of Southern China. It was a big city then, as it is now. It would be about a five hour drive due north from Hong Kong today. P’ang’s father was a government official, and perhaps even the governor of the area, so P’ang was well-to-do. We know he owned a house with enough land to have a gatehouse where he and others in the area met to meditate.
All Zen teachers today are successors of one of two masters from that time and place, Shih-t’ou and Ma-tsu. Each had monasteries on mountains outside Hengyang. The two great streams of Zen that still flow today originate with these teachers: the Soto School from Shih-t’ou, and the Rinzai School from Ma-tsu. This period was not just a high point in Chinese culture; it was a watershed moment in the development of the Zen tradition.
P’ang engaged deeply with both of these masters, which must have been truly extraordinary for anyone at the time. P’ang first met Shih-t’ou, and then lived at Ma-tsu’s monastery for a while, working closely with him. Ma-tsu ultimately made P’ang a teacher, but P’ang never became a monk, like at least one of his childhood friends we meet in these stories.
Throughout most of the history of the Zen tradition—throughout most of the history of all Buddhist traditions—the terms “monk” and “priest” were basically synonyms. There weren’t monks in monasteries and priests in the world, as there are today in many religious traditions. Being on the Zen path at that time, and even today in much of Asia, meant becoming a monk—an ordained person living in a monastery.
But here we have P’ang, student of two great teachers, Dharma heir of one of them, living in the world. P’ang and his wife, son and daughter, are said to have sunk all their personal possessions in a boat in the middle of a lake, donated their house to be made into a temple, and lived as wanderers from then on, supporting themselves by making and selling baskets.
The short stories in this book are mostly about P’ang’s encounters with the ordained (monastic) teachers of his era. In most of these stories, P’ang engages in playful games of spiritual one-upmanship with these teachers—predictably, coming out on top. Taking the piss out of them, as the Brits say, while seeing more deeply into the Great Matter than they do.
This little book is a classic—widely read in and beyond China for centuries. What a fascinating figure P’ang was; a truly extraordinary, ordinary person. He certainly foreshadowed what’s happening today in the West, where there are few monasteries, and lay teachers are on a trajectory to outnumber teachers who are ordained, if we don’t already.
What are we to make of this curious Zen adept—the only lay teacher in recorded Zen history for nearly 12 centuries—and this story about the ox who doesn’t know?
Sung-shan, P’ang’s companion in this story, was a disciple of Ma-tsu. Out on a walk, P’ang decides to have a little wise fun, in the playful jousting mode that’s so typical of anecdotes about encounters with Zen teachers.
P’ang points to the ox and says, “He’s having the time of his life, but he doesn’t know anything about it.” It might seem at first blush like P’ang is being sarcastic. “Look at that dumb ox. He can’t reflect on his experience, like we can.” But P’ang is paying the ox a high compliment, comparing it favorably to most humans, not looking down on it.
The ox is just doing its thing—oxing—living its life, undisturbed by the fact that he doesn’t know anything about it. He undoubtedly knows that his life is, but he presumably doesn’t know what or why his life is. And this doesn’t detract from his plowing.
One of the many Zen tidbits that has entered pop culture, the phrase “chop wood, carry water,” comes from Layman P’ang. “Chopping wood, chop wood,” he’s saying. “Carrying water, carry water.”
My carrying water is the universe carrying water. My mental chatter—complaining about my sore arms, wondering why this is my lot in life, or contemplating how the Big Bang led to H2O—doesn’t add anything to, or subtract anything from, carrying water. It’s just the universe chattering as the universe carries a bucket full of itself.
To be clear, if there’s a conversation that needs to be had about the equitable division of labor in your household or community, by all means, have it. When you do, that’s the universe having a conversation the universe needs to have. If your ambition or calling is something other than carrying water, pursue it. And study physics, by all means; it’s a wonderful and wonderous lens on all this, and immensely useful. But let’s not kid ourselves: Even if scientists find their Holy Grail—a grand unified theory of physics; a theory of everything—it will still be a theory, a description, and not the thing itself.
The price of our marvelous, human capacity for self-reflection seems to be a sort of cosmic forgetfulness. It’s as if we’ve wandered so far toward the edge of the universe that we’ve forgotten the universe has no edges. Wherever we wander, we can’t help but remain one of its infinite centers. There’s no getting lost in this universe, even when we feel lost.
We practice Zen to find ourselves at the center of the universe again—and everyone and everything else there with us, as center, too.
Paradoxical as it sounds, and as much as I hate to use the word “goal” when talking about Zen practice, the ox’s not knowing is the goal of our practice. The goal is no goal. We normally think of goals as something we achieve and possess for ourselves. Something we once lacked and have now obtained.
In Zen, our goal is the opposite of that. We already have what we’re looking for. We are it. Unlike the ox, however, we think there must be more to it. Something I must know about my life. Not so, yet there is something I must realize and experience as my life.
Sung-shan jovially invites P’ang to inform the ox that he’s having the time of his life.
P’ang declines. “My master always said he never knew what he was doing,” P’ang replies. My master also doesn’t know anything about all this, just like the ox.
“I haven’t met him,” Sung-Shan says, “so I wouldn’t know.”
