Beyond Belief

I gave this talk on Saturday, September 3, 2022, at the Greater Boston Zen Center. A recording follows at the end of this post.

This is from the Record of Tung-shan:

[Tung-shan asked Yün-yen why he could not hear nonsentient beings expound the Dharma.

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

Tung-shan replied, “No, I can’t.”

Yün-yen said, “You can’t even hear it when I expound the Dharma; how do you expect to hear when a nonsentient being expounds the Dharma?”

Tung-shan asked, “In which sutra is it taught that nonsentient beings expound the Dharma?”

Yün-yen replied, “Haven’t you seen it?  In the Amitabha Sutra it says, “Water birds, tree groves, all without exception recite the Buddha’s name, recite the Dharma.”

Reflecting on this, Tung-shan composed the following verse:

How amazing, how amazing!

Hard to comprehend that nonsentient beings expound the Dharma.

It simply cannot be heard with the ear.

But when sound is heard with the eye, then it is understood.

Tung-shan is the Chinese teacher to whom the Soto Zen stream in which we swim traces its start.  He lived in the Ninth Century and was a contemporary of Lin-chi, to whom the Rinzai stream traces its start.  These two streams really weren’t so different then, and they aren’t so different now, but we humans tend to magnify and objectify distinctions to assure ourselves we exist.  

Today I want us to consider Tung-shan’s journey as we reflect on this tendency to amplify and thingify distinctions.  It was a journey on foot to the center of the universe.  Let’s also consider how our practice can help us relax that tendency and the good things that may come from this relaxation.

As we meet Tung-shan in this reading, he’s been traveling around for some time visiting teachers.  He’s been searching for someone who could answer the burning question that fueled his wandering:  If inanimate objects expound the Dharma, why can’t I hear them?  

There was a big debate in this era about the nature of, well, nature.  Existence.  What does it mean to be alive?  Who and what counts existentially?  I move.  Rocks don’t (unless I move them).  The difference seems to be about some vital life energy that I have and the rock doesn’t seem to have, or at least to have so evidently.  Maybe it’s also about the will and cognition, which I seem to have and the rock doesn’t seem to have.  

But what about the temple dog?  It seems somewhere in-between the rock and me?  Does the dog have it, too?  Tung-shan was a contemporary of Chao-chuo, to whom another monk famously asked whether the temple dog has Buddha Nature.

Many people before and after Tung-shan, including some of us, also have had a burning question.  Dōgen wanted to know why we must practice if we’re Buddhas from the start.  I wanted to know when I could stop practicing: where does practice lead and when will I get there?   Tung-shan’s question, Dōgen’s question and mine, the monk’s question about whether a dog has Buddha Nature, and maybe also your questions are really all the same sort of question: Do I have Buddha Nature?  Who or what am I?  Am I okay in the universe?

Though questions like these arise and agitate us from a much deeper, pre-cognitive place, our neocortex, the verbal part of our brain, turns them into linguistic formulations.  And so we go looking for linguistic formulation answers.

“Tung-shan asked, `In which sutra is it taught that nonsentient beings expound the Dharma?’”

Tung-shan is doing what brainy people do:  seeking a tidy conceptual understanding, rather than just standing under, standing in, truly meeting, and trusting his own experience.  He doesn’t know yet, or doesn’t yet trust, that his very life is the non-conceptual answer he’s seeking.  A conceptual answer—an object of thought—will never satisfy.  

It’s ironic, but this thought-producing faculty of ours both seeks conceptual answers to the type of questions it produces and senses that no conceptual answer it could produce is likely to put an end to its restless questioning.  You’re sitting in a zendo, so you probably have learned that the standard fare in most religious traditions—beliefs, or ideas that have become rigid objects—ultimately can’t satiate and stabilize us.  They might be capable of anchoring us for some time, but many of us begin to feel unmoored despite them.  We ultimately must develop comfort with being unmoored, and so discovering ourselves as the ocean itself—not as an idea; not as a belief.

How does Yün-yen respond when Tung-shan asks which sutra—which textual, conceptual authority—verifies the claim that nonsentient beings expound the Dharma?  He skillfully points to a text that points to water birds and tree groves.  And Tung-shan has an initial opening.

