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!

Certainty as Delusion

I gave this teisho during our Full Moon Zen regular weekly practice session on January 28, 2021.  You’ll find a recording of this talk after the text.

Soon, at the end of our service, we’ll chant the Four Great Vows:

Creations are numberless; I vow to be one with them.

Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to transform them.

Dharmas are boundless; I vow to be teachable.

The enlightened way is unsurpassable; I vow to embody it. 

These vows, which are chanted by Zen practitioners at the end of their services everywhere today, were probably formulated in China, perhaps 1,300 years ago.  They may relate back to an older Indian Buddhist source.

In light of all that’s happening in the world today, I want to call our attention to the second line of this chant:

Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to transform them.

What are these delusions that are inexhaustible, and what might it mean to transform them?

In three of the traditional languages of our stream of Zen—Sanskrit, Chinese and Japanese—the words translated here as “delusions” variously mean pain, affliction, or mental distress.  There’s certainly an association with the passions; with impulsivity and captivity to our emotions.  There’s also an association with the Three Poisons, for which we atone as we open our gathering: greed, hatred and ignorance.

The English word “delusions” conveys a sense of misperception, misconception, or even mania, as opposed to clarity of mind.  In light of this, it might surprise you to hear that some contemporary Zen teachers actually think of delusions, and of ignorance, the last of the Three Poisons, in terms of too much clarity, rather than too little—in terms of misconceptions born of our certainties.

This interpretation expresses a key Buddhist insight—the emptiness of all forms—that we realize and manifest through Zen practice.  We desperately need more people capable of putting this insight into practice today.

As some of you know, I’ve devoted a portion of my time to teaching, writing, and practice in the conflict resolution field for many years.  My primary interest always has been those conflicts that implicate our most deeply-held, identify-defining values.  Sacred values, whether “religious” or “secular.”  I teach a course at Harvard called Negotiating Across Worldviews that explores this domain.  I’ve also been working with Israeli and Palestinian leaders for several years, helping them explore possibilities for resolving their conflict in some way that could work within multiple worldviews simultaneously.  

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

Well, really, how could they not be?  The more certain we become about our own views and convictions, the more we close ourselves to new information, perspectives, and experiences.  Our capacity to perceive and know is always limited, but the less curious we become, the greater the risk we’ll descend down a rabbit hole, missing things that are important and behaving in ways that cause harm to ourselves and others whose needs and interests lie outside our present field of vision or comfort zone.

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

Neuroscientists are discovering that our brains preferentially seek information that reinforces our existing beliefs, and that our brains also tend to interpret ambiguous information in ways that align with our beliefs.  This may make some sense from an evolutionary perspective.  The world, and life within it, is complex and confusing, and organisms need strategies for orienting—for reducing complexity, in order to survive. Preferentially relying upon a view of the world and game plan that have helped us survive uncertain situations in the past seems like a reasonable default setting, in the absence of a crystal ball.

These days, however, I’m not so sure this default setting still serves us well, at least with respect to some types of contemporary problems.  It’s hard not to think this while watching militant partisans storm the chambers of a citizens’ assembly that aspires to be a model for reasoned deliberation, but is too often stuck in partisan gridlock, unable to meet the pressing challenges of our time.

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

Unique among spiritual traditions, Zen is a nontheistic—not atheistic, but nontheistic—tradition.  It provides plenty of friendly passageways to both atheism and theism, if you’re inclined in one way or the other, but it largely resists binaries of all kinds.  

Zen isn’t primarily about ideas.  If you want a single idea, or short phrase, that sums up the core teachings of Zen, however, you could do worse than the title of one of Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn’s books:  only don’t know.

This not knowing default setting may be what the world needs most at this point in the evolutionary history of our species, at least if we hope the evolution of our species will continue.