“Even if you had,” P’ang replies, “what more would there be to say?”
In texts like this one, and a talk like mine now, guides on the Zen path are trying to express the inexpressible. Or, to say the same thing a bit differently, we’re heaping extra words on what the universe is saying right here, now.
It’s impossible to talk about it . . . and this talk is it, too. It’s all right here, right in front of our noses. Your nose is it.
Even as we are it, however, most of us are searching for it. We want an “it” we can sum up, and so contain, as an object of thought. Having developed this wonderfully useful capacity for discursive cognition, we’ve become transfixed by it. We search for answers to the heart’s deepest questions in the hall of mirrors it creates.
But those answers lie outside that box. Outside the realm of this-that thinking. In fact, the box we’re trapped in is itself contained in the realm “outside.” We just think we’re trapped!
I, Jeff (this), sees the moon (that). Zen practice—especially meditation and working with koans—relaxes the grip of this-that thinking, so the moon can reveal itself to you as you. We can’t will this realization—this revelation—but we can open ourselves to it. The moon tends to reveal itself fully in hearts that are wide open, and Zen practice is about opening hearts.
The ox and P’ang’s master both are the full moon. One is not “more” moon than the other. I do know, however, that we humans can know ourselves as manifestations of, and participants, in this awesome, incomprehensible, inescapable, luminous mystery that is . . . what? Mystery. Mystery manifest. This.
These little stories about this lay sage are thought to presage the koan tradition that eventually developed in Zen. I wonder whether this particular story about P’ang might also presage another wonderful part of the Zen tradition, The Ten Oxherding Pictures, which is one account of the spiritual journey. As portrayed in the Oxherding Pictures, the apex of Zen practice isn’t the moment of sudden illumination, when we see our true nature.
The apex is returning to the marketplace with open hands—to daily life in the world—with that awareness; animated by that awareness, but not thinking it makes us special, because now we see the full moon everywhere, and in everyone we meet. The tenth picture is Putai, the Laughing Buddha, entering the open market—an open heart, extending open hands.
We tend to think of the renunciates in monasteries or on mountaintops as the spiritual paragons. Layman P’ang, and the old fool in the marketplace, point to a different ideal—of awakening in the world, in the midst of the everyday sorts of lives lived by people like us. This is a fitting image and ideal for our time, I believe.
The sort of knowing we seek and cultivate through Zen practice is an awakened, vital, experiential, in-your-bones not knowing. “Not knowing is the most intimate,” Master Dizang famously said.
May you not know.
And may we, like the ox, have the time of our lives.
This is the talk I gave after my Denbo ceremony, in which I received Dharma transmission from my Zen teacher, Kevin Jiun Hunt, O.S.C.O., Roshi, and so became a Zen teacher myself. I’ve also posted a few pictures. The ceremony occurred on Saturday, November 10, 2018. It was very traditional, except that it occurred at 2:00 p.m. and was attended by friends and family. For reasons that are long outdated, these ceremonies have, for centuries, typically occurred privately, between teacher and student, at midnight. A number of Zen streams in the West, including ours, recently have begun to open them, and to hold them at a much more agreeable time of day. I’ve been given the Dharma name Kōgen, which means Light Source.
Gratitude is the first thing I want to express today.
Some time ago, I went looking for a new Zen teacher. I couldn’t believe it when I found a Trappist monk and Zen teacher, all rolled into one, just a couple of towns over from where we were living at the time. As you’ll hear in a moment, the Trappists were on the scene early in my travels through contemplative spiritual circles over the past 30 years. So I was really excited to discover Fr. Kevin. I wrote him a long, detailed email telling him all about my journey. And, at this point, Fr. Kevin gave me the first of the many great teachings I’ve received from him: He completely ignored my email! I re-sent it a few days later, just in case he had missed it. (Hint: He hadn’t missed it.) He ignored it again. That was my first dose of your wise, spare, direct, “no fuss” approach to spiritual guidance and friendship. You’ve known just what nudges I’ve needed. And, since our very first meeting, I’ve come to see just how genuinely you see me – and, I must say, being seen genuinely by other human beings is one of the most profound gifts any of us can receive. From the start, you’ve accepted me without pretext or pretense, and you’ve always gently insisted that I accept myself the same way. Thank you.
I eventually forwarded my email to Cindy, whose email address I’d also found on the Zendo’s website. She responded right away, and very helpfully, encouraging me to come sit with the group! And I’m glad I did! That was another tremendous gift and teaching. I so appreciate and admire your incredible openness, the sense of warm welcome you create, and your determination to make Zen accessible. You have opened the door to this Zendo to our whole family. Esther began Zen practice here, and you’ve even welcomed our kids and our dogs. Thank you.
Tim and Sr. Madeline, thank you for being here today. It means the world to me. Thank for your friendship and the many wonderful teachings you’ve offered all of us.
I also want to acknowledge five other important teachers here. First, my friend and Harvard Divinity School colleague, Charlie Hallisey. He is one of the principal scholars of Buddhism at Harvard Divinity School, where I have done some part-time teaching the past few years, and he is one of the leading scholars of Buddhism globally. Charlie has brought with him four distinguished Buddhist monastics from Asia – Bangladesh, China, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam – who are fellows at Harvard this year. So this is not just an interfaith ceremony; it is an ecumenical ceremony within the Buddhist world. It’s an honor to have all of you with us today. Thank you.
