I gave this talk on Friday, July 29, 2022, during our Greater Boston Zen Center summer sesshin. You’ll find a recording of the talk at the end of this post.
This is the koan “Dr. Doctor Rides the Bus” from the Book of Householder Koans, a new collection of contemporary koans—koans from our time and place—assembled by Zen Roshis Eve Myonen Marko and Wendy Egokyu Nakao: Dr. Doctor has a common cold, but he still rode the bus to work. He began to cough and sneeze into his handkerchief. Every time he coughed, all the people on the bus tried to cough. Every time he sneezed, all the people on the bus tried to sneeze. Finally, the doctor exited at his destination. “Whew!” the driver sighed. “What would we do without good medical advice?”
The name of the central character in this koan, Dr. Doctor, tells us we’re dealing with a revered authority figure. This isn’t just Dr. Smith; it’s Dr. Doctor.
And the first line tells us immediately that something is amiss. Dr. Doctor is riding the bus, exposing other people to their illness. Shouldn’t the good doctor know better?
All the passengers riding with Dr. Doctor seem to believe coughing and sneezing is what they should be doing too. If Dr. Doctor is saying or doing it, it must be what they should do, right? The driver even praises the good doctor’s example as Dr. Doctor leaves the bus.
Replace “bus” with “zendo,” replace “Dr. Doctor” with “Sensei” or “Roshi,” and it becomes clear this koan is inviting us to take a hard look at authority in the realm of spiritual practice.
Let’s imagine the story continues. That night, one of the passengers starts feeling sick. Now her coughs and sneezes are real, not feigned; Dr. Doctor really was ill, after all. Now this passenger also is exhibiting these symptoms, but maybe she tells herself it’s okay. She denies or suppresses doubt. Or maybe she calls a co-worker with whom she rode the bus and learns he also now has these symptoms, but they minimize their own feelings of discomfort. These colleagues assure one another it’s no big deal. The koan tells us Dr. Doctor has a common cold, not something more serious, after all.
Let’s say they both go to work the next day, and one goes to dinner with friends that evening. That weekend, someone who was at that dinner, infected but not yet coughing and sneezing, visits his aging mother in her nursing home. Several residents catch the cold, and one particularly vulnerable person doesn’t survive it. Dr. Doctor’s conduct, and the riders’ acceptance of it, has caused great loss and pain.
Like one of my favorite novels, Catch 22, we the readers of this koan readily see there’s something wrong with the picture it paints, even though the characters in it do not. All of them—Dr. Doctor, the bus driver, and all the passengers—are just too enmeshed in the field they inhabit. They are not really subjects in it, they are subject to it.
I’ve extended this koan’s story in a dramatic way, with a tragic conclusion. This community knows all too well that such tragedies are possible—that teachers can behave in inappropriate ways, whether minor and seemingly benign or wildly inappropriate, and that they can fail to realize the depth and breadth of the harm they are causing. Authority figures even may come to believe, consciously or not, that they’re so special the rules don’t apply to them. One key teaching of this koan is that we need to be on guard against this. We need to be aware of our own needs and desires that can create a propensity toward enmeshment and blindness. We need to heed signs, including our own discomfort. That teaching is critically important.
There’s another teaching here I’d like to spotlight: It’s no good to imitate, whether in our individual practice or as a community. We should always be open to good ideas and examples wherever we may find them, yet we always need to tailor them to our needs, circumstances, concerns, and objectives. That’s the balance we need to strike. No other response is truly agentic.
Many people who feel burned by an authority figure, or by our institutions or systems, not only lose faith in the authority of others; they also subtly lose touch with and lose faith in themselves. When this happens, we are prone to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. We can reject what is still of potential value and legitimate use to us.
Most of us eventually get burned and disillusioned by someone or something we’ve looked up to or relied upon to a greater or lesser degree. This community suffered something cataclysmic, yet who among us had not at least experienced a mild loss of faith in another authority figure, institution, or system at some earlier point in our life?
I’m a parent to two teenagers, and I see daily how skeptical they have become about many of our institutions and the adults in my generation. This is understandable, and I share their perspectives to a great extent. Yet I also know they presently are painting with a very broad brush—or erasing with a very, very wide eraser—as they react to what rightly concerns them. As teens, they have not yet developed confidence in their own capacity to separate wheat from chaff, so they are inclined to reject all people and ideas associated with what they have received, reactively pivoting toward what they imagine to be its opposite.
We’re adults, and so we’re hopefully less inclined to do that. Still, when Dr. Doctor has let us down, and we begin to wonder whether the whole medical profession has let us down too, it’s natural to question whether there was ever anything of value there in the first place. It’s possible there was not, but another possibility is that this moment in which we find ourselves is offering us an opportunity to separate wheat from chaff; to discover the real pearl of great price within the shell, the outer packaging, on which we previously were focused.