Lin Jensen, a Zen teacher and activist in California, makes this case well in the following passage from his book Pavement.  He says:

“When I don’t know something for certain and don’t try to convince myself that I do, I’m held momentarily in the hand of restraint and the world is safer for it.  Without designing answers, I’m forced to hold the question open.   It might seem doubtful or even absurd that the world of our understanding is unreliable and that the possibility of peace lies not so much in what we know as in what we don’t.  Something I know for a certainty often solidifies into the sort of unquestioned fact that outreaches doubt and curiosity.  If a question has been answered to my satisfaction, I’m not likely to see the need for further inquiry.  Nations will readily go to war in defense of such an unexamined answer.  Is it so far-fetched to imagine that a little modest doubt might bring people nearer to a peaceful resolution of differences?”

And yet, and yet.  Like the ensō—the broken circle that is the most familiar visual symbol in, and of, the Zen tradition—even this insight and orientation eventually comes `round to nip at its own tail.

It’s also possible to get stuck in uncertainty; to become paralyzed.  We can also be too certain about our not knowing, clinging to it as a false refuge.  At some point, we must let the bow string slip from our fingertips.  Let the arrow fly.  Ultimately, we must make a move and make our mark.  Inaction is a form of action.

Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, Zen practice tends to free us from this sort of paralysis, even as we surrender to the experience of not knowing. As we lose our cognitive certainties–our stories about the universe and our own lives–our experience of the universe and our own lives within it feels all the more real and true. Fragile forms of conceptual knowledge are replaced with a knowing that’s in our bones; that is our being. It’s a knowing that clarifies and quickens our presence-in-the-moment, allowing us to respond more readily, wisely, and compassionately to what the moment invites or requires, rather than responding from a small and brittle sense of oneself, with its conceptual certainties or conceptual uncertainties. We show up, move, and make our mark as an expression of the broader, inclusive, connected reality in which all of us participate, whether or not we yet see ourselves that way.

I’ll close with one of my favorite poems by Jālal a-Dīn Rumi, a master of another great spiritual tradition, Sufism:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field.  I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.

On Breathing: Body Exposed in the Golden Wind

I gave this teisho during our Full Moon Zen regular weekly practice session on November 19, 2020.  You’ll find a recording of this talk after the text.

This Case 27 in The Blue Cliff Record, one of our koan collections:

A monk asked Yun Men, “How is it when the tree withers and the leaves fall?”

Yun Men said, “Body exposed in the Golden Wind.”

I meditate each day in an attic office.  My cushion is placed near a small dormer window.  The top of a giant tree hovers just outside.  Its leaves were turning gold and crimson a few weeks ago, shortly after I last spoke during one of our evening sits.  One morning the wind stirred up while I was meditating.  I could hear the leaves shaking loose from the tree’s branches and rustling in the air, before falling to the ground.

I knew then that I wanted this talk to be about breathing in Zen practice.  Most of us begin Zen practice by counting our breath.  

Many people tend to regard meditation primarily as a mental practice.  Early on, and despite the guidance we receive from teachers and experienced Zen students, most of us apply great mental effort trying to rid ourselves of mental activity, as if thoughts are bad and meditation were about banishing them completely.  Perhaps the ancient Buddhist texts we encounter, which often use the term Mind (with a capital “m”) as a synonym for the Absolute or Emptiness, contribute to this confusion.

It’s true that counting the breath early in Zen practice is a way to use one type of mental activity to tame another.  The idea at that point in our practice is to substitute a relaxed, focused form of mental activity for the frenetic, loop-de-loop sort of mental activity in which so many of us spend much of our lives lost.  But that’s not because loop-do-loop, this-that mind is “bad” and must be suppressed completely.  It’s just that it tends to be our default mode; we tend to get stuck there without realizing this is the frame of mind that sustains the illusion of separateness that causes so much needless suffering. 

That frame of mind is like living alone in a castle in the sky, standing in front of a mirror in that castle, having a conversation with oneself about the world, without realizing its an extended monologue about figments of our imagination.  We think we’re making real contact with the world, but we’re not.  

Breath practice helps us gently disengage from that frame of mind just enough to begin stepping back from the mirror.  It helps us exit the castle, at least for a while.  It’s a first step along a new path that Zen invites us to travel.

