I gave this talk during our Full Moon Zen sit on May 27, 2021.
My family lived a stone’s throw away from Boulder, Colorado, in the late 1960s and the first half of the 1970s, and I was in college in nearby Denver from 1976 to 1980. I lived in Boulder off and on between 1985 and 1995, first as a grad student, then working as a young lawyer. Throughout most of this time, spanning nearly three decades, plutonium parts for nuclear bombs were being manufactured at Rocky Flats, a massive, underground, top secret facility just outside Boulder.
I can’t remember precisely when I first heard Sawada’s steady drumbeat come and go, but it was definitely during the time I was a student in Boulder. I was in the little cabin in Chautauqua Park where I lived, in a coffee shop, out on a run.
The first couple of times I heard Sawada’s drum, it was a sonic apparition. I turned to see the source of this unusual sound, but couldn’t locate it. The next time I heard it, I turned quickly and caught sight of Sawada, taking broad, swift strides, in full monk garb, beating his hand drum.
This was Sawada’s practice. Morning to night. For decades.
Sawada is part of a Buddhist sect that emphasizes walking meditation and work for peace. Much to his parents’ dismay, he became a monk as a young man, and ultimately moved to Boulder, alone, to bear witness to the madness of the nuclear arms race. Many years later, a couple of other monks from his order eventually joined him in Boulder, perhaps, in part, to lessen the physical toll this form of protest must have taken on Sawada.
Sawada’s presence in Boulder–the sound and sight of him at random times during the week–made a deep impression on me. I got curious about him again a few days ago, after talking about him during our Full Moon Zen Zazenkai last Saturday. While still alive, he is mostly forgotten now. There is scant evidence of his life and practice online, though I did find a few crumbs, including an oral history interview that is part of a series of interviews documenting protest activities at Rocky Flats. It seems memory of Rocky Flats, and even the Cold War itself, is fading. I worry about that.
Boulder is and was a center of Buddhism’s transplantation and growth in the United States, so it also was interesting to find an article in Tricycle about Rocky Flats.
In 1983, years before I heard Sawada’s drumbeat, I was one of the student organizers of a massive, peaceful protest at Rocky Flats. Nearly 17,000 people of all ages gathered to join hands around the above-ground perimeter of the facility.
Bearing witness to the cries of the world is an important ideal and practice in Zen. Roshi Bernie Glassman, my Dharma great-grandfather, made bearing witness one of the three pillars of the Zen Peacemakers order he founded.
I spoke about Sawada during our Zazenkai, because I was recalling and appreciating both the way in which his meditation was a practice of bearing witness, and how the monks who eventually joined him in Boulder made the practice communal, taking the baton from him throughout days and weeks to sustain the practice. People came and went during our Zazenkai, according to their availability and needs, yet there was never a time when any of us sat alone. I had this same sense of bearing communal witness Saturday, as we sat amidst the great turmoil and suffering of the present day.
The world seems at full boil. Perhaps what we do on the cushion, and what our time on the cushion inspires and helps us to do when we’re off it, will reduce the temperature just a bit.
I gave this teisho during our Full Moon Zen regular weekly practice session on January 28, 2021. You’ll find a recording of this talk after the text.
Soon, at the end of our service, we’ll chant the Four Great Vows:
Creations are numberless; I vow to be one with them.
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to transform them.
Dharmas are boundless; I vow to be teachable.
The enlightened way is unsurpassable; I vow to embody it.
These vows, which are chanted by Zen practitioners at the end of their services everywhere today, were probably formulated in China, perhaps 1,300 years ago. They may relate back to an older Indian Buddhist source.
In light of all that’s happening in the world today, I want to call our attention to the second line of this chant:
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to transform them.
What are these delusions that are inexhaustible, and what might it mean to transform them?
In three of the traditional languages of our stream of Zen—Sanskrit, Chinese and Japanese—the words translated here as “delusions” variously mean pain, affliction, or mental distress. There’s certainly an association with the passions; with impulsivity and captivity to our emotions. There’s also an association with the Three Poisons, for which we atone as we open our gathering: greed, hatred and ignorance.
The English word “delusions” conveys a sense of misperception, misconception, or even mania, as opposed to clarity of mind. In light of this, it might surprise you to hear that some contemporary Zen teachers actually think of delusions, and of ignorance, the last of the Three Poisons, in terms of too much clarity, rather than too little—in terms of misconceptions born of our certainties.
This interpretation expresses a key Buddhist insight—the emptiness of all forms—that we realize and manifest through Zen practice. We desperately need more people capable of putting this insight into practice today.
As some of you know, I’ve devoted a portion of my time to teaching, writing, and practice in the conflict resolution field for many years. My primary interest always has been those conflicts that implicate our most deeply-held, identify-defining values. Sacred values, whether “religious” or “secular.” I teach a course at Harvard called Negotiating Across Worldviews that explores this domain. I’ve also been working with Israeli and Palestinian leaders for several years, helping them explore possibilities for resolving their conflict in some way that could work within multiple worldviews simultaneously.
Why are our certainties a type of delusion and ignorance, and a potential source of conflict and other forms of suffering?
