The accomplishing work of great peace

 

This lovely verse accompanies Case No. 5 in The Book of Serenity.  It was written by Taintong, the Chan master who provided the lovely reflections-in-verse to each of the cases in this particular koan collection.

The accomplishing work of great peace has no sign;

The family way of peasants is most pristine —

Only concerned with village songs and festival drinking,

How would they know of the virtues of Shun or the benevolence of Yao?

 

And this is the koan to which the verse is a companion:

A monk asked Qingyuan, “What is the greatest meaning of Buddhism?”

Qingyuan said, “What is the price of rice in Luling?”

Zen as Religion

 

I gave this Dharma talk at the Greater Boston Zen Center on Tuesday, October 13, 2015.

 

Blue Cliff Record Case 77: Yunmen’s Sesame Rice Cake

 A monk asked Yunmen, What is the conversation that saves the buddhas and goes beyond the ancestors?”

Yunmen said, “Sesame rice cake.”

 

Tonight I want to take up a rather slippery topic:  Zen as religion.

We don’t spend much time in Zen circles engaging in theological reflection – at least not the sort of analytical reflection and discourse that’s common in other traditions.  We don’t concern ourselves too much with definitions and boundaries. It’s not a tradition that demands adherence to any particular beliefs.

There are ideas and principles practitioners through the ages have found useful, based upon their own practical experience with them, but there are no litmus test beliefs that define what it means to be a Zen practitioner.

(To be fair, we concern ourselves with definitions and boundaries some; for instance, in relation to authority within the community, as is true of any other organization, religious or secular.)

There are some western Zen practitioners who don’t think of themselves as practicing a religion.  I suppose it’s possible to view Zen as a sort of psychological system, as some western practitioners seem to do, though I think that’s a limited and limiting frame.

Scholars debate the defining characteristics of religion.  We won’t resolve that debate tonight.  But let me offer one element of one scholar’s working definition of religion as a launching pad for some things I want to say about Zen. Émile Durkheim, the great 19th century French sociologist, famously defined religion this way:

Since the idea of the sacred is always and everywhere separated from the idea of the profane in the thought of men, the mind irresistibly refuses to allow the two corresponding things to be confounded, or even put in contact with one another.

We see this sort of binary between profane and sacred, between the mundane and the other-worldly, defining religion in the work of other scholars, like Rudolf Otto, for instance.

It’s a fair point.  This is a key insight into much of what’s going on within many strains of most religions – including some strains of Buddhism, I believe – so it’s not surprising that this binary is considered by many to be a defining characteristic of religion.

I’m hedging, of course, when I say that this binary describes “much of what’s going on within many strains of most religions.”  There certainly are strains of most religions that resist the idea that there’s an impenetrable barrier between sacred and profane, as Durkheim imagined.

For example, one might say that Christianity was founded on a degree of resistance to this binary.  Dominant strains within the Greek philosophical tradition that held sway within the ancient world into which Jesus was born maintained that what is ultimately real is removed from this world.  Think: Plato and his forms.  Christianity upended that notion.  Here was God among us.

Of course, the Christian community found itself in schism at times over questions about the extent of this divine-mundane intermingling.  Some Christians really pushed the edge of that envelope along the way, like Meister Eckhart, the great 14th century mystic.  It was orthodox to regard Jesus as the Son of God, of course, but Eckhart also said, “We are God’s sons and daughters, but we don’t realize it yet.”

That has a real resonance with how we sometimes talk about Buddha nature and enlightenment in Zen, as D.T. Suzuki and other Zen scholars have noted.  Of course, Eckhart was tried as a heretic by the Inquisition.  Fortunately for him, he managed to die before his verdict was pronounced.

Does this sacred and profane binary describe Zen?

Yes and no, I suppose.  But, more than most strains of most religions, I think not.

We have our notions of the absolute and the relative, of emptiness and form, yet we’re reminded again and again and again that they’re one and the same.

