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.

Buddha’s Birthday

We acknowledged Hanamatsuri last Thursday, April 8: the Flower Festival in our Soto Zen stream, celebrating the birth of Shakyamuni Buddha.  Most spiritual traditions have a celebration of birth (and rebirth/renewal), and Zen is no different.  If we had been together physically, we would have celebrated in the traditional way, by circling a statue of baby Buddha surrounded by flowers, pouring sweet tea over it and chanting as we walk.  

Last Thursday, I just had baby Buddha pictured here nearby me as we sat together via Zoom.  

 
In the spirt of my recent talks about lay practice and home-leaving (without leaving home), here is a poem by Judith Collins about the 20-something Shakyamuni Buddha, his own baby, and home-leaving:


Shame on you Shakyamuni for setting

the precedent

of leaving home.

Did you think it was not there –

in your wife’s lovely face

or your baby’s laughter?

Did you think you had to go elsewhere

to find it?

Tsk, tsk.

I am here to show you

dear sir

that you needn’t step

even one sixteenth of an inch away – stay

here – elbows dripping with soapy water

stay here – spit up all over your chest

stay here – steam rising in lazy curls from

cream of wheat

Poor Shakyamuni – sitting under the Bo tree

miles away from home

Venus shone all the while

Women have long been unacknowledged for their historical dedication and contributions to the Zen tradition.  (I included “Ship of Compassion” is in our Sutra book, in part, because it is one of the relatively few, ancient verses we know was composed by a female Zen practitioner.)  Through the efforts of many women teachers and leaders today, this is beginning to change.  A recent San Francisco Zen Center program on this topic may be of interest, as may this book of new, “householder koans” by two senior women teachers in our White Plum lineage.

The Ox Doesn’t Know

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.

 

A footnote on my last talk

In my last talk, On Chanting, I expressed some discomfort with the traditional last line in the Verse of the Kesa, “Saving all sentient beings.”

That discomfort no doubt arises, to a great extent, because I grew up in a religious tradition and a country that both have missionary projects. That tradition and country offer much that is good; and both also have done harm and been insufficiently attuned to and respectful of different perspectives.

This said, I hasten to add that the intention behind the phrase carries an intention that I wholeheartedly affirm. I’m quibbling with words like “saving,” “sentient” and “beings” in the traditional translation, when expressed in this cultural context. “Working for the wellbeing of the whole”—the alternative I proposed—should, in fairness, be considered just another way to express that intention.

“Saving” in this context means awakening. It doesn’t mean people are damned without our efforts to save them. For humans, it means Buddhism invites us to, and supports us in, an inner turning, or transformation, that can and should be impetus for efforts toward outer (social and ecological) transformations in this day and age.

“Sentient” literally means breathing, though the idea in traditional Buddhist philosophy is more along the lines of conscious, or having subjective experience. Contemporary scientists who study consciousness debate its boundaries. At one end of the spectrum, some materialists see it as an attribute of humans only, arising only when material conditions are right, while others would grant that animals are sentient. At the other end, there are those who increasingly believe it is a property of the universe. Between these ends of the spectrum, we find people like Kristof Koch, who definitely considers all animals to have sentience, and who grants that it’s possible some measure of consciousness is an attribute of other life forms, and possibly even other forms of matter.

How big is the set to be labeled “beings”? I prefer to morph the question, using that ambiguous verb-noun “being” instead. This is being. All of it.

Saving all sentient beings. Working for the wellbeing of the whole.

No Plan B: On Enlightenment

This post is based on a teisho I gave on May 7, 2020.

My Mom recently encouraged me to begin watching The Voice, one of the many talent shows on TV these days.  Amazing, undiscovered singers are mentored by big name artists, performing throughout the season for viewers like me, who eventually whittle down the group and pick their favorite from those who survive to the final round.

James Taylor was the guest uber-mentor this season.  I’m a huge JT fan—have been since my early teens.  JT and his music were my companion through some dark and happy times.  I don’t watch much TV, but JT was the hook that got me to watch a first episode.  And hooked I was!  The show is wonderful.  I became so invested in the contestants and so moved by how each of them gave it all up for us.

At the end of one of the mentoring sessions, JT said to two of these contestants, “I was so lucky.  I didn’t have a Plan B.  My wish for you is the joy of a life in music.”  This was so moving.  James said it so sincerely.  You know this guy.  He’s nothing, if not sincere.

Those of you who know JT’s story—he was an addict early in life, who came very close to the edge—will know he really meant it:  “I was so lucky.  I didn’t have a Plan B.”

No Plan B.  This is the perfect way to think about enlightenment in Zen.