As we travel this path, the castle recedes toward the horizon . . . and yet it’s also right here, and we can instantly find ourselves back in it.  That’s fine.  Now we know how to find the door to someplace more spacious if we find ourselves jabbering into the mirror again.  

Eventually, we can let go of breath practice and just sit shikintaza, which is a rather formless form of meditation practice.  From here, the path opens wider and wider, in every direction.  It becomes an infinite field; one that manifests in and as our experience of life, right here, right now.

As our meditation experience shifts in this way, we might begin to relate to our breath differently.  While counting the breath, it’s pretty hard not to control it, much as I might imagine or intend otherwise.  When I stop breath counting practice, I’ll still become conscious of my breath from time to time, but I’ll be much more likely to feel as if my breath is breathing me, rather than the other way around.  To experience just breathing.  

All day long, and all through the night, breathing just happens, without willing it to happen.  I don’t even notice this most of the time.  As we take up meditation practice, we use this everyday, mostly unconscious aspect of our creaturely experience to reground our awareness; to coax it back to the here and now.

So, although many people wrongly tend to regard meditation primarily as a mental discipline, it’s fundamentally an embodied practice and experience.  In fact, it’s a practice that tends to collapse the distinction between body and mind; our mind-body dualism.

Some of us may have a sudden, profoundly transforming experience during meditation, or as a result of it—kenshō, a direct experience of emptiness.  Master Dōgen described his own kenshō experience as “dropping off body and mind,” not as a mental experience.  Whether or one has a sudden experience of body and mind dropping off, however, that same realization tends to soak into us over years of consistent Zen practice, like a tree soaking up water through its roots.

In the koan with which I opened, Yunmen’s student is using the familiar Chinese metaphor of a withering tree and falling leaves to ask his old teacher what it’s like to age and approach death.  Yunmen responds with another familiar Chinese metaphor, the Golden Wind—the wind that carries the autumn leaves away.

There’s a lovely Chinese myth about a cow herder and a weaver girl, whose love was forbidden.  (I suppose Romeo and Juliet is our Western equivalent.)  These lovers are banished, as stars, to opposite ends of the Milky Way.  Once a year, as Spring and Summer, the periods of birth and growth, give way to Fall and Winter, the periods of decline and death, a flock of magpies forms a sky bridge, allowing them to meet for a day.

There are many poems about this myth, one of which contains this beautiful line:

One meeting of the Cowherd and Weaver amidst the golden autumn wind and jade-glistening dew, eclipses the countless meetings in the mundane world.

As the wind kicked up during my morning sit a few weeks ago, a thought passed by with the leaves levitating just outside:  What is the wind, if not my own breath?

The wind is my breath, your breath, and old Yunmen’s breath.

And we are autumn’s leaves carried by that wind.  And we are the sapplings that will sprout from soil nourished by those leaves, their roots soaking up Spring’s jade-glistening dew.

Through our practice, we find our place, and our peace, as vulnerable, noble, embodied beings, exposed in the Golden Wind.

On Breathing: Body Exposed in the Golden Wind

Not Entering Nirvana

I gave this teisho Thursday night during our Full Moon Zen regular weekly practice session.  You’ll find a recording of this talk after the text.

In the Mahāprajñā Sutra Preached by Mañjuśrī, it says, “Virtuous practitioners do not enter nirvana; precept-breaking monks do not fall into hell.”

Case 24, Shūmon Kattōshū (Entangling Vines)

Last week we chanted a variation of the Sixteen Boddhisattva Precepts:

  • The Three Treasures:  Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha;
  • The three Pure Precepts:  ceasing from (or not creating) evil, doing good, and saving all beings (or working for the wellbeing of the whole); and
  • The Ten Grave Precepts:  not killing, not stealing, not misusing sex, not speaking falsely, etc.

These precepts—and particularly the Ten Grave Precepts—are Zen’s much abbreviated set of the traditional vows Theravada Buddhist monks throughout South East Asia have made for thousands of years.  They were formulated by Eihei Dōgen, the 13th century master who brought what became the Sōtō Zen stream from China to Japan.

