The Ox Doesn’t Know

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Sung-shan clapped his hands three times.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you not know.

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

 

A footnote on my last talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Chanting: Old and new, familiar and strange, known and unknown

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

 

Vast is the robe of liberation,

A formless field of benefaction!

I wear the Tathāgatha’s teaching

Saving all sentient beings.

This chant is called the Verse of the Kesa. Kesa is the Japanese version of the Sanskrit word kāshāya, which means robe. Zen adepts through the centuries have chanted this verse each morning, whether individually or collectively, as they put on their robes before meditation. They balance them on their heads and let them drop into their hands near the end, just as I did now.

I do this every day before I sit. This rakusu I wear, which is ochre to signify that I’m a teacher, is a simplified version of the longer and more formal patched robe worn over the shoulder by a Buddhist monk or nun. I didn’t sew this one, but years ago I sewed the traditional black rakusu worn by a student after their Jukai ceremony, in which one formally receives and takes on the Buddhist precepts as a way of life.

Eihei Dōgen, who carried the Zen tradition from China to Japan early in the 13th century, was moved to tears the first time he heard this chant and observed this practice while on retreat at a monastery in China.  He made a vow to himself at that moment:

However unsuited I may be, I will become an authentic holder of the buddha dharma . . . and with compassion show the buddha ancestors’ authentically transmitted dharma robes to those in my land.

Dōgen ultimately returned to Japan and fulfilled that vow.  Not only did he carry traditional Zen forms and practices from China to Japan—many of which you and I still uphold today—he also became a great religious innovator.  Whenever Zen migrates from one land to another, form one cultural context to another, new life is breathed into the tradition, just as the tradition breathes new life into that land and context.  This is happening now in the United States, and throughout the Western world, in these still relatively early days of Zen’s migration here.

Like Dōgen, I love this chant and practice. Well, most of it, anyway.

Vast is the robe of liberation,

A formless field of benefaction!

When I chant these words each morning, I remind myself that this is the garment I wear; the robe that envelops me, everywhere and always. This robe is a borderless, seamless field of benefaction—of goodness. At once, vast and mysterious and as concrete and visible as my tee shirt.

You and I also are that vastness and mystery, made concrete and visible. Each morning when I chant these words, I remind myself of this. Each day, if I consent and commit the way Dōgen did, I live more deeply and concretely into the mystery, and the mystery lives more deeply and concretely into me.

My life becomes more and more like that old Zen story about the monk walking through the mist.  When he leaves the meditation hall, his robe is dry.  At some point, it’s soaked through and through.  When is that point exactly?  Who really knows.  Just walk the path, and it’s happening.

I wear the Tathāgatha’s teaching

Tathātaga is a Sanskrit word the Indian sage Siddhartha Gotama, aka The Buddha, used to refer to himself.  It means “one who is thus gone” or “one who has thus come,” suggesting that he had seen into his true nature, beyond all dualities of coming and going, living and dying.  When I chant these words, I remind myself of my own buddha nature.  I also situate myself in the ancient, evolving Zen tradition.

To be honest, I don’t much like the last line in this particular translation of the chant:

Saving all sentient beings.

To my ears, this smacks of a sort of dualistic exclusivism or fundamentalism and of missionary zeal. On one reading of this line, and others like it in other Zen chants and verses, one is either saved or not, and it’s our job to save others once we’ve saved ourselves. Sure, there are more nuanced and contemporary ways this line can be spun; even so, it still grates on me a bit.

Salvation here means awakening; seeing our true nature.  This commitment to save other beings actually is viewed within the Mahayana strain of Buddhism, from which Zen sprouted, as an advance over the goal in the prior, and oldest strain of Buddhism, called Hinayana, where the focus was on personal salvation.  The Boddhisattva ideal arises with this new commitment.  A Boddhisattva vows not to transcend this realm of suffering until all sentient beings do so.

But what is a sentient being exactly?  Only humans, or also animal life?  What about plant life, and even seemingly inanimate things?  What about the biosphere and the universe as a whole?

What would it mean for a plant, or our whole biosphere, to wake up; to be saved?  Perhaps, especially now, waking up, salvation, must be as much a collective endeavor and experience as a personal one.  Perhaps it’s less about striving to escape one’s personal suffering and more about compassionately embracing our own and others’ creatureliness, and making this one life—yours and mine and the goldfish’s—as good and right as it can be.

There’s another traditional translation of the last line of the Verse of the Kesa that I like a bit better.  Rather than “saving all sentient beings,” it’s simply “to awaken countless beings.”

But maybe we need a new last line for this era, in this land and context.  As I was reading the David Loy book, A New Buddhist Path, that I quoted from in my last talk, a phrase that seems like a good candidate last line leapt off a page:

Working for the wellbeing of the whole.

I rather like it:

Vast is the robe of liberation,

A formless field of benefaction!

I wear the Tathāgatha’s teaching

Working for the wellbeing of the whole.

Zen master Keizan urges us not to “just long for the past,” but to “avail oneself of the present day to practice Zen.”  These words are so contemporary, yet Keizan lived over 700 years ago.  He studied and became a teacher at the great monastery Dōgen founded when he returned to Japan from China.  Keizan ultimately left it to make Zen more accessible and relevant to ordinary people like you and me, including women—which, sadly, was a rather radical proposition at that time.

I assembled a very bare bones chant book as we launched this small, informal group a short while ago.  Some people today find the traditional Zen chants and verses, many of which are still recited in the West in Pali, Sanskrit or Japanese, odd and off-putting.  Others, love and are very moved by chanting.  Our chants and verses are a rich part of the tradition.  I’ll progressively be adding more of them to our chant book and liturgy. 

As I do, I plan to revisit the traditional formulations of some them, perhaps taking liberties here and there; updating some of those formulations, mindful of Keizan’s encouragement.  I want to be careful and respectful as I do, however.  We are recipients and stewards of an ancient tradition that has served countless beings very well.  These beings developed these chants for us.  These chants are recognizable to people all over the world, much like a Catholic can attend mass anywhere and feel it’s familiar, even if she doesn’t speak the local language.  There’s something really beautiful and awe inspiring about this.

Our chants take many different forms and seem to have many different functions.  Invocations.  Thanksgiving.  Atonement.  Remembrance.  Dedication.  Honoring our ancestors in The Way.  Marking the opening or the close of a meal or a teacher’s talk.  Expressing our aspirations.  Though Zen is nontheistic, some chants bear a resemblance to petitionary prayer in theistic traditions, as in the version of the dedication chant we used tonight:

Whenever these devoted invocations are sent forth they are perceived and subtly answered.

Some chants, called dharanis, are incantations that are thought to bring good fortune, to help avert calamity, or whatever.  Most have their roots in the Vedic scriptures of Hinduism.  We can think of them as mantras.  Most have not been translated into English, in part because that would be difficult or impossible to do.  The literal meaning of the words is obscure, and their literal meaning is not really the point.  Our intention, in our hearts, and the experience of chanting them is the point.

Here’s one common dharani:

No mo san man da moto nan

oha ra chi koto sha sono nan

to ji to en gya gya gya ki gya ki un nun

shifu ra shifu ra hara shifu ra hara shifu ra

chishu sa chishu sa chishu ri chishu ri

soha ja soha ja sen chi gya

shiri ei somo ko

Whatever your present orientation to our chants, I encourage you to let them chant you. I’ll be chanting them in the traditional way, so just follow along. You’ll get the hang of it. Don’t let fear of making mistakes hinder you. In Zen, there is no such thing as a mistake, and everything is a mistake.