I’ve always loved that old Zen proverb, “Barn burnt down. Now I can see the moon.” In one way or another, it seems our Zen barn eventually needs to burn to the ground. How I wish it always were a controlled burn that didn’t leave someone scarred and in mortal pain. Controlled or not, however, our barn must burn down to reveal the moon.
We must sift through the ashes in the light of the moon, deciding what’s left of the barn that is still useful. We must decide what to construct in its place—a structure that fits and suits us, now with skylights to receive the moonlight. We must find our own style; our own way of receiving and expressing the Dharma in the context of our own lives, personally and as a community. Many of the forms, practices, and structures we have received from China, Japan, and our forerunners in the West have enduring value to us, but we must honor them by adjusting, stretching, and supplementing them as fits our time and place.
Each of us must discover ourselves as the stable ground and structure we are seeking. Any authority figure worthy of one’s respect and admiration will want nothing less for and from us. They will simultaneously strive to provide an example worth imitating and they won’t accept mere imitation.
Here’s the verse that precedes the koan with which this talk began:
Depending on circumstances, Everything is medicine, Everything is disease. Doctors are no exception.
I gave this talk at the Greater Boston Zen Center on Saturday, January 29, 2022. There’s also a link below to a recording of the version of this talk I gave at our Full Moon Zen sit on Thursday, January 27, 2022.
This is Case 38 in The Gateless Gate:
Wu-tsu said, “It is like a buffalo that passes through a latticed window. Its head, horns, and four legs all pass through. Why can’t its tail pass through as well?”
Here’s Wu-men’s commentary on the koan:
If you can get upside down with this one, discern it clearly, and give a turning word to it, then you can meet the Four Obligations above and give comfort to the Three Existences below. But if it is not yet clear, pay close attention to the tail and you will resolve it at last.
And here’s Wu-men’s verse:
Passing through, falling into a ditch;
turning beyond, all is lost.
This tiny little tail –
what a wonderful thing it is!
Our daughter, who is 13, has strong likes and dislikes.
One thing she really likes is birthdays—her own, for sure, but others’ birthdays, too. She looks forward to celebrations so much, and that brings all of us a lot of joy.
One thing our daughter really does not like is change. I don’t think she’s yet forgiven my wife and me for our move from a suburb into Boston two years ago. As much as she’s come to like where we now live, she still feels the sting of leaving the only home she’d known until we moved.
Our daughter’s love of birthdays and her distaste for change met head on eight years ago, as she was about to turn five. At times, she seemed excited to celebrate her birthday; other times, she seemed anxious and down.
I sat with her at bedtime one night to try to understand what was going on. She said she was sad that she wouldn’t be four anymore; that four would be lost.
I had bought our daughter a set Russian nesting dolls on a trip I’d taken several months earlier. Many of you have seen these dolls, I’m sure. This set had five dolls: five hollow, brightly painted dolls, each one a bit larger than the next. The four largest dolls separate at the waist, so you can put the smallest doll inside the doll one size up; those two in the next one up; and so on. When they’re all packed up, the largest doll is the only one you see. Now it contains all the others.
I reached for the set of dolls on a bookshelf nearby, took it apart, and started reassembling it. As I put the smallest one inside the next size up, I told my daughter this was just like when she turned two: one was still inside two. When I put those two in the third, I made the same point about when she turned three; and I made that point again when I put the first three dolls in the fourth. By the time we got to the fifth doll, she understood that turning five didn’t mean losing four. Four would still be part of her.
Growth in most domains of life is like this. Our perspective and experience may be transformed, but they’re transformed in a way that integrates and refigures our prior perspectives and experiences. The old and the new; this way and that way; the things that used to seem like binaries, and that used to generate discomfort, become synthesized into a new way of knowing and being that we never could have imagined.
Like Alice, we can peer into the looking glass, but we can’t know what’s through it until we’re through it. In this case, however, “through” isn’t exactly a way out. Getting to the other side; well, what we find might not exactly be another side.
In the koan with which I opened this talk, the window is a metaphor for enlightenment, of course. The buffalo—which is you or me—wants to pass from someplace she doesn’t want to be to someplace she imagines to be better. But she can’t quite get through. Her tail is stuck.
Hakuin, the 18th century teacher who revived the Rinzai school in Japan, and koan practice with it, regarded this koan as one of eight that are especially difficult to pass through. I suppose it is, if we conceive of enlightenment as a passage to someplace completely other than where we’ve been, and if we expect to become someone completely new, other than who we’ve been.
To be clear, the Zen way entices us toward a particular sort of growth. Its teachings and practices both support and embody that growth as we take them up. I suppose we can call it spiritual growth if we must call it something. It’s a paradoxical sort of growth, not unlike those Russian dolls.
Why is spiritual growth paradoxical?