I want to thank our Charlie (Norton) for serving as attendant today, and for all you do around this place. You are a rock.
We’re going to share a bit of food after this ceremony, and the best dishes – the ones we didn’t pick up at Whole Foods – were made by our very own Kathleen Bellicchi, who quite literally is the best cook I’ve ever met. Kathleen, you so evidently pour your heart into everything you make, and your foods opens our hearts. Thank you.
I want to thank my family, of course, Esther, Ellis and Carys. For many years now, you’ve given me leave to sit for 25 minutes at a time at home, or for an evening, or sometimes two, away during the week, or for a day, or a weekend, or a week or more when I’ve been on retreat. Walking this path runs against the main currents of our culture – and yet you always have been fully supportive of my commitment to traveling it. Thank you. I love you. And, Ellis and Carys, thanks for participating in the ceremony. Good job!
I also want to acknowledge and thank my parents and my two brothers. They are not here today, much as they wanted to be. They have been interested in and supportive of my meditation practice from the very start.
Finally, I want to thank my friends, starting with the countless people I’ve had the good fortune to sit with all these years – both Zen and Christian Centering Prayer practitioners. A handful of you are here today; many more are not. I also want to acknowledge my close friends walking the contemplative path within other traditions, including Islam and Judaism. I’ve been buoyed by the friendship of all of these fellow travelers.
Last, but not least, I’m grateful to my friends from different walks of life who have come to participate in this ceremony. All the strands of my life feel woven together and of a piece at this point, and I want each of you to know you’re an important part of the whole. Thank you.
It’s traditional for a new teacher to give a talk, and I’m going to open this talk in one traditional way: with a koan. For those of you who are less familiar with the Zen tradition, most koans are brief accounts of interactions between a teacher and a student, or between students, or between teachers, which have been recorded and bound together into collections that have been passed down to us through the centuries. They’re sometimes used in a very distinctive way as a teaching tool when a student meets with a teacher, and they’re also often used to open a talk, like this one.
This is Case 7 in The Gateless Gate, which is one of those koan collections:
A monk said to Chao Chou, “I have just entered this monastery. Please teach me.”
Chao Chou said, “Have you eaten your rice gruel?”
The monk said, “Yes, I have.”
Chao Chou said, “Wash your bowl.”
The monk understood.
I began meditating about 30 years ago, as I said earlier, in my mid-20s. That was a very stressful time in my life, if also a good and exciting time in many ways. I had just finished law school and begun my career in the intense legal profession at a firm in San Francisco. (Several of my lawyer friends and colleagues are here today, including my first boss and mentor at that firm, Jeff Newman, who has remained a close friend ever since. All of the lawyers here no doubt can remember the stressfulness of that transition from law student to lawyer.) I also was living far away from my family for the first time. And, most significantly, I was just beginning to touch, and open up to, and work through the pain and after-effects of witnessing a very close friend’s death in a mountain climbing accident 12 or 13 years earlier, when I was 15.
I signed up for a weekend introduction to meditation program at the Nyingma Institute, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery and study center in Berkeley. I was Catholic, and I had studied with the Jesuits, but I was totally unaware at this time of the rich tradition of contemplative prayer practice, of silent prayer, within Christianity.
I definitely signed up and showed up for that first meditation experience seeking refuge, though I doubt I would have or could have expressed it quite that way then. Life just seemed out of joint, and I was looking for a route to someplace better.
My sitting practice was irregular for the first year or two, but that weekend definitely started me on this path. A couple of years later, I took a sabbatical year, which I spent in Berlin, Germany, as the wall was being dismantled. There, I read my first Zen book, by D.T. Suzuki, the towering Japanese Zen teacher and scholar who did so much to transport Zen to the West in the first half of the 20th century. In this book, Suzuki praises several medieval Christian mystics. At the time, I found this really surprising, for two reasons. First, a Zen teacher was pointing to Christianity, my birth tradition. What’s up with that? Second, though I’d studied some theology by then, I’d never heard of these people. Who were they?
I started reading about them, and then reading what they’d written. When I returned to the States, heading home to Colorado, I connected with the Trappists – specifically, the Centering Prayer movement a number of them had launched to bring contemplative prayer out of the monasteries and into the wider Christian world. I sat in those circles for several years, while also sitting with Buddhists. I moved to Boston about 25 years ago for more graduate work, and I eventually situated myself for many years in a different local Zen community. Little did I know at any of these waypoints that I’d eventually experience the Trappist and Zen streams brought together in the likes of Fr. Kevin.
In the early days of this journey, I had a burning question I would ask of any teacher or senior student who would listen: When can I stop sitting?
I had many different ways of asking this question, like:
- There will come a time when I don’t have to sit anymore, won’t there?
- So-and-so (the teacher) really doesn’t need to sit anymore, does he?
In retrospect, my question was a lot like the one with which Master Dogen, who carried Zen from China to Japan in the 13th century, was preoccupied as a young monk. His question was: Why do we practice? Or, to put it another way: What’s the point of this?