Yün-yen had tried to open this gate for Tung-shan earlier in their conversation by holding up his whisk.  But Tung-shan couldn’t hear the whisk expounding the Dharma.  Tung-shan was a senior Zen adept at the time, so (supposedly) “advancing” on the Zen path.  But as one (supposedly) advances on the Zen path we encounter the same old obstacles in more subtle forms.  One can imagine Tung-shan thinking, “Don’t hold up your whisk, you old fool.  Don’t offer me that standard Zen trope.”  Meeting a whisk or a finger, or three pounds of flax, or the oak tree in the courtyard this way also is meeting it conceptually.  The I is declaring it can sum up, contain, and possess Yün-yen’s presentation of the whisk within its ideas about it, about Zen, and about tropes.

Tung-shan continued his wandering for some time after his extended stay with Yün-yen.  It often takes some time to integrate an initial opening to the reality that the light shines in and as all things, including oneself.  It can take years for that realization to sink in, ripen, and transform us.  We ultimately find this transformation never ends, because we and all things, sentient and nonsentient, are transformation.  And by now we should know that the notions of sentient and nonsentient are just labels assigned by the analytical part of our mind; useful for some purposes, perhaps, but also likely to be harmful in other ways if we thingify them and lose sight of this thingifying.

Tung-shan had a second, deeper opening sometime after he left Yün-yen.  He glimpsed his own reflection in a river as he crossed it.  Rather than becoming narrowly transfixed on that relative manifestation of the light that shines in and as all things, as Narcissus did upon seeing his reflected image, Tung-shan realized in that instant that he himself expounds the Dharma.  In that instant, he realized his kinship with all things.  With whisks, with all the ancestors of meditation in the still halls, with ants and sticks and grizzly bears.

Zen doesn’t ask us to believe anything.  It simply entices and supports us toward the sort of shift in perception and experience that Tung-shan had.  To a life both beyond and encompassing all ideas and beliefs.  A life in which we can take diverse ideas seriously, on their own, always limited merits, but in which we don’t mistake the whisk (or the universe or existence) for our ideas about it.

This has everything to do with ethics, the subject of Jill’s talk last Saturday and the Precepts Discussion Group that begins on Wednesday.  We’re really talking about one of two essential elements of Zen’s approach to ethics.  This first element is compassion.  True compassion for oneself arises from perceiving oneself as Buddha.   True compassion for other people arises from perceiving them as Buddha.  True compassion for water birds and tree groves—for the environment that encompasses and is all beings—arises from perceiving this realm as Buddha.  

The other cornerstone of Zen ethics is wisdom: use of our discriminating awareness, now appropriately embraced and guided by compassion.  Our analytical mind is again part of the equation, but with our tendency to magnify and thingify distinctions, and to isolate and elevate or diminish oneself, in view and modulated down.  

We act wisely and ethically when both capacities are working in concert.

Earlier I said Tung-shan’s journey was a journey to the center of the universe.  Physicists today tell us that the center of the universe is everywhere.  That each of us—indeed, everything—is the center of the universe.  

As Hakuin’s successor, Torei Enji writes in his beautiful enlightenment poem, “Boddhisattva’s Vow”:

This truth never fails: in every moment and every place 

things can’t help but shine with this light. 

Realizing this, our Ancestors gave reverent care to animals, birds, and all beings.

Tung-shan glimpsed this reality, then progressively let go into it and lived it. 

Each of us is called to do the same.

We, too, are called to turn our ear to see the water birds.

Open our eyes to hear our face in the babbling brook.

Beyond Belief

We’re Off to See the Wizard

I gave this talk on Saturday, August 6, 2022, at the Greater Boston Zen Center.

This is the final verse of the Five Ranks, Dongshan’s great poem about the spiritual journey:

Who would presume to join their voice with someone

who has surpassed “there is” and “there is not”?

Everyone longs to leave the mundane stream, yet finally

you return to sit in the charcoal heap.

My thoughts drifted to The Wizard of Oz earlier this week, shortly after meditating.  I’d just returned from sesshin, during which our talks and discussions took up the topic of spiritual authority, in multiple senses.  One sense was about wise and unwise ways to think about and exercise spiritual authority for anyone who provides guidance to others in this domain.  Another was about realizing that spiritual authority ultimately must be discovered and centered in oneself, which is the objective that guides the guidance of our wise guides along the Way.  Beware of any guide whose approach seems entangled with other objectives.