On the one hand, our practice may help us grow beyond the existential angst many of us feel; that acute, uncomfortable, fragile sense of existential isolation that propels so much action and inaction which can compound our own and others’ suffering.
The biggest Russian doll is bigger than the whole universe; it is hidden in plain sight, as everything and nothing. Taking up and continuing along the Zen Way, we may discover and center in this reality—experientially, as the fabric of our being, not as an idea. We may come to discover and feel ourselves, and everything else, as arising and boundlessly coterminous with that biggest of all Russian dolls.
We can think of enlightenment experiences or insights, if we have them, as glimpses of that biggest Russian doll reality. But I think it’s best to think of enlightenment, if we’re going to think about it at all, as progressively becoming securely anchored in that awareness and experience. And not just from the universal perspective, the perspective of that biggest of all Russian dolls, important as it is to cultivate it, and as much as Zen practice is about helping us do so. But also from one’s own very concrete and particular perspective, as a being interdependently present with other beings.
There used to be a brushwork piece hanging here that depicted a candle burning from both ends. At one end it said, “Sometimes swiftly.” At the other it said, “Sometimes slowly.”
This image depicts the eventual resolution of a debate that raged for some time in the early days of the Zen tradition. Back in 8th century China, the so-called Northern School of Zen claimed enlightenment comes suddenly, and the so-called Southern School claimed that enlightenment comes gradually. The image represents the synthesis that eventually emerged: both perspectives are valid. It can happen either way.
My view of how that ancient debate should be resolved is just a bit different. Instead of “sometimes swiftly, sometimes slowly,” I’d say, “sometimes swiftly, always slowly.”
And that’s a good segue to what makes spiritual growth paradoxical. It’s all about that tail.
Striving to pass through that window, we may think our tail has us stuck. If so, we certainly are stuck—but the other end has us stuck. There’s no escaping our tail-ness, and no need to escape it, as if we even could. We’re stuck because of how we’re conceiving of enlightenment and striving for what we conceive.
Enlightenment is a slippery word; some might even say it’s a dirty word. It certainly is a dirty word if one projects into it the pretense of completion; the end of growth.
Our enlightenment is ongoing; never ending. We can sink ever deeper into the realization that we are what we were seeking—not in a grandiose way, but in the sense knowing ourselves both as distinct beings and as not separate in any way. We continue to open; to marinate.
And as buffalos with tails, we always will have blind spots. As distinct beings, there are experiences and perspectives that are not our own. We can miss things about ourselves or about the world around us. Each of us needs others to help us see and learn from what we presently do not see.
I once met a teacher who said Zen has nothing to do with ethics. His point is that Zen is fundamentally about realizing that biggest of all Russian dolls insight, and he believes that awareness has nothing to do with ethics. That’s a view from the perspective of the absolute, but one that, to my thinking, neglects the unity of absolute and relative.
I’m with the 20th century teacher Yamada Roshi, who summed up the whole of Zen practice and its goal as the refinement of character. That biggest of all Russian dolls insight can and must contribute greatly to the refinement of one’s character. If that doesn’t yet seem to be happening, there’s reason to question how securely one is anchored in that awareness and experience.
As we grow in insight, wisdom, and maturity, we hopefully become less subject to baser impulses and delusive ways of thinking that possessed those smaller Russian dolls within us, cute as they are. But real maturity is accepting their presence with all humility and tending to them skillfully; never thinking we’re free of blind spots or have otherwise fully passed through some mythical, ultimate gate; and remaining open to new insights from wherever or whomever they may come.
So let’s please each pay close attention to our own tail.
I gave this teisho during our first ever Full Moon Zen Zazenkai (one-day retreat) today. You’ll find a recording of this talk after the text.
This koan is Case 13 in The Blue Cliff Record:
A monk asked Pa Ling, “What is the school of Kanadeva?”
Pa Ling said, “Piling up snow in a silver bowl.”
Many Zen koans share three qualities.
First, someone is asking about the Great Matter of Life and Death. They may not phrase or frame the question quite that way, but that is the question nonetheless.
Sure, the monk in this koan may have been reading one of the Mahayana sutras attributed to Kanadeva, trying to clarify some fine point of his stream of Buddhist thought. But Pa Ling took this seeker’s question for what it really was: a question about the monk’s own life.
What is this experience of life and death? Who am I?
Second, the response to the question about the Great Matter in many koans leaves one scratching one’s head, at least if we try to approach the koan discursively; didactically. Approached that way, the koan seems paradoxical.
Finally, many koans are brief. Something vast and deep is expressed in just a few words.
This lovely koan has all three of these qualities.
Kanadeva was an Indian sage, a student of Nagarjuna, who lived in the Second Century and is widely considered to be one of the greatest Asian philosophers. Nagarjuna is regarded as the 14th ancestral teacher in the mythical line of succession that begins with Shakyamuni Buddha and extends to all Zen teachers alive today. So Kanadeva is our 15th ancestral teacher.
