Here’s another great, recent program, this one about intersections among Zen, art, and activism, courtesy of Soul Search, an Australian Broadcasting Corporation podcast:
I highly recommend this podcast interview with Jack Miles, professor of English and Religion Studies Emeritus at the University of California, Irvine, about this latest book:
Jack Miles: Religion As We Know It
What is religion? Is Buddhism a religion? How about democracy? And how religious (or not) do you have to be to ask? In the latest episode of Tricycle Talks, Tricycle’s Editor and Publisher James Shaheen speaks to Jack Miles, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and scholar of religion, about what we mean when we say something is a religion and how Miles’s own life has led him back to this question time and again. Miles’s latest book, Religion As We Know It: An Origin Story, was released in 2019. In it, he explores the commonsense understanding of religion as one realm of activity among many, and how this definition serves and fails us. Miles is also the author of God: A Biography, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996, as well as the general editor of the Norton Anthology of World Religions and professor emeritus of English and religious studies at the University of California, Irvine.
Listen on Apple Podcasts: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/tricycle-talks/id695108281?i=1000496384208
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 a teisho I gave on June 7, 2020.
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.
Can a snowflake survive the fire of a flamepit?
Can you become a red-hot snowball of doubt?