Well, really, how could they not be? The more certain we become about our own views and convictions, the more we close ourselves to new information, perspectives, and experiences. Our capacity to perceive and know is always limited, but the less curious we become, the greater the risk we’ll descend down a rabbit hole, missing things that are important and behaving in ways that cause harm to ourselves and others whose needs and interests lie outside our present field of vision or comfort zone.
I suspect this is how most big blunders happen—in whatever domain, from our personal lives to wars within and among nations. Many so-called “mistakes” and other calamities likely occur because someone is invested in a partial story with a foregone conclusion. These stories are partial in two senses: they serve our own perceived (or misperceived) interests, and they omit important information and perspectives, including others’ perspectives. We also tend to be too confident about how these stories will end, if we don’t buy into them, as if we alone had a crystal ball.
Neuroscientists are discovering that our brains preferentially seek information that reinforces our existing beliefs, and that our brains also tend to interpret ambiguous information in ways that align with our beliefs. This may make some sense from an evolutionary perspective. The world, and life within it, is complex and confusing, and organisms need strategies for orienting—for reducing complexity, in order to survive. Preferentially relying upon a view of the world and game plan that have helped us survive uncertain situations in the past seems like a reasonable default setting, in the absence of a crystal ball.
These days, however, I’m not so sure this default setting still serves us well, at least with respect to some types of contemporary problems. It’s hard not to think this while watching militant partisans storm the chambers of a citizens’ assembly that aspires to be a model for reasoned deliberation, but is too often stuck in partisan gridlock, unable to meet the pressing challenges of our time.
Zen encourages a very different orientation, or default setting. Time and again, Zen teachings emphasize not knowing. This is not an abstract principle or aspirational ideal or virtue. It is, in fact, that only sensible orientation self-aware people of good judgment and goodwill could embrace: acknowledging we actually don’t know what we do not, and perhaps cannot, know. There are many things we simply don’t know, and likely never can know, despite our evident discomfort with this seeming predicament and our strong desire to know.
Unique among spiritual traditions, Zen is a nontheistic—not atheistic, but nontheistic—tradition. It provides plenty of friendly passageways to both atheism and theism, if you’re inclined in one way or the other, but it largely resists binaries of all kinds.
Zen isn’t primarily about ideas. If you want a single idea, or short phrase, that sums up the core teachings of Zen, however, you could do worse than the title of one of Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn’s books: only don’t know.
This not knowing default setting may be what the world needs most at this point in the evolutionary history of our species, at least if we hope the evolution of our species will continue.
Lin Jensen, a Zen teacher and activist in California, makes this case well in the following passage from his book Pavement. He says:
“When I don’t know something for certain and don’t try to convince myself that I do, I’m held momentarily in the hand of restraint and the world is safer for it. Without designing answers, I’m forced to hold the question open. It might seem doubtful or even absurd that the world of our understanding is unreliable and that the possibility of peace lies not so much in what we know as in what we don’t. Something I know for a certainty often solidifies into the sort of unquestioned fact that outreaches doubt and curiosity. If a question has been answered to my satisfaction, I’m not likely to see the need for further inquiry. Nations will readily go to war in defense of such an unexamined answer. Is it so far-fetched to imagine that a little modest doubt might bring people nearer to a peaceful resolution of differences?”
And yet, and yet. Like the ensō—the broken circle that is the most familiar visual symbol in, and of, the Zen tradition—even this insight and orientation eventually comes `round to nip at its own tail.
It’s also possible to get stuck in uncertainty; to become paralyzed. We can also be too certain about our not knowing, clinging to it as a false refuge. At some point, we must let the bow string slip from our fingertips. Let the arrow fly. Ultimately, we must make a move and make our mark. Inaction is a form of action.
Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, Zen practice tends to free us from this sort of paralysis, even as we surrender to the experience of not knowing. As we lose our cognitive certainties–our stories about the universe and our own lives–our experience of the universe and our own lives within it feels all the more real and true. Fragile forms of conceptual knowledge are replaced with a knowing that’s in our bones; that is our being. It’s a knowing that clarifies and quickens our presence-in-the-moment, allowing us to respond more readily, wisely, and compassionately to what the moment invites or requires, rather than responding from a small and brittle sense of oneself, with its conceptual certainties or conceptual uncertainties. We show up, move, and make our mark as an expression of the broader, inclusive, connected reality in which all of us participate, whether or not we yet see ourselves that way.
I’ll close with one of my favorite poems by Jālal a-Dīn Rumi, a master of another great spiritual tradition, Sufism:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.
I gave this teisho Thursday night during our Full Moon Zen regular weekly practice session. You’ll find a recording of this talk after the text.
In the Mahāprajñā Sutra Preached by Mañjuśrī, it says, “Virtuous practitioners do not enter nirvana; precept-breaking monks do not fall into hell.”
Case 24, Shūmon Kattōshū (Entangling Vines)
Last week we chanted a variation of the Sixteen Boddhisattva Precepts:
- The Three Treasures: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha;
- The three Pure Precepts: ceasing from (or not creating) evil, doing good, and saving all beings (or working for the wellbeing of the whole); and
- The Ten Grave Precepts: not killing, not stealing, not misusing sex, not speaking falsely, etc.
These precepts—and particularly the Ten Grave Precepts—are Zen’s much abbreviated set of the traditional vows Theravada Buddhist monks throughout South East Asia have made for thousands of years. They were formulated by Eihei Dōgen, the 13th century master who brought what became the Sōtō Zen stream from China to Japan.