Anyway, I mostly got rather polite replies contesting the premise of my question. But, I persisted – and I’m sure I became ever more annoying to these good people from whom I was insisting upon receiving an answer they never were going to give me.
I’d been told many times that I was free to stop sitting whenever I wanted to. But what I really wanted to know, of course, was that there was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – that better place I was seeking – and that I was going to find it. Convinced I didn’t have them already, I wanted the Keys to the Kingdom. I wanted to know The Secret.
One day I asked one of these people my stale question yet again – Can I stop sitting someday? – and this time she just rolled her eyes and said, in a tone I can only describe as a mix of exasperation and sarcasm, “Sure, like when you die.” And then she walked away. That was a tremendous gift. I resolved then and there to shut up and just keep sitting.
I’ve always loved the koan with which I opened this talk. It’s so simple, short, and truly, truly sweet. Some people who are new to Zen, or who just encounter it casually, and even some people who have been at it for some time, assume there’s something esoteric about Zen. If that’s your assumption, you might be inclined to think Chao Chou is being cagey when the teaching he offers the young monk in this koan is to ask whether he’s eaten breakfast and then to tell him to wash his bowl.
But, it’s not so.
Zen has no secrets. Or, you could say, it’s all an open secret. Zen points to the open secret that is this very life. My life. Your life. Our life together. For those of us who are seeking, the answer we seek is hidden in plain sight. And, we find what we’re seeking simply – simply! – by opening ourselves completely, giving ourselves fully, to this vital mystery that’s as plain as the nose on one’s face. That is the nose on my face; on your face.
The young monk in this koan comes looking for guidance and reassurance, just as I did years ago. There’s genuine integrity in our seeking; in our innate conviction that wholeness is the natural order of things.
And, in fact, the universe is whole, we are whole, even when things seem broken. Even when we feel lost and broken, as I was feeling years ago.
And Chao Chou’s response, his guidance, really couldn’t have been more straightforward and helpful: Just attend to the here-and-now.
The impulse that makes one curious about meditation; the person who shows up at our door seeking spiritual or physical nourishment; the dirty bowl in the sink: This is it. What we seek is manifest, right here, right now.
I love the way this koan ends. Many koans end with a student experiencing realization, but that’s almost always expressed much more dramatically, like “Suddenly, he experienced great satori [great enlightenment]!” or “Hearing this [what the teacher said, of course], he experienced great realization.”
I like this formulation much better. “The monk understood.” Whatever the monk understood, and however deeply – whether he experienced great satori, or simply knew it was time to shut up and just keep sitting – it was enough. Always enough.
Like Dogen in his early days, perhaps like the young monk in this koan, I used to think there must be some end to this, some final goal or destination, and once we reach it, practice ceases.
But our practice, our life, which is the universe’s life and practice, begins long before one becomes a Zen practitioner, and it continues whether or not we meditate. It continues as our meditating or not meditating.
This path is completely open-ended, completely boundless. A path without boundaries.
And, so, we are always, already home.
The fact that many of us don’t yet reliably believe this – or, rather, don’t yet reliably experience this – is the main reason a tradition like Zen and its practices exist in the first place. “Belief” in the way we typically use that word, in a cognitive sense, isn’t really what it’s about. Belief in that sense eventually begins to feel arid and hollow; it just won’t do. What we really seek is knowing in our bones, beyond belief.
It’s all just like the young monk’s bowl. So concrete, so tangible, so present – and, yet, it cannot, it will not, be reduced to, or contained by, our ideas about it. Turn that bowl round and round in your hands as you wash it. Just like this life we live, this path we walk: What is it exactly? Where does it begin? Where does it end?
I’m excited to continue this journey in this new role, helping support others in their journeys as best I can, as others have supported me so generously for so long. I’ll continue to need your support, of course, and I’ll welcome it. I’m also excited about some of the things we see emerging as Zen becomes more firmly planted in the West, including its turn toward social and environmental justice concerns and its deep encounters with other traditions, both religious and secular. I also look forward to doing my part to contribute to these developments.
Thank you. Thank you.
I gave this Dharma talk at the Greater Boston Zen Center on Tuesday, October 13, 2015.
Blue Cliff Record Case 77: Yunmen’s Sesame Rice Cake
A monk asked Yunmen, What is the conversation that saves the buddhas and goes beyond the ancestors?”
Yunmen said, “Sesame rice cake.”
Tonight I want to take up a rather slippery topic: Zen as religion.
We don’t spend much time in Zen circles engaging in theological reflection – at least not the sort of analytical reflection and discourse that’s common in other traditions. We don’t concern ourselves too much with definitions and boundaries. It’s not a tradition that demands adherence to any particular beliefs.
There are ideas and principles practitioners through the ages have found useful, based upon their own practical experience with them, but there are no litmus test beliefs that define what it means to be a Zen practitioner.
(To be fair, we concern ourselves with definitions and boundaries some; for instance, in relation to authority within the community, as is true of any other organization, religious or secular.)
There are some western Zen practitioners who don’t think of themselves as practicing a religion. I suppose it’s possible to view Zen as a sort of psychological system, as some western practitioners seem to do, though I think that’s a limited and limiting frame.