Theravada Buddhism, also called the Way of the Elders, represents the first wave of Buddhism.  These are the crimson and saffron robed monks we see in places like Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.  As you know, the Zen tradition is part of a later turn called Mahayana Buddhism.  Fully-ordained Theravada monks make scores, if not hundreds, of vows.  Like Zen’s Ten Grave Precepts, most are expressed as prohibitions.  Don’t do this; don’t do that.  Most monks in a country like Myanmar relate to their vows this way.  

When I was in Myanmar in 2013, there were monks everywhere, begging for their daily meals, just like Gotama Buddha and his followers did.  I seldom had food with me, so I would offer a few dollars.  Young boys accompanying older monks would take the money.  These young boys were “monks,” too, but likely only living at the monastery for a year or so, as a right of passage.  Unlike the older monks, they had not yet taken the vow that prohibits touching money, which the older monks take quite literally.

In our cultural context, most of us can’t relate easily to this aspect of the life of a Theravada monk.  If you know an Orthodox Jew, you probably have a sense of what this way of life is like.  There are many norms one must observe throughout the day, week, and year.  

To be sure, most Theravada monks and Jews who observe the Halakha do not experience these norms primarily as burdens or constraints.  Quite to the contrary, they find their joy and freedom in them.  Yet, if you are a conventional Theravada monk, the injunction against killing means you almost certainly are vegetarian.  Individual monks have some freedom to vary from that group norm, but the norm is quite strong.  

For most of us in the West today, this way of life would indeed feel quite constraining—at first, anyway.  Many of us bristle at lists of traditional moral injunctions.  They run counter to the “live and let live” and “no judgment” zeitgeist in the cultural context many of us inhabit.

What about the Zen Precepts?  Zen practitioners have the opportunity to make these vows formally, in a process and ceremony called Jukai.  For the most part, these are the same vows Zen priests make.  What does the Zen tradition have to say about them?  

Well, the koan with which I began should give you a hint that Zen’s orientation is a bit different:  ““Virtuous practitioners do not enter nirvana; precept-breaking monks do not fall into hell.”

In Zen, we actually approach the precepts from three different perspectives.  One is the perspective we just noted with reference to Theravada Buddhism and Orthodox Judaism.  It’s sometimes called the literal, or fundamental, perspective.  From this perspective, don’t kill means don’t kill.

The fundamental perspective is important for progressive people living in a contemporary (non-traditional) cultural milieu, like ours, to take seriously.  In these circles, hard norms are often regarded as naïve or backwards.  But we should wrestle seriously with the precepts from this perspective—to consider the merits of honoring a literal prohibition against particular conduct.  If I eat meat, and if I really reflect on the consequences of that—not just for my own health, but for other beings and the planet—I may see the logic and appeal of a plant-based diet in a new way.

And, yet, we are almost guaranteed to violate the precepts in their literal sense.  This sometimes happens because of human foibles and fallibility.  “To err is to be human,” as they say.  We can commit to honoring the precepts literally, and wholeheartedly try, but chances are we occasionally will act selfishly or speak unkindly of another person, despite that expressed commitment.  When we cause injury, we can acknowledge it, try to repair, and seek forgiveness—ideally, immediately and sincerely, without excuse, equivocation, or defensiveness.

But sometimes we break a precept in its literal sense because a situation puts two worthy ideals in tension, and we cannot literally conform to one without violating another, or without violating the same precept in a different way.  I was vegan during two long periods of my life.  Most of my friends knew this, so would prepare a meal without animal products when I came to visit.  From time to time, however, I was a guest of someone who did not know how I ate.  When I was offered a meal with animal products—even meat—I chose to eat it, without saying a word about how I normally ate.  The animal had already perished.  Refusing a meal offered so generously would kill something else, I felt:  joy.