Theravada Buddhism, also called the Way of the Elders, represents the first wave of Buddhism. These are the crimson and saffron robed monks we see in places like Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. As you know, the Zen tradition is part of a later turn called Mahayana Buddhism. Fully-ordained Theravada monks make scores, if not hundreds, of vows. Like Zen’s Ten Grave Precepts, most are expressed as prohibitions. Don’t do this; don’t do that. Most monks in a country like Myanmar relate to their vows this way.
When I was in Myanmar in 2013, there were monks everywhere, begging for their daily meals, just like Gotama Buddha and his followers did. I seldom had food with me, so I would offer a few dollars. Young boys accompanying older monks would take the money. These young boys were “monks,” too, but likely only living at the monastery for a year or so, as a right of passage. Unlike the older monks, they had not yet taken the vow that prohibits touching money, which the older monks take quite literally.
In our cultural context, most of us can’t relate easily to this aspect of the life of a Theravada monk. If you know an Orthodox Jew, you probably have a sense of what this way of life is like. There are many norms one must observe throughout the day, week, and year.
To be sure, most Theravada monks and Jews who observe the Halakha do not experience these norms primarily as burdens or constraints. Quite to the contrary, they find their joy and freedom in them. Yet, if you are a conventional Theravada monk, the injunction against killing means you almost certainly are vegetarian. Individual monks have some freedom to vary from that group norm, but the norm is quite strong.
For most of us in the West today, this way of life would indeed feel quite constraining—at first, anyway. Many of us bristle at lists of traditional moral injunctions. They run counter to the “live and let live” and “no judgment” zeitgeist in the cultural context many of us inhabit.
What about the Zen Precepts? Zen practitioners have the opportunity to make these vows formally, in a process and ceremony called Jukai. For the most part, these are the same vows Zen priests make. What does the Zen tradition have to say about them?
Well, the koan with which I began should give you a hint that Zen’s orientation is a bit different: ““Virtuous practitioners do not enter nirvana; precept-breaking monks do not fall into hell.”
In Zen, we actually approach the precepts from three different perspectives. One is the perspective we just noted with reference to Theravada Buddhism and Orthodox Judaism. It’s sometimes called the literal, or fundamental, perspective. From this perspective, don’t kill means don’t kill.
The fundamental perspective is important for progressive people living in a contemporary (non-traditional) cultural milieu, like ours, to take seriously. In these circles, hard norms are often regarded as naïve or backwards. But we should wrestle seriously with the precepts from this perspective—to consider the merits of honoring a literal prohibition against particular conduct. If I eat meat, and if I really reflect on the consequences of that—not just for my own health, but for other beings and the planet—I may see the logic and appeal of a plant-based diet in a new way.
And, yet, we are almost guaranteed to violate the precepts in their literal sense. This sometimes happens because of human foibles and fallibility. “To err is to be human,” as they say. We can commit to honoring the precepts literally, and wholeheartedly try, but chances are we occasionally will act selfishly or speak unkindly of another person, despite that expressed commitment. When we cause injury, we can acknowledge it, try to repair, and seek forgiveness—ideally, immediately and sincerely, without excuse, equivocation, or defensiveness.
But sometimes we break a precept in its literal sense because a situation puts two worthy ideals in tension, and we cannot literally conform to one without violating another, or without violating the same precept in a different way. I was vegan during two long periods of my life. Most of my friends knew this, so would prepare a meal without animal products when I came to visit. From time to time, however, I was a guest of someone who did not know how I ate. When I was offered a meal with animal products—even meat—I chose to eat it, without saying a word about how I normally ate. The animal had already perished. Refusing a meal offered so generously would kill something else, I felt: joy.
This is the second perspective: the relational perspective. This is “situational ethics,” not as a way to avoid a prohibition, but because we must always be mindful of context, or what Zen-types call the Four Considerations: time, place, people, and amount (or degree). The animal has died, and there is no rewind button that will change that (time); I am in the home (place) of a new acquaintance who eats meat (people); and refusing even a small portion (amount) of what I am being served is likely to create more suffering than sharing in the meal. Perhaps I’ll even have a chance to discuss my eating practices with this person at a later time, and perhaps she will be more open to my perspective, because she can see I’m not an idealogue. Reasonable minds can differ here; there’s no clear “right” or “wrong” from this perspective. The goal is to be compassionate and reverent, and to achieve those two objectives in some skillful way in the moment.
The koan with which I opened captures the third perspective from which we approach the Zen precepts. These first two perspectives, the fundamental and the relational, are staple items in Western moral philosophy. The third perspective—known as the intrinsic or unified perspective—is not a common feature of Western thought. From the intrinsic perspective, there can be no killing, because there is no birth and death; there can be no stealing, because there is nothing to be stolen and no one to steal it; and so on.
This is Oneness; nonduality. Even words like “One” and “nondual” fail to express it—as concepts, anyway—because all concepts divide. This is Buddha nature. The ground that is no ground. From the intrinsic perspective, it’s impossible to violate the precepts. There is no good and bad. No judgment, really: not as a left-leaning meme. Ultimately, as the Absolute.