Why do we chant?  Why do we play bells and drums and wooden blocks?  Why do we balance our robes on our heads and let them fall to our hands?

In a famous koan, the great teacher Yunmen said, “The world is vast and wide.  For what reason do you put on your seven-piece robe at the sound of the bell?”

Today Yunmen might ask instead, “For what reason do you pull your jeans on in the morning?”

The answer for each of us is lurking in the question.

Perhaps you will also chant the Verse of the Kesa as you put on your robe—even if that means your sweatpants and hoodie—in the morning. If that seems like too much, perhaps you might at least call to mind and heart the spirit of this verse as you dress for the day. Maybe some of you will decide to sew your own rakusu and take up the Boddhisattva precepts one day. I’d be more than happy to support anyone who wishes to do that; to help you make it happen.

In the stew

This is a teisho I gave on July 30, 2020.

I said my next talk would be in honor of Tim and Kathleen, and their lovely series of talks on Zen and cooking.  This is it.

Please settle yourselves, and close your eyes.  Gently take in, and let out, a few breaths.  Notice and feel your mind and body settling.  Notice your chest rise and fall.  Notice your heartbeat.  In that still place, with your eyes remaining closed, just listen as I read a poem by the Vietnamese Zen teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh.

Please Call Me by My True Names

Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow —
even today I am still arriving.

Look deeply: every second I am arriving

to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope.

The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
his “debt of blood” to my people
dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.

My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion.

 

You can open your eyes.

Thich Nhat Hanh, or Thay, as he is known to his community, is one of the leading proponents and examples of Engaged Buddhism, a term he coined.  Martin Luther King, with whom he was friends, nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize.  As a young monk during the Vietnam War, Thay became a peace activist, organizing relief efforts for victims of the war, among other things.  He was eventually exiled from Vietnam, founding the Plum Village community in France, which has grown to become a global sangha.  His 100+ books have been translated into many languages and inspired millions of people.  One bestseller, Being Peace, which I read over 30 years ago, is among the reasons I took up Zen practice and committed myself to peacebuilding work.

Zen is about waking up in the way Thay invites us to realize through this poem.  Waking up in this way is enlightenment.

When I was a graduate student in religious studies at Harvard, I took a mega-class on world religions with Diana Eck, a famous scholar of comparative religion.  She read this poem to us at the start of our unit on Buddhism.  Some students objected to it.  How could Thay seemingly put the rapist and his victim, the emaciated boy and the arms dealer, on the same plane?  How could he see himself in all of them?

Many of the students in that class no doubt were Christian.  Thay is simply expressing something in the Gospel of Matthew these students had no doubt heard or read:

God’s “sun rises on the good and upon the evil and his rain descends on the just and on the unjust.” Matthew 5:45 (Aramaic Bible in Plain English).

The sun illumines the good and the evil; rain nourishes the just and the unjust.  The peace activist risking his life to feed starving war victims, and the pirate who harms another human being because his heart isn’t open.

We are in the stew together.  Much as we pretend otherwise; much as we try; there is nowhere to hide from one another.  When we stop hiding from ourselves—when we truly open our hearts—we discover our true name.  Our true names.

What are we doing in our practice?  We’re marinating.  Softening.  Soaking up the flavors of other ingredients.  Becoming porous, so what’s inside us comes out.  Opening up, and expressing ourselves.  Our true selves.  Exposing what has been hidden.

We are not getting out of the pot; we’re not transcending this.  Quite the opposite:  We’re becoming ever more this.

The heat and pressure of that pot—of our practice, of our lives—is disintegrating that sense that I am a separate self, mending the universe and “me” at once.  As that construct, the “self,” disintegrates, becomes porous, we come to see the luminance everywhere; in everything and everyone, including oneself.

How should we respond to those who object to Thay’s poem, perhaps unaware of the life story of this remarkable contemplative, activist-poet?

Let me answer by reading a brief passage from David Loy’s book, A New Buddhist Path: Enlightenment, Evolution and Ethics in the Modern World, which I’ve recommended to you:

“If awakening involves transcending this suffering world, then we can ignore its problems.  If the Buddhist path is psychological therapy, we can focus on our own individual neuroses.  Yet both of those approaches reinforce the illusion that I am essentially separate from others, and therefore can be indifferent to what they are experiencing.  If `I’ am not separate from others, [however,] neither is my wellbeing separate from theirs. Today this means we are called upon not only to help other individuals deconstruct their sense of separation (the traditional role of a bodhisattva), but also to help our society reconstruct itself, to become more just and sustainable—and awakened.”  (Loy, pp. 63-64, emphasis mine.)

The Heart Sutra proclaims that emptiness is form; form is emptiness.  Transcendence is immanent; the immanent is transcendent.  The Absolute is the relative; the relative is the Absolute.

Zen teaches, and helps us come to realize, that this land is the Pure Land.  This realm of suffering is Nirvana.

Many of us are compulsively searching for and trying to construct a personal Heaven on Earth, all the while oblivious to the reality that Heaven is Earth; Earth is Heaven.  Or, as the prophet Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is at hand.”  In other words, right here, now.  In our midst.  Hidden in plain sight.  Shining in and through everything.

Yet, while the Absolute and the relative, the higher and the lower realities, or truths, are the same, they also are different.  Not one, not two.  David Loy makes this point nicely, connecting it to the imperative that inner transformation lead to outer transformation, to social and environmental action, at least on a small scale; at least in the context of our day-to-day interactions with other sentient being and what our deluded consciousness calls the material world.  In the brief portion from Loy’s book I’m about to read, he is commenting on a long quote by someone else that he’s included in his book:  It’s an account by the English minister and poet Thomas Traherne of his own enlightenment, expressed from a Christian perspective.

Relating Traherne’s personal story to the Buddhist perspective on kenshō experiences, Loy says:

“In Buddhist terms, the `higher truth’ that [Traherne] describes so well is sundered from the conventional `lower’ truth that we are more familiar with.”

Buddhism’s higher truth is that this very world of suffering is Nirvana.  Heaven.  One feature of the lower truth is that, for most of us, we don’t yet see this, and so we think, speak, and act in ways that pile needless, avoidable forms of suffering on top of the forms of suffering that are unavoidable as embodied beings.

Loy continues:

“Traherne’s heavenly world has no problems; each luminous thing is a way that `empty infinity’ presences, including the children playing in the street . . . but do they go to bed hungry at night?  Although everything manifests eternity . . . in his day many of those particular manifestations died before their second birthday.  Yes, the `higher truth’ is that they really didn’t die because they had never been born; from the perspective of the lower truth, however, there is birth, and death, and suffering.  Patriarchy and slavery were the norms in Traherne’s time.  His society was organized hierarchically, for the benefit of those at the top of the class pyramid—something that seems to be increasingly true of our society.”

We, and our intentions; the commitments we make, including our commitment to practice; the values and goals we embrace; the insight we cultivate; and our words and deeds all matter.  They are the activity of the infinite, whatever their quality, but only a certain quality of activity will produce the relative reality—the Beloved Community—that MLK and John Lewis envisioned.

A kenshō experience and $2.00 will buy you a cup of coffee.  Enlightenment in the sense that Thay shows us through his poem, and the poem that is his life, is well seasoned; marinated through-and-through.  It manifests outwardly in the large and/or small ways he exemplifies, not just inwardly.

God has no hands but these hands, as the Christians say.  The universe has no hands but our hands.

We sit here in the midst of a global pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests.  The pot is boiling, with us in it.  How can we stay as we are?  How can we remain impervious to the pressure and the heat?

How can the door of my heart, the door of compassion, remain closed?  How can these hands not be lifted and lent?

