Buddha’s Birthday

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

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

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


Shame on you Shakyamuni for setting

the precedent

of leaving home.

Did you think it was not there –

in your wife’s lovely face

or your baby’s laughter?

Did you think you had to go elsewhere

to find it?

Tsk, tsk.

I am here to show you

dear sir

that you needn’t step

even one sixteenth of an inch away – stay

here – elbows dripping with soapy water

stay here – spit up all over your chest

stay here – steam rising in lazy curls from

cream of wheat

Poor Shakyamuni – sitting under the Bo tree

miles away from home

Venus shone all the while

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

The Ox Doesn’t Know

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Sung-shan clapped his hands three times.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you not know.

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

 

Mourning the loss of a master of the middle way

 

We have lost a true master of the middle way — not of meditation (as far as I know), but of mediation.

 

I am incredibly fortunate to have known and learned from Roger.  He was one of a small handful of people who inspired me to devote two graduate degree programs (one at Harvard Divinity School and the other at Harvard Law School) to the study of conflict resolution.  When I began teaching in the field at the law school, I first co-taught with Roger.

 

Roger was wise, gracious, and incredibly big-hearted.  He had an irrepressibly positive, “can do” orientation that enabled him to walk into many of the most desperate situations of his era and help create an aire of possibility that, more often than not, made the seemingly impossible happen.

 

Roger was a generous mentor to scores of younger people who are carrying on his work around the world.

 

Thank you, Roger.

 

Roger D. Fisher, Expert at ‘Getting to Yes,’ Dies at 90

 

Harvard Law School Prof. Roger D. Fisher often told his students, “Peace is not a piece of paper, but a way of dealing with conflict when it arises.”

 

By LESLIE KAUFMAN

 

Published: August 27, 2012

 

Roger D. Fisher, a Harvard law professor who was a co-author of the 1981 best seller “Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In” and whose expertise in resolving conflicts led to a role in drafting the Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel and in ending apartheid in South Africa, died on Saturday in Hanover, N.H. He was 90.

 

The cause was complications of dementia, his son Elliott said.

 

Over his career, Professor Fisher eagerly brought his optimistic can-do brand of problem solving to a broad array of conflicts across the globe, from the hostage crisis in Iran to the civil war in El Salvador. His emphasis was always on addressing the mutual interests of the disputing parties instead of what separated them. As he would tell his students, “Peace is not a piece of paper, but a way of dealing with conflict when it arises.”

 

It did not matter to Professor Fisher whether the warring parties reached out to him or not; he would assume they needed his help. “Most of the time he was not invited. He would invite himself,” Elliott Fisher said. “Our sense growing up was that he would read the newspaper and think, ‘Oh, shoot, there is something to fix.’ ”

 

For example, when a rebel group took hostages at the Japanese Embassy in Lima, Peru, in 1997, his son recalled, Professor Fisher found a way to contact the president of Peru, Alberto Fujimori, and gave him suggestions for how to dampen the sense of crisis, including restoration of the power and water in the embassy. This strategy won the freedom of the majority of the hostages. In the end, however, Peruvian forces stormed the embassy, killing all 14 of the rebels and rescuing all but one of the 72 remaining hostages.

 

Professor Fisher is credited with helping initiate the summit meeting between the Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan in 1985, convincing Reagan staff members that just meeting to brainstorm and build relations was more important than settling a specific agenda.

 

In 1979, Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance went to Professor Fisher’s house on Martha’s Vineyard before the meeting at Camp David that would lead to a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. Professor Fisher suggested to Mr. Vance the “single negotiating text” method that was used to bring the parties together, said Bruce M. Patton, who wrote “Getting to Yes” with Professor Fisher and worked on many diplomatic projects with him. The strategy involved having President Jimmy Carter alone be responsible for writing solutions and letting the other leaders shape the treaty through a back-and-forth critiquing process.

 

In 1991 in South Africa, Professor Fisher and former students led workshops with both the Afrikaner cabinet and the African National Congress negotiating committee leading into talks to end apartheid and to establish a new constitution.

 

His upbeat approach to some of the world’s most intractable problems led some critics to assert that he was unrealistic. But Mr. Patton said Professor Fisher recognized and relished the “complexity and irrationality” of the situations he addressed.

 

Although Professor Fisher mostly worked behind the scenes, he did create and moderate a series on public television called “The Advocates.” A court-style program that took on one policy issue at a time and examined it in detail from different perspectives, it ran for several years on PBS and won a Peabody Award.

 

“Getting to Yes,” which he wrote with Mr. Patton and William Ury, has sold millions of copies and been translated into 36 languages, and has been used by leaders in business and government. Professor Fisher also wrote other books and co-founded the Harvard Negotiation Project, which teaches conflict resolution skills to students and to international parties in the midst of a dispute.

 

Roger Dummer Fisher was born May 28, 1922, in Winnetka, Ill. His mother, Katharine Dummer Fisher, had relatives who had ridden the law circuit with Abraham Lincoln; his father, William T. Fisher, a lawyer, was the son of Walter L. Fisher, secretary of the interior in the Taft administration.