But here’s the thing: the relative and the Absolute are one. The fundamental and relational perspectives are themselves expressions of the ultimate, and they matter very much. In Zen, we embrace and practice the precepts from all three of these perspectives. We know that we can’t fall out of nirvana, because we are it, and yet this insight doesn’t grant us a free pass. We express and honor our own and others’ Buddha nature by doing our best to do the right thing from a fundamental and/or relational perspective.
Just as we can’t fall out of nirvana, we can’t enter it, either: We do our best to do the right thing, but we can’t gloat, or congratulate ourselves too much, or be too sure. We don’t accumulate merit—or brownie points, or rewards in heaven—as we do our best to do our best.
Bernie Glassman—who was the teacher of my teacher’s teacher—gave a wonderful talk about the precepts over 40 years ago, which I recently read. He said, “in studying the Sixteen Precepts, essentially we’re studying sixteen different ways of appreciating Buddha, appreciating the fact that we are buddha. It always boils down to just seeing [this] one fact itself.”
We practice Zen to realize that we are Buddha; to realize oneself and all else as Buddha. As this realization dawns and deepens, our actions tend to accord more and more with the spirit of the precepts; with Buddha nature as it manifests ceaselessly throughout the universe.
With that thought in mind, let me end by reading the single footnote appended to this koan in Entangled Vines, the collection in which it appears:
The Japanese Zen master Hakuin once commented on this koan with the following verse:
Silent ants pull at a dragonfly’s wing;
Young swallows rest side by side on a willow branch.
Silk-growers’ wives, pale in face, carry their baskets;
Village children with pilfered bamboo shoots crawl through a fence.
After hearing this verse, two monks who had completed their training under the great Zen master Kogetsu Zenzai decided to train again under Hakuin.
In my last talk, On Chanting, I expressed some discomfort with the traditional last line in the Verse of the Kesa, “Saving all sentient beings.”
That discomfort no doubt arises, to a great extent, because I grew up in a religious tradition and a country that both have missionary projects. That tradition and country offer much that is good; and both also have done harm and been insufficiently attuned to and respectful of different perspectives.
This said, I hasten to add that the intention behind the phrase carries an intention that I wholeheartedly affirm. I’m quibbling with words like “saving,” “sentient” and “beings” in the traditional translation, when expressed in this cultural context. “Working for the wellbeing of the whole”—the alternative I proposed—should, in fairness, be considered just another way to express that intention.
“Saving” in this context means awakening. It doesn’t mean people are damned without our efforts to save them. For humans, it means Buddhism invites us to, and supports us in, an inner turning, or transformation, that can and should be impetus for efforts toward outer (social and ecological) transformations in this day and age.
“Sentient” literally means breathing, though the idea in traditional Buddhist philosophy is more along the lines of conscious, or having subjective experience. Contemporary scientists who study consciousness debate its boundaries. At one end of the spectrum, some materialists see it as an attribute of humans only, arising only when material conditions are right, while others would grant that animals are sentient. At the other end, there are those who increasingly believe it is a property of the universe. Between these ends of the spectrum, we find people like Kristof Koch, who definitely considers all animals to have sentience, and who grants that it’s possible some measure of consciousness is an attribute of other life forms, and possibly even other forms of matter.
How big is the set to be labeled “beings”? I prefer to morph the question, using that ambiguous verb-noun “being” instead. This is being. All of it.
Saving all sentient beings. Working for the wellbeing of the whole.
This is a teisho I gave on July 30, 2020.
I said my next talk would be in honor of Tim and Kathleen, and their lovely series of talks on Zen and cooking. This is it.
Please settle yourselves, and close your eyes. Gently take in, and let out, a few breaths. Notice and feel your mind and body settling. Notice your chest rise and fall. Notice your heartbeat. In that still place, with your eyes remaining closed, just listen as I read a poem by the Vietnamese Zen teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh.
Please Call Me by My True Names
Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow —
even today I am still arriving.
Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive.
I am the mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
his “debt of blood” to my people
dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.
My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion.
You can open your eyes.
Thich Nhat Hanh, or Thay, as he is known to his community, is one of the leading proponents and examples of Engaged Buddhism, a term he coined. Martin Luther King, with whom he was friends, nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. As a young monk during the Vietnam War, Thay became a peace activist, organizing relief efforts for victims of the war, among other things. He was eventually exiled from Vietnam, founding the Plum Village community in France, which has grown to become a global sangha. His 100+ books have been translated into many languages and inspired millions of people. One bestseller, Being Peace, which I read over 30 years ago, is among the reasons I took up Zen practice and committed myself to peacebuilding work.
Zen is about waking up in the way Thay invites us to realize through this poem. Waking up in this way is enlightenment.
When I was a graduate student in religious studies at Harvard, I took a mega-class on world religions with Diana Eck, a famous scholar of comparative religion. She read this poem to us at the start of our unit on Buddhism. Some students objected to it. How could Thay seemingly put the rapist and his victim, the emaciated boy and the arms dealer, on the same plane? How could he see himself in all of them?
Many of the students in that class no doubt were Christian. Thay is simply expressing something in the Gospel of Matthew these students had no doubt heard or read:
God’s “sun rises on the good and upon the evil and his rain descends on the just and on the unjust.” Matthew 5:45 (Aramaic Bible in Plain English).
The sun illumines the good and the evil; rain nourishes the just and the unjust. The peace activist risking his life to feed starving war victims, and the pirate who harms another human being because his heart isn’t open.