I’m guessing most or all of you have seen The Wizard of Oz, perhaps multiple times.  Yes?  I’ve watched it at least a dozen times over the years, both as a kid and with my own kids.

Dorothy is a young woman living in rural Kansas, as you know.  Life seems mundane and uneventful to her, until one day everything turns upside down.  Her little dog Toto bites a snooty, wealthy lady, who gets a court order to have Toto euthanized.  Dorothy and Toto run away from home, but a charlatan fortune teller they encounter persuades Dorothy to return to her heartbroken family.  A tornado strikes as Dorothy approaches, she’s knocked unconscious, and she wakes up in a mysterious, enchanted land.

You know the rest of the story.  Dorothy is told she must walk a long, winding path to meet with a wizard in a castle who can help her find her way home.  Along the way she befriends other seekers who feel lost; feel they’re missing something this wizard can give them.  

A wicked witch and her minions try to prevent Dorothy and her friends from reaching the wizard.  Dorothy and her quest are forces of goodness that threaten the shadow forces represented by the wicked witch.  Dorothy, her friends, and Toto reach the wizard against all odds—and what an impressive, imposing wizard he is!  Unfortunately, he will not grant their requests until they bring him the wicked witch’s broom; her staff.  It’s an impossible task, yet, again, they achieve the impossible.  They’ve now improbably defeated the wicked witch and reached the wizard’s castle twice.

Now will the wizard grant their wishes?  No.  He huffs and he puffs and is about to give them yet another impossible task when little Toto pulls back a curtain exposing the mighty wizard as an ordinary human being.  Dorothy scolds the wizard, putting him in his place so to speak, but it’s clear enough that her boldness and anger at the wizard aren’t yet accompanied by deep insight and a sense that she has found and is securely inhabiting her place.

Anyway, this ordinary human being helps Dorothy’s friends see that what they’ve each been searching for—a heart, a brain, and courage, or a will and spine to keep one upright—are things they’ve had all along.  And, Dorothy?  The wizard tells Dorothy that he’s also from Kansas, and that he knows how it feels to long for home.  He offers to take her and Toto back in a hot air balloon.  Toto jumps away from this sack full of hot air as they take off, and Dorothy chases after him, seemingly missing her opportunity to return home.  Fortunately, another guide, Glinda the good witch, tells Dorothy what the wizard had told her friends:  That she has always had the power to return home.  All she must do is affirm that she never really left, and that there is, indeed, no place like home.  With three taps of her heels, Dorothy is back in Kansas.

Dongshan’s Five Ranks, the poem from which I read earlier, and the Oxherding Series, the story told in the pictures hanging in our zendo, are Zen versions of The Wizard of Oz.  They are stories about our longing and searching for what seems missing; for the home from which we believe we have gone missing.   We’re living an ordinary life, but something begins to feel amiss.  We set off on a journey; step onto a path.  Along the way, strange things happen and we overcome challenges—maybe even pass through some koans.  

Eventually, if all goes well, we return home—but now we and home are refigured.  It’s at once the same home and not the same home.  Much like Dorothy is received upon her return, people might chuckle at us in a patronizing way if we try to talk about our journey and what we’ve experienced and come to realize.  But we truly have been on a journey, and we really do see things differently now.   We return to sit in the charcoal heap, but the ashes, and the three pounds of flax, and the cypress tree in the courtyard pulse with and give life in a way we missed before.

So where’s the wizard in the Five Ranks and the Ox Herding series?  Conspicuously absent!  I think that’s both strange (in the sense of oddly funny) and appropriate.  These metaphors for the spiritual journey were produced in communities led by Zen teachers.  Dongshan himself was a teacher.  For millennia, people like you and me have been going to see Zen teachers, much as Dorothy and her friends went to see the Wizard of Oz.  In the end, Oz tells them he has nothing to offer them.  He affirms they lack nothing, as any truly wise, caring, and skillful guide to a seeker should do.  In the end—from the beginning, really—there’s no wizard and no magic.  Or, to say the same thing differently, you are the wizard and it’s all magic, even the charcoal.

It’s tempting to think of the Wizard of Oz as a big fraud.  He’s portrayed as hiding behind an impressive, imposing façade, projecting an air of magic, wisdom, and authority, setting up challenges for Dorothy and her friends to overcome.  Or so it seems.  Might they have rendered him larger than life?  Any good wizard should be trying just to meet others earnestly, offering them what the wizard senses they really need at each encounter, doing a wizard’s best to honor them wherever they are at, while not investing personally in their projections.   In the case of the great Wizard of Oz, maybe the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  Maybe some elements of this particular wizard’s personhood were still too willing and eager to indulge seekers’ projections.  That’s a danger; we know this happens.

