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.

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.

Mu

I gave these brief talks on Chao-chou’s Dog (aka the Mu koan) during our Full Moon Zen retreat on June 5 and 6, 2021.

Note: In the first talk, when I tell the story about Nan-ch’üan killing the cat, it is Nan-ch’üan, not Chao-chou, who says, “Oh, if you’d been there, the cat would have lived.”

Yün-men’s Dried Shitstick

I gave this talk during our Full Moon Zen sit on April 22, 2021.

This is Case 21 in The Gateless Barrier:

A monk asked Yün-men, “What is Buddha?”

Yün-men said, “Dried shitstick.”

I’ve been talking a lot about impermanence lately, and I’m going to do that again tonight—this time with advance assurances that I’ll change topics soon.  Nothing is permanent, after all.  

This koan about a dried shitstick might seem like a strange re-entry point into our topic.  

The monk in this koan comes to Yün-men with an earnest, searching question.  All spiritual seeking—indeed, much seeking we regard as secular, including some scientific quests—is animated by some variant of this monk’s question.

Who am I?

What is it all about?

What is the meaning of life?

What will happen when I die?

What is Ultimate Truth?

What is Buddha?

Needless to say, they weren’t using toilet paper in Yün-men’s day and age; not at his monastery, at least.  This is still true throughout much of the world today, as we know.  People clean themselves with one hand and eat with the other.  Use a leaf or a stick.

Why does Yün-men respond with crude bathroom talk to this earnest seeker’s earnest question?

It’s because Yün-men knows something else is animating the question that is animating the monk’s quest:  It’s a feeling of being unmoored and adrift; a belief that he lacks something solid to hold onto or stand on; and a yearning for that something solid.

The assumption underlying the monk’s question—What is Buddha?—is that there’s an esoteric answer, which, once revealed to him, will end his search and put his heart at rest once and for all.

Yün-men’s response demolishes this assumption in two ways.  

First, he just brushes the monk’s deep question aside.  Dismisses it.  “You can put that question up your you-know-what, just as you do twice a day with a shitstick.”  In other words, “You’re barking up the wrong tree with questions like that.”

Second, Yün-men is telling the monk that the answer to his question actually is right here.  It’s in your hand as you wipe your you-know-what.

Zen lore is full of these stories about teachers deflecting philosophical questions emanating from a sense of lack.  Time and again, the teachers in these stories direct the student back to the immanent; the mundane.  

Among the responses we hear to similar questions in other koans are, “Three pounds of flax,”  “The oak tree in the yard,”  and “A pail of water.”

Some teachers say nothing, and instead just hold up one finger or swipe the student on the side of the head with a straw whisk used to swat away flies.

It’s not that there’s something wrong with these questions, or with the monk’s feeling of being unmoored and adrift.  In fact, at some point in our journey our certainties must become unsettled.  We must feel uneasy; feel some dis-ease.  Many people are too comfortably certain, whatever their perspective—whether theist, atheist, or agnostic.  

Yün-men is nudging this monk to let go of his search for a concept in which he can be certain; nudging him to notice, and fully embrace, the fact that he is adrift in and as the vast ocean of existence—with absolutely no risk of capsizing.  There’s no place to drop anchor; so there’s no need for one. 

The only thing stopping the monk from hoisting his sail, and taking off with the northwind, is his own present orientation, from which he constructs and poses the question, “What is Buddha?”—believing this question requires an answer other than his own experience. 

Yün-men knows the monk is still dividing the universe into alive and dead.  Tree, living; stick that has been separated from tree, dead.  My body, alive; excrement, dead.

Everything is always, already alive and awake.  To be awakened ourselves is simply to wake up to being awake, and to the awakened state of all being.

To say the same thing differently, we must awaken to our impermanence and the impermanence of everything and everyone else.  

The monk’s question is like a hammer he is using to try to pin jello to a wall.  Yün-men is trying to help him discover that the hammer, the nail, the wall, and he himself are jello, too.

And yet there’s nothing more solid, sturdy, trustable, and grounding than this awareness and embrace of our jello-ness; our impermanence.

The fixed, permanent, eternal place the monk’s question assumes to exist—that all seekers’ questions assume to exist—does not, in fact, exist.  At least not in the way we expect.  

Or, to put it differently, it’s here, now.  In your hand as you do your business.  In your very bowels.