Enlightenment: So What?

This is a teisho I gave on July 2, 2020.

My last couple of talks have been about enlightenment in Zen.  I want to bring this series of reflections on enlightenment full circle for the time being.  It’s always a broken circle, of course—an enso.  We come full circle, but there’s never closure.  The universe, and our lives as the universe, are always erupting.  We’re dynamic activity, not a thing that can be grasped or contained.

The first of my prior two talks provisionally resolved around the idea that enlightenment ultimately is about being at one with our own karma.  Accepting ourselves as we are, and living as if we have no Plan B.  I’ll extend that theme tonight.

In that talk, I also suggested that there’s a trend these days to deemphasize kenshō (or sudden awakening) experiences, and I expressed some misgivings about that.  I suggested that kenshō can help ground and orient us, potentially helping us show up to our lives more awake, effectively and compassionately, including work we may do as agents for social and environmental change.

In the second talk, I focused on the great faith, doubt, and determination that generations of Zen adepts have seen as necessary ingredients of practice, if we wish to realize our true nature as the dynamic activity of the universe, not as a subject in a realm of objects.  In other words, to experience kenshō—not as an idea, but as an experiential awakening.

Tonight, I want to talk about refinement and integration of these powerful awakening experiences, should we have one.  In retrospect, I probably should have flipped the order of my first two talks—but then, I really didn’t have a destination in mind when I began these reflections.

I’ve been listening to a series of Dharma talks by Joseph Bobrow Roshi, a Zen teacher in Los Angeles, that are featured at the moment on Tricycle’s website.  Bobrow Roshi was a student of Robert Gyoun Aitken, Roshi, who, together with his teacher, Yamada Koun Roshi, produced the translation of The Gateless Gate—the collection that contains Mu—from which I read from during my last talk.

In his series of talks, Bobrow Roshi outlines a traditional progression, or way of thinking about our journey in Zen practice, that I’m also addressing in these talks on enlightenment.  It’s a progression from (1) sitting with great determination and absorption in our practice, which puts us in harm’s way of (2) sudden realization (a kenshō experience), followed by (3) the ongoing refinement and integration of that experience.

It’s this third stage of the journey—the progressive refinement and integration of that glimpsing of our true nature—that I’m focused on in this talk.  Yamada Roshi himself was implicitly referencing this part of the journey when he summed up the whole of Zen practice and its goal as ultimately about the refinement of character.

Before I go any further, I want to reemphasize something you’ve heard me say several times before, and which Bobrow Roshi also emphasizes in one of his talks.  There are many people who are present in the ways I’m about to describe, who either aren’t Zen practitioners, or who are, and yet never report having a kenshō experience.  I regard the progression I just described, as you’ve heard me say before, as the remedial plan, even though many Zen types tend to think of themselves as doing something advanced and esoteric; as holier than thou.  At least we’re sane enough to sign up for the remedial plan!  Many people who might benefit from it don’t.

How can you tell someone who is awake, but doesn’t report ever having a kenshō experience?  Someone who is not on the remedial plan?  They have a twinkle in their eye, and they are completely at home in their own skin, from situation to situation, and with others and the skin they inhabit.  When you are in their presence, you never question whether they are present.  Whether they truly see you, are listening and responding to you . . . in a way that makes you feel seen and heard.  You are being received, and you feel that way.  The whole world is their comfort zone—even the situations that make them uncomfortable.  They are full of life, in their own unique way, and yet never filled up.  They’ve already arrived at the place of forgetting to which the remedial plan leads.

What do I mean by that?  Let me read you a few passages from the chapter on Dogen’s own spiritual journey in Transmission of Light, another koan collection from which I’ve been reading in these talks.  It’s hagiography, and likely part fiction, but it conveys important truths, even if so.

We read that, “[w]hen he lost his mother at the age of eight, Dogen’s grief was most profound.  As he watched the smoke of the incense rising at her funeral, he realized the transience of life, and from that point on he determined to seek enlightenment.”

Many of us take up Zen practice, or get serious about it, finally practicing with great determination, when something rocks our world.  Shakes us to the core.  This can be a confrontation with mortality, like it was for Dogen (and also for me), or it can be some other sort of profound loss through which we’re forced to see that familiar ways of knowing oneself and functioning cannot accommodate the whole of reality.  Try as we might to force reality back into the box that we want to contain it, it won’t be contained.  This is a profoundly uncomfortable experience.

Dogen deeply explored every strain of Buddhism that existed in Japan in his youth, searching for answers.  Nothing satisfied.  In his searching, we see Dogen’s great, desperate faith in the reality of his discomfort and where touching it might lead him.

One teacher told him to visit the one Zen teacher in Japan at the time, the Rinzai master Myozen.  He studied with Myozen for three years, and even received Dharma transmission from him, but still continued to search.  Dogen traveled to China, visiting teacher after teacher.  We read that, “[h]aving thus engaged with various teachers, Dogen became very conceited and thought there was no one in Japan or China equal to himself.”

As he was about to head back to Japan, someone suggested he visit the old master Rujing.  Dogen recognized immediately that this man was different.  We read that “Dogen went to him to resolve his doubts,” presenting himself humbly.  Great doubt, despite all his apparent certainty and confidence!

One day, after Dogen had spent years practicing with Rujing, Rujing entered the meditation hall to find a group of monks, with whom Dogen was meditating, dozing on their cushions.  Rujing admonished them, saying, “`Zen study is a matter of shedding body and mind.  It does not require incense burning, prostrations, recitations of Buddha names, repentance ceremonies, or scripture reading.  You accomplish it by just sitting.’ Hearing this, Dogen was suddenly enlightened.”

In other words, the props to which many of these students were clinging, and the way they supposedly were practicing—just going through the motions, sleeping rather than sitting—wasn’t actually about showing up.  It was just for show.  Rujing saw right through that.  Meeting life that way must drop away.  Body and mind, the reified, but ultimately insubstantial, ways in which we know ourselves, also must drop away.  Rujing’s admonishment was like a sword that cut through Dogen’s “body and mind” as he sat there, and he suddenly experienced his true nature.

Rujing encouraged Dogen to return to Japan, to live in obscurity for a time “and mature your enlightenment.”  Dogen did so, and the rest is history, as they say.  He eventually became a great religious innovator, founding the Soto school of Zen and attracting a large following that includes all of us, as we sit here now.

As this story of Dogen’s journey ends, Keizan, our storyteller, reveals what it means to “mature your enlightenment,” to refine one’s character.  He writes, “If you have any thought at all of having some enlightenment or attainment, it is not the Way.”

Having strived for enlightenment, we ultimately must forget about it.  Having crossed the river on the raft of “Zen,” we must leave it behind (even as we continue to give our hearts to Buddha, Dharma, Sangha).

But, let’s not kid ourselves:  If we’re on the remedial plan, its stages are pretty much un-skippable.  We must practice with determination and humility.  We must surrender everything we cling to; everything familiar that gives us false comfort.  We must let go of our certainties and truly not know.  Only then will be in harm’s way of seeing our true nature.

Our true nature is radiant and boundless.  Anyone who experiences this will experience it as such.  And, when one does, one knows that the whole of existence is one’s home and comfort zone.

But this realization must become integrated and seasoned.  That radiance is not a flame that completely burns away our sense of personal identity or immediately melts all of our attachments.  (To paraphrase Rilke, God, or the universe, wants to know itself in you, after all.)  The old self dies hard, and will try to claim the realization as its achievement.  We ultimately must drop all thought of enlightenment or attainment to attain enlightenment.