I met my most helpful guides—in Zen and in life generally—at times when I was feeling particularly lost.  (I’ve had some very flawed guides, too.)  Each of the best guides had a knack for meeting me earnestly where I was at, making skillful use of the resources they had at their disposal, whether teaching staffs and koans or on-the-job training, while sidestepping my projections.  There really is something to discover in Zen—we call that something nothing, in all its manifestations—and my best Zen teachers were laser focused on using all the resources at their disposal to help me realize it for myself.

By the way, my favorite character in the Wizard of Oz is little Toto.  Toto is the only character who never changes, outwardly or inwardly.  Tenacious little Toto nips at the bitter, pretentious, old critic character—our inner critic, really—the wealthy woman who shows up as the wicked witch in the land of Oz.  He exposes the wizard as an ordinary human.  He jumps away from the wizard’s bag full of hot air, putting Dorothy in the predicament in which she discovers her own power.  Toto’s significance in the story is easy to miss.  Toto is Dorothy’s own still, small voice, and that mute voice is Dorothy’s truest guide.  Toto never leaves home, because home is everywhere.

Spiritual Authority

I gave this talk on Friday, July 29, 2022, during our Greater Boston Zen Center summer sesshin. You’ll find a recording of the talk at the end of this post.

This is the koan “Dr. Doctor Rides the Bus” from the Book of Householder Koans, a new collection of contemporary koans—koans from our time and place—assembled by Zen Roshis Eve Myonen Marko and Wendy Egokyu Nakao:

Dr. Doctor has a common cold, but he still rode the bus to work.
He began to cough and sneeze into his handkerchief. Every time
he coughed, all the people on the bus tried to cough. Every time
he sneezed, all the people on the bus tried to sneeze. Finally,
the doctor exited at his destination.
“Whew!” the driver sighed. “What would we do without good
medical advice?”

The name of the central character in this koan, Dr. Doctor, tells us we’re dealing with a revered authority figure. This isn’t just Dr. Smith; it’s Dr. Doctor.

And the first line tells us immediately that something is amiss. Dr. Doctor is riding the bus, exposing other people to their illness. Shouldn’t the good doctor know better?

All the passengers riding with Dr. Doctor seem to believe coughing and sneezing is what they should be doing too. If Dr. Doctor is saying or doing it, it must be what they should do, right? The driver even praises the good doctor’s example as Dr. Doctor leaves the bus.

Replace “bus” with “zendo,” replace “Dr. Doctor” with “Sensei” or “Roshi,” and it becomes clear this koan is inviting us to take a hard look at authority in the realm of spiritual practice.

Let’s imagine the story continues. That night, one of the passengers starts feeling sick. Now her coughs and sneezes are real, not feigned; Dr. Doctor really was ill, after all. Now this passenger also is exhibiting these symptoms, but maybe she tells herself it’s okay. She denies or suppresses doubt. Or maybe she calls a co-worker with whom she rode the bus and learns he also now has these symptoms, but they minimize their own feelings of discomfort. These colleagues assure one another it’s no big deal. The koan tells us Dr. Doctor has a common cold, not something more serious, after all.

Let’s say they both go to work the next day, and one goes to dinner with friends that evening. That weekend, someone who was at that dinner, infected but not yet coughing and sneezing, visits his aging mother in her nursing home. Several residents catch the cold, and one particularly vulnerable person doesn’t survive it. Dr. Doctor’s conduct, and the riders’ acceptance of it, has caused great loss and pain.

Like one of my favorite novels, Catch 22, we the readers of this koan readily see there’s something wrong with the picture it paints, even though the characters in it do not. All of them—Dr. Doctor, the bus driver, and all the passengers—are just too enmeshed in the field they inhabit. They are not really subjects in it, they are subject to it.

I’ve extended this koan’s story in a dramatic way, with a tragic conclusion. This community knows all too well that such tragedies are possible—that teachers can behave in inappropriate ways, whether minor and seemingly benign or wildly inappropriate, and that they can fail to realize the depth and breadth of the harm they are causing. Authority figures even may come to believe, consciously or not, that they’re so special the rules don’t apply to them. One key teaching of this koan is that we need to be on guard against this. We need to be aware of our own needs and desires that can create a propensity toward enmeshment and blindness. We need to heed signs, including our own discomfort. That teaching is critically important.