And, as we think and speak about the relative and the absolute – think and speak about them – they’re notions, of course.  Ideas.  Whatever God or the absolute or emptiness or the ultimately real is to you – well, I sincerely hope you experience it, or come to experience it, as something other than an idea.

The koan with which I opened this talk is typical of so many.  A student comes to a teacher and asks earnestly, “What’s it all about?”

A rice cake, Yunmen says.

In other cases, we hear it’s about . . .

. . . three pounds of flax

. . . a pail of water

. . . the oak tree in the courtyard

. . . even a dried piece of dung

Dung.  Excrement.

Our tradition seems to be making a point of imploding distinctions between sacred and profane; of playfully poking fun at our tendency to make such distinctions; of using that tendency as a nudge toward realization – dangling the distinctions as cat nip.  Lovely story after lovely story like that.

From a theistic perspective, one might say Zen brings heaven and earth together, without obliterating either.  It’s relentless in this way.  It’s the religious equivalent of a supercollider.  A theological Large Hadron Collider.

From an atheistic scientific materialist perspective, one might say Zen brings the dead (the inert) to life.  In this day and age, it’s something of an antidote to the turn in philosophy that attempted to jettison metaphysics – yet still a place, in this day and age, many skeptics feel they can call home.

Tapping on a coffin (in a koan set at a funeral), one monk asked another, “Dead or alive?”  “I won’t say!  I won’t say!” replied the other.

Can this be contained in sacred or profane, heaven or earth, absolute or relative, dead or alive?

This/that mind is concerned with pulling Humpty Dumpty apart and putting him back together again.  That capacity is immensely, immensely useful.  And, even as we exercise that capacity in those situations where it’s useful, we can know in our bones that Humpty Dumpty is, fundamentally, everywhere and always, together in its distinctions.

That potential is one of Zen’s great invitations and gifts to us.

Is Zen religion?

Let me close with another story (also from a koan):

The Emperor Wu of Liang asked Bodhidarma – the 28th Buddhist patriarch, who brought Buddhism to China, where it mingled with Taoism and became Chan, eventually migrating to Japan, where it’s called Zen – “What is the highest meaning of the Holy Truth of Buddhism?”

“Empty – there’s no holy,” Bodhidharma replied.

No separation.

Stunned by this answer, the emperor asked, “Who are you facing me?”

“Don’t know,” was Bodhidharma’s response.

Is Zen religion?

Who are you facing me?

Who are we facing one another?

 

Passing through Hell

I gave this Dharma talk at the Greater Boston Zen Center on Tuesday, October 13, 2015.

“If you are despised by others and are about to drop into hell because of evil karma from your previous life, then because you are despised by others, the evil karma of your previous life will be extinguished.”

Blue Cliff Record Case 97: The Diamond Sutra and Evil Karma

I just passed through a week from hell.

Two weeks ago this past Monday my 79-year old mother was hospitalized with a serious intestinal condition requiring emergency surgery.  Her system had gone septic, and she was teetering on the edge of death.

I booked the next flight to Colorado, which had me departing the next day at the crack of dawn.

My mom was still in surgery as I landed in Denver, which is a two-and-a-half drive from my parents’ home.  One of my brothers was waiting at the hospital for news from the surgeons.  He called about an hour into my drive to say that our mother had come through the surgery, barely, but was by no means out of the woods.

He and I had both been calling my parents’ house that morning to check on my father.  My mother had been caring for him at home, though she was barely able to do so.  My dad wasn’t answering the phone.

My brother went from the hospital to my parents’ house after the surgery and found my dad lying face down on the floor, conscious, but unable to get up, and with a big bump on his head from the wood step he hit when he fell some hours ago.  He couldn’t say when.  He’s on a blood thinner, so falls are risky; they can lead to fatal internal bleeding.

I arrived at my parents’ place shortly after my brother did.  We called 911 and followed the ambulance to the hospital where my mother was still in the recovery room.