Giving a talk on enlightenment these days is sort of a risky thing.  It isn’t talked about much anymore.  There’s a teaching logic to this, I suppose, and there always has been.  Through the ages, the notion of enlightenment has been dangled relatively sparingly, and often rather playfully—as bait, as catnip.  In truth, the call of enlightenment is omnipresent, voiced by rice fields, gardens, pillars, hedges, and walls, as Dōgen proclaimed.

Today, however, there’s also something else going on.  Talk of enlightenment is disfavored, perhaps even radioactive, in some circles, and mostly for other reasons.

One of these reasons is that, in some Zen sanghas, pursuit of kenshō experiences has been promoted with almost militant zeal, and that vibe feels oppressive to many students.  Kenshō means “seeing into one’s true nature,” and sometimes this happens suddenly and powerfully.

These experiences do happen.  The Zen literature attests to them.  In the koan collection titled Transmission of Light, for example, we read of “an open awareness, wondrously clear and bright” (Case 24); a “realm of open clarity [that] is brighter than the morning sun” (Case 35); “mind [that] has no borders, no boundaries, no sides or surfaces” (Case 23) and “an independent view that dissolved the universe” (Case 36).

These experiences are profoundly transformative, yet the Zen literature also regards them as an initiatory awareness, not as an end in themselves.  They’re like stepping through the door, into the vestibule.  They must be integrated, seasoned—over many years.  Fetishizing these experiences is counterproductive.

In fact, one of the oldest debates in Zen is about whether such sudden illumination experiences are essential, or whether enlightenment is something that happens gradually.  “Sometimes swiftly, sometimes slowly” is the shorthand way of expressing the consensus view on how that debate has come to be resolved.  Both experiences are valid, in other words.  My own view is a bit different:  “Sometimes swiftly, always slowly,” is how I would put it.

In this era, in our cultural context, there has been a shift away from militant pursuit of kenshō; of fetishizing that which we’re told not to fetishize.  In our era, we tend to focus almost exclusively on another key teaching:  That we are all, already Buddhas; that ordinary mind is enlightenment, as Dōgen emphasized.

This shift in emphasis is appropriate.  As Zen reached the West, some of the teachers who transported it here, who were weary of what the tradition had largely become in Japan—a system of performative rituals, divorced from authentic practice—found a generation of seekers eager to devote themselves to contemplative spiritual practice.   Perhaps the monastic intensity and strictures that were features of the communities many of these teachers trained in and later established, and the zeal with which they promoted the notion of enlightenment to the receptive audiences they found, was overdone.

But where we are today strikes me as something of a counter-reaction, and I think there’s a risk of losing touch with something immensely valuable—something that is not mutually exclusive with current efforts to present Zen in kinder, gentler, and otherwise more accessible and approachable ways.  These enlightenment experiences can be immensely meaningful.

And, in fact, they come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and not only on the cushion.  One teacher I know had his big breakthrough experience eating a grain of rice during a meal on retreat, feeling a profound sense of connection, grounded-ness, and gratitude, as he did.

These experiences bring insights; they help us cultivate wise hearts.  In a flash, we know we’re at home in the universe. The film has melted and we have merged, if only for a timeless moment, with the light that projects all images.  It’s like walking through a door into a room, and, once through, the walls, floor, and ceiling disappear.  There is no inside or outside; no up or down.  An experience like this is not a thought; it’s an undeniable and unshakable realization.  An awakening.  Dōgen, and his teacher before him, called it “body and mind falling away.”

Though we can be too precious about these experiences, we shouldn’t be dismissive of them either.  We need more wise hearts in this world, and we should welcome these experiences for what they contribute to the cultivation of wise hearts.

At any rate, it’s not in vogue at the moment—dare I say it’s not PC—to say that kenshō is the point of Zen practice, or its cresendo moment.  There’s surely wisdom in this.  And, yet, I also think it’s a mistake to deny or ignore these experiences as one important feature and function of Zen practice.  We can’t mechanistically induce them; nor should we amplify them or regard them as essential or exclusive.  As a former teacher of mine, James Ford, is fond of saying, however, “Accidents [by which James means kenshō] do happen, and Zen practice tends to make us more accident prone.”

There’s another reason why talk of enlightenment has become disfavored.  There’s been another shift—a good and important shift—away from an emphasis on enlightenment as an individual thing and toward an emphasis on enlightenment as a collective thing in the broadest possible sense.  In our era, we tend to focus primarily on another key teaching:  That enlightenment is a quality of the universe, not something we attain personally.  It’s not a private possession, but a quality of existence that inspires compassionate action.