At some point, these questions that drive our quests become dead weight.  Yün-men thinks this monk is ready to drop his dead weight question, just like he’s been dropping that shitstick twice a day for his entire life. 

Yün-men knows that, if and as he does, the world will come alive for him, from the depths of the latrine to the stars in the high heavens.

As Oscar Wilde said, “We’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”  

Yün-men does Oscar Wilde one better.  Yün-men is prodding the monk to see that he already is holding the stars in his hand.  Indeed, that he, the dried shitstick, and everything, everywhere, are made of stardust.

Impermanence, Interdependence, and Awakening: Reflections on Passage 3:2 of Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō Zuimonki (Part 2)

I gave this teisho during our Full Moon Zen Zazenkai on April 3, 2021A video follows the text.

Once, a certain nun asked:

            “Even lay women practice and study the buddha-dharma.  As for nuns, even though we have some faults, I feel there is no reason to say we go against the buddha-dharma.  What do you think?”

            Dōgen admonished:

            “That is not the correct view.  Lay women might attain the Way as a result of practicing the buddha-dharma as they are.  However, no monk or nun attains it unless he or she has the mind of one who has left home.  This is not because the buddha-dharma discriminates between one person and another, but rather because the person doesn’t enter the dharma.  There must be a difference in the attitude of lay people and those who have left home.  A layman who has the mind of a monk or a nun who has left home will be released from samsara.  A monk or a nun who has the mind of a lay person has double faults.  Their attitudes should be quite different.  It is not that it is difficult to do, but to do it completely is difficult.  The practice of being released from samsara and attaining the Way seems to be sought by everyone, but those who accomplish it are few.  Life-and-death is the Great Matter; impermanence is swift.  Do not let your mind slacken.  If you abandon the world, you should abandon it completely.  I don’t think that the names provisionally used to distinguish monks and nuns from lay people are at all important.”

In my last talk, we looked at this passage in terms of the intention—the mindset and heart-set—Dōgen is encouraging all of us to have, monks and laypeople alike.  The nun to whom Dōgen was responding implies that she enjoys some special spiritual status merely because she lives in a monastery, wears religious garb, has shaven her head, prays frequently, and begs for her food.

Dōgen, as you’ll recall, is the 13th century founder of the Soto Zen school in Japan, and this nun presumably would have been living at his monastery.  The Zuimonki, the text in which we find this exchange, is a collection of brief talks and instructions Dōgen gave to the monks and nuns there.

Dōgen makes clear that one can do all the things the nun is doing in his monastery without having a genuine aspiration for the Way, and also that one can have a genuine aspiration for the Way without doing all of those things, or doing them all day, every day.  Attaining the Way is not about going through the motions.  It’s not performative. We attain nothing by doing the things Zen practitioners do—meditation, observing the precepts, and so on—unless we do them with the mindset and heart-set about which Dōgen speaks.  

In fact, that mindset and heart-set ultimately require that we drop the idea of attainment altogether.  We must drop our self-aggrandizement projects—our projects that are about elevating or enhancing the self—as well as our self-protection projects—our projects that are about avoiding things we believe dimmish the self.  This doesn’t mean we should abandon all personal wishes and projects, and that we shouldn’t protect them when they are threatened.  We can and should—we must—have our unique personal projects.  The world needs us—and what else would each of us be doing here, anyway?   It also doesn’t mean we can’t object to mistreatment.  

But we’re not seeking the Way if our projects are primarily about elevating or protecting the self; if our goal is to find a safe, exalted place for oneself, expecting to stay there forever.  That is a false notion of refuge.  

Dōgen’s monastery exists—and, yes, it still exists today—and other monasteries throughout the world exist, in part, because they are pressure cookers for exposing and dismantling our self-enhancement and self-protection projects, and for cutting through our delusion—our ignorance of the true nature of existence.  Monasteries are environments purpose-made to nurture, forge, test, and refine a genuine aspiration for the Way.  

Dōgen makes clear both that a genuine aspiration for the Way is the key ingredient of Zen practice—the yeast of our practice, if you will—and that we do not need to live in a monastery to have it.  Eight hundred years later, we’re finally seeing that notion spread widely through the Lay Zen movement, not unlike what happened during the Christian Reformation.  Whether we live in a monastery or an apartment building, however, a genuine aspiration for the Way is about a total shift in one’s disposition.