If and as enlightenment deepens and matures, as it did for Dogen, we increasingly will manifest as someone who is at home in the universe.  As we do, or conduct will increasingly align with our highest values.  We will be able to distinguish between a genuine value worth serving, and a feature of our comfort zone that isn’t really a value to be served.

If we instead fetishize a kenshō experience, mistaking it for mature enlightenment, we will surely do harm.  I am convinced this is why some senior Buddhist monks in Myanmar can be so jingoistic, treating people deemed not to be ethnically Burmese as subhuman.  I am convinced this is how some spiritual teachers become sexual predators.

“What is it like after enlightenment,” a student asked a teacher?  “Same old me,” the teacher said.  Same likes and dislikes; same quirks; same proclivities and hang-ups.  We are stuck with them, but no longer stuck there.  We have our feelings of resistance and discomfort, our likes and dislikes, but we are no longer paralyzed by and captive to them in quite the same way.

This is liberating.  We meet the dog as Buddha, forgetting we ever questioned whether it has Buddha nature.

One sheds one’s own doubts about having Buddha nature or not, while still feeling empathy and being a resource for those who doubt it; who can’t yet quite see their own true nature.  One feels even more empathy for those who don’t doubt; who cling to their fragile certainties, so evidently in pain.  Those who aren’t even moved to sign up for the remedial plan.  In the Asian imagery of Zen, these are the restless and hungry spirits, lurking among, and trying to hide behind and cling to, thin blades of grass.

We want the whole world and all beings to awaken in the way all Buddhas, past and present, have, and our relationships with other beings and all of nature to accord with this awakened nature.

Social and environmental action that flows from mature enlightenment is powerful.  We are seeing some amazing examples of this today.

Angel Kyodo Williams, another teacher in our lineage, is one of these examples.  She was the second black woman to become a Zen teacher.  She is sharing Zen with people of all colors, something white teachers largely have failed to do, and otherwise functioning as an enlightened advocate for racial justice and social change.  Here is an excerpt on enlightenment from her first book, Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace:

“Any intention at all toward enlightened being has to have a foundation in moral consciousness.  You cannot walk tall and master your life without morality, no matter how skillful you are in every other area.  Without morality, enlightened being is not possible. Without a strong moral foundation, whatever we think we know about being compassionate and honest falls apart.”

The point here isn’t that enlightenment reveals a rigid, universal moral code to us or inscribes it in our DNA.  The point is that a genuine determination to practice and aspiration toward what Kyodo Sensei calls enlightened being arises from turning toward what is unsatisfactory, what is painful, about our own life, and about our collective experience.

A strong moral foundation arises, and our character is refined, as our sense of self extends endlessly in the ten directions.  We begin to see how a narrow view of who and what we are has had us clinging to and hiding behind blades of grass—be they unjust social structures that have privileged us at others’ expense or limiting narratives about who we are that we absorbed in childhood, in either case causing us to produce (often unintended) harm to others.

As Kyodo Sensei said in a recent interview, “This means that, in terms of values, we can be more spacious.  [We] can afford to be okay with people who are really, really different.  We can be curious about it, because our sense of threat is diminished.  Because our identity is not prescribed by sameness and being afforded belonging because of sameness. . .. Our sense of thriving is [now] embedded in a sense of movement and spaciousness.”

May we all realize our true nature so, so thoroughly that we forget it.  Just are it.

The world depends upon it.  Never more than right now.

No Plan B: On Enlightenment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is what it means to be grounded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meditation Myths

I gave this teisho Thursday night.

I’ll start and end this talk with verses from Transmission of Light, one of Zen’s koan collections. This opening verse is from Case 7:

Though there be the purity of the Autumn waters
Extending to the horizons,
How does that compare with the haziness
Of a spring night’s moon?
Most people want clear purity,
But though we sweep and sweep,
The mind is not yet emptied.

I hear many people say they’ve tried to meditate, but have given up because they can’t stop their thoughts.

This is a misconception of what’s supposed to be happening in meditation, and I’m sure it’s one of the biggest reasons people don’t start or give up.

There’s nothing wrong with thoughts or thinking. Thoughts are just the mental activity that arises all the time. Thinking is giving our full attention to thoughts; conjuring thoughts, engaging with them, directing them. Our capacity for thinking is marvelous and immensely useful.

And, many of us, much of the time, are trapped in an echo chamber, a hall of mirrors, in which our endless internal dialogue is all we perceive, and our main way of knowing ourselves.

In meditation, we take the lid off of this echo chamber, this hall of mirrors. In meditation, we see and hear this dialogue, and we discover it is not all there is. In fact, it’s just one feature of what is.

And, in truth, it isn’t a particularly good portrait of who and what we are. It’s an isolating perspective. For all the good our thinking sometimes can achieve, it also can contribute greatly to our own and others’ suffering, when we only inhabit the myopic world of thought.

So, what are we doing in meditation as we take up the practice?  Well, in a nutshell, we don’t try to stop or resist thought or other mental activity — but we do gently relax its grip on us when we find ourselves lost in thought. We don’t engage with our thoughts or other mental activity the way many of us tend to do reflexively at other times.

So, for example, if I notice the thought “this seems to be going well” or “that was a car passing,” I don’t respond to that thought with another one.  When I think “this seems to be going well,” I don’t then actively think, “but I’m going to bail early if my foot won’t wake up, because I’ll fall over when it’s time for walking meditation.”  When I think, “that was a car passing,” I don’t then choose to think, “I wonder if that was Ginny coming home from the grocery store.”  I just gently return my attention to my breath.  If the response comes anyway, I just gently return to my breath after that.

If my lower back hurts, I don’t think about whether it’s okay to reposition a bit, I just do the least needed to reposition.

Sometimes you’ll hear it said that very experienced meditators reliably go through every meditation period with a completely quiet mind; without mental activity.  This is simply not true.  I know this from my own experience.

(Brain scientists are learning that meditation alters patterns of brain activity over time, rather than quieting mental activity altogether—whatever that might mean.)

Sure, there will be times and states that seem more clear and spacious, in which thoughts arise less frequently and assertively, and in which our attention is more relaxed, still, undisturbed, and focused, but focused on nothing in particular. These times may become more frequent and last longer over years of regular practice.  Our tendency to get trapped in loops of discursive thinking will diminish, and when that sort of mental activity occurs, one likely will be quicker to notice, and to disengage.  But a completely quiet mind?  Without thoughts, ever?  No.

What we eventually experience, as a sort of base stage to which one returns, is a relaxed, receptive (but non-striving) alertness.  It will feel open, spacious, grounded, calm.

It’s not a blankness, or fog, or half-sleep sort of nothingness.

If you just find yourself being less anxious about periods when the thoughts keep coming, or of active thinking, that’s progress. When you eventually find yourself unconcerned about whether you’re making progress, even better.

What’s happening in meditation isn’t mainly happening on the plane of thought anyway. The goal isn’t perfect mind control, whatever that might mean.

Our problem in meditation, even at the beginning, isn’t thoughts. Our problem is thinking the problem is thoughts. Being sure that, in meditation, as in the rest of our lives, I’m doing it wrong; that there’s something wrong with life, and with me.

The very part of oneself that brings some of us to Zen practice is also the very part that tries to sabotage Zen practice once we start it. It’s the part that compels us to search for something other than this, because this just couldn’t be right or enough, could it?

We judge Zen and our practice just like we judge everything else.  And it creates distance.  Separation. It separates me from my own life.

On the other hand, Zen and other contemplative practices are sometimes criticized for being anti-intellectual and quietistic, in part because of this suggestion that thinking—and, particularly, rational thought, which has been so fetishized since The Enlightenment, which is such an ironic term for Zen types like us—defines what it is to be human, or at least what is best about being human.