Today we emphasize the environment, the collective, and racial and other social and economic justice concerns.  Engaged Buddhism is about holding up, bowing deeply to, and acting in the service of, this key feature of the teachings:  our radical interconnectedness, or interbeing, as Thich Nhat Hahn calls it.

But, again, just as finding new ways to elevate and serve this feature of the tradition is critically important in this time and place, we risk losing touch with something valuable if we focus solely on social and environmental engagement.  In fact, we risk losing touch with something that must ground and guide our own actions.

Indeed, Buddhism’s founding story reminds us that these two perspectives are not opposed.  At the time of his own awakening, we hear that Shakyamuni Buddha looked up to see the North Star, touched the ground, and said, “Oh, I see.  The universe and I arise together.”

Perhaps talk of enlightenment would be more welcome, and less burdened, if its association with sudden kenshō experiences were relaxed just a bit.

I recently heard another teacher—Daniel Doen Silberberg, Roshi, who worked closely with Maezumi Roshi—say that the official definition of enlightenment with the Soto Zen tradition actually is quite different. It’s to be at one with our own karma.  To me, this simply means living your life as if there is no Plan B.

To the Western ear, the word “karma” sounds metaphysical, and probably weirdly so.  It evokes thoughts of reincarnation.  Whatever its metaphysical implications, the notion of karma points to the practical reality that effects have causes.  Our experience right now is conditioned by innumerable events and circumstances that preceded this moment, even before one’s own lifetime, as well as our own conduct, speech, and thought prior to this moment.  One practical implication of the notion of karma is that the intended and unintended ways in which we show up right now will affect our personal and collective future—though the precise effects of our conduct, speech and thought can’t always be foreseen clearly, in part because a vast confluence of causes influences our experience right now.

Still, it’s probably fair to say that we usually have a pretty good sense of whether our conduct, speech, and thought is wholesome, and so relatively more likely to be beneficial.  The notion of karma is, in a sense, encouragement to show up in an upright way.  We can think about the precepts like that:  Less with a heavy overtone of moral prescription and more in terms of probability function.  Over time, people have found that honoring these precepts, or principles, tends to enhance individual and collective wellbeing.

Anyway, to be at one with our own karma is to accept our life as it is right now—even as we also commit to changing what must be changed.  To accept myself as I find myself.  To appreciate my life, as Maezumi Roshi constantly encouraged his students to do.  To trust my experience, my talents, my quirks.  My challenges.  My growing edges.

Sometimes a felt, growing edge is a nudge to look at something about oneself.  Sometimes it’s a nudge to look at and meet—to accept or work to change—something about the world.  It’s really always both.  My growing edges are the universe’s growing edges.

Don’t spare the Dharma assets—the ingredients of one’s life—as the Bodhisattva precept encouraging generosity sometimes is expressed.

In other words, go with Plan A, because it’s the only plan going.  Submit to your life.  There is no Plan B.

Or, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, I’d might as well be myself, because it seems everyone else is taken.

This is what it means to be grounded.

Kenshō experiences are profoundly, and paradoxically, grounding.  They ground us in the reality of no-ground.  They can help liberate us to be ourselves; to end the search for someplace, or someone, else to be.  They’re a homecoming.  We find ourselves at and as the heart of the universe.  Home.  Always, everywhere, home.

Anyway, all of these ways of thinking about and manifesting enlightenment are right and good.  All of the above, I say.

Zen’s Ten Oxherding Pictures are a useful touchstone as we think about all of this.  In this series of images, which is a metaphor for the spiritual journey, the kenshō moment—the eighth picture—is not the terminus.  The series ends with a picture titled “Entering the Marketplace with Extended Hands.”  In other words, everyday life is where the journey resolves, with us meeting everyday life, and others, openly and generously.  Offering up what we are uniquely capable of offering up.  Manifesting as oneself.  “The God wants to know itself in you,” as Rilke wrote, expressing all this from a theistic perspective.

Back to James Taylor.  A few weeks ago, I listened to his new autobiography, Break Shot, which I highly recommend.  His is quite a life story.  He had an intense youth; he experienced some intense things.  Yet, JT’s autobiography confirmed what I’ve always sensed from his music and the handful of interviews I’ve heard or read:  He ultimately sensed how the forces of the universe were bending him, much like those notes he bends.  He submitted to his own karma; he quite literally played the music that is his life—made use of all of the ingredients of his life, even the hardest stuff—and found joy there.

JT sums up much of what I’m trying to say in the chorus of one of my favorite songs, The Secret of Life:  “Try not to try to hard.  It’s just a lovely ride.”

My wish for you is the joy of a life in music.  The music that is your life.

Meditation

Meditation is what’s happening now.

Sitting meditation (zazen) is what’s happening now, while I’m sitting.

Whatever is happening.