Scholars debate the defining characteristics of religion. We won’t resolve that debate tonight. But let me offer one element of one scholar’s working definition of religion as a launching pad for some things I want to say about Zen. Émile Durkheim, the great 19th century French sociologist, famously defined religion this way:
Since the idea of the sacred is always and everywhere separated from the idea of the profane in the thought of men, the mind irresistibly refuses to allow the two corresponding things to be confounded, or even put in contact with one another.
We see this sort of binary between profane and sacred, between the mundane and the other-worldly, defining religion in the work of other scholars, like Rudolf Otto, for instance.
It’s a fair point. This is a key insight into much of what’s going on within many strains of most religions – including some strains of Buddhism, I believe – so it’s not surprising that this binary is considered by many to be a defining characteristic of religion.
I’m hedging, of course, when I say that this binary describes “much of what’s going on within many strains of most religions.” There certainly are strains of most religions that resist the idea that there’s an impenetrable barrier between sacred and profane, as Durkheim imagined.
For example, one might say that Christianity was founded on a degree of resistance to this binary. Dominant strains within the Greek philosophical tradition that held sway within the ancient world into which Jesus was born maintained that what is ultimately real is removed from this world. Think: Plato and his forms. Christianity upended that notion. Here was God among us.
Of course, the Christian community found itself in schism at times over questions about the extent of this divine-mundane intermingling. Some Christians really pushed the edge of that envelope along the way, like Meister Eckhart, the great 14th century mystic. It was orthodox to regard Jesus as the Son of God, of course, but Eckhart also said, “We are God’s sons and daughters, but we don’t realize it yet.”
That has a real resonance with how we sometimes talk about Buddha nature and enlightenment in Zen, as D.T. Suzuki and other Zen scholars have noted. Of course, Eckhart was tried as a heretic by the Inquisition. Fortunately for him, he managed to die before his verdict was pronounced.
Does this sacred and profane binary describe Zen?
Yes and no, I suppose. But, more than most strains of most religions, I think not.
We have our notions of the absolute and the relative, of emptiness and form, yet we’re reminded again and again and again that they’re one and the same.
And, as we think and speak about the relative and the absolute – think and speak about them – they’re notions, of course. Ideas. Whatever God or the absolute or emptiness or the ultimately real is to you – well, I sincerely hope you experience it, or come to experience it, as something other than an idea.
The koan with which I opened this talk is typical of so many. A student comes to a teacher and asks earnestly, “What’s it all about?”
A rice cake, Yunmen says.
In other cases, we hear it’s about . . .
. . . three pounds of flax
. . . a pail of water
. . . the oak tree in the courtyard
. . . even a dried piece of dung
Our tradition seems to be making a point of imploding distinctions between sacred and profane; of playfully poking fun at our tendency to make such distinctions; of using that tendency as a nudge toward realization – dangling the distinctions as cat nip. Lovely story after lovely story like that.
From a theistic perspective, one might say Zen brings heaven and earth together, without obliterating either. It’s relentless in this way. It’s the religious equivalent of a supercollider. A theological Large Hadron Collider.
From an atheistic scientific materialist perspective, one might say Zen brings the dead (the inert) to life. In this day and age, it’s something of an antidote to the turn in philosophy that attempted to jettison metaphysics – yet still a place, in this day and age, many skeptics feel they can call home.
Tapping on a coffin (in a koan set at a funeral), one monk asked another, “Dead or alive?” “I won’t say! I won’t say!” replied the other.
Can this be contained in sacred or profane, heaven or earth, absolute or relative, dead or alive?
This/that mind is concerned with pulling Humpty Dumpty apart and putting him back together again. That capacity is immensely, immensely useful. And, even as we exercise that capacity in those situations where it’s useful, we can know in our bones that Humpty Dumpty is, fundamentally, everywhere and always, together in its distinctions.
That potential is one of Zen’s great invitations and gifts to us.
Is Zen religion?
Let me close with another story (also from a koan):
The Emperor Wu of Liang asked Bodhidarma – the 28th Buddhist patriarch, who brought Buddhism to China, where it mingled with Taoism and became Chan, eventually migrating to Japan, where it’s called Zen – “What is the highest meaning of the Holy Truth of Buddhism?”
“Empty – there’s no holy,” Bodhidharma replied.
Stunned by this answer, the emperor asked, “Who are you facing me?”
“Don’t know,” was Bodhidharma’s response.
Is Zen religion?
Who are you facing me?
Who are we facing one another?
This is an approximation of a Dharma talk I gave on March 6, 2014 at the Boundless Way Temple in Worcester, Massachusetts, during the Boundless Way Zen meta-sangha’s three-week Ango retreat. Audio recordings of this talk and others given by BoWZ teachers are posted here.
Emperor Wu of Liang invited Mahasattva Fu to lecture on the Diamond Sutra. On the rostrum, Mhasattva Fu struck the lectern once with his stick and immediately climbed down. The emperor was astounded.
Master Zhi asked, “Your Majesty, do you understand?”
“No, I do not.”
“Mahasattva Fu has finished the lecture.”
(Blue Cliff Record, Case 67)
I began looking for a koan to use as the launchpad for this talk about a week ago.