There’s another teaching here I’d like to spotlight: It’s no good to imitate, whether in our individual practice or as a community. We should always be open to good ideas and examples wherever we may find them, yet we always need to tailor them to our needs, circumstances, concerns, and objectives. That’s the balance we need to strike. No other response is truly agentic.

Many people who feel burned by an authority figure, or by our institutions or systems, not only lose faith in the authority of others; they also subtly lose touch with and lose faith in themselves. When this happens, we are prone to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. We can reject what is still of potential value and legitimate use to us.

Most of us eventually get burned and disillusioned by someone or something we’ve looked up to or relied upon to a greater or lesser degree. This community suffered something cataclysmic, yet who among us had not at least experienced a mild loss of faith in another authority figure, institution, or system at some earlier point in our life?

I’m a parent to two teenagers, and I see daily how skeptical they have become about many of our institutions and the adults in my generation. This is understandable, and I share their perspectives to a great extent. Yet I also know they presently are painting with a very broad brush—or erasing with a very, very wide eraser—as they react to what rightly concerns them. As teens, they have not yet developed confidence in their own capacity to separate wheat from chaff, so they are inclined to reject all people and ideas associated with what they have received, reactively pivoting toward what they imagine to be its opposite.

We’re adults, and so we’re hopefully less inclined to do that. Still, when Dr. Doctor has let us down, and we begin to wonder whether the whole medical profession has let us down too, it’s natural to question whether there was ever anything of value there in the first place. It’s possible there was not, but another possibility is that this moment in which we find ourselves is offering us an opportunity to separate wheat from chaff; to discover the real pearl of great price within the shell, the outer packaging, on which we previously were focused.

I’ve always loved that old Zen proverb, “Barn burnt down. Now I can see the moon.” In one way or another, it seems our Zen barn eventually needs to burn to the ground. How I wish it always were a controlled burn that didn’t leave someone scarred and in mortal pain. Controlled or not, however, our barn must burn down to reveal the moon.

We must sift through the ashes in the light of the moon, deciding what’s left of the barn that is still useful. We must decide what to construct in its place—a structure that fits and suits us, now with skylights to receive the moonlight. We must find our own style; our own way of receiving and expressing the Dharma in the context of our own lives, personally and as a community. Many of the forms, practices, and structures we have received from China, Japan, and our forerunners in the West have enduring value to us, but we must honor them by adjusting, stretching, and supplementing them as fits our time and place.

Each of us must discover ourselves as the stable ground and structure we are seeking. Any authority figure worthy of one’s respect and admiration will want nothing less for and from us. They will simultaneously strive to provide an example worth imitating and they won’t accept mere imitation.

Here’s the verse that precedes the koan with which this talk began:

Depending on circumstances,
Everything is medicine,
Everything is disease.
Doctors are no exception.

Indeed.

Turning Toward as Refuge

I gave this talk on Saturday, July 2, 2022, at the Greater Boston Zen Center.

I take refuge in Buddha.

I take refuge in Dharma.

I take refuge in Sangha.

I want to try to weave together three seemingly random things in this talk, using the Three Refuges as the thread that loosely binds them. These three things are:

This feels like a crazy idea and a daunting task; even more so because I don’t want this talk to become too long. I’m eager to get to our dialogue; to hear your thoughts and learn where you would like to take this discussion.

The Three Refuges long have been understood as a declaration of one’s desire to seek liberation, and one’s commitment to finding it, by stepping onto the Buddhist path. I think it’s fair to say that, at the time many of us begin to investigate and then set foot on this path, we conceive of liberation as escape from aspects of our individual and social experiences that feel painful, overwhelming, or otherwise wrong. We turn to spiritual practice and community for what we hope will be a safe harbor.

Here’s the first of the three things I want to try to tie together today: a talk I gave 11 years ago, in November 2011, when I’d just been made a Dharma teacher in GBZC’s predecessor sangha, which was called Waldo (in honor of Ralph Waldo Emerson). Yesterday I came across my notes for that talk. I’ve just spent 10 days isolating with COVID, and I spent part of that time sorting through and purging material in boxes in our attic, which is where I found these note. The title of that talk? Taking Refuge: Nowhere to Hide.