We are in the stew together. Much as we pretend otherwise; much as we try; there is nowhere to hide from one another. When we stop hiding from ourselves—when we truly open our hearts—we discover our true name. Our true names.
What are we doing in our practice? We’re marinating. Softening. Soaking up the flavors of other ingredients. Becoming porous, so what’s inside us comes out. Opening up, and expressing ourselves. Our true selves. Exposing what has been hidden.
We are not getting out of the pot; we’re not transcending this. Quite the opposite: We’re becoming ever more this.
The heat and pressure of that pot—of our practice, of our lives—is disintegrating that sense that I am a separate self, mending the universe and “me” at once. As that construct, the “self,” disintegrates, becomes porous, we come to see the luminance everywhere; in everything and everyone, including oneself.
How should we respond to those who object to Thay’s poem, perhaps unaware of the life story of this remarkable contemplative, activist-poet?
Let me answer by reading a brief passage from David Loy’s book, A New Buddhist Path: Enlightenment, Evolution and Ethics in the Modern World, which I’ve recommended to you:
“If awakening involves transcending this suffering world, then we can ignore its problems. If the Buddhist path is psychological therapy, we can focus on our own individual neuroses. Yet both of those approaches reinforce the illusion that I am essentially separate from others, and therefore can be indifferent to what they are experiencing. If `I’ am not separate from others, [however,] neither is my wellbeing separate from theirs. Today this means we are called upon not only to help other individuals deconstruct their sense of separation (the traditional role of a bodhisattva), but also to help our society reconstruct itself, to become more just and sustainable—and awakened.” (Loy, pp. 63-64, emphasis mine.)
The Heart Sutra proclaims that emptiness is form; form is emptiness. Transcendence is immanent; the immanent is transcendent. The Absolute is the relative; the relative is the Absolute.
Zen teaches, and helps us come to realize, that this land is the Pure Land. This realm of suffering is Nirvana.
Many of us are compulsively searching for and trying to construct a personal Heaven on Earth, all the while oblivious to the reality that Heaven is Earth; Earth is Heaven. Or, as the prophet Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” In other words, right here, now. In our midst. Hidden in plain sight. Shining in and through everything.
Yet, while the Absolute and the relative, the higher and the lower realities, or truths, are the same, they also are different. Not one, not two. David Loy makes this point nicely, connecting it to the imperative that inner transformation lead to outer transformation, to social and environmental action, at least on a small scale; at least in the context of our day-to-day interactions with other sentient being and what our deluded consciousness calls the material world. In the brief portion from Loy’s book I’m about to read, he is commenting on a long quote by someone else that he’s included in his book: It’s an account by the English minister and poet Thomas Traherne of his own enlightenment, expressed from a Christian perspective.
Relating Traherne’s personal story to the Buddhist perspective on kenshō experiences, Loy says:
“In Buddhist terms, the `higher truth’ that [Traherne] describes so well is sundered from the conventional `lower’ truth that we are more familiar with.”
Buddhism’s higher truth is that this very world of suffering is Nirvana. Heaven. One feature of the lower truth is that, for most of us, we don’t yet see this, and so we think, speak, and act in ways that pile needless, avoidable forms of suffering on top of the forms of suffering that are unavoidable as embodied beings.
“Traherne’s heavenly world has no problems; each luminous thing is a way that `empty infinity’ presences, including the children playing in the street . . . but do they go to bed hungry at night? Although everything manifests eternity . . . in his day many of those particular manifestations died before their second birthday. Yes, the `higher truth’ is that they really didn’t die because they had never been born; from the perspective of the lower truth, however, there is birth, and death, and suffering. Patriarchy and slavery were the norms in Traherne’s time. His society was organized hierarchically, for the benefit of those at the top of the class pyramid—something that seems to be increasingly true of our society.”
We, and our intentions; the commitments we make, including our commitment to practice; the values and goals we embrace; the insight we cultivate; and our words and deeds all matter. They are the activity of the infinite, whatever their quality, but only a certain quality of activity will produce the relative reality—the Beloved Community—that MLK and John Lewis envisioned.
A kenshō experience and $2.00 will buy you a cup of coffee. Enlightenment in the sense that Thay shows us through his poem, and the poem that is his life, is well seasoned; marinated through-and-through. It manifests outwardly in the large and/or small ways he exemplifies, not just inwardly.
God has no hands but these hands, as the Christians say. The universe has no hands but our hands.
We sit here in the midst of a global pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests. The pot is boiling, with us in it. How can we stay as we are? How can we remain impervious to the pressure and the heat?
How can the door of my heart, the door of compassion, remain closed? How can these hands not be lifted and lent?
This is a teisho I gave on July 2, 2020.
My last couple of talks have been about enlightenment in Zen. I want to bring this series of reflections on enlightenment full circle for the time being. It’s always a broken circle, of course—an enso. We come full circle, but there’s never closure. The universe, and our lives as the universe, are always erupting. We’re dynamic activity, not a thing that can be grasped or contained.
The first of my prior two talks provisionally resolved around the idea that enlightenment ultimately is about being at one with our own karma. Accepting ourselves as we are, and living as if we have no Plan B. I’ll extend that theme tonight.