According to Buddhist lore, when Kanadeva first met Nagarjuna, his teacher, Nagarjuna gave him a bowl of water. Kanadeva, the story goes, dropped a needle into it.
Good luck finding that needle, and fishing it out if you do! If you manage to grab it, you may well get Kanadeva’s point—literally be pierced by it, which is the only way we can ever truly get anything, of course.
Who knows whether Pa Ling’s answer to the monk’s question—this image of snow in a silver bowl—was consciously connected to the story about Kanadeva’s first meeting with Nagarjuna. Pa Ling’s response undoubtedly emerged, stream of consciousness, in his imagination as the monk posed his question. Whatever else it may have been influenced by or connected to, it certainly was connected to that very teacher-student meeting; to that moment.
If we approach this koan, or any other, primarily in a discursive way, we won’t find what we’re seeking.
What did Pa Ling mean?
Is this image from a scene at the temple where he taught, with which the monk also would have been familiar—perhaps a bowl that collected rainwater during parts of the year, and snow in the winter? If so, why did Pa Ling offer this image?
Was this a line from a poem long forgotten?
Why a silver bowl? Silver is a precious metal. Was it an altar bowl? The altar would have been indoors, where snow doesn’t fall. Why bring the bowl outside, or the snow inside, to pack it full? Was Pa Ling saying something about the absurdity and futility of filling this—this emptiness that’s always chock-full?
I don’t know. Even if we knew, would this knowledge answer the monk’s question, which is our question, too?
Still, what a lovely, captivating image Pa Ling rendered. We’re still talking about it, captivated by it, centuries after his encounter with this nameless seeker, as if we were that monk. As if the snow were still falling.
We are that monk, and the snow is falling, still.
A koan is not a paradox, just as our lives are not a paradox. Koans invite us to encounter life as if it were not a paradox. They can teach us to do that.
I grew up in a small town high in the Colorado Rockies, in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, near a peak called Mount Shavano, which was visible from any spot in the broad valley in which we all lived. There’s a deep crevice in the face of Mount Shavano, in which a glacier has formed. In the spring, when the snow melts and the valley, and all the peaks that create the valley, turn green and brown and gold again, ice and packed snow remain in that crevice, revealing the shape of an angel.
Growing up, the Angel of Shavano was always visible above us, throughout the spring, summer and fall, when the packed snow from endless winter storms had disappeared down the edges of our mountain bowl, flowing into the tributaries, streams, and rivers that sent life giving water in all directions, to California, the Midwest, even Mexico.
Year after year, the angel went into hiding again, when winter came. Ever-present, and hidden in plain sight.
I loved those winters. Standing anywhere in that valley as the snow fell. Especially at night, when the sky was blueblack, the moon cast silver across the valley, the air was still, and it was so silent you could hear a pin drop in that snow bowl.
Stick out your tongue right now and catch a snowflake.
Reach down and scoop up some snow. Pack it in the silver bowls that are your hands.
I gave this teisho during our Full Moon Zen regular weekly practice session on November 19, 2020. You’ll find a recording of this talk after the text.
This Case 27 in The Blue Cliff Record, one of our koan collections:
A monk asked Yun Men, “How is it when the tree withers and the leaves fall?”
Yun Men said, “Body exposed in the Golden Wind.”
I meditate each day in an attic office. My cushion is placed near a small dormer window. The top of a giant tree hovers just outside. Its leaves were turning gold and crimson a few weeks ago, shortly after I last spoke during one of our evening sits. One morning the wind stirred up while I was meditating. I could hear the leaves shaking loose from the tree’s branches and rustling in the air, before falling to the ground.
I knew then that I wanted this talk to be about breathing in Zen practice. Most of us begin Zen practice by counting our breath.
Many people tend to regard meditation primarily as a mental practice. Early on, and despite the guidance we receive from teachers and experienced Zen students, most of us apply great mental effort trying to rid ourselves of mental activity, as if thoughts are bad and meditation were about banishing them completely. Perhaps the ancient Buddhist texts we encounter, which often use the term Mind (with a capital “m”) as a synonym for the Absolute or Emptiness, contribute to this confusion.
It’s true that counting the breath early in Zen practice is a way to use one type of mental activity to tame another. The idea at that point in our practice is to substitute a relaxed, focused form of mental activity for the frenetic, loop-de-loop sort of mental activity in which so many of us spend much of our lives lost. But that’s not because loop-do-loop, this-that mind is “bad” and must be suppressed completely. It’s just that it tends to be our default mode; we tend to get stuck there without realizing this is the frame of mind that sustains the illusion of separateness that causes so much needless suffering.
That frame of mind is like living alone in a castle in the sky, standing in front of a mirror in that castle, having a conversation with oneself about the world, without realizing its an extended monologue about figments of our imagination. We think we’re making real contact with the world, but we’re not.