As if all this weren’t enough, my wife texted me around this time to say that two falls her mother had recently were caused by strokes, that she was undergoing an urgent series of tests to determine whether she was in immediate risk of another, and that she and my wife’s father would not be able to travel to Boston from the UK (where they live) to visit us later that week.

Stress.  Fear.  Sadness.  Exhaustion.  Hell.

Over the next 48 hours, my mom began to stabilize, the doctors determined my father hadn’t been seriously injured in his fall, and my mother-in-law was cleared to visit us (but still requires more testing and, possibly, treatment).  The aging parent thing has become ten times more intense for us overnight, but the immediate danger for each of them seemed to pass almost as quickly as it emerged.

The koan with which I opened this talk describes another sort of hellish experience: being despised by others.  Perhaps one is despised because of something one did, like taking another life; perhaps it’s because one is a member of a minority racial group or religion; perhaps it’s because of a combination of these or other factors.

It is tempting to read this koan as if it’s about some cosmic algebraic equation; an equality in which we gain future karmic happiness in proportion to our present karmic misery caused by past karmic transgressions.

But this is 21st Zen Buddhism we’re practicing.  That can’t possibly be what we mean.  Indeed, that can’t even be what the ancient masters meant. Can it?

I suspect this sort of good/bad, past/present/future karmic accounting has helped countless people cope with the difficulties of life throughout the ages, including this one – and not only in the Buddhist world, but through similar notions in other religious traditions.

Yet I think this koan extends another sort of invitation.  It’s the same invitation extended by the Five Remembrances that we recite each week.  That verse reminds us that we’re of the nature to grow old, become ill, and die, and that there’s no escaping this.

Life really was hell a couple of weeks ago; it truly felt like hell.  We really are watching our parents grow old, and become ill.  We will say goodbye to them in time . . . if we ourselves outlive them, and we must remember that’s not guaranteed.

The Five Remembrances can be a real shocker for those new to Zen: they certainly have a bubble bursting quality that one doesn’t find much in religion.  But bursting the bubble in which we’re bound to keep searching for that mythical way out, that door from hell to heaven, is only half of the real Zen equation.

Whether we feel we’re in heaven or hell or someplace in-between, the door, the Dharma gate, actually is always right here, and always has been.  It’s a gateless gate.  A boundless gate.  And it leads to this.

Sitting alone at my mom’s bedside in the ICU as she laid there on life support, unaware of my presence, holding her cold, swollen, unmoving hand, hell seemed so . . . solid.  That moment, tortuous as it was in one sense, seemed so solid.

So trustable.

And so bearable.

I couldn’t help but feel grateful for it all somehow.  Grateful for her.  Grateful for the presence of mind and spirit to be present to that moment.

All is blessed. Every day is a good day, as old Master Yun-men said when asked about his own illness and impending death.

Even the hell states.  Even the hell states in which we can’t manage to see that all is blessed.

I credit Zen practice for helping me experience that moment this way.  But I think you know this isn’t the product of some great yogic feat of mental discipline in which we banish all our fears and anxieties or cultivate a stoic detachment from this world of pain and suffering.  Quite the opposite.

It’s by actually allowing ourselves to be in hell when we’re in hell.  And by discovering there and elsewhere, including on these cushions, that we contain hell, rather than the other way around.

Knowing in our bones that we’re part of it all; submitting to that reality.  Finally letting it have us, as, in fact, it has all along.

Knowing that we’re both dew drop and this very dew containing universe. Or, in this case, tear drops.

We find our liberation and our peace in that.  We ultimately find the exemption we’ve been seeking by realizing – by which I simply mean being – the raw reality, the brute fact that we’re not exempt.

The Emperor has clothes, after all

 

This is an approximation of a Dharma talk I gave on March 6, 2014 at the Boundless Way Temple in Worcester, Massachusetts, during the Boundless Way Zen meta-sangha’s three-week Ango retreat.  Audio recordings of this talk and others given by BoWZ teachers are posted here.