In that talk, I also suggested that there’s a trend these days to deemphasize kenshō (or sudden awakening) experiences, and I expressed some misgivings about that. I suggested that kenshō can help ground and orient us, potentially helping us show up to our lives more awake, effectively and compassionately, including work we may do as agents for social and environmental change.
In the second talk, I focused on the great faith, doubt, and determination that generations of Zen adepts have seen as necessary ingredients of practice, if we wish to realize our true nature as the dynamic activity of the universe, not as a subject in a realm of objects. In other words, to experience kenshō—not as an idea, but as an experiential awakening.
Tonight, I want to talk about refinement and integration of these powerful awakening experiences, should we have one. In retrospect, I probably should have flipped the order of my first two talks—but then, I really didn’t have a destination in mind when I began these reflections.
I’ve been listening to a series of Dharma talks by Joseph Bobrow Roshi, a Zen teacher in Los Angeles, that are featured at the moment on Tricycle’s website. Bobrow Roshi was a student of Robert Gyoun Aitken, Roshi, who, together with his teacher, Yamada Koun Roshi, produced the translation of The Gateless Gate—the collection that contains Mu—from which I read from during my last talk.
In his series of talks, Bobrow Roshi outlines a traditional progression, or way of thinking about our journey in Zen practice, that I’m also addressing in these talks on enlightenment. It’s a progression from (1) sitting with great determination and absorption in our practice, which puts us in harm’s way of (2) sudden realization (a kenshō experience), followed by (3) the ongoing refinement and integration of that experience.
It’s this third stage of the journey—the progressive refinement and integration of that glimpsing of our true nature—that I’m focused on in this talk. Yamada Roshi himself was implicitly referencing this part of the journey when he summed up the whole of Zen practice and its goal as ultimately about the refinement of character.
Before I go any further, I want to reemphasize something you’ve heard me say several times before, and which Bobrow Roshi also emphasizes in one of his talks. There are many people who are present in the ways I’m about to describe, who either aren’t Zen practitioners, or who are, and yet never report having a kenshō experience. I regard the progression I just described, as you’ve heard me say before, as the remedial plan, even though many Zen types tend to think of themselves as doing something advanced and esoteric; as holier than thou. At least we’re sane enough to sign up for the remedial plan! Many people who might benefit from it don’t.
How can you tell someone who is awake, but doesn’t report ever having a kenshō experience? Someone who is not on the remedial plan? They have a twinkle in their eye, and they are completely at home in their own skin, from situation to situation, and with others and the skin they inhabit. When you are in their presence, you never question whether they are present. Whether they truly see you, are listening and responding to you . . . in a way that makes you feel seen and heard. You are being received, and you feel that way. The whole world is their comfort zone—even the situations that make them uncomfortable. They are full of life, in their own unique way, and yet never filled up. They’ve already arrived at the place of forgetting to which the remedial plan leads.
What do I mean by that? Let me read you a few passages from the chapter on Dogen’s own spiritual journey in Transmission of Light, another koan collection from which I’ve been reading in these talks. It’s hagiography, and likely part fiction, but it conveys important truths, even if so.
We read that, “[w]hen he lost his mother at the age of eight, Dogen’s grief was most profound. As he watched the smoke of the incense rising at her funeral, he realized the transience of life, and from that point on he determined to seek enlightenment.”
Many of us take up Zen practice, or get serious about it, finally practicing with great determination, when something rocks our world. Shakes us to the core. This can be a confrontation with mortality, like it was for Dogen (and also for me), or it can be some other sort of profound loss through which we’re forced to see that familiar ways of knowing oneself and functioning cannot accommodate the whole of reality. Try as we might to force reality back into the box that we want to contain it, it won’t be contained. This is a profoundly uncomfortable experience.
Dogen deeply explored every strain of Buddhism that existed in Japan in his youth, searching for answers. Nothing satisfied. In his searching, we see Dogen’s great, desperate faith in the reality of his discomfort and where touching it might lead him.
One teacher told him to visit the one Zen teacher in Japan at the time, the Rinzai master Myozen. He studied with Myozen for three years, and even received Dharma transmission from him, but still continued to search. Dogen traveled to China, visiting teacher after teacher. We read that, “[h]aving thus engaged with various teachers, Dogen became very conceited and thought there was no one in Japan or China equal to himself.”
As he was about to head back to Japan, someone suggested he visit the old master Rujing. Dogen recognized immediately that this man was different. We read that “Dogen went to him to resolve his doubts,” presenting himself humbly. Great doubt, despite all his apparent certainty and confidence!
One day, after Dogen had spent years practicing with Rujing, Rujing entered the meditation hall to find a group of monks, with whom Dogen was meditating, dozing on their cushions. Rujing admonished them, saying, “`Zen study is a matter of shedding body and mind. It does not require incense burning, prostrations, recitations of Buddha names, repentance ceremonies, or scripture reading. You accomplish it by just sitting.’ Hearing this, Dogen was suddenly enlightened.”
In other words, the props to which many of these students were clinging, and the way they supposedly were practicing—just going through the motions, sleeping rather than sitting—wasn’t actually about showing up. It was just for show. Rujing saw right through that. Meeting life that way must drop away. Body and mind, the reified, but ultimately insubstantial, ways in which we know ourselves, also must drop away. Rujing’s admonishment was like a sword that cut through Dogen’s “body and mind” as he sat there, and he suddenly experienced his true nature.