Breath practice helps us gently disengage from that frame of mind just enough to begin stepping back from the mirror. It helps us exit the castle, at least for a while. It’s a first step along a new path that Zen invites us to travel.
As we travel this path, the castle recedes toward the horizon . . . and yet it’s also right here, and we can instantly find ourselves back in it. That’s fine. Now we know how to find the door to someplace more spacious if we find ourselves jabbering into the mirror again.
Eventually, we can let go of breath practice and just sit shikintaza, which is a rather formless form of meditation practice. From here, the path opens wider and wider, in every direction. It becomes an infinite field; one that manifests in and as our experience of life, right here, right now.
As our meditation experience shifts in this way, we might begin to relate to our breath differently. While counting the breath, it’s pretty hard not to control it, much as I might imagine or intend otherwise. When I stop breath counting practice, I’ll still become conscious of my breath from time to time, but I’ll be much more likely to feel as if my breath is breathing me, rather than the other way around. To experience just breathing.
All day long, and all through the night, breathing just happens, without willing it to happen. I don’t even notice this most of the time. As we take up meditation practice, we use this everyday, mostly unconscious aspect of our creaturely experience to reground our awareness; to coax it back to the here and now.
So, although many people wrongly tend to regard meditation primarily as a mental discipline, it’s fundamentally an embodied practice and experience. In fact, it’s a practice that tends to collapse the distinction between body and mind; our mind-body dualism.
Some of us may have a sudden, profoundly transforming experience during meditation, or as a result of it—kenshō, a direct experience of emptiness. Master Dōgen described his own kenshō experience as “dropping off body and mind,” not as a mental experience. Whether or one has a sudden experience of body and mind dropping off, however, that same realization tends to soak into us over years of consistent Zen practice, like a tree soaking up water through its roots.
In the koan with which I opened, Yunmen’s student is using the familiar Chinese metaphor of a withering tree and falling leaves to ask his old teacher what it’s like to age and approach death. Yunmen responds with another familiar Chinese metaphor, the Golden Wind—the wind that carries the autumn leaves away.
There’s a lovely Chinese myth about a cow herder and a weaver girl, whose love was forbidden. (I suppose Romeo and Juliet is our Western equivalent.) These lovers are banished, as stars, to opposite ends of the Milky Way. Once a year, as Spring and Summer, the periods of birth and growth, give way to Fall and Winter, the periods of decline and death, a flock of magpies forms a sky bridge, allowing them to meet for a day.
There are many poems about this myth, one of which contains this beautiful line:
One meeting of the Cowherd and Weaver amidst the golden autumn wind and jade-glistening dew, eclipses the countless meetings in the mundane world.
As the wind kicked up during my morning sit a few weeks ago, a thought passed by with the leaves levitating just outside: What is the wind, if not my own breath?
The wind is my breath, your breath, and old Yunmen’s breath.
And we are autumn’s leaves carried by that wind. And we are the sapplings that will sprout from soil nourished by those leaves, their roots soaking up Spring’s jade-glistening dew.
Through our practice, we find our place, and our peace, as vulnerable, noble, embodied beings, exposed in the Golden Wind.
I gave this teisho Thursday night during our Full Moon Zen regular weekly practice session. You’ll find a recording of this talk after the text.
In the Mahāprajñā Sutra Preached by Mañjuśrī, it says, “Virtuous practitioners do not enter nirvana; precept-breaking monks do not fall into hell.”
Case 24, Shūmon Kattōshū (Entangling Vines)
Last week we chanted a variation of the Sixteen Boddhisattva Precepts:
The Three Treasures: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha;
The three Pure Precepts: ceasing from (or not creating) evil, doing good, and saving all beings (or working for the wellbeing of the whole); and
The Ten Grave Precepts: not killing, not stealing, not misusing sex, not speaking falsely, etc.
These precepts—and particularly the Ten Grave Precepts—are Zen’s much abbreviated set of the traditional vows Theravada Buddhist monks throughout South East Asia have made for thousands of years. They were formulated by Eihei Dōgen, the 13th century master who brought what became the Sōtō Zen stream from China to Japan.
Theravada Buddhism, also called the Way of the Elders, represents the first wave of Buddhism. These are the crimson and saffron robed monks we see in places like Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. As you know, the Zen tradition is part of a later turn called Mahayana Buddhism. Fully-ordained Theravada monks make scores, if not hundreds, of vows. Like Zen’s Ten Grave Precepts, most are expressed as prohibitions. Don’t do this; don’t do that. Most monks in a country like Myanmar relate to their vows this way.