We focused on the “aspiration” half of the phrase “aspiration for the Way” in my last talk.  Today our focus is on the other half of this phrase:  “the Way.”  What are we aspiring for, or to?

Dōgen says, “[i]t is not that it is difficult to do, but to do it completely [is difficult].  The practice of being released from samsara and attaining the Way seems to be sought by everyone, but those who accomplish it are few.  Life-and-death is the Great Matter; impermanence is swift.  Do not let your mind slacken.  If you abandon the world, you should abandon it completely.”

The world Dōgen encourages us to abandon is not our physical environment or existence; it is not our present life circumstance.  Nor is Dōgen telling us that there is some ethereal, spiritual realm we can enter—that we can peel apart the fabric of existence and slip into another realm, like an actor walking through a slit in the green screen on a movie set that had made us think there was a mountain range in the background.  

It’s the Passover and Easter season, so I’ll borrow a biblical metaphor—this one from the Christian scriptures.  Dōgen is talking about Saint Paul’s experience reported in the Acts of the Apostles, where we read, “And immediately something like fish scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight, and he got up and was baptized”  (9:18).  In Zen, we would call this kenshō:  seeing into our own true nature; experiencing it firsthand.  An example from Jewish scripture might be Moses’s encounter with the burning bush.  Attaining the Way involves a radical reorientation and renewal of our experience of the world and of ourselves.  A disruption of our prior way of knowing and being.

Before this shift, we perceive and orient to experience as a subject in a realm full of objects; things and other beings.  It’s a wooden building block view of the world, in which other things and beings are instrumentalized for our own needs and purposes, even when our actions appear to be benevolent.   Everything else is a wooden toy block with a brightly-painted letter on it.  “A” for apple, “B” for bachelor’s degree, “C” for child, “J” for job, “S” for spouse, and so on.  We’re like an oversized infant grasping for some blocks and stacking them ever higher, all the more glory to me, while casting other blocks aside.  It’s a world of discrete objects and agents acting on one another.  Most everyone else also is orienting to the world in this way, of course.

This view isn’t wrong, exactly.  It’s one truth; it’s part of the truth.  We run into trouble, however, if it’s all we see.  In Buddhist thought, this view is regarded as the Lower Truth, or Lower Reality.  If the Lower Truth is our one-and-only-truth, we’re trapped in samsara—endless cycles of self-aggrandizing grasping for blocks and self-protective pushing blocks away, all of which just sustains and compounds needless suffering; our own and others’.

The Higher Truth is emptiness and its correlates: impermanence, interdependence, and no-self.  Nothing is fixed or permanent.  Everything is dependently co-arising; everything is comprised of and contingent upon everything else.  And so all concepts, like self and wooden block, subject and object, ultimately are empty.  

Dōgen is encouraging us to earnestly seek the Higher Truth; not as a philosophical idea, as it may seem I am presenting it here, but as our lived experience.  The Higher Truth is in our bones; it is our bones.  We must seek it there; know and feel it there.  “Don’t let your mind slacken,” Dōgen says.  Cultivate this aspiration.  Orient your whole life toward this.

By the way, one issue I have with the contemporary mindfulness movement is that it emphasizes attention much more than intention.  In personal and spiritual maturity, they are essentially the same thing.  Early in our journey, however, intention—our aspiration for the Way, having the mind and heart of a home-leaver—is the key thing.

We may get a sudden, powerful insight into our true nature, as Paul did.  Sometimes a transformative realization comes quickly.  But, as you’ve also heard me say many times before, even if one has such an experience, this knowing in one’s bones almost always develops slowly, over years of practice, if we maintain a genuine aspiration for the Way.  

As we absorb the Higher Truth, the fixed sense of subject and object we once had dissolves.  Apples are still apples, and children are still children, but now we see all in a new light, and we are much less likely to crassly instrumentalize other things and people, however subtly, and supposedly benevolently or justifiably, we had done so—though, sadly, we are not immune, as sexual misconduct and other improprieties by some contemporary Zen teachers remind us.

From the perspective of the Higher Truth, there is no Way to attain; or, put differently, we have already attained it and can’t drift from it. From the perspective of the Lower Truth, however, we can lose our way when our aspiration flags, or when we’re deluding ourselves about our aspiration for the Way and how we’re expressing it—and this sometimes happens even to seasoned practitioners. The aspiration to awaken Dōgen encourages us to develop is something he also would encourage us to continually maintain. 