 

Emperor Wu of Liang invited Mahasattva Fu to lecture on the Diamond Sutra.  On the rostrum, Mhasattva Fu struck the lectern once with his stick and immediately climbed down.  The emperor was astounded.

 

Master Zhi asked, “Your Majesty, do you understand?”

 

“No, I do not.”

 

“Mahasattva Fu has finished the lecture.”

 

(Blue Cliff Record, Case 67)

 

I began looking for a koan to use as the launchpad for this talk about a week ago.

 

I poked around the koan territory I’ve been wandering in recently.  Not finding much inspiration there, I went back to the earliest koans in the miscellaneous collection and worked my way forward to where I’ve been wandering lately.  Still nothing, so I even peeked ahead of the koan I’ll next bring to dokusan.

 

No single koan lept out during this exercise, declaring, “Pick me.”  Hmm.

 

What did leap out, however, were two themes that seem to me to run through our whole koan curriculum, so I thought I’d make them the subject of my talk tonight.  I mainly want to talk about the second of these themes, but I need to touch on the first to set up the second.  I’ll come back to Mahasattva Fu’s lecture on the Diamond Sutra when I get there.

 

The first theme . . .

 

Surveying the koan curriculum brought home to me more than ever how it — and the Zen project writ large, I suppose — is, in part, about exploring our relationship with real and perceived constraints.

 

Many of our early koans seem to challenge one’s current perceptions of what’s possible, and so challenge us to take a closer look at what we experience as constraints.

 

Stop the sound of that distant temple bell.

 

Count the number of stars in the heavens.

 

Say something without moving your lips or tongue.

 

Some koans even use metaphors of physical entrapment.

 

You are at the bottom of a 200-foot dry well.  What do you do?

 

Many of us, perhaps most of us, come to Zen feeling trapped somehow.

 

Some part of me cut off from another part of myself.

 

A mind or spirit trapped in a body.

 

A solitary being cut off from the world I inhabit.

 

One being among many inhabiting a realm that can’t be all there is.

 

Some type of dualism.  Some version of heaven and earth, or heaven and hell.

 

We’re sure there is someplace else we must get, something more to know.  There must be a secret passageway to a place beyond, and we sense that Zen might offer us a map to find it and the key to open the door once we get there.

 

The early part of the koan curriculum seems to meet us where we’re at in this regard, even as it begins to challenge us to see that the “something more” we’re looking for is just this.  The “someplace else” we’re seeking is right here, right now.

 

The heat is turned up progressively, of course, as we’re challenged in increasingly direct ways.  Like this zinger (from the Blue Cliff Record), for example:

 

A monk said to Dasui, “When the thousands of universes are altogether and utterly destroyed in the kalpa fire — I wonder whether this perishes or not.

 

“This perishes,” said Dasui.

           

“If so,” persisted the monk, “does it follow the other.”

           

“It follows the other,” said Dasui.

 

Tsssssss!

 

 

And so it goes, until we come to the end of the curriculum, where, among other things, we encounter the precepts as koans.  Perhaps by then koan practice, and sitting practice, and everyday life practice have helped us let go of some perceived constraints and helped us see constraints we must accept in a new light.

 

The open secret, of course, is that the freedom we seek is found in the realm of constraints, not someplace else.

 

There is a “through the looking glass” quality to grasping this open secret, to be sure.  As we desperately strain to peer through the glass, what’s on the other side appears faint and blurry.  Passing through, I find myself.

 

Same old me.

 

Relatively speaking, there seems to be something to get.  Absolutely, not so much.

 

And this brings me to the second theme that seems to run through the koans. . .

 

Perhaps it’s more of a conceit, or a device, than a theme.

 

Like the koan I ultimately chose for this talk, the set up for many koans is an exchange between a wise teacher and a seemingly less wise student.

 

Often there also is a supporting character who is in the know, like Master Zhi in today’s koan.  Or Mahakasyapa, the student — and the only person, we’re told — who broke into a smile in the sermon where the Buddha simply twirled a flower.