You can find the final version of that talk on my blog, Turning Words. But there were a number of bits that got left out, and being reminded of that was as interesting to me as rereading the talk I ultimately gave. Here’s one bit I wish I had left in (and I’m quoting from those notes). I said that when I learned “a couple of weeks ago that I’d be giving a talk tonight, my reaction was a wave of anxiety. The thought that’s comforted me between then and now is that a Dharma talk is just speaking from the heart about one’s experience, and perhaps relating that to some Zen text or form or practice. If I manage to do that, I suppose this can’t go too badly. At least that’s what I’m choosing to tell myself.”

Eleven years and many talks later, that way of thinking about a Dharma talk still suits me. All any of us can do is try to speak honestly about and from our own experience. I’m very aware that my experience is just that; just my experience. And while it’s true that each of us is as vast as the universe, it’s also true that I and my perspectives and experiences are limited.

Anyway, the gist of that first talk was that this idea of taking refuge once bugged me to no end, but that my perspective on it eventually shifted. Let me quote my former self again, explaining why the idea of taking refuge once bugged me:

  • “I tend to think of myself as autonomous and self-reliant. Taking refuge [used to seem] like submission.”
  • “I tend to think of myself as strong. Taking refuge [used to seem] like surrender.”
  • “I tend to think of myself as engaged and action oriented. Taking refuge [used to seem] like hiding.”

I also talked about how I initially misconstrued the notions of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, equating them with someone to idolize; canonical, dogmatic teachings; and an exclusive community.

I went on in this talk to explain that I had come to think about myself, our three refuges, and the idea of taking refuge differently.

I had come to see that the autonomous, self-reliant, strong, engaged, and action oriented me— my persona; the way I prefer to see myself and for others to see me—is only part of the picture. I’m also subject to powerful habit energy that trips me up. I’m dependent upon others who also are dependent upon me. And, you know, sometimes I am inclined to hide or to free ride; to turn a blind eye; to not step out and step up.

I’d begun to think of Buddha not as some supposedly perfect being that our teachers were and that I had to emulate, but as something that exists in and as the human condition—both the mud; the precarious potential for a lotus to emerge from it; and the need to tend to what’s beautiful and fragile for it to take root and survive. I’d begun to think of Dharma as the teaching available to us everywhere; in all that we encounter and experience. And I’d begun to think of Sangha as both the community of fellow travelers who have chosen to journey together on this path and the unfathomable unity of everything, everywhere, and always.

Finally, I said in this talk that I’d come to see taking refuge as an opting in, not an opting out—as a turning toward, rather than a turning away from what we would rather not see or experience or contend with or work through.

And that brings me to the second thing I want to hold up and connect in this talk: our recently published Resilient Sangha project documents, which I finally had time to read in full while I was isolating with COVID. I am so moved, inspired by, and proud of this set of documents and the people and process that produced them. I am so sorry this community had to live through something so awful as clergy abuse and I am so impressed by how the community responded, by how people have been present to and have supported one another, and by what the community is now offering other sanghas and all beings by sharing what it has learned and wants others to know.

Every line of these documents is packed with insight and wisdom, truly conveying the Buddha mind. For me, this community and those documents exemplify taking refuge as turning toward: turning toward the truth and the reckoning with truth that the moment required; turning toward one another, with a particular focus on those most injured; turning toward the possibility of envisioning and creating something new, the possibility that a lotus might bloom in the mud. I bow deeply to those of you who led this community, and continue to lead this community, toward a different future.

I think your Resilient Sangha documents are a profoundly important contribution to the Dharma. I hope they are seen, studied, and practiced, and that their true meaning is realized, by people throughout space and time. I genuinely believe they should be and will be read and remembered for eons; for kalpas. I say this not only for the wise and skillful guidance they provide for avoidance of clergy abuse, and for dealing with it when it happens, but also more generally for the model they offer of how to organize and operate a sangha and the proper place and function of teachers. These documents and the small number of others like them, such as the Zen Center of Los Angeles’s Sangha Sutra, mark a new, full turn of the Dharma Wheel, offering us a stronger foundation for realizing— making real—Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha in our time.