Actually, to be fair both to the nun to whom Dōgen responded and to ourselves, most everyone who comes to Zen practice comes with gaining ideas—with self-aggrandizement and self-protection projects, however subtle, that they’re pursuing through practice.  In fact, one element of Shakyamuni Buddha’s brilliance as a teacher was to start from our experience of suffering.  That’s certainly where his journey began, according to traditional accounts of his life.  Who doesn’t suffer, and who doesn’t want to alleviate one’s own suffering?

Unlike many other religions or philosophies, however, Buddhism illuminates how our default ways of trying to escape our suffering—grasping for more of what we think will produce a personal paradise, pushing away what we think prevents us from getting there, relying on dogmatic beliefs, and so forth—tend not to provide lasting relief.  Zen offers a different, very practical path to walk.  It does so with awareness that we may set foot on that path with distorted ideas about how to end our suffering, and that we may continue to pursue these doomed projects for some time.

The Way to which we aspire is total realization of, and non-resistance to, the fundamental emptiness of all phenomena, including this self I’m always talking about.  But, again, attaining the Way—one phrase Dōgen uses for what we in the West have come to call enlightenment in Buddhism—is not about grasping this as an idea.  It’s ultimately more about forgetting it as an idea.  Enlightenment in this sense—Zen’s notion of enlightenment—has little to do with the Enlightenment in the modern West, which tends to elevate rational thought above all other ways of knowing and being.  Zen’s notion of enlightenment is not opposed to rational thought in the least, but it is much more expansive, and it is wisely conscious of the myriad ways over-reliance on discursive cognition can trip us up.

Knowing the Higher Truth in our bones is about realizing and living it in, and as, the Lower Truth.  In the world of things and beings.  Nirvana and samsara are one.  This is returning to the marketplace with open hands: the final image in The Ten Ox Herding pictures, which provide a visual metaphor for the spiritual journey in Zen.  We forget the Higher Truth, while living it as the Lower Truth.

To have a genuine aspiration for the Way is to have faith in, and orient to, the fundamental wholeness and integration of all things, oneself among them.  We are distinct, but we are not separate.  We and all phenomena are interpenetrating.  Interwoven.  Even these words imply too much separateness. 

A heart that has attained the Way may want some things “for itself,” so to speak, but this won’t be about self-aggrandizement or self-protection.  It’s about being at one with our own karma—another phrase we use for enlightenment.  Responding to the cries and joys of the world in ways that make good use of one’s wholesome interests, talents, and potential.

The pioneering Western Zen teacher, Robert Aitken, who died a few years ago, offered his typewriter as an example of what I’m getting at here.  Are he and the typewriter existing and paired in some ultimate, permanent sense?  No.  If you asked to borrow it, might he lend it to you?  Yes.  If you asked whether you could have it, however, the answer would be no.  Aitken Roshi kept his typewriter not out of a selfish, self-aggrandizing, self-protective impulse, but because he needed it to write books that spread the Dharma and helped others experience the liberation he had experienced.  Teaching Zen and writing Dharma books, he had attained the Way.  He was at one with his own karma.  

Being at one with our own karma may well feel good; if so, we should appreciate it.  But don’t think you personally will gain merit by virtue of being at one with your own karma.  We can’t know whether the nun in our text ultimately was at one with her karma living in Dōgen’s monastery, but the question she asks Dōgen is premised upon the assumption that she gains merit by living as a monastic.  

Attaining the Way is simply about leaving home to discover home.  As I said last time, across Buddhist regions, leaving home has meant going to live in a monastery, which traditional Buddhist cultures have regarded as the typical way to be “all in” on the path.  But Dōgen refigures the phrase in this text, showing us that it’s really about a shift in our disposition, not our residence.  Finding ourselves at home, and realizing we never left.  For millennia, this is what people have left their physical homes to live in monasteries in order to discover.  Isn’t it nice to know we can discover it right where we are?

Let me close by reading that key portion of our text again, and following it with another lovely quote I recently heard:

“It is not that it is difficult to do, but to do it completely [is difficult].  The practice of being released from samsara and attaining the Way seems to be sought by everyone, but those who accomplish it are few.  Life-and-death is the Great Matter; impermanence is swift.  Do not let your mind slacken.  If you abandon the world, you should abandon it completely.”