 

We might more or less consciously identify with Master Zhi or Mahakasyapa as we pass through one of these koans.  We, too, get it.

 

But I’m not talking about them.  I’m talking about the seeming stooges.  The characters who are portrayed as hapless.  The characters who just don’t seem to get it.

 

Sometimes that student is a prominent person, like Emperor Wu of Liang, who also appears in a handful of other koans.  These prominent folk tend to fare especially poorly, at least on first blush.

 

As I surveyed our koan curriculum looking for inspiration for this talk, I found myself really appreciating these characters, the supposed stooges.  Even inspired by them.

 

Here I was, wandering around, looking for inspiration and insight . . . and I find it in other people wandering around, looking for inspiration and insight.

 

This is where much of the action is in these koans — much of the insight, the invitation and potential for us — I think.

 

“Not knowing is most intimate,” we like to say.  “Only don’t know.”

 

But is there still a hint of special knowledge in our not knowing?

 

As long as we’re identifying mainly with Mahasattva Fu or Master Zhi, perhaps there is.

 

As long as we think we get something Emperor Wu doesn’t, perhaps there is.

 

We can settle into our not knowing, and this, importantly, may make us a bit less anxious in our approach to life; perhaps relatively free of certain questions with which Emperor Wu is wrestling.  Perhaps we’ve come to feel just a bit more at home with ourselves; a bit more at home in this vast universe.

 

Mahasattva Fu, Master Zhi and, yes, Emperor Wu — each of them, and all of them together, are presenting themselves with integrity.  And each is an aspect of who we ultimately are.

 

I really appreciate how Emperor Wu, or that seemingly clueless student in so many other koans, helps us see how easy it is slip into a frame of mind in which there’s something more to get, something special, and, by god, perhaps we’ve got it.

 

That frame of mind from which we may overlook our own haplessness and ignorance, and the opportunities presented by those features of life we experience as constraints, as barriers.

 

If, on the other hand, you happen to be someone who identifies with poor, picked upon Emperor Wu all too easily — well, good for you.

 

“Emperor Wu was astounded.”  What a wonderful response to this.

 

Not knowing is most intimate.

 

 

 

A koan about religious tolerance (or is it?)

 

About a year ago, we changed the way we work with koans in BoWZ.  Rather than skipping over koans that appear again in later collections, a student now must work with them multiple times.

 

I’m currently working with Case 65 in the Blue Cliff Record.  In John Tarrant’s and Joan Sutherland’s as-yet unpublished translation of the BCR, which James Ford shared with me, the koan is titled “A Philosopher Questions the Buddha.”  This koan appears earlier in our progression as case 32 in The Gateless Gate.

 

Here it is:

 

An outsider asked the World-Honored One, “I do not ask for the spoken; I do not ask for the unspoken.” The World-Honored One just sat still. The outsider praised him, saying, “The World-Honored One with his great compassion and mercy has opened the clouds of my delusion and enabled me to enter the Way.” He then made bows and took his leave.

 

Ananda asked, “What did that outsider realize to make him praise you?”

 

The World-Honored One said, “He is like the fine horse who runs even at the shadow of a whip.”

 

This koan is very interesting to me at the moment for two reasons.

 

First, having passed through it quickly before, I stumbled on it this time.  I read it the morning I expected to present it to Josh in dokusan, then again that evening, just before we began to sit.  In other words, I hadn’t really stepped into it – entered it, and allowed it to enter me – and so my presentation of it in dokuan was off-the-mark, and I didn’t pass through it.

 

This is a really good reminder that we do not realize something unless we realize it in the moment, even if we’ve realized it before.

 

This is one way in which we can see the wisdom of working with a koan multiple times.

 

Second, this is a powerful, early example of religious tolerance in Buddhism.  I’m not sure this feature of the koan really hit me the first time around – and so we see another way in which there’s wisdom in working with a koan multiple times.