When I was in Myanmar in 2013, there were monks everywhere, begging for their daily meals, just like Gotama Buddha and his followers did. I seldom had food with me, so I would offer a few dollars. Young boys accompanying older monks would take the money. These young boys were “monks,” too, but likely only living at the monastery for a year or so, as a right of passage. Unlike the older monks, they had not yet taken the vow that prohibits touching money, which the older monks take quite literally.
In our cultural context, most of us can’t relate easily to this aspect of the life of a Theravada monk. If you know an Orthodox Jew, you probably have a sense of what this way of life is like. There are many norms one must observe throughout the day, week, and year.
To be sure, most Theravada monks and Jews who observe the Halakha do not experience these norms primarily as burdens or constraints. Quite to the contrary, they find their joy and freedom in them. Yet, if you are a conventional Theravada monk, the injunction against killing means you almost certainly are vegetarian. Individual monks have some freedom to vary from that group norm, but the norm is quite strong.
For most of us in the West today, this way of life would indeed feel quite constraining—at first, anyway. Many of us bristle at lists of traditional moral injunctions. They run counter to the “live and let live” and “no judgment” zeitgeist in the cultural context many of us inhabit.
What about the Zen Precepts? Zen practitioners have the opportunity to make these vows formally, in a process and ceremony called Jukai. For the most part, these are the same vows Zen priests make. What does the Zen tradition have to say about them?
Well, the koan with which I began should give you a hint that Zen’s orientation is a bit different: ““Virtuous practitioners do not enter nirvana; precept-breaking monks do not fall into hell.”
In Zen, we actually approach the precepts from three different perspectives. One is the perspective we just noted with reference to Theravada Buddhism and Orthodox Judaism. It’s sometimes called the literal, or fundamental, perspective. From this perspective, don’t kill means don’t kill.
The fundamental perspective is important for progressive people living in a contemporary (non-traditional) cultural milieu, like ours, to take seriously. In these circles, hard norms are often regarded as naïve or backwards. But we should wrestle seriously with the precepts from this perspective—to consider the merits of honoring a literal prohibition against particular conduct. If I eat meat, and if I really reflect on the consequences of that—not just for my own health, but for other beings and the planet—I may see the logic and appeal of a plant-based diet in a new way.
And, yet, we are almost guaranteed to violate the precepts in their literal sense. This sometimes happens because of human foibles and fallibility. “To err is to be human,” as they say. We can commit to honoring the precepts literally, and wholeheartedly try, but chances are we occasionally will act selfishly or speak unkindly of another person, despite that expressed commitment. When we cause injury, we can acknowledge it, try to repair, and seek forgiveness—ideally, immediately and sincerely, without excuse, equivocation, or defensiveness.
But sometimes we break a precept in its literal sense because a situation puts two worthy ideals in tension, and we cannot literally conform to one without violating another, or without violating the same precept in a different way. I was vegan during two long periods of my life. Most of my friends knew this, so would prepare a meal without animal products when I came to visit. From time to time, however, I was a guest of someone who did not know how I ate. When I was offered a meal with animal products—even meat—I chose to eat it, without saying a word about how I normally ate. The animal had already perished. Refusing a meal offered so generously would kill something else, I felt: joy.
This is the second perspective: the relational perspective. This is “situational ethics,” not as a way to avoid a prohibition, but because we must always be mindful of context, or what Zen-types call the Four Considerations: time, place, people, and amount (or degree). The animal has died, and there is no rewind button that will change that (time); I am in the home (place) of a new acquaintance (people) who eats meat; and refusing even a small portion (amount) of what I am being served is likely to create more suffering than sharing in the meal. Perhaps I’ll even have a chance to discuss my eating practices with this person at a later time, and perhaps she will be more open to my perspective, because she can see I’m not an idealogue. Reasonable minds can differ here; there’s no clear “right” or “wrong” from this perspective. The goal is to be compassionate and reverent, and to achieve those two objectives in some skillful way in the moment.
The koan with which I opened captures the third perspective from which we approach the Zen precepts. These first two perspectives, the fundamental and the relational, are staple items in Western moral philosophy. The third perspective—known as the intrinsic or unified perspective—is not a common feature of Western thought. From the intrinsic perspective, there can be no killing, because there is no birth and death; there can be no stealing, because there is nothing to be stolen and no one to steal it; and so on.
This is Oneness; nonduality. Even words like “One” and “nondual” fail to express it—as concepts, anyway—because all concepts divide. This is Buddha nature. The ground that is no ground. From the intrinsic perspective, it’s impossible to violate the precepts. There is no good and bad. No judgment, really: not as a left-leaning meme. Ultimately, as the Absolute.
But here’s the thing: the relative and the Absolute are one. The fundamental and relational perspectives are themselves expressions of the ultimate, and they matter very much. In Zen, we embrace and practice the precepts from all three of these perspectives. We know that we can’t fall out of nirvana, because we are it, and yet this insight doesn’t grant us a free pass. We express and honor our own and others’ Buddha nature by doing our best to do the right thing from a fundamental and/or relational perspective.