Impermanence is swift: faster than the speed of light.  Impermanence is light.  Impermanence is the solid ground of our being.  We should remain constantly mindful of our impermanence.  It sounds a bit macabre, perhaps, but this awareness brings the world to life.

We’re evoking mindfulness of our impermanence when we chant The Five Remembrances or the Evening Gatha.  Other traditions have similar practices.  To return again to Christianity, as tomorrow is Easter—Easter is an interesting word in the context of this talk, isn’t it?: Easter, from East, the direction from which the sun rises.  In Christianity, we have the ethic and practice of momento mori, which is a reminder of the inevitability of death.  

This word momento also is interesting.  Here, it means recalling, or recollecting, but it’s obviously also related to the word moment.  “Life-and-death,” all three of these words joined to one another by hyphens, “is the Great Matter,” capital G, capital M, Dōgen tells us.  We walk the knife’s edge of life-and-death in this present moment, whether we’re aware of it or not.  From the perspective of the Higher Truth, there is no birth and no death.  From the perspective of the Lower Truth, life and death are urgent, and very real.

The ethic and practice of momento mori actually originates in classical Greek thought.  One example of it in the Christian context would be medieval Christian monks keeping a human skull on their desks—often depicted in art with a worm crawling out of one eye socket.  Some modern social scientific studies demonstrate how these reminders of our mortality—awareness of which most of us unconsciously try to avoid most of the time—make people temporarily more tolerant of and compassionate toward people with a different worldview or identity; people outside one’s own reference group.  Imagine how the world might be if, rather than reflexively, unconsciously avoiding this awareness, it had seeped into the bone marrow of each and every one of us.

Here’s that final quote I promised:  I recently heard a historian who studies the reasons we wage war repeat something a female soldier had said about a sensation she and many other soldiers apparently experience.  This soldier said, “When you know you might die, everything is alive.  Every leaf matters.“

I hope none of us ever has to go to war to fully grasp our impermanence.  Zen practice invites us to realize it in the context of our everyday lives.  When we do, everything is alive, and we know we are that leaf, and that we matter, and how.

Aspiration for the Way: Reflections on Passage 3:2 of Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō Zuimonki (Part 1)

I gave this teisho during our Full Moon Zen regular weekly practice session on March 25, 2021. A video follows the text.

Once, a certain nun asked:

            “Even lay women practice and study the buddha-dharma.  As for nuns, even though we have some faults, I feel there is no reason to say we go against the buddha-dharma.  What do you think?”

            Dōgen admonished:

            “That is not the correct view.  Lay women might attain the Way as a result of practicing the buddha-dharma as they are.  However, no monk or nun attains it unless he or she has the mind of one who has left home.  This is not because the buddha-dharma discriminates between one person and another, but rather because the person doesn’t enter the dharma.  There must be a difference in the attitude of lay people and those who have left home.  A layman who has the mind of a monk or a nun who has left home will be released from samsara.  A monk or a nun who has the mind of a lay person has double faults.  Their attitudes should be quite different.  It is not that it is difficult to do, but to do it completely is difficult.  The practice of being released from samsara and attaining the Way seems to be sought by everyone, but those who accomplish it are few.  Life-and-death is the Great Matter; impermanence is swift.  Do not let your mind slacken.  If you abandon the world, you should abandon it completely.  I don’t think that the names provisionally used to distinguish monks and nuns from lay people are at all important.”

This reading comes from one of Dōgen’s lesser-known texts, Shōbōgenzō Zuimonki.  Dōgen, as you know, is the 13th century founder of the Sōtō Zen school in Japan.  He left us four texts.  This one is the first, at least in terms of when the material in it was produced during his teaching career. 

The names of all of Dōgen’s texts begin with Shōbōgenzō, which means “treasury of the true Dharma eye.”  It’s a reference to the transmission of the Dharma—the teachings; insight—between Shakyamuni Buddha and Mahākāśyapa, his first successor.  In a famous sermon, Shakyamuni simply held up a flower and twirled it.  Most people seemed confused, but Mahākāśyapa flashed a knowing smile.  In Zen lore, this is when Zen began: with that first, teacher-to-student transmission.

Zuimonki, the second word in the title of this Dōgen text, means something like “easy to understand,” or “simplified.”  One translation of the text goes by the title A Primer of Sōtō Zen.  It consists of short, straightforward talks Dōgen gave to monks, nuns and laypeople in the first few years after the creation of Eihiji, the monastery he founded in Japan.  