But Zen has no issue with thoughts and thinking. Its leading lights have produced endless volumes of conceptual, discursive literature, and they show no sign of stopping. Some of our practices other than meditation invite reflection, like certain verses, such as the Meal Gatha (in which we’re asked to reflect upon how our food comes to us) and our dedications (in which we’re asked to remember specific other people and commit our practice to their memory or well-being).

Zen is not anti-intellectual, but its core practices—meditation and koan introspection—aim to help us grasp what thinking cannot.

We tend to see our intellects as the whole of who and what we are and intellectualism as our only, or as our best and highest, capacity. Because of this tendency, we may believe we can think our way out of or through everything. Many of us come to a practice like Zen in search of something we think thinking will help us find, and so we tend to approach practice that way.

In reality, our thinking mind tends to spin up predicaments and dilemmas that aren’t there, and then tries to think our way out of them, which thinking can’t do. Our thinking creates the hall of mirrors then tries to plot our escape from it.

But we can’t think our way out of the existential trap our—amazing and otherwise useful!—capacity for thought thinks we are in.

The Zen path invites us to step off that hamster wheel.

Zen exposes our questions and dilemmas as baseless, as hollow—as empty!  It acquaints, or re-acquaints, us with the possibility of a different, and ultimately more satisfying, experience.  One that’s always right here, right now.

The Zen path doesn’t really lead to answers to our questions.  Rather, our intellectual questions tend to lose their force, sometimes swiftly, sometime slowly.  They begin to lose their death grip on us as we begin to touch our own experience differently.  As a different way of relating to life, of being in the world begins to take hold of us; as we begin to develop a different sense of who and what we are.

Buddha. Or, as Meister Eckhart said, “Though we don’t realize it yet, we are all sons and daughters of God.”

This new sense isn’t any less intellectual than our sense of sight. We can get very brainy about seeing, and analyzing and describing sight, but that is thinking about our sense of sight, not sight itself.

This new state of being, or orientation to life, isn’t any less intellectual than our sleep state. We can get very brainy about sleep, and analyzing and describing sleep, but that is thinking about our sleep state, not sleep itself.

We have no quarrel with sight and sleep, but most of us struggle to stick with meditation and Zen practice. Most of us struggle with our experience of life. We need to give up the fight, and our practice—with which many tend to struggle, to fight, at first—helps us do that.

Don’t let your practice become part of the struggle. Go easy on yourself. Lower your expectations at first. Sit for five minutes a day at first, if that’s all you feel you can manage initially, but stick with it. Every day, or most days, at least. When you feel you’re ready for five minutes more, start sitting for 10 minutes a day. Lower the bar enough to sustain your practice. Don’t judge it; just do it.

My 11-year old daughter sometimes fights sleep, even as she seeks it. I tell her that thinking about not falling asleep—the loop she gets stuck in, telling herself she can’t do it—is what’s keeping her awake. A few times I’ve laid next to her, holding her and encouraging her to follow her breath into sleep. At other times, she lies alone struggling. Either way, she eventually falls asleep! And then she has sleep, she is sleep, instead of being captive to thoughts about sleep and no sleep. Her fear of letting go into sleep has lost its grip.

Meditation practice is the same way. There have been countless times over my years of meditation practice—in the early days, or in the seventh hour of the first day of sesshin, or on the seventh day of sesshin—when I was struggling so; when the thought “I can’t make it” would arise. Then, “Ding! Ding!” The session was over. A session of mostly struggling and discomfort as meditation. And, then, getting up and carrying on with the rest of the day, the rest of the retreat . . . as meditation.

Zen, and what it reacquaints us with, is nothing other than this vital life we are living, right here, right now. Through our practice, we come to know and live life so intimately, and not as an “it,” as an object to our subject. Subject-object is not the mode in and through which we experience or comprehend life most deeply. Rather, we come to experience life neither in subject-object mode or not in subject-object mode—trusting life “in our bones,” in and as every fiber of our being, in and as every breath we take and release, without thinking about it. Matter. Of Fact. The Great Matter.

Best as we can tell, the historical Buddha merely called this state and sense “awake.” When people asked him what he was, and what made him different than other sages, he didn’t allow them to project anything too exalted on him. He simply said he was awake—and he no doubt knew what it meant to be truly awake.

Zen practice, including meditation, helps us let go of our fear of being alive, of being truly awake to life itself, as opposed to our ideas about life and how it should be. Fear of life loses its grip on us, just as my daughter loses her fear of sleep as she melts into it, whether she goes struggling or not.

Now, about everything I’ve just said:

Please don’t receive it in the mode of “too much thinking,” as my old Kyudo (Zen archery) teacher used to say. That’s what he would say when I released a shot that didn’t come from a heart centered in the place I’ve been talking about, even if the arrow happened to hit the target. I hope what I’ve just said speaks to your heart, more than your head. A heart centered in that place is the target. The target is life itself. Your life.

As promised, I’ll close with another verse, this one from Case 9 in the Transmission of Light:

Even Manjusri and Vimalakirti could not talk about it,
Even Maudgalyayana and Shariputra could not see it.
If people want to understand the meaning themselves,
When has the flavor of salt ever been inappropriate?

Death and Life

This is a teisho I gave last night, on sesshin in Connecticut, with 60 White Plums, including 17 teachers in our lineage.

We will hear our Evening Gatha* chanted a short while from now, and, in it, these lines:

Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.

Do not squander your life.

Last Tuesday night, exactly a week ago, I had a very restless night’s sleep.  I suppose it would be more accurate to say I got very little sleep.  In the early hours of Wednesday morning, perhaps 1:00 or 2:00 a.m., I woke up with a strong, clear, compelling sense that death was nearby.

It wasn’t a thought.  It wasn’t a feeling.  It was just a very clear sense of death’s nearness.

It wasn’t frightening.  It didn’t make me anxious.  It didn’t send thoughts spinning in my head.

But it demanded, and so commanded, my attention. I laid awake much of the night with, and in, this sense of death’s nearness.

I was at my office later that morning – I’m a partner in a big law firm – when, around 10:00 a.m., everyone in our Boston office received an email from our office manager, informing us that the sister-in-law of one of our colleagues, with whom I’m quite friendly, had passed away that morning. This woman had been ill with cancer for some time, and she had spent the last few months living with our colleague and her family as she approached her death.

Twenty-four hours later, around the same time Thursday morning, I was again at my desk when I received an email from one of our partners in our Boston office.  He was writing to a small group of us who are friendly with a partner in our New York office. His email informed us that an adult son of this friend in New York had been discovered dead at his home.

As if all this weren’t enough, as I was driving from Boston to Connecticut Friday afternoon to attend this sesshin, I spoke to one of my brothers, who informed me that our uncle Paul, a man in his early 80s, who had lived with diabetes much of his adult life, and had been in decline for some time, was in the hospital.  His heart had failed, he was brain-dead, and his family would soon instruct the doctors to remove life support.

As we were gathering here Friday night, perhaps half an hour before Roshi Kennedy welcomed us and we began our first sit, I received a text from my brother letting me know that Paul had passed.

It seems this sense of death’s nearness that kept me awake last Tuesday night was on-the-mark.  It was communicating something quite real.  Death is always nearby, of course.  I suppose it has just been more apparent in my little corner of Indra’s Net over the past week.

We never quite know what awaits us when we arrive for sesshin.  During these first couple of days, I’ve been very aware of death’s aliveness.