Rujing encouraged Dogen to return to Japan, to live in obscurity for a time “and mature your enlightenment.” Dogen did so, and the rest is history, as they say. He eventually became a great religious innovator, founding the Soto school of Zen and attracting a large following that includes all of us, as we sit here now.
As this story of Dogen’s journey ends, Keizan, our storyteller, reveals what it means to “mature your enlightenment,” to refine one’s character. He writes, “If you have any thought at all of having some enlightenment or attainment, it is not the Way.”
Having strived for enlightenment, we ultimately must forget about it. Having crossed the river on the raft of “Zen,” we must leave it behind (even as we continue to give our hearts to Buddha, Dharma, Sangha).
But, let’s not kid ourselves: If we’re on the remedial plan, its stages are pretty much un-skippable. We must practice with determination and humility. We must surrender everything we cling to; everything familiar that gives us false comfort. We must let go of our certainties and truly not know. Only then will be in harm’s way of seeing our true nature.
Our true nature is radiant and boundless. Anyone who experiences this will experience it as such. And, when one does, one knows that the whole of existence is one’s home and comfort zone.
But this realization must become integrated and seasoned. That radiance is not a flame that completely burns away our sense of personal identity or immediately melts all of our attachments. (To paraphrase Rilke, God, or the universe, wants to know itself in you, after all.) The old self dies hard, and will try to claim the realization as its achievement. We ultimately must drop all thought of enlightenment or attainment to attain enlightenment.
If and as enlightenment deepens and matures, as it did for Dogen, we increasingly will manifest as someone who is at home in the universe. As we do, or conduct will increasingly align with our highest values. We will be able to distinguish between a genuine value worth serving, and a feature of our comfort zone that isn’t really a value to be served.
If we instead fetishize a kenshō experience, mistaking it for mature enlightenment, we will surely do harm. I am convinced this is why some senior Buddhist monks in Myanmar can be so jingoistic, treating people deemed not to be ethnically Burmese as subhuman. I am convinced this is how some spiritual teachers become sexual predators.
“What is it like after enlightenment,” a student asked a teacher? “Same old me,” the teacher said. Same likes and dislikes; same quirks; same proclivities and hang-ups. We are stuck with them, but no longer stuck there. We have our feelings of resistance and discomfort, our likes and dislikes, but we are no longer paralyzed by and captive to them in quite the same way.
This is liberating. We meet the dog as Buddha, forgetting we ever questioned whether it has Buddha nature.
One sheds one’s own doubts about having Buddha nature or not, while still feeling empathy and being a resource for those who doubt it; who can’t yet quite see their own true nature. One feels even more empathy for those who don’t doubt; who cling to their fragile certainties, so evidently in pain. Those who aren’t even moved to sign up for the remedial plan. In the Asian imagery of Zen, these are the restless and hungry spirits, lurking among, and trying to hide behind and cling to, thin blades of grass.
We want the whole world and all beings to awaken in the way all Buddhas, past and present, have, and our relationships with other beings and all of nature to accord with this awakened nature.
Social and environmental action that flows from mature enlightenment is powerful. We are seeing some amazing examples of this today.
Angel Kyodo Williams, another teacher in our lineage, is one of these examples. She was the second black woman to become a Zen teacher. She is sharing Zen with people of all colors, something white teachers largely have failed to do, and otherwise functioning as an enlightened advocate for racial justice and social change. Here is an excerpt on enlightenment from her first book, Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace:
“Any intention at all toward enlightened being has to have a foundation in moral consciousness. You cannot walk tall and master your life without morality, no matter how skillful you are in every other area. Without morality, enlightened being is not possible. Without a strong moral foundation, whatever we think we know about being compassionate and honest falls apart.”
The point here isn’t that enlightenment reveals a rigid, universal moral code to us or inscribes it in our DNA. The point is that a genuine determination to practice and aspiration toward what Kyodo Sensei calls enlightened being arises from turning toward what is unsatisfactory, what is painful, about our own life, and about our collective experience.
A strong moral foundation arises, and our character is refined, as our sense of self extends endlessly in the ten directions. We begin to see how a narrow view of who and what we are has had us clinging to and hiding behind blades of grass—be they unjust social structures that have privileged us at others’ expense or limiting narratives about who we are that we absorbed in childhood, in either case causing us to produce (often unintended) harm to others.
As Kyodo Sensei said in a recent interview, “This means that, in terms of values, we can be more spacious. [We] can afford to be okay with people who are really, really different. We can be curious about it, because our sense of threat is diminished. Because our identity is not prescribed by sameness and being afforded belonging because of sameness. . .. Our sense of thriving is [now] embedded in a sense of movement and spaciousness.”
May we all realize our true nature so, so thoroughly that we forget it. Just are it.
The world depends upon it. Never more than right now.
This is an approximation of a Dharma talk I gave on February 27, 2014 at the Greater Boston Zen Center. It’s a reflection on a passage written by Barry Magid about the Bodhisattva precepts in the Zen tradition that we’ve chosen to focus on in our mini, nonresidential version of an Ango retreat.
I’ve tracked the work of a very creative social psychologist named Jonathan Haidt for nearly 20 years. His work strongly influenced my own when I was in graduate school and, later, teaching about transformation of conflicts involving identity dynamics and deeply-held values.