The passage I just read is remarkable in a couple of ways.  First, he’s addressing nuns:  female monastics.  There were women in Dōgen’s community, which, sadly, was radical at the time.  Second, Dōgen is correcting one of these monastics’ view regarding distinctions between monks and laypeople.  It’s this second remarkable aspect of this passage that I want to focus on tonight.

In Dōgen’s time—and long before, and long after, and even still, in some parts of the world today—to be a serious Zen practitioner, or Buddhist of any stripe, meant to be a monastic.  It was thought that you really couldn’t “attain the Way,” the phrase Dōgen uses here for enlightenment, unless you were a monastic. 

The nun in this passage is clearly starting from the premise that she occupies a higher spiritual status than a layperson, simply because she is a monastic.  This might appear arrogant to many of us today, but she was expressing a widely-held view at the time.  And, remember:  she’s at Dōgen’s monastery.  Dōgen himself also clearly thinks being a monk is the typical way to be “all in” on the Zen path, as he makes clear elsewhere in this text.  

But the nun’s question really goes beyond this point.  She essentially asks, “Even if we’re screwing up as monastics, maybe by breaking a few rules or not always practicing with great diligence, aren’t we better than laypeople simply because we live in this monastery?  We get spiritual brownie points because of the clothes we wear, because we beg for our meals, because we pray for others much of the day—just by going through the motions—don’t we?”

Dōgen makes clear that attaining the Way is not about that.  He says, “no monk or nun attains [the Way] unless he has the mind of one who has left home.”  Home-leaving refers superficially to leaving one’s home to enter a monastery, but Dōgen makes clear that physically moving your quarters is not really what home-leaving is about.  The word “monk”—from the word mono—implies a mind and heart that is focused on just one thing.  Focused upon, and completely centered in, the Way.  If you enter this monastery without that frame of mind and heart, without that intention and aspiration, you have not truly left home, Dōgen is saying.  In fact, he says, “A layman who has the mind of a monk or a nun who has left home will be released from samsara.”  

Being released from samsara and attaining the Way are the same thing, Dōgen makes clear later in the passage.  In classical Buddhism, samsara is the cycle of birth and death.  Viewed from the perspective of everyday awareness, before attaining the Way, it is the world of our suffering—the world people take up the path hoping, in some sense, to escape.  It is the world in which we are subject to the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion.  For our purposes here, their alternate translations may be more useful:  Greed is grasping for that which we desire; that which we think will enhance the self.  Aversion is pushing away that which we don’t want; that which we think will diminish the self.  Delusion is a specific sort of ignorance: not seeing the world as it is.

So what is attaining the Way, exactly?  Dōgen gives us a pointer.  “It is not that it is difficult to do, but to do it completely [is difficult].  The practice of being released from samsara and attaining the Way seems to be sought by everyone, but those who accomplish it are few.”  And here’s the key bit:  “Life-and-death is the Great Matter; impermanence is swift.  Do not let your mind slacken.  If you abandon the world”—if you leave home; if you give your heart to this—”you should abandon [the world] completely.”

The opposite of ignorance—of seeing oneself and the world in the wrong way, as a realm in which the goal is to find a safe, exalted place for oneself, expecting to stay there forever—is to see the world and one’s life as they are—impermanent—and to appreciate one’s life accordingly.  Dōgen makes clear it’s our mindset and heart-set that matter, not where we live, nor labels like monk and layperson.  

For Dōgen, aspiration for the Way is the key thing.  We all can and should have the mind and heart of a monastic, whether or not we live in a monastery.  To have the mind and heart of a monastic is to have a mind and a heart that is not divided; that is “all in.”  In other words, we must submit.  If we live in a monastery—and, I should add, if we’re a layperson and we go to a Zen center—and if we practice for, or expect, self-aggrandizement, we will not attain the Way.  It’s the nature of our practice to discover, our self-aggrandizement projects again, and again and again—they get more and more subtle, and barely perceptible.

We can’t serve two masters, as the saying goes.  We can’t attain the way with a mind and heart divided. Having the mind and heart Dōgen speaks of, or at least the deep desire to have this mind and heart, is what Zen practice is about.  Plain and simple.

Useless

I gave this teisho during our Full Moon Zen regular weekly practice session on February 25, 2021.

Snow in a Silver Bowl

I gave this teisho during our first ever Full Moon Zen Zazenkai (one-day retreat) today.  You’ll find a recording of this talk after the text.