I poked around the koan territory I’ve been wandering in recently. Not finding much inspiration there, I went back to the earliest koans in the miscellaneous collection and worked my way forward to where I’ve been wandering lately. Still nothing, so I even peeked ahead of the koan I’ll next bring to dokusan.
No single koan lept out during this exercise, declaring, “Pick me.” Hmm.
What did leap out, however, were two themes that seem to me to run through our whole koan curriculum, so I thought I’d make them the subject of my talk tonight. I mainly want to talk about the second of these themes, but I need to touch on the first to set up the second. I’ll come back to Mahasattva Fu’s lecture on the Diamond Sutra when I get there.
The first theme . . .
Surveying the koan curriculum brought home to me more than ever how it — and the Zen project writ large, I suppose — is, in part, about exploring our relationship with real and perceived constraints.
Many of our early koans seem to challenge one’s current perceptions of what’s possible, and so challenge us to take a closer look at what we experience as constraints.
Stop the sound of that distant temple bell.
Count the number of stars in the heavens.
Say something without moving your lips or tongue.
Some koans even use metaphors of physical entrapment.
You are at the bottom of a 200-foot dry well. What do you do?
Many of us, perhaps most of us, come to Zen feeling trapped somehow.
Some part of me cut off from another part of myself.
A mind or spirit trapped in a body.
A solitary being cut off from the world I inhabit.
One being among many inhabiting a realm that can’t be all there is.
Some type of dualism. Some version of heaven and earth, or heaven and hell.
We’re sure there is someplace else we must get, something more to know. There must be a secret passageway to a place beyond, and we sense that Zen might offer us a map to find it and the key to open the door once we get there.
The early part of the koan curriculum seems to meet us where we’re at in this regard, even as it begins to challenge us to see that the “something more” we’re looking for is just this. The “someplace else” we’re seeking is right here, right now.
The heat is turned up progressively, of course, as we’re challenged in increasingly direct ways. Like this zinger (from the Blue Cliff Record), for example:
A monk said to Dasui, “When the thousands of universes are altogether and utterly destroyed in the kalpa fire — I wonder whether this perishes or not.
“This perishes,” said Dasui.
“If so,” persisted the monk, “does it follow the other.”
“It follows the other,” said Dasui.
And so it goes, until we come to the end of the curriculum, where, among other things, we encounter the precepts as koans. Perhaps by then koan practice, and sitting practice, and everyday life practice have helped us let go of some perceived constraints and helped us see constraints we must accept in a new light.
The open secret, of course, is that the freedom we seek is found in the realm of constraints, not someplace else.
There is a “through the looking glass” quality to grasping this open secret, to be sure. As we desperately strain to peer through the glass, what’s on the other side appears faint and blurry. Passing through, I find myself.
Same old me.
Relatively speaking, there seems to be something to get. Absolutely, not so much.
And this brings me to the second theme that seems to run through the koans. . .
Perhaps it’s more of a conceit, or a device, than a theme.
Like the koan I ultimately chose for this talk, the set up for many koans is an exchange between a wise teacher and a seemingly less wise student.
Often there also is a supporting character who is in the know, like Master Zhi in today’s koan. Or Mahakasyapa, the student — and the only person, we’re told — who broke into a smile in the sermon where the Buddha simply twirled a flower.
We might more or less consciously identify with Master Zhi or Mahakasyapa as we pass through one of these koans. We, too, get it.
But I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about the seeming stooges. The characters who are portrayed as hapless. The characters who just don’t seem to get it.
Sometimes that student is a prominent person, like Emperor Wu of Liang, who also appears in a handful of other koans. These prominent folk tend to fare especially poorly, at least on first blush.
As I surveyed our koan curriculum looking for inspiration for this talk, I found myself really appreciating these characters, the supposed stooges. Even inspired by them.
Here I was, wandering around, looking for inspiration and insight . . . and I find it in other people wandering around, looking for inspiration and insight.
This is where much of the action is in these koans — much of the insight, the invitation and potential for us — I think.
“Not knowing is most intimate,” we like to say. “Only don’t know.”
But is there still a hint of special knowledge in our not knowing?
As long as we’re identifying mainly with Mahasattva Fu or Master Zhi, perhaps there is.
As long as we think we get something Emperor Wu doesn’t, perhaps there is.
We can settle into our not knowing, and this, importantly, may make us a bit less anxious in our approach to life; perhaps relatively free of certain questions with which Emperor Wu is wrestling. Perhaps we’ve come to feel just a bit more at home with ourselves; a bit more at home in this vast universe.
Mahasattva Fu, Master Zhi and, yes, Emperor Wu — each of them, and all of them together, are presenting themselves with integrity. And each is an aspect of who we ultimately are.
I really appreciate how Emperor Wu, or that seemingly clueless student in so many other koans, helps us see how easy it is slip into a frame of mind in which there’s something more to get, something special, and, by god, perhaps we’ve got it.
That frame of mind from which we may overlook our own haplessness and ignorance, and the opportunities presented by those features of life we experience as constraints, as barriers.
If, on the other hand, you happen to be someone who identifies with poor, picked upon Emperor Wu all too easily — well, good for you.