This is the second perspective:  the relational perspective.  This is “situational ethics,” not as a way to avoid a prohibition, but because we must always be mindful of context, or what Zen-types call the Four Considerations:  time, place, people, and amount (or degree).  The animal has died, and there is no rewind button that will change that (time); I am in the home (place) of a new acquaintance who eats meat (people); and refusing even a small portion (amount) of what I am being served is likely to create more suffering than sharing in the meal.  Perhaps I’ll even have a chance to discuss my eating practices with this person at a later time, and perhaps she will be more open to my perspective, because she can see I’m not an idealogue.  Reasonable minds can differ here; there’s no clear “right” or “wrong” from this perspective.  The goal is to be compassionate and reverent, and to achieve those two objectives in some skillful way in the moment.

The koan with which I opened captures the third perspective from which we approach the Zen precepts.  These first two perspectives, the fundamental and the relational, are staple items in Western moral philosophy.  The third perspective—known as the intrinsic or unified perspective—is not a common feature of Western thought.  From the intrinsic perspective, there can be no killing, because there is no birth and death; there can be no stealing, because there is nothing to be stolen and no one to steal it; and so on.

This is Oneness; nonduality.  Even words like “One” and “nondual” fail to express it—as concepts, anyway—because all concepts divide.  This is Buddha nature.  The ground that is no ground.  From the intrinsic perspective, it’s impossible to violate the precepts.  There is no good and bad.  No judgment, really: not as a left-leaning meme.  Ultimately, as the Absolute.  

But here’s the thing:  the relative and the Absolute are one.  The fundamental and relational perspectives are themselves expressions of the ultimate, and they matter very much.  In Zen, we embrace and practice the precepts from all three of these perspectives.  We know that we can’t fall out of nirvana, because we are it, and yet this insight doesn’t grant us a free pass.  We express and honor our own and others’ Buddha nature by doing our best to do the right thing from a fundamental and/or relational perspective.

Just as we can’t fall out of nirvana, we can’t enter it, either:  We do our best to do the right thing, but we can’t gloat, or congratulate ourselves too much, or be too sure.  We don’t accumulate merit—or brownie points, or rewards in heaven—as we do our best to do our best.

Bernie Glassman—who was the teacher of my teacher’s teacher—gave a wonderful talk about the precepts over 40 years ago, which I recently read.  He said, “in studying the Sixteen Precepts, essentially we’re studying sixteen different ways of appreciating Buddha, appreciating the fact that we are buddha.  It always boils down to just seeing [this] one fact itself.”

We practice Zen to realize that we are Buddha; to realize oneself and all else as Buddha.  As this realization dawns and deepens, our actions tend to accord more and more with the spirit of the precepts; with Buddha nature as it manifests ceaselessly throughout the universe.  

With that thought in mind, let me end by reading the single footnote appended to this koan in Entangled Vines, the collection in which it appears:

The Japanese Zen master Hakuin once commented on this koan with the following verse:

Silent ants pull at a dragonfly’s wing; 

Young swallows rest side by side on a willow branch.

Silk-growers’ wives, pale in face, carry their baskets;

Village children with pilfered bamboo shoots crawl through a fence.

After hearing this verse, two monks who had completed their training under the great Zen master Kogetsu Zenzai decided to train again under Hakuin.

Not Entering Nirvana

The Ox Doesn’t Know

I gave this teisho Thursday night during our Full Moon Zen regular weekly practice session.  You’ll find a recording of this talk after the text.

One day, when the Layman and Sung-shan were out for a walk, they saw an ox plowing the fields.  The Layman pointed to the ox and said, “He’s having the time of his life, but he doesn’t know anything about it.”

 Sung-shan said, “That is, unless Mr. P’ang wants to bring the issue to his attention.”

 The Layman said, “My master always said he never knew what he was doing.”

 Sung-shan said, “Since I never saw Shih-t’ou, it would be better if I didn’t say anything about it.”

 The Layman said, “What would you have to say after you’d seen him?”

 Sung-shan clapped his hands three times.

(Case 29, The Sayings of Layman P’ang)

 

Layman P’ang is an especially wonderful, enigmatic character in the history of Zen, which is a tradition that has more than its fair share of wonderful, enigmatic characters.