__________

I didn’t know my colleagues’ relatives who passed away last week, but I did know Paul very well, of course.  He was married to my mom’s sister, Regina, and he also was my dad’s first cousin, and, really, his best friend.  All four of them grew up in the same area north of Chicago, and the two men were acquainted with the two women by the time they all were in their late-teens or early 20s.  They got married around the same time, had kids around the same time, and packed up their families and moved to Colorado around the same time, in the late `60s, when I was eight.

The two families ultimately settled in small, rural, mountain towns a few hours apart.  We saw each other regularly, on holidays and some weekends, when I was between the ages of eight and my late-teens – the age range my own kids are in now.  We have a daughter who is about to turn 11 and a son who is 14.  Paul and Regina returned to Chicago around 30 years ago, and I saw them much less frequently after that.

I have many lovely, vivid memories of Paul during those years:  Perilous toboggan rides.  Fly fishing, just with Paul, in a beaver pond near their home (where, sadly, there is now a shopping mall).  My first record album, which Paul and Regina gave me one Christmas or birthday.

I turned 57 last month.  For the first time, retirement age seems right around the corner, as if I could almost reach out and touch it.  How did that happen?  Where did the time go?  And, yet, I definitely can touch those times with Paul, now nearly 50 years ago.  They’re right here, still.

Time truly passes by swiftly.  And its pace seems to accelerate as I get older.  Perhaps you’ve noticed this, too.

__________

About 20 years ago, at a much earlier point in my career, I was offered a full-time teaching job, at a good university in the Midwest, in a field I care about greatly:  international conflict resolution and peacebuilding.  I had done graduate work in this field, both as part of my legal studies and apart from them, and I’d done a bit of publishing and applied work in the field by then.  I very much wanted to devote all my time and energy to the field, and this job seemed like my ticket.

It also was a much earlier time in my relationship with my wife, who already had her dream job, teaching full-time at a good university here on the East Coast, in a field she cares about greatly.  She did not want to change jobs.  It became clear to me that, had I pushed for a move, it would have put a terrible strain on our young relationship.  So, I let that job go.

But I was angry and resentful for several years.

Little by little, I would find ways to deepen and expand the scope of my commitment to the conflict resolution field: I arranged some part-time teaching near home.  I continued to publish.  I took on new practice-oriented activities.  Fast forward to today, and I’m quite content with the package of things I have in my life, including activities and experiences I value, and that I presumably would not have, if I had taken the full-time teaching job.

But it would be some time – longer than I care to admit – before I would realize, before I could realize, that the opportunity I lost 20 years ago was not that job.  It was the opportunity to appreciate my life, and to be a good friend and companion, during those years when I was angry and resentful.

__________

How do we squander a life?  How do we squander life?

By not sitting, and by not living, with confidence, as we were told Friday that Roshi encouraged everyone to do on the first sesshin he led after becoming a teacher.  By not living with confidence that the life we’re actually living, right here and now, is the life we’re meant to be living, right here and now.

Sure, sometimes change is in order.  When the call to change is strong, clear, and compelling, we should summon the courage to change.

Perhaps more often, however, we are called to change in place, and that call can be harder to hear.  Sometimes we don’t want to hear it, and, hearing it, we turn from it.

How do we squander a life?  How do we squander life?

By not sitting, and by not living, with joy, as Roshi also encouraged everyone to do during his first sesshin as a teacher.  By not welcoming the joy and potential for joy that presents itself right now, whatever our circumstances.

How do we squander a life?  How do we squander life?

By not being a good friend and companion, as Charles [Birx, Roshi] summed up the call and fruits of Zen practice during his teisho yesterday.

__________

My wish for each of you – each of us –  as we end another day of sesshin and go off to sleep, is that you fall asleep knowing you have lived today.  That you fall asleep alive.

And my wish for each of us, as our lives come to an end, as did the lives of the Dear Ones who departed last week, is that you die knowing you lived.  That you die alive.

This life, this alive, like Zhaozhou’s Mu – his no which is the yes that has no opposite – is, of course, that life which is not death’s opposite.

I’ll end with a brief koan:

Two monks who had been away from the monastery for the day passed a funeral as they returned.

One monk slapped the lid of the coffin twice, glared at the other, and asked ferociously, “Dead or alive?  Dead or alive?”

The other fired back, just as ferociously, “I won’t say!  I won’t say!”

Like the second monk, may we always refuse to take the bait when the Great Matter of life and death is framed like that.

May we continue to seek and find and live and give and share that life which is not the opposite of death.

__________

* Evening Gatha:

Let me respectfully remind you,

Life and death are of supreme importance.

Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.

Each of us should strive to awaken.

Awaken!  Take heed.

This night your days are diminished by one.

Do not squander your life.

Wash Your Bowl — Denbo Ceremony Teisho

This is the talk I gave after my Denbo ceremony, in which I received Dharma transmission from my Zen teacher, Kevin Jiun Hunt, O.S.C.O., Roshi, and so became a Zen teacher myself.  I’ve also posted a few pictures.  The ceremony occurred on Saturday, November 10, 2018.  It was very traditional, except that it occurred at 2:00 p.m. and was attended by friends and family.  For reasons that are long outdated, these ceremonies have, for centuries, typically occurred privately, between teacher and student, at midnight.  A number of Zen streams in the West, including ours, recently have begun to open them, and to hold them at a much more agreeable time of day.  I’ve been given the Dharma name Kōgen, which means Light Source.

Gratitude is the first thing I want to express today.

Some time ago, I went looking for a new Zen teacher.  I couldn’t believe it when I found a Trappist monk and Zen teacher, all rolled into one, just a couple of towns over from where we were living at the time.  As you’ll hear in a moment, the Trappists were on the scene early in my travels through contemplative spiritual circles over the past 30 years.  So I was really excited to discover Fr. Kevin.  I wrote him a long, detailed email telling him all about my journey.  And, at this point, Fr. Kevin gave me the first of the many great teachings I’ve received from him:  He completely ignored my email!  I re-sent it a few days later, just in case he had missed it.  (Hint: He hadn’t missed it.)  He ignored it again.  That was my first dose of your wise, spare, direct, “no fuss” approach to spiritual guidance and friendship.  You’ve known just what nudges I’ve needed.  And, since our very first meeting, I’ve come to see just how genuinely you see me – and, I must say, being seen genuinely by other human beings is one of the most profound gifts any of us can receive.  From the start, you’ve accepted me without pretext or pretense, and you’ve always gently insisted that I accept myself the same way.  Thank you.

I eventually forwarded my email to Cindy, whose email address I’d also found on the Zendo’s website.  She responded right away, and very helpfully, encouraging me to come sit with the group!  And I’m glad I did!  That was another tremendous gift and teaching.  I so appreciate and admire your incredible openness, the sense of warm welcome you create, and your determination to make Zen accessible.  You have opened the door to this Zendo to our whole family.  Esther began Zen practice here, and you’ve even welcomed our kids and our dogs.  Thank you.

Tim and Sr. Madeline, thank you for being here today.  It means the world to me.  Thank for your friendship and the many wonderful teachings you’ve offered all of us.

I also want to acknowledge five other important teachers here.  First, my friend and Harvard Divinity School colleague, Charlie Hallisey.  He is one of the principal scholars of Buddhism at Harvard Divinity School, where I have done some part-time teaching the past few years, and he is one of the leading scholars of Buddhism globally.  Charlie has brought with him four distinguished Buddhist monastics from Asia – Bangladesh, China, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam – who are fellows at Harvard this year.  So this is not just an interfaith ceremony; it is an ecumenical ceremony within the Buddhist world.  It’s an honor to have all of you with us today.  Thank you.