Much of Haidt’s early work was on moral psychology. He’s since contributed to the research and literature on happiness and so-called “positive psychology.”
In one strand of Haidt’s research on the psychology of human morals, he created a series of hypotheticals like this. Fasten your seat-belts:
Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are traveling together in France one summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decided that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At very least it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide not to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them fell closer to each other.
After study participants read this hypothetical, Haidt asks them to respond to two questions:
Is this wrong?
If so, why?
Almost all study participants feel the conduct is wrong. When asked why, they first say things like:
The siblings might conceive, and the child might even have birth defects.
One might pass an STD to the other.
Their parents might learn what they’ve done, and they would be crushed.
They are too young.
There is some element of coercion.
This will contort their relationship, altering it for the worse.
As you can see, however, Haidt’s hypotheticals are carefully crafted to negate all possible negative consequences. When Haidt points out to respondents that the consequences they fear cannot occur, many respond in exasperation, “I don’t know why it’s wrong; it just is.”
Haidt concludes from this line of his research and others that our morals, and so our perspectives and conduct, are strongly influenced by pre-cognitive reactions – here, disgust – and that we often construct rationales to justify these primary – and primal – reactions after-the-fact. Our “lower” (or ancient) brain functions decide what is right and wrong, and then our “higher” (newer) brain functions, which enable functions like rational thought and language, “pretty up” the decisions, making them presentable to ourselves and other rational minds.
To be sure, Haidt is not trying to justify incest (nor am I), but he is exposing something about how our minds work, and the unseen problems that can flow from this (like discrimination against people who are different than us based upon pre-cognitive reactions). The problem is that, for many of us, much of the time, our rational minds don’t quite grasp how things are working.
Haidt likens the situation to a rider on an elephant. The elephant lumbers along, going where it will at its own pace, while the rider tugs busily on the reins, believing he is in control. The rider is a bit like R2D2, constantly jabbering away as his CPU churns, having little influence on what’s happening.
Haidt grants that the rider does have an influence, but he believes the default balance of power between elephant and rider is roughly 90% elephant and 10% rider.
Haidt’s work on happiness and advice about how to find it draws upon his research on moral psychology and centers around two themes: recognizing that there is an elephant; and helping rider and elephant get along and work well together.
Haidt maintains that the rider can increase its influence appreciably, to the mutual benefit of both rider and elephant. Much of the trick here is helping the rider understand the elephant.
Haidt’s metaphor of the elephant and rider reminds me of the koan about an ox trying to pass through an open window (Case 38 in The Gateless Gate):
Wuzu Fayan said, “It is like an Ox that passes through a latticed window. Its head, horns, and four legs all pass through. So, why can’t its tail also pass through?”
What is this tail that can’t pass through? What are we to make of and do with this stuckness?
Interestingly, Haidt – who, so far as I know, is not a Buddhist – sees meditation as one of the most valuable ways to improve the relationship between rider and elephant.
Our lovely Ango reading from Barry Magid draws our attention to the fact that we are both rider and elephant. We tend to experience our elephant-ness and rider-ness as oppositional forces. Rider and elephant engaged in a constant wrestling match. The rider trying desperately to bring the elephant down, to subdue it. The better angels of our nature fighting the good fight against our demons.
There is something to be said for that perspective on the human condition, and human moral evolution. I believe there is an arc of human progress – that, despite the atrocities, big and small, that still are occurring everywhere, humanity is more or less continually evolving the capacity to be kinder and gentler, and the world is being transformed for the better as we do. (Read Steven Pinker’s latest book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, for 1,000 pages of insightful commentary on an elephantine body of quantitative data that supports this viewpoint.) I believe that is ultimately what our Zen project is about.
Some of this progress no doubt has been achieved by wrestling a few elephants to the ground and restraining them there. And, yet, we need to honor and thank the elephant for helping us survive to the point that it can be ridden, and for all it contributes to our lives today.
Star Trek’s Dr. Spock is all rider, no elephant. Is that the life we desire?
Most of all, we need to see and understand the elephant as best we can. There is wisdom in our elephant-ness. The elephant can look clueless and heartless from the rider’s perspective, but that is not the whole story. As riders, we must straddle our elephants securely as we reach for the stars.
The ride can be most gratifying for this elephant-rider duo, this elephant-and-rider one-o, when there is mutual respect between them.
Barry Magid shines a light on our elephant-ness and reminds us that true wholeness, that true wisdom, requires an appreciation of how our own and others’ elephant-ness is woven into the fabric of our individual and collective experience. And how the deepest understanding and fullest, truest embodiment of the precepts demands this appreciation.
This definitely comports with my experience in every realm of life: relationships, work, even – and perhaps especially – religion/practice.
“We must come to terms with both sides of who we are,” he says. “Practice will not lead us into a state of harmony by eliminating some aspect of who we are.”
If and as we seek peace with our elephants, we just might find that our elephants become more receptive and responsive to our wizened riders – though I would note, as I’m sure Barry Magid himself would, that practice won’t necessarily lead us into a constant state of harmony even if we embrace all aspects of who we are – or, rather, it may eventually awaken us to the harmony that’s always been there, but it won’t necessarily always feel pacific.
I’ll close with the lovely Mary Oliver poem titled Wild Geese:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.