Just as we can’t fall out of nirvana, we can’t enter it, either: We do our best to do the right thing, but we can’t gloat, or congratulate ourselves too much, or be too sure. We don’t accumulate merit—or brownie points, or rewards in heaven—as we do our best to do our best.
Bernie Glassman—who was the teacher of my teacher’s teacher—gave a wonderful talk about the precepts over 40 years ago, which I recently read. He said, “in studying the Sixteen Precepts, essentially we’re studying sixteen different ways of appreciating Buddha, appreciating the fact that we are buddha. It always boils down to just seeing [this] one fact itself.”
We practice Zen to realize that we are Buddha; to realize oneself and all else as Buddha. As this realization dawns and deepens, our actions tend to accord more and more with the spirit of the precepts; with Buddha nature as it manifests ceaselessly throughout the universe.
With that thought in mind, let me end by reading the single footnote appended to this koan in Entangled Vines, the collection in which it appears:
The Japanese Zen master Hakuin once commented on this koan with the following verse:
Silent ants pull at a dragonfly’s wing;
Young swallows rest side by side on a willow branch.
Silk-growers’ wives, pale in face, carry their baskets;
Village children with pilfered bamboo shoots crawl through a fence.
After hearing this verse, two monks who had completed their training under the great Zen master Kogetsu Zenzai decided to train again under Hakuin.
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.
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.
A monk asked Chao-chou, “Has the dog Buddha nature or not?”
Chao-chou said, “Mu.”
Mumonkan, Case 1
Chao-chou’s Dog, or Mu, is Zen’s most famous koan. It’s the first koan a student normally receives; the first koan in The Gateless Gate, which is the first collection of koans one normally encounters. In fact, Mu is said to be the first koan given to Wumen himself, the 13th century Rinzai Zen master who compiled the whole collection.
Even if the monk in this koan was a relatively new student of The Way at the time he asked Chao-chou his question about the Temple dog, he already would have known the doctrinal answer to his question; the correct conceptual response. Yes, of course, the dog has Buddha nature.
Wumen is said to have sat with this koan—sat with Mu—for six years before penetrating it. Even today, older teachers I know tell me about students who have sat with this koan even longer.
The monk in this story isn’t really asking about the dog, of course. He’s asking about himself. He’s asking, “Do I have Buddha nature?”
Why? Why did this monk ask a question to which he already had an answer? Why did Chao-chou answer “Mu,” which means “no”? Why did Wumen himself, and countless students after him, labor over this koan for years before passing through it?
It’s simple. The monk in the koan, and Wumen, and these many students of The Way realized at this point in their journeys that, although they “got it” conceptually, they still didn’t really get it. They could recite the canonical answer, but it didn’t satisfy. They knew, or at least could sense, that cognitive knowing—belief in a proposition—wasn’t really knowing.
They doubted what they supposedly knew.
This admission may seem like a sort of undoing; like the opposite of progress. In truth, it’s a huge step in right direction. This doubt is an opening.
Another 13th century Rinzai master (Gaofeng Yuanmiao) famously said that the “three essentials” of Zen practice are great faith, great doubt, and great fury. Great fury often gets translated in a watered down way, as “great determination,” but I like great fury much better.
Depending upon who and where one is at this particular moment, maybe an existential question like “Do I have Buhha nature?” doesn’t have much urgency. In this part of the world, many of us live quite comfortable lives—a fact that is all the more apparent during this triple public health, economic, and racial justice crisis. Maybe you’re not very concerned about whether you have Buddha nature or not, let alone with whether you’ll ever realize it. But, you’re here, and I assume you’re not here for the coffee social following the service. Zen isn’t particularly known for that. Maybe you’re just becoming a bit more curious about why other people seem concerned with these questions, and why you don’t. What am I missing as I think nothing is missing?
Most of us are lost in our narratives much of the time; lost in inner chatter that we mistake as reality, but which is really just a thin veneer that separates us from the deeper reality of our lives, of who we are. Zen bids us to penetrate this veneer.
If we begin to notice our everyday condition, even just a bit: that’s a speck of doubt; a nascent question. Even if our questions begin tepidly, skeptically, perhaps even arrogantly— more as an expression of self-satisfied, or blasé knowing, rather than genuine, humble curiosity and not knowing—great doubt is bound to blossom eventually, if we sit with that speck of doubt long enough. Early in Zen practice—and “early” may mean years and years—our job is just to sit with our doubt. To welcome it.
Great faith simply means developing unwavering trust in our own experience. Not to separate from our experience. Particularly our questions. Our doubt. Our not knowing.
We need to abide with the doubt. Let it grow.
Our impulse is just the opposite. We usually rush to fill in the blanks. To fill in our not knowing with pseudo-knowing. We must resist that impulse with great determination. Great fury!