I want to thank our Charlie (Norton) for serving as attendant today, and for all you do around this place. You are a rock.

We’re going to share a bit of food after this ceremony, and the best dishes – the ones we didn’t pick up at Whole Foods – were made by our very own Kathleen Bellicchi, who quite literally is the best cook I’ve ever met.  Kathleen, you so evidently pour your heart into everything you make, and your foods opens our hearts.  Thank you.

I want to thank my family, of course, Esther, Ellis and Carys.  For many years now, you’ve given me leave to sit for 25 minutes at a time at home, or for an evening, or sometimes two, away during the week, or for a day, or a weekend, or a week or more when I’ve been on retreat.  Walking this path runs against the main currents of our culture – and yet you always have been fully supportive of my commitment to traveling it.  Thank you.  I love you.  And, Ellis and Carys, thanks for participating in the ceremony.  Good job!

I also want to acknowledge and thank my parents and my two brothers.  They are not here today, much as they wanted to be.  They have been interested in and supportive of my meditation practice from the very start.

Finally, I want to thank my friends, starting with the countless people I’ve had the good fortune to sit with all these years – both Zen and Christian Centering Prayer practitioners.  A handful of you are here today; many more are not.  I also want to acknowledge my close friends walking the contemplative path within other traditions, including Islam and Judaism.  I’ve been buoyed by the friendship of all of these fellow travelers.

Last, but not least, I’m grateful to my friends from different walks of life who have come to participate in this ceremony.  All the strands of my life feel woven together and of a piece at this point, and I want each of you to know you’re an important part of the whole.  Thank you.

__________

It’s traditional for a new teacher to give a talk, and I’m going to open this talk in one traditional way: with a koan.  For those of you who are less familiar with the Zen tradition, most koans are brief accounts of interactions between a teacher and a student, or between students, or between teachers, which have been recorded and bound together into collections that have been passed down to us through the centuries.  They’re sometimes used in a very distinctive way as a teaching tool when a student meets with a teacher, and they’re also often used to open a talk, like this one.

This is Case 7 in The Gateless Gate, which is one of those koan collections:

 

A monk said to Chao Chou, “I have just entered this monastery.  Please teach me.”

Chao Chou said, “Have you eaten your rice gruel?”

The monk said, “Yes, I have.”

Chao Chou said, “Wash your bowl.”

The monk understood.

 

I began meditating about 30 years ago, as I said earlier, in my mid-20s.  That was a very stressful time in my life, if also a good and exciting time in many ways.  I had just finished law school and begun my career in the intense legal profession at a firm in San Francisco.  (Several of my lawyer friends and colleagues are here today, including my first boss and mentor at that firm, Jeff Newman, who has remained a close friend ever since.  All of the lawyers here no doubt can remember the stressfulness of that transition from law student to lawyer.)  I also was living far away from my family for the first time.  And, most significantly, I was just beginning to touch, and open up to, and work through the pain and after-effects of witnessing a very close friend’s death in a mountain climbing accident 12 or 13 years earlier, when I was 15.

I signed up for a weekend introduction to meditation program at the Nyingma Institute, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery and study center in Berkeley.  I was Catholic, and I had studied with the Jesuits, but I was totally unaware at this time of the rich tradition of contemplative prayer practice, of silent prayer, within Christianity.

I definitely signed up and showed up for that first meditation experience seeking refuge, though I doubt I would have or could have expressed it quite that way then.  Life just seemed out of joint, and I was looking for a route to someplace better.

My sitting practice was irregular for the first year or two, but that weekend definitely started me on this path.  A couple of years later, I took a sabbatical year, which I spent in Berlin, Germany, as the wall was being dismantled.  There, I read my first Zen book, by D.T. Suzuki, the towering Japanese Zen teacher and scholar who did so much to transport Zen to the West in the first half of the 20th century.  In this book, Suzuki praises several medieval Christian mystics.  At the time, I found this really surprising, for two reasons.  First, a Zen teacher was pointing to Christianity, my birth tradition.  What’s up with that?  Second, though I’d studied some theology by then, I’d never heard of these people.  Who were they?

I started reading about them, and then reading what they’d written.  When I returned to the States, heading home to Colorado, I connected with the Trappists – specifically, the Centering Prayer movement a number of them had launched to bring contemplative prayer out of the monasteries and into the wider Christian world.  I sat in those circles for several years, while also sitting with Buddhists.  I moved to Boston about 25 years ago for more graduate work, and I eventually situated myself for many years in a different local Zen community.  Little did I know at any of these waypoints that I’d eventually experience the Trappist and Zen streams brought together in the likes of Fr. Kevin.

__________

In the early days of this journey, I had a burning question I would ask of any teacher or senior student who would listen:  When can I stop sitting?

I had many different ways of asking this question, like:

  • There will come a time when I don’t have to sit anymore, won’t there?
  • So-and-so (the teacher) really doesn’t need to sit anymore, does he?

In retrospect, my question was a lot like the one with which Master Dogen, who carried Zen from China to Japan in the 13th century, was preoccupied as a young monk.  His question was:  Why do we practice?  Or, to put it another way:  What’s the point of this?

Anyway, I mostly got rather polite replies contesting the premise of my question.  But, I persisted – and I’m sure I became ever more annoying to these good people from whom I was insisting upon receiving an answer they never were going to give me.

I’d been told many times that I was free to stop sitting whenever I wanted to.  But what I really wanted to know, of course, was that there was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – that better place I was seeking – and that I was going to find it.  Convinced I didn’t have them already, I wanted the Keys to the Kingdom.  I wanted to know The Secret.

One day I asked one of these people my stale question yet again – Can I stop sitting someday? – and this time she just rolled her eyes and said, in a tone I can only describe as a mix of exasperation and sarcasm, “Sure, like when you die.”  And then she walked away.  That was a tremendous gift.  I resolved then and there to shut up and just keep sitting.

__________

I’ve always loved the koan with which I opened this talk.  It’s so simple, short, and truly, truly sweet.  Some people who are new to Zen, or who just encounter it casually, and even some people who have been at it for some time, assume there’s something esoteric about Zen.  If that’s your assumption, you might be inclined to think Chao Chou is being cagey when the teaching he offers the young monk in this koan is to ask whether he’s eaten breakfast and then to tell him to wash his bowl.

But, it’s not so.

Zen has no secrets.  Or, you could say, it’s all an open secret.  Zen points to the open secret that is this very life.  My life.  Your life. Our life together.  For those of us who are seeking, the answer we seek is hidden in plain sight.  And, we find what we’re seeking simply – simply! – by opening ourselves completely, giving ourselves fully, to this vital mystery that’s as plain as the nose on one’s face.  That is the nose on my face; on your face.

The young monk in this koan comes looking for guidance and reassurance, just as I did years ago. There’s genuine integrity in our seeking; in our innate conviction that wholeness is the natural order of things.

And, in fact, the universe is whole, we are whole, even when things seem broken.  Even when we feel lost and broken, as I was feeling years ago.

And Chao Chou’s response, his guidance, really couldn’t have been more straightforward and helpful: Just attend to the here-and-now.

The impulse that makes one curious about meditation; the person who shows up at our door seeking spiritual or physical nourishment; the dirty bowl in the sink:  This is it.  What we seek is manifest, right here, right now.

I love the way this koan ends.  Many koans end with a student experiencing realization, but that’s almost always expressed much more dramatically, like “Suddenly, he experienced great satori [great enlightenment]!” or “Hearing this [what the teacher said, of course], he experienced great realization.”