He was born around 740 CE and died in 808, so he lived during the Tang Dynasty.  Many consider this the high point of ancient Chinese civilization.

P’ang lived in Hengyang, in Hunan Province of Southern China.  It was a big city then, as it is now.  It would be about a five hour drive due north from Hong Kong today.  P’ang’s father was a government official, and perhaps even the governor of the area, so P’ang was well-to-do.  We know he owned a house with enough land to have a gatehouse where he and others in the area met to meditate.

All Zen teachers today are successors of one of two masters from that time and place, Shih-t’ou and Ma-tsu.  Each had monasteries on mountains outside Hengyang.  The two great streams of Zen that still flow today originate with these teachers: the Soto School from Shih-t’ou, and the Rinzai School from Ma-tsu.  This period was not just a high point in Chinese culture; it was a watershed moment in the development of the Zen tradition.

P’ang engaged deeply with both of these masters, which must have been truly extraordinary for anyone at the time.  P’ang first met Shih-t’ou, and then lived at Ma-tsu’s monastery for a while, working closely with him.  Ma-tsu ultimately made P’ang a teacher, but P’ang never became a monk, like at least one of his childhood friends we meet in these stories.

Throughout most of the history of the Zen tradition—throughout most of the history of all Buddhist traditions—the terms “monk” and “priest” were basically synonyms.  There weren’t monks in monasteries and priests in the world, as there are today in many religious traditions.  Being on the Zen path at that time, and even today in much of Asia, meant becoming a monk—an ordained person living in a monastery.

But here we have P’ang, student of two great teachers, Dharma heir of one of them, living in the world.  P’ang and his wife, son and daughter, are said to have sunk all their personal possessions in a boat in the middle of a lake, donated their house to be made into a temple, and lived as wanderers from then on, supporting themselves by making and selling baskets.

The short stories in this book are mostly about P’ang’s encounters with the ordained (monastic) teachers of his era.  In most of these stories, P’ang engages in playful games of spiritual one-upmanship with these teachers—predictably, coming out on top.  Taking the piss out of them, as the Brits say, while seeing more deeply into the Great Matter than they do.

This little book is a classic—widely read in and beyond China for centuries.  What a fascinating figure  P’ang was; a truly extraordinary, ordinary person.  He certainly foreshadowed what’s happening today in the West, where there are few monasteries, and lay teachers are on a trajectory to outnumber teachers who are ordained, if we don’t already.

What are we to make of this curious Zen adept—the only lay teacher in recorded Zen history for nearly 12 centuries—and this story about the ox who doesn’t know?

Sung-shan, P’ang’s companion in this story, was a disciple of Ma-tsu.  Out on a walk, P’ang decides to have a little wise fun, in the playful jousting mode that’s so typical of anecdotes about encounters with Zen teachers.

P’ang points to the ox and says, “He’s having the time of his life, but he doesn’t know anything about it.”  It might seem at first blush like P’ang is being sarcastic.  “Look at that dumb ox.  He can’t reflect on his experience, like we can.”  But P’ang is paying the ox a high compliment, comparing it favorably to most humans, not looking down on it.

The ox is just doing its thing—oxing—living its life, undisturbed by the fact that he doesn’t know anything about it.  He undoubtedly knows that his life is, but he presumably doesn’t know what or why his life is.  And this doesn’t detract from his plowing.

One of the many Zen tidbits that has entered pop culture, the phrase “chop wood, carry water,” comes from Layman P’ang.   “Chopping wood, chop wood,” he’s saying.  “Carrying water, carry water.”

My carrying water is the universe carrying water.  My mental chatter—complaining about my sore arms, wondering why this is my lot in life, or contemplating how the Big Bang led to H2O—doesn’t add anything to, or subtract anything from, carrying water.  It’s just the universe chattering as the universe carries a bucket full of itself.