The third thing I want to weave into this talk is the Fourth of July. Our union seems far from perfect these days. These feel like the Disunited States of America—or, to borrow the title of a book by a friend of mine, the Untied States of America. I admit to daydreaming at times about moving to some remote place in some other country, never to be seen again. To wanting to seek refuge in the sense of turning away, not turning towards. Maybe comparable social and political turmoil in their times, and the natural human impulse to turn away, is the reason we have so many Zen koans and other stories about monks living as hermits on mountain peaks. I’m committed not to doing that. I have my own turning toward purposes and projects that help sustain that commitment, and now I also have the Resilient Sangha project documents as inspiration.

I must say, however, that I don’t blame those whose spirits feel crushed, and who turn away. Turning toward is hard. I hope we the people of this sangha can continue to support each other in our various social justice activities and ministries; in our joint and individual efforts to receive and turn toward the cries of the world; in our efforts to treat strangers as our own. We really need many people turning toward others more than ever right now.

The Inner Vinaya

I gave this talk on Saturday, June 18, 2022, at the Greater Boston Zen Center.

This is from The Records of the Transmission of the Lamp:

            A monk asked Kyōgen, “What is the inner Vinaya?”

            “Wait until the venerable monk becomes a layman, then we’ll talk,” replied the master.

I came across this interesting exchange a few weeks ago, and I’ve been sitting with it since then.  It’s interesting to me for a couple of reasons.

One reason is the idea of the inner Vinaya.  The Vinaya is the long set of precepts and procedures that regulate Buddhist monastic life.  In most parts of the world up to the present day, the term sangha has referred exclusively to the community of Buddhist monastics.  Someone who does not live in a monastery—a layperson, we would call them today—is not part of the sangha and not subject to the Vinaya.

By the way, for purposes of everything I say in this talk, I’m counting most Zen priests in the West, and even most Japanese Zen temple monks, as “laypeople” in the strict sense in which I’m using that term here.  In most of the Buddhist world, the bounds of sangha are stark and clear: if you don’t live as a monastic, you’re not a member of the sangha.  Applying the Western word and concept of “priest” within Zen Buddhism is a modern thing; something that began to emerge in late medieval and early modern times as East met West and a clerical path outside monasteries and major temples began to emerge.  Throughout most of Zen’s history, and in most of the rest of the Buddhist world even today, there weren’t laypeople and priests, as those of us acquainted with Christianity think of them.  There were monks and non-monks.  Most Western Zen priests today live householder lives; they don’t live in a monastery or temple.  Even in Japan, almost all Zen clerics marry, eat meat, and drink.  They and their families mostly live in one of the 2,000 or so local temples—think of them a bit like neighborhood churches—but they are living lives that don’t look so different than those of the families nearby.  It’s an uncomfortable fact for these Japanese clerics that most monastics in other Buddhist sects throughout Asia do not regard them as part of the sangha, but as laypeople.  They may have left home symbolically, but they are still living and practicing at home—still living “in the world”—from a traditional Buddhist perspective.  In Japan today, most Zen clerics embrace pretty much the same vows the rest of us take in jukai and relate to them as we do.  And so, happily for them I submit, I intend everything I say here to apply equally to Zen priests.

There is some variation in the Vinaya across Buddhist sects and regions, but even the shortest versions have around 250 precepts.  In addition to prohibitions on marrying, eating meat, and drinking alcohol, many other activities that many people living ordinary lives must or do engage in regularly, like handling money, are prohibited.  

Many of us would experience life lived according to the Vinaya as rather oppressive, I suppose.  But the idea, or ideal, is that one will find liberation within these seeming constraints; discover boundlessness within boundaries.  Even so, it’s not hard to imagine that some monks might come to experience adherence to so many precepts regulating so many aspects of one’s daily life in a rather “check the box” sort of way.  One might eventually feel neither oppressed nor particularly liberated by these strictures.  One might just feel habituated to them, and one might begin to wonder, “What’s the point?”

I imagine the monk in the vignette I just read as having just this sort of experience.  His practice, including his faithful adherence to the monastic code, has begun to feel like a dead-end street.  He might initially have felt he was (or was becoming) holy by adhering to scores of precepts.  I’ve spent a fair amount of time in monasteries and become close to several longtime monks, and most of them have told me it’s common along the monastic path to regard oneself as holier-than-thou in this way.  But the monk in this story seems to be realizing that just conforming his visible conduct to the Vinaya code isn’t what it’s all about.  It’s about how one orients internally.  And so he brings his question about whether there is an inner Vinaya to his teacher.