 

The World-Honored One is the historical Buddha, of course.  Ananda was one of the Buddha’s most senior and respected followers.  The Zen tradition regards him as the second Indian patriarch, just one step removed from the Buddha in the (at some points likely mythological) line of transmission that includes all living and departed Zen teachers.

 

The outsider in this koan was not a follower of the Buddha, not part of the clan.  In another translation, the koan is titled “A Hindu Questions the Buddha.”  Perhaps this “outsider” stood within the major religious stream within India then, as now.

 

This outsider clearly gets it, and Ananda, one of the Buddha’s most senior disciples, clearly doesn’t.  (Ananda apparently came to his realization very late in life, but he was revered for his big heart and incredible memory.  He is credited with preservation of many of the Buddha’s key teachings.)  The fact that an “outsider” gets it is clearly fine from the Buddha’s perspective.  In yet another translation, the Buddha is said to have been “respectful for a long time” after this man’s opening remark.

 

(What does the outsider realize?  We all need to realize that for ourselves, of course.)

 

This case seems to me to be making a point about religion and religious boundaries, in addition to other points it’s making.  This is the purpose of identifying the Buddha’s interlocutor as an outsider (or a Hindu).  Otherwise, why not just start the koan “A man asked the World-Honored One . . .”?

 

Note that there’s a fourth character in this koan, the narrator (and a fifth, you or me).

 

The narrator ushers us into “insider vs. outsider” mode almost imperceptibly.  It’s so seemingly natural to label people according to their traits, views, and social groups.

 

But is this really a koan about religious tolerance?

 

The Buddha doesn’t seem to see this guy through a “my religion, your religion” lens, as the narrator of the koan apparently does (or else playfully entices us to do).

 

Jesus was not the first Christian, as they say, and here we seem to be seeing that the Buddha was not the first Buddhist.

 

For the Buddha, this apparently was just an encounter with another human being who saw what he saw.

 

No religion here, and so no religious tolerance either, one could say.

 

Just a genuine encounter.  Presence.

 

Appreciation without labels.

 

Appreciation whatever the labels.

 

Patience, donkey, patience

I think one goal of koan practice — part of the logic — is to exhaust that seeking part of us that brings one to koan practice in the first place.

 

This certainly seems true of much of the long mid-section in the Harada-Yasutani curriculum we embrace, which includes the Blue Cliff Record.

 

I mean, there are just so many koans. It’s bound to take many years to pass through them all, even if one proceeds relatively “quickly.”

 

One does sort of get the hang of it after a while.

 

And, fundamentally, all of these many koans teach the same thing – point to that same, always different thing.

 

This.

 

Just this.

 

This overflowing.

 

There’s this old joke my dad told me when I was a kid.  I recently told it to my seven-year old son when he was getting antsy about something.

 

A sage is riding his donkey from one village to the next.

 

The donkey, growing weary, asks, “When will we be there?”

 

The man replies, “Patience, donkey, patience.”

 

(Actually, my dad, who is – shall we say – a bit rough around the edges, used “jackass” instead of “donkey.”  I rather prefer it that way, but my seven-year old wouldn’t have heard anything else if I’d said jackass.)

 

This goes on and on.

 

“How much longer,” asks the donkey.

 

“Patience, donkey, patience.”

 

On and on.

 

Eventually my son interrupts.  Smiling, because he sort of gets the point by now, he asks, “When is this joke going to end?”

 

I reply, of course, “Patience, donkey, patience.”

 

With each koan we encounter, it’s as if the universe is saying, “Same answer.  Right here.  Why do you keep looking for something else?  Something more.”

 

Just this, donkey.

 

Just this.

 

And if and as one progressively opens to this, well, yes, openings . . .

 

Every koan . . .

 

Every moment . . .

 

What’s your hurry?

 

Why not settle in – settle into this practice, to this life – and stay a while?

 

There’s no place to go after all.