I like this formulation much better.  “The monk understood.”  Whatever the monk understood, and however deeply – whether he experienced great satori, or simply knew it was time to shut up and just keep sitting – it was enough.  Always enough.

__________

Like Dogen in his early days, perhaps like the young monk in this koan, I used to think there must be some end to this, some final goal or destination, and once we reach it, practice ceases.

But our practice, our life, which is the universe’s life and practice, begins long before one becomes a Zen practitioner, and it continues whether or not we meditate.  It continues as our meditating or not meditating.

This path is completely open-ended, completely boundless.  A path without boundaries.

And, so, we are always, already home.

The fact that many of us don’t yet reliably believe this – or, rather, don’t yet reliably experience this – is the main reason a tradition like Zen and its practices exist in the first place. “Belief” in the way we typically use that word, in a cognitive sense, isn’t really what it’s about.  Belief in that sense eventually begins to feel arid and hollow; it just won’t do.  What we really seek is knowing in our bones, beyond belief.

It’s all just like the young monk’s bowl.  So concrete, so tangible, so present – and, yet, it cannot, it will not, be reduced to, or contained by, our ideas about it.  Turn that bowl round and round in your hands as you wash it.  Just like this life we live, this path we walk:  What is it exactly?  Where does it begin?  Where does it end?

__________

I’m excited to continue this journey in this new role, helping support others in their journeys as best I can, as others have supported me so generously for so long.  I’ll continue to need your support, of course, and I’ll welcome it.  I’m also excited about some of the things we see emerging as Zen becomes more firmly planted in the West, including its turn toward social and environmental justice concerns and its deep encounters with other traditions, both religious and secular.  I also look forward to doing my part to contribute to these developments.

Thank you. Thank you.

This is a recording of my talk, kindly provided by my Dharma brother Charlie Norton,

Ceaseless practice

 

This an an approximation of a talk I gave on May 31, 2017 at Bright Sea Zen, the sangha led by my dear friend, Kate Hartland.

“The meaning of zazen, the enlightenment and liberation of all living beings, is not brought forth by the power of personal effort and is not brought forth by the power of some other.  Zazen doesn’t start when we start making effort, doesn’t stop when we stop.

We can’t do it by ourselves, and nobody else can do it for us.”

From “Guidance in Shikintaza,” by Reb Anderson

I want to use this passage from one of our chants tonight to talk about the notion of ceaseless practice.

The universe practices ceaselessly.  Everything that’s happening right here, now – everything that’s happening everywhere – is the universe’s practice.  The universe is universing.  This is Buddha’s practice. It is Buddha nature expressing itself.

Buddha nature expresses itself ceaselessly.  The universe practices ceaselessly. E ndlessly flows forth; erupts; gives its all; gives it all up for the sake of . . . giving it all up.

Kate and I just had a nice visit at her house before our sit.  She definitely delivered on her promise to make a wicked grilled cheese sandwich.  The sandwich and time with her were a real treat, yet the main event was a tour of Kate’s beautiful garden.  Kate is an avid gardener, as I suspect you know.  I’ve always appreciated and admired the way so much of her teaching is inspired by what nature teaches her.

Kate’s garden is radiant now.  Many of the flowers are erupting.  The universe erupting as Kate’s flowers.

And, later in the year, when the flowers die, their death is the universe erupting, too.

It’s the same with us.  Each of us is the universe universing.  We are flowers blooming. Our lives – our thoughts, speech and action – are the universe erupting.  And our deaths are the universe erupting, too.

And, yet, many of us, much of the time, don’t seem to regard our lives this way.  We have this gnawing sense of separateness, of isolation, of not-okayness.  And we often, in more or less unconscious ways, respond anxiously to this sense, and often in ways that tend to compound it.  We take refuge in thought, speech or conduct, in situations we create or gravitate toward, that are about escaping from the here-and-now.  That aren’t about nearness to it and intimacy with it.

Why is this?  I don’t know. In some religious worldviews, it’s a mark of our fallen nature.  In some, it’s a pathology; a kind of sickness.

I’m more inclined to see it in the spirit of what Zen types call the “samadhi of play.”  Why shouldn’t the one wish to flow forth and know itself in the many; in and as myriad dharmas, “the 10,000 things”; as you and me?  And why shouldn’t the many, why shouldn’t you and I, truly feel distinct and separate, with the twinge of discomfort that entails (even as it also creates opportunities for joy).  And why shouldn’t all delight in discovering, and constantly rediscovering, oneness-in-manyness and the boundless love manifested in and generated through all this?

But these are just ideas, and, so far as I can tell, the universe universing doesn’t seem to be dependent upon my own or anyone else’s ideas about it.

This is the “we can’t do it for ourselves” part.  We can’t do it for ourselves, because it’s already done.  From this perspective, there’s nothing at all to do. Polishing ourselves – trying to be wiser, more virtuous, more spiritual; shinier, newer or whatever – it’s all futile from this perspective.  This is a come-as-you-are universe.  The universe goes on erupting, despite and as our efforts, whatever our efforts may or may not be.

So why practice?  We practice because of the opportunity it provides to become more and more aware of the universe universing, and to discover ourselves as participants in the universe universing.  It helps us not to resist our participation, just as we are here and now.  To attune.  Zazen tends to help us attune.

This is the “nobody else can do it for us” part.  Nobody else can live our lives, and nobody else can sit for us. Nobody else can practice for us.

Sitting is optional . . . we’re part of it all, no matter what, and the universe goes on practicing as me, whether or not I sit.  Yet this attunement, this particular quality of willing participation, can matter so much personally and collectively.  So much individual and collective suffering is attributable to our resistance; to our attempts to take refuge in someplace other than this.  Someplace we think promises something more.

The quality of our lives – our thought, speech and actions – may begin to change as we attune.  The universe goes on erupting despite our efforts and as our efforts, no matter what, but we do have agency.  We participate.  We have the ability to influence the universe erupting as our efforts.

So what we realize from our practice is simply that we are part of the universe’s ceaseless practice.  We realize that we are already home.  That we are practicing ceaselessly, too.

This isn’t exactly a destination, at least not in the way we’re accustomed to thinking about destinations.  The universe’s practice is completely open-ended.  And our practice must take on this open-ended quality, too.

Time and again in our practice, we must confront the idea that there is a goal, a destination, an ultimate point.  This idea can arise in many different ways, sometimes with a positive, sometimes with a negative tinge: a belief that there’s something wrong with my sitting practice, or that my practice is going really well; a belief that I’m virtuous or not virtuous; a belief that I’m not enlightened and never will be or that I’m finally realized.

However this idea arises time and time again, time and time again we must let it go.

So it’s all sort of like the line in that old folk spiritual:  “My life goes on in endless song. How can I stop from singing?”  The universe goes on universing as me no matter what.  Goes on in endless song.  So why not sing in tune?

As we let go of our gaining ideas over and over and over again (including our gaining ideas about supposedly losing), we tend to begin to manifest a positive quality of poverty of spirit.  By this I mean simply that we become more at ease with our practice and with ourselves and our lives.  We tend to increasingly practice without striving.

Another word for this quality of practice with poverty of spirit is reverence.  Simple reverence.  Reverence with a light touch.  Reverence with a sense of humor.  Reverence that is loving, but not too precious.

Reverence for the 10,000 things.  Reverence for your own life and experience.  Reverence for others’ lives and experiences.

Experiencing things this way is a cue that our personal practice is aligning with the ceaseless practice of the whole universe.

The universe, you and me practicing together.  Each breath.  Each step.  Each supernova bursting.  Each grilled cheese sandwich.  Each flower blooming.  Ceaselessly.