The second reason this little vignette is interesting to me is Kyōgen’s response.   Kyōgen, who I regard as my Dharma namesake, was a Chinese teacher in the ninth century.  When he left home and entered a monastery, his teacher Isan gave him a version of the famous koan, “What is your original face before your parents were born?”  He was totally stumped by it.  He was a brainy, learned person, so he did what many brainy, learned people do when they’re stumped:  He started combing through books for an answer.  Not finding it, he burned all the books, left the monastery, and become a wanderer for some time.  He eventually settled near the neglected burial place and shrine of a famous teacher and spent his days keeping it and the surrounding area in shape.  He returned to everyday life, so to speak.  One day while weeding or sweeping, he sent a pebble flying into a stalk of bamboo and—pop!—he awakened.

How does Kyōgen respond to the monk’s question about the inner Vanaya?  “Wait until you’re a layman, then we’ll talk,” he says.  Not, when you’re a layman I’ll tell you.  When you’re a layman, you’ll truly know for yourself, and then we’ll have something to talk about.  You won’t find your answer confined in the four corners of this monastery anymore than you’ll find in confined in the four corners of a page in one of your books.  And any answer I could give you, Kyōgen is saying, would be no good.  It wouldn’t be your answer.

Kyōgen seems to be telling this monk that the monastic life is in some sense the  “easier” spiritual path, at least early on.  It’s like college, maybe, where some of us begin to take up a profession.  But he seems to be saying lay life is like graduate school and what follows it, where the matters become murkier and we can’t always rely on received, canonical ideas as reliably.  We constantly have to chart new ground.  Graduate school and beyond is where we truly achieve mastery of a subject, where we truly can internalize it.  In this case, of course, our subject is the Great Matter of Life and Death.  Kyōgen seems to be saying that we face our comprehensive exams daily, and over the arcs of our ordinary lives, in the world, where we encounter a much broader set of opportunities, challenges, and hardships than one encounters in a monastery.  

It’s not that monastics don’t experience conflict, are not tempted, and are insulated from their own greed, hatred, and ignorance.  Of course, not.  It’s just that they’re challenged and supported in the face of all that by a kind of personal and communal exoskeleton.  The Vinaya and all the routines associated with it is designed to heighten the monastic’s awareness of the myriad ways we can wander unproductively, even tragically, along the way and to nudge one toward awakening and right relations.  But at some point, and though it’s not guaranteed, it may dawn on a monk that mere compliance with the code—important as that is, especially with those precepts that cause grave harm if violated—is not all it’s about.  

This vignette is another example of a Buddhist monastic—in this case Kyōgen, who eventually rejoined the sangha—somewhat surprisingly holding up householder existence as a sort of “higher” ideal and paradigm for life on the Way (though I hesitate to speak of this in terms of higher and lower, because there truly is no North or South in the Way).  Other examples include the Vimalakirti Sutra; the Sixth Ancestor, Huineng; and Layman Pang.  Indeed, our tradition’s poetry and metaphors about the spiritual journey, like the Ox Herding series and The Five Ranks, often point and lead us back to life in the world.

The realm of the unregulated, or less regulated, may be where an inner sense of uprightness and an inner experience wholeness, of integration, is both especially important and even harder to achieve.  We Western Zen adapts, both so-called laypeople and priests-in-the-world, are part of a historical turn in Buddhism that has brought the Dharma more thoroughly into every corner of everyday life, where we are more than patrons who support cloistered monastics who pray for us as they seek spiritual attainment.  We are part of an exciting and important project, for Buddhism and for the world.

Sengcan’s Affirming Faith in Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buffalo Tails and Russian Dolls:  Reflections on Spiritual Growth

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

This is Case 38 in The Gateless Gate:

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

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

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

And here’s Wu-men’s verse:

Passing through, falling into a ditch;

turning beyond, all is lost.

This tiny little tail –

what a wonderful thing it is!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is spiritual growth paradoxical?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dark (Rōhatsu 2021)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course, the verse goes on to tell us:

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

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

I don’t know. It’s mystery.

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

Light and darkness are not one, not two.

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

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

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

We are like that. 

This is like that.

Except there are no halves.

You can open your eyes now.

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

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

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

Zhuangzi’s Grief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He says:

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

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

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