To be clear, if there’s a conversation that needs to be had about the equitable division of labor in your household or community, by all means, have it.  When you do, that’s the universe having a conversation the universe needs to have.  If your ambition or calling is something other than carrying water, pursue it.  And study physics, by all means; it’s a wonderful and wonderous lens on all this, and immensely useful.  But let’s not kid ourselves: Even if scientists find their Holy Grail—a grand unified theory of physics; a theory of everything—it will still be a theory, a description, and not the thing itself.

The price of our marvelous, human capacity for self-reflection seems to be a sort of cosmic forgetfulness.  It’s as if we’ve wandered so far toward the edge of the universe that we’ve forgotten the universe has no edges.  Wherever we wander, we can’t help but remain one of its infinite centers.   There’s no getting lost in this universe, even when we feel lost.

We practice Zen to find ourselves at the center of the universe again—and everyone and everything else there with us, as center, too.

Paradoxical as it sounds, and as much as I hate to use the word “goal” when talking about Zen practice, the ox’s not knowing is the goal of our practice.  The goal is no goal.  We normally think of goals as something we achieve and possess for ourselves.  Something we once lacked and have now obtained.

In Zen, our goal is the opposite of that.  We already have what we’re looking for.  We are it.  Unlike the ox, however, we think there must be more to it.  Something I must know about my life.  Not so, yet there is something I must realize and experience as my life.

Sung-shan jovially invites P’ang to inform the ox that he’s having the time of his life.

P’ang declines.  “My master always said he never knew what he was doing,” P’ang replies.  My master also doesn’t know anything about all this, just like the ox.

“I haven’t met him,” Sung-Shan says, “so I wouldn’t know.”

“Even if you had,” P’ang replies, “what more would there be to say?”

In texts like this one, and a talk like mine now, guides on the Zen path are trying to express the inexpressible.  Or, to say the same thing a bit differently, we’re heaping extra words on what the universe is saying right here, now.

It’s impossible to talk about it . . . and this talk is it, too.  It’s all right here, right in front of our noses. Your nose is it.

Even as we are it, however, most of us are searching for it.  We want an “it” we can sum up, and so contain, as an object of thought.  Having developed this wonderfully useful capacity for discursive cognition, we’ve become transfixed by it.  We search for answers to the heart’s deepest questions in the hall of mirrors it creates.

But those answers lie outside that box.  Outside the realm of this-that thinking.  In fact, the box we’re trapped in is itself contained in the realm “outside.”  We just think we’re trapped!

I, Jeff (this), sees the moon (that).  Zen practice—especially meditation and working with koans—relaxes the grip of this-that thinking, so the moon can reveal itself to you as you.  We can’t will this realization—this revelation—but we can open ourselves to it.  The moon tends to reveal itself fully in hearts that are wide open, and Zen practice is about opening hearts.

The ox and P’ang’s master both are the full moon.  One is not “more” moon than the other.  I do know, however, that we humans can know ourselves as manifestations of, and participants, in this awesome, incomprehensible, inescapable, luminous mystery that is . . . what?   Mystery.  Mystery manifest.  This.

These little stories about this lay sage are thought to presage the koan tradition that eventually developed in Zen.  I wonder whether this particular story about P’ang might also presage another wonderful part of the Zen tradition, The Ten Oxherding Pictures, which is one account of the spiritual journey.  As portrayed in the Oxherding Pictures, the apex of Zen practice isn’t the moment of sudden illumination, when we see our true nature.

The apex is returning to the marketplace with open hands—to daily life in the world—with that awareness; animated by that awareness, but not thinking it makes us special, because now we see the full moon everywhere, and in everyone we meet.  The tenth picture is Putai, the Laughing Buddha, entering the open market—an open heart, extending open hands.

We tend to think of the renunciates in monasteries or on mountaintops as the spiritual paragons.  Layman P’ang, and the old fool in the marketplace, point to a different ideal—of awakening in the world, in the midst of the everyday sorts of lives lived by people like us.  This is a fitting image and ideal for our time, I believe.

The sort of knowing we seek and cultivate through Zen practice is an awakened, vital, experiential, in-your-bones not knowing.  “Not knowing is the most intimate,” Master Dizang famously said.

May you not know.

And may we, like the ox, have the time of our lives.