This koan is Case 13 in The Blue Cliff Record:

A monk asked Pa Ling, “What is the school of Kanadeva?”

Pa Ling said, “Piling up snow in a silver bowl.”

Many Zen koans share three qualities.

First, someone is asking about the Great Matter of Life and Death.  They may not phrase or frame the question quite that way, but that is the question nonetheless.  

Sure, the monk in this koan may have been reading one of the Mahayana sutras attributed to Kanadeva, trying to clarify some fine point of his stream of Buddhist thought.  But Pa Ling took this seeker’s question for what it really was: a question about the monk’s own life.

What is this experience of life and death?  Who am I?  

Second, the response to the question about the Great Matter in many koans leaves one scratching one’s head, at least if we try to approach the koan discursively; didactically.  Approached that way, the koan seems paradoxical.

Finally, many koans are brief.  Something vast and deep is expressed in just a few words.

This lovely koan has all three of these qualities.

Kanadeva was an Indian sage, a student of Nagarjuna, who lived in the Second Century and is widely considered to be one of the greatest Asian philosophers.  Nagarjuna is regarded as the 14th ancestral teacher in the mythical line of succession that begins with Shakyamuni Buddha and extends to all Zen teachers alive today.  So Kanadeva is our 15th ancestral teacher.

According to Buddhist lore, when Kanadeva first met Nagarjuna, his teacher, Nagarjuna gave him a bowl of water.  Kanadeva, the story goes, dropped a needle into it.  

Good luck finding that needle, and fishing it out if you do!  If you manage to grab it, you may well get Kanadeva’s point—literally be pierced by it, which is the only way we can ever truly get anything, of course.

Who knows whether Pa Ling’s answer to the monk’s question—this image of snow in a silver bowl—was consciously connected to the story about Kanadeva’s first meeting with Nagarjuna.  Pa Ling’s response undoubtedly emerged, stream of consciousness, in his imagination as the monk posed his question.  Whatever else it may have been influenced by or connected to, it certainly was connected to that very teacher-student meeting; to that moment.

If we approach this koan, or any other, primarily in a discursive way, we won’t find what we’re seeking.  

What did Pa Ling mean?  

Is this image from a scene at the temple where he taught, with which the monk also would have been familiar—perhaps a bowl that collected rainwater during parts of the year, and snow in the winter?  If so, why did Pa Ling offer this image?

Was this a line from a poem long forgotten?  

Why a silver bowl?  Silver is a precious metal.  Was it an altar bowl?  The altar would have been indoors, where snow doesn’t fall.  Why bring the bowl outside, or the snow inside, to pack it full?  Was Pa Ling saying something about the absurdity and futility of filling this—this emptiness that’s always chock-full?

I don’t know.  Even if we knew, would this knowledge answer the monk’s question, which is our question, too?

Still, what a lovely, captivating image Pa Ling rendered.  We’re still talking about it, captivated by it, centuries after his encounter with this nameless seeker, as if we were that monk.  As if the snow were still falling.

We are that monk, and the snow is falling, still.

A koan is not a paradox, just as our lives are not a paradox.  Koans invite us to encounter life as if it were not a paradox.  They can teach us to do that. 

I grew up in a small town high in the Colorado Rockies, in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, near a peak called Mount Shavano, which was visible from any spot in the broad valley in which we all lived.  There’s a deep crevice in the face of Mount Shavano, in which a glacier has formed.  In the spring, when the snow melts and the valley, and all the peaks that create the valley, turn green and brown and gold again, ice and packed snow remain in that crevice, revealing the shape of an angel. 

Growing up, the Angel of Shavano was always visible above us, throughout the spring, summer and fall, when the packed snow from endless winter storms had disappeared down the edges of our mountain bowl, flowing into the tributaries, streams, and rivers that sent life giving water in all directions, to California, the Midwest, even Mexico.  

Year after year, the angel went into hiding again, when winter came.  Ever-present, and hidden in plain sight.  

I loved those winters.  Standing anywhere in that valley as the snow fell.  Especially at night, when the sky was blueblack, the moon cast silver across the valley, the air was still, and it was so silent you could hear a pin drop in that snow bowl.

Stick out your tongue right now and catch a snowflake. 

Reach down and scoop up some snow.  Pack it in the silver bowls that are your hands.

Cock your arm.  Aim. 

Watch out!