Your determination may start as an act of will, but great determination ultimately is not an act of will. It’s a force of nature that overtakes you.
Many people these days come to Zen practice seeking stress or anxiety reduction, or mindfulness-as-self-improvement, or self-mastery. Our practice may deliver these things, but it offers so much more. The mind and heart that seeks these things is not the mind and heart of a genuine—or at least not a mature—student of The Way.
In his commentary on Mu, Robert Aitken, the contemporary teacher who produced the translation of The Gateless Gate I prefer, quotes his own teacher, Yamada Kōun Roshi, who said:
“Make your whole body a mass of doubt, and with your three hundred and sixty bones and joints and your eighty-four thousand hair follicles concentrate on this one word `Mu.’”
What is Mu? Yamada Roshi and Aitken continue:
“Don’t consider it to be nothingness. Don’t think in terms of `has’ or `has not.’” Mu is not nothingness or somethingness. Fixed notions of “nothing” bar you from true intimacy. . . . “Has” and “has not,” like self and other, arise with the concept of human skin as some kind of armor. Actually, your skin is as porous as the universe.
What is it to sit with Mu, to become intimate with Mu? Yamada Roshi and Aitkin answer:
“It is like swallowing a red-hot iron ball. You try to vomit it out, but can’t.” Sitting there, big with Mu, letting Mu breath Mu, you are completely caught up in your zazen. This is the red-hot iron ball you can neither swallow nor spit out.
That is Great Doubt! Great faith in one’s experience! That is practicing with Great Fury!
The mind and heart of a genuine student of The Way will not settle for less than the whole shebang. Zen practice is not about seeking bigger and better ideas about myself, my life, or the universe. It’s not about becoming a shinier, or more perfect, or more masterful self. A calmer or less anxious self. These are just ways to continue seeking safety in stories about ourselves and the universe. To thicken our armor. To separate from our experience, to avoid life, rather than stepping into the vastness. Into the void. Without a rope.
The word religion is thought to come from the Latin, religare, “to bind,” as with a rope. To secure ourselves.
This is Zen’s great jest. It playfully declares that the truth is just the opposite; that true security comes from discovering we’re cosmically untethered. Zen coaxes us toward the realization that there is no rope, and no post to which we could bind ourselves.
Not even a ripcord to pull.
Withholding. Protecting. Grasping. These are the behaviors that get us into trouble, time and again. That prevent all possibility of genuine intimacy with the world, with others, and with oneself.
Seeking bigger and better versions of myself, my life, or the universe; striving to become a shinier, more perfect, more masterful, calmer, less anxious or more secure self. These are just ways the ego—that blank-filling part of oneself—tries to find a way to be present at its own funeral, as the Tibetan crazy wisdom teacher, Chogyam Trungpa, was fond of saying.
Trungpa Rinpoche also said something very quotable about stepping into the void: Giving yourself completely to your practice is like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. It’s terrifying, of course. But we already know the bad news: We have no parachute. When we truly give in to our practice, when we truly let go of our impulse to know, and all the subtle ways it continues to try to contain us, we discover the good news: Although we have no parachute, there is no ground.
To practice with Great Faith, Great Doubt and Great Determination, to really sit with Mu, is to let whatever doubt you now experience about who and what you are and how you’re approaching life—whether that doubt is a mountain or a micron—snowball. That doubt might start as a single snowflake. Maybe there’s not yet much energy behind you’re not knowing. Fine, sit with that. Whatever hint of curiosity and doubt brought you to Zen practice, whatever keeps you on the cushion: Stay with that.
Sitting with that genuinely, resisting the impulse to pivot away from doubt, to fill in blanks: Well, that snowflake of doubt tends to build into a snowball of Great Doubt. Stay with your experience and see where it leads you.
The not knowing with which we begin is not ultimately replaced by the sort of knowing we expect to find. Great determination won’t lead you to more satisfying cognitive answers to whatever questions you once had. Doubt won’t be replaced with tidy answers; it will be transformed and transfigured. You will discover what Master Dizang meant when he said “not knowing is most intimate.”
In Zen’s Ten Oxherding Pictures, the Ox is a metaphor for Buddha nature; the true source. A Buddha is simply one who is awakened to this source, and who knows oneself as a manifestation of this source.
The eighth Oxherding picture, which is the crescendo moment in (though not exactly the apex of) spiritual practice, is titled “Forget Both Self and Ox.” This is the verse that accompanies it:
Whip and line and you and the ox, all gone to emptiness,
Into a blue sky for words too vast.
Can a snowflake survive the fire of a flamepit?
Attain this, truly be one with the masters of the past.
Wise old Chao-chou forces the monk in this koan to sit with his question. “Does the dog have Buddha nature?” the monk asks. “Who, or what, is asking?” Chao-chou responds.
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.