“Emperor Wu was astounded.” What a wonderful response to this.
Not knowing is most intimate.
About a year ago, we changed the way we work with koans in BoWZ. Rather than skipping over koans that appear again in later collections, a student now must work with them multiple times.
I’m currently working with Case 65 in the Blue Cliff Record. In John Tarrant’s and Joan Sutherland’s as-yet unpublished translation of the BCR, which James Ford shared with me, the koan is titled “A Philosopher Questions the Buddha.” This koan appears earlier in our progression as case 32 in The Gateless Gate.
Here it is:
An outsider asked the World-Honored One, “I do not ask for the spoken; I do not ask for the unspoken.” The World-Honored One just sat still. The outsider praised him, saying, “The World-Honored One with his great compassion and mercy has opened the clouds of my delusion and enabled me to enter the Way.” He then made bows and took his leave.
Ananda asked, “What did that outsider realize to make him praise you?”
The World-Honored One said, “He is like the fine horse who runs even at the shadow of a whip.”
This koan is very interesting to me at the moment for two reasons.
First, having passed through it quickly before, I stumbled on it this time. I read it the morning I expected to present it to Josh in dokusan, then again that evening, just before we began to sit. In other words, I hadn’t really stepped into it – entered it, and allowed it to enter me – and so my presentation of it in dokuan was off-the-mark, and I didn’t pass through it.
This is a really good reminder that we do not realize something unless we realize it in the moment, even if we’ve realized it before.
This is one way in which we can see the wisdom of working with a koan multiple times.
Second, this is a powerful, early example of religious tolerance in Buddhism. I’m not sure this feature of the koan really hit me the first time around – and so we see another way in which there’s wisdom in working with a koan multiple times.
The World-Honored One is the historical Buddha, of course. Ananda was one of the Buddha’s most senior and respected followers. The Zen tradition regards him as the second Indian patriarch, just one step removed from the Buddha in the (at some points likely mythological) line of transmission that includes all living and departed Zen teachers.
The outsider in this koan was not a follower of the Buddha, not part of the clan. In another translation, the koan is titled “A Hindu Questions the Buddha.” Perhaps this “outsider” stood within the major religious stream within India then, as now.
This outsider clearly gets it, and Ananda, one of the Buddha’s most senior disciples, clearly doesn’t. (Ananda apparently came to his realization very late in life, but he was revered for his big heart and incredible memory. He is credited with preservation of many of the Buddha’s key teachings.) The fact that an “outsider” gets it is clearly fine from the Buddha’s perspective. In yet another translation, the Buddha is said to have been “respectful for a long time” after this man’s opening remark.
(What does the outsider realize? We all need to realize that for ourselves, of course.)
This case seems to me to be making a point about religion and religious boundaries, in addition to other points it’s making. This is the purpose of identifying the Buddha’s interlocutor as an outsider (or a Hindu). Otherwise, why not just start the koan “A man asked the World-Honored One . . .”?
Note that there’s a fourth character in this koan, the narrator (and a fifth, you or me).
The narrator ushers us into “insider vs. outsider” mode almost imperceptibly. It’s so seemingly natural to label people according to their traits, views, and social groups.
But is this really a koan about religious tolerance?
The Buddha doesn’t seem to see this guy through a “my religion, your religion” lens, as the narrator of the koan apparently does (or else playfully entices us to do).
Jesus was not the first Christian, as they say, and here we seem to be seeing that the Buddha was not the first Buddhist.
For the Buddha, this apparently was just an encounter with another human being who saw what he saw.
No religion here, and so no religious tolerance either, one could say.
Just a genuine encounter. Presence.
Appreciation without labels.
Appreciation whatever the labels.
This is an approximation of a Dharma talk I gave on Saturday, August 3, 2013, at the Greater Boston Zen Center.
“Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form.”
From the Heart Sutra
There is a risk in any religion that we’ll get lost in ideas and lose contact with the rest of life — that our ideas about our practice, the nature of reality or whatever may become a barrier to really experiencing life fully and vulnerably as it arises from moment to moment.
Meister Eckhart, the 14th century Christian mystic, famously said, “Pray God that we may lose God for the sake of finding God.”
Eckhart clearly understood that our ideas about what we’re seeking can get in the way of actually finding what we’re seeking.
There’s a way in which Zen is all about imploding conceptual barriers.
Within BoWZ, I think we’re pretty good at not approaching Zen as a thing, as a philosophy. We’re pretty good at practicing Zen in a way that helps us lose Zen for the sake of finding life — or, better yet, at practicing Zen as nothing that needs to be lost, because Zen practice and the rest of life are synonymous in a way that enhances our experience of all of it.
Still, we have our concepts, sparse and spare as they may be, and so there is some risk of getting lost in them, of thinking they sum it all up.
The concept that’s most central to this Zen project is expressed in the Heart Sutra as the unity of form and emptiness.
Form is exactly emptiness. Emptiness, exactly form.
We often express this same notion as the unity of the Relative and the Absolute.
Personally, I find this way of thinking about things very compelling as notions go.
It’s a good story, in part, because it’s a simple story, yet one that resists oversimplification.
For me, it’s also a good story, because it seems to comport with my experience.