 

On the eve of World War II, Professor Fisher attended Harvard University. Upon graduating he volunteered for the Army, where he served from 1942 to 1946 doing weather reconnaissance in both the North Atlantic and Pacific theaters. Four of his eight college roommates died in combat; that, as well as seeing the aftermath of battle, persuaded him to dedicate his life to helping avoid war.

 

After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1948, he served on the Marshall Plan staff and as assistant to the solicitor general in the Eisenhower administration before joining the Harvard law faculty in 1960.

 

In addition to his son Elliott, Professor Fisher is survived by another son, Peter; two brothers, John and Frank; and five grandchildren. His wife of 62 years, the former Caroline Speer, died two years ago.

 

Professor Fisher stayed active in advising diplomats until about seven years ago, when illness made him too weak. His constant advocacy was a force many of his friends found comforting.

 

His family recalled that when Professor Fisher celebrated his 80th birthday, his colleague John Kenneth Galbraith toasted him by saying, “Whenever I thought, ‘Someone should do something about this,’ it eased my conscience to learn that Roger was already working on it.”

 

A version of this article appeared in print on August 28, 2012, on page A16 of the New York edition with the headline: Roger D. Fisher, Expert at ‘Getting to Yes,’ Dies at 90.

 

Buddha, the first behaviorist

 

Esther and I have been reading about the Kazdin approach to positive parenting.  (We have two really great kids.  We’re mainly hoping to train their parents.)  Kazdin, a Yale psychology professor, focuses on promoting desired behaviors – like picking up your messes and not whacking your siblings when they’re annoying you – with positive reinforcement, especially praise.

 

He’s a hardcore social scientist who has conducted hundreds of rigorous experiments over several decades.  The research demonstrates that his approach is better than punishment at producing good behavior, though Kazdin grants very gentle and brief forms of punishment – a mildly disapproving look, for example, or a well administered time out – a minor role in a program that’s otherwise all about encouraging and rewarding the “positive opposite” of undesired behavior.

 

Interestingly, some parents object to this approach out of concern that it somehow changes the “essence” of their child, even if they’re not thrilled about the way this “essence” is manifesting itself at the moment.  Other parents are skeptical for the opposite reason:  If you’re not getting to the “essence” of who my child is and what’s wrong with her, and if you’re not altering her essence, how could the behavior possibly change?  My child has become a bad kid.  You need to swap out some parts.

 

Kazdin observes that 100+ years of psychological theorizing and research (and, one might add, millennia of philosophizing about human nature prior to that) have yet to locate this elusive human “essence.”  There’s no empirically validated, consensus picture of a “thing” that corresponds to what we so casually, and confidently, refer to as the self.

 

Here I am, sure enough, but this self I refer to, on close inspection, is a stream of embodied functions, feelings, thoughts and actions.  There are reasonably distinctive elements and narratives that tend to persist (more or less) across time and contexts, but that proverbial god-in-the-machine I’m so sure is the “real, forever me” seems nowhere to be found.

 

Kazdin sidesteps this bottomless pit – this vast void – and focuses instead on shaping behavior; on how we present ourselves, whatever these selves may or may not be.  By doing so, he gets results that parents and children find deeply satisfying and which positively change their perspectives on themselves and one another.

 

Zen is both very different and not so very different.

 

Most people come to Zen practice mid-stream in a personal program of research into and theorizing about – a/k/a searching for – the self.  Zen meets us wherever we are in that process, at once taking it very seriously and making light of it.  Unlike Kazdin’s approach, Zen coaxes, cajoles and comforts as we explore the vast void.

 

Ultimately, we find ourselves in it, of it, and as it.  Distinct within, but not separate from, this vast universe we inhabit.

 

Our questions don’t get answered intellectually, but they do get answered experientially.  Intellectually, they simply lose their urgency, their attractive force.

 

That way of knowing and being is so meaningful.  And, it also brings us right back to Kazdin territory.

 

From this frame of mind, what matters is the here-and-now.  What’s here and now is conditioned by the past, of course, and our actions here-and-now partially condition our common future.  How we show up here-and-now matters.  It matters presently, and it matters to a future we hope to experience, and which we know others will experience.

 

From this perspective, our essence is nothing more or less than what we do, how we present, here-and-now.  We co-create this here-and-now.  So, as the Germans say, “mach es gut.”  This translates literally to “make it good.”  Figuratively, it’s more like “take care,” which is the same idea.

 

Some people who are new to Zen initially bristle at the odd rituals and chants that are part of the traditional liturgy, yet they’re a key feature of the “taking seriously and making light of ourselves,” of participating in/co-creating the here-and-now and making it good, and of transmitting the wisdom of all this temporally.  Same with the precepts.  Path and destination: one and the same.  We express and realize – we actualize – ourselves in/through/as these forms and practices, and as all we do.

 

Perhaps it’s more helpful to think of ourselves as doings than as beings.

 

I shared the condensed version of this thought-stream with Josh recently.  He smiled, nodded, and said, “Buddha was the first behaviorist.”