There’s this particular perspective from which all phonomena, including oneself, seem distinct. And there’s this perspective from which things seem unitary, seem as one.
One angle sometimes can predominate, and sometimes intensely so.
There may be times in our lives when we feel intensely separate, intensely isolated; in moments of great physical or emotional pain, for example.
And we may have experiences — in sports, dancing, on a sailboat, in the wilderness, drawing or painting, on the cushion — when we feel utterly lost in it all, as if there were no I, no me.
And then there’s this angle from which we may experience ourselves and all else in a both-and sort of way. As distinct-and-not-separate.
James Ford often points to the shifting nature of our experience, of our perspective.
Sometimes this perspective.
In this pointing we can see that form and emptiness aren’t things.
In fact, these terms and the relationship between them are catnip for the this-and-thating part of our mind that tends to get in the driver’s seat, assume our subject position without us noticing, and so to dominate our awareness.
Then it starts spinning stories.
This is good.
I want more of this.
Less of that.
If you tend to relate to the relative and absolute as ideas when you hear those words used in our liturgy, or in a book, or in a Dharma talk like this one – if you tend to think there’s a philosophy or a grand cosmic conceptual framework embodied in those words – then I encourage you to encounter them in a spirit of playfulness instead.
As philosophy, these words really are pretty slippery.
But, perhaps we can let them be slippery like a slide.
We humans are storytellers. It seems to be in our nature, and allowing ourselves to get lost in tall tales can be immensely captivating.
I’m rather partial to a good spy story myself.
Yet we can become too captive to these captivating stories, perhaps especially the most functional ones, the best ones.
The real deal is what’s unfolding right here, now.
We may tell stories about it, and we may filter it through our stories, but it’s not a story.
It can’t be held captive by us, and if we know we’re grounded in it, and are it, we’re set free.
Bounded and free.
Form and emptiness, the relative and the absolute, the divisible and the indivisible, the divisible within and as the indivisible: this is a powerful story, and it captures something that serves as both challenge and invitation to our critical faculties. One dimension of who we are — this bicameral brain of ours — seems to crave these this-and-that stories.
It actually manufactures these stories it craves. Usefully manufactures them, so long as we can see them as stories, and not let them dictate our actions (though we sometimes may choose to act according to script).
I personally find the spare, playful story that’s central to our Zen tradition more compelling, and more comprehensible, and more comprehensive, than the much longer and much more elaborate metaphysical narratives of some other religious traditions.
But only if I relate to it playfully.
Our ideas, however appealing, and however effective as pointers, are cheap substitutes for the personal experience of really touching life with our whole being.
To my thinking, Zen is simply about cultivating our capacity for whole-being touching.
Helping us touch, moment by moment, what’s always right before us.
And perhaps progressively bringing our personal — and, ultimately, I do hope — collective stories and ideas more in line with what we see and learn and feel from that touching.
Honoring our best stories and ideas, while holding them very lightly.
Reincarnation is one of those flash point metaphysical concepts in Zen, rather like resurrection in Christianity. It has its would be defenders, its would be debunkers, and its would be reinterpreters/metaphor makers.
I’m in the latter group, to the (very little) extent I’m in any of them. Mostly, I think the whole discussion is uninteresting, like just about any other metaphysical discussion, and certainly not where the real action is.
This said, I’ve long carried an image of what may happen when I die. It’s the image of a kid at the end of a trip down a slide or a roller coaster ride, with a big smile on her face, saying, “Can we do it again?”
Do I really expect this to happen? I don’t know. But this is my disposition toward life now, and, whatever happens when this life ends, I hope it’s my attitude then.
I love this life.
I realize how fortunate I am to feel this way.
I recognize it’s relatively harder for some (perhaps many) people to feel this way, due to varied socioeconomic, political, genetic, environmental, and other factors.
And feeling this way isn’t necessarily the measure of a good life or a worthy life.
Will I feel this way as I die? Again, I don’t know.
Life is hard. My life has been hard in some ways, at times.
Attitudes can change as things change, and though I do believe many of us have a significant capacity to determine our own attitudes, even in challenging circumstances, I don’t know the limits of that principle as applied to my own life.
This attitude generally has remained a constant for me during challenging times, or has eventually returned in full force when the challenging times were especially challenging. I do think there’s a fundamental resilience that’s widely (though not necessarily universally) shared among us humans. Researchers like Daniel Gilbert seem to agree.
In my experience, there is something fundamentally solid and trustable about this ever-changing existence, if only we allow ourselves to trust.
Whatever the proximate or cosmic scale future may hold, for now I’m grateful for this attitude, and for the ingredients of my life that help sustain it: family, friends, meaningful work and other commitments, relative good health (despite some significant challenges in that arena the past couple of years), Zen practice, etc.
I have found Zen practice helpful in sustaining this attitude. If Zen is about anything, I think it is about learning to love this life, and expressing this love by honoring this life, and helping create the conditions in which others can do the same.
Here’s a short video of my daughter and me tubing in the snow yesterday. We kept doing it, again and again, for 90 minutes — an accomplishment for a four-year old, I think.
At the end of each ride she asked, smiling, “Can we do it again?”