Aspiration for the Way: Reflections on Passage 3:2 of Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō Zuimonki (Part 1)

I gave this teisho during our Full Moon Zen regular weekly practice session on March 25, 2021. A video follows the text.

Once, a certain nun asked:

            “Even lay women practice and study the buddha-dharma.  As for nuns, even though we have some faults, I feel there is no reason to say we go against the buddha-dharma.  What do you think?”

            Dōgen admonished:

            “That is not the correct view.  Lay women might attain the Way as a result of practicing the buddha-dharma as they are.  However, no monk or nun attains it unless he or she has the mind of one who has left home.  This is not because the buddha-dharma discriminates between one person and another, but rather because the person doesn’t enter the dharma.  There must be a difference in the attitude of lay people and those who have left home.  A layman who has the mind of a monk or a nun who has left home will be released from samsara.  A monk or a nun who has the mind of a lay person has double faults.  Their attitudes should be quite different.  It is not that it is difficult to do, but to do it completely is difficult.  The practice of being released from samsara and attaining the Way seems to be sought by everyone, but those who accomplish it are few.  Life-and-death is the Great Matter; impermanence is swift.  Do not let your mind slacken.  If you abandon the world, you should abandon it completely.  I don’t think that the names provisionally used to distinguish monks and nuns from lay people are at all important.”

This reading comes from one of Dōgen’s lesser-known texts, Shōbōgenzō Zuimonki.  Dōgen, as you know, is the 13th century founder of the Sōtō Zen school in Japan.  He left us four texts.  This one is the first, at least in terms of when the material in it was produced during his teaching career. 

The names of all of Dōgen’s texts begin with Shōbōgenzō, which means “treasury of the true Dharma eye.”  It’s a reference to the transmission of the Dharma—the teachings; insight—between Shakyamuni Buddha and Mahākāśyapa, his first successor.  In a famous sermon, Shakyamuni simply held up a flower and twirled it.  Most people seemed confused, but Mahākāśyapa flashed a knowing smile.  In Zen lore, this is when Zen began: with that first, teacher-to-student transmission.

Zuimonki, the second word in the title of this Dōgen text, means something like “easy to understand,” or “simplified.”  One translation of the text goes by the title A Primer of Sōtō Zen.  It consists of short, straightforward talks Dōgen gave to monks, nuns and laypeople in the first few years after the creation of Eihiji, the monastery he founded in Japan.  

The passage I just read is remarkable in a couple of ways.  First, he’s addressing nuns:  female monastics.  There were women in Dōgen’s community, which, sadly, was radical at the time.  Second, Dōgen is correcting one of these monastics’ view regarding distinctions between monks and laypeople.  It’s this second remarkable aspect of this passage that I want to focus on tonight.

In Dōgen’s time—and long before, and long after, and even still, in some parts of the world today—to be a serious Zen practitioner, or Buddhist of any stripe, meant to be a monastic.  It was thought that you really couldn’t “attain the Way,” the phrase Dōgen uses here for enlightenment, unless you were a monastic. 

The nun in this passage is clearly starting from the premise that she occupies a higher spiritual status than a layperson, simply because she is a monastic.  This might appear arrogant to many of us today, but she was expressing a widely-held view at the time.  And, remember:  she’s at Dōgen’s monastery.  Dōgen himself also clearly thinks being a monk is the typical way to be “all in” on the Zen path, as he makes clear elsewhere in this text.  

But the nun’s question really goes beyond this point.  She essentially asks, “Even if we’re screwing up as monastics, maybe by breaking a few rules or not always practicing with great diligence, aren’t we better than laypeople simply because we live in this monastery?  We get spiritual brownie points because of the clothes we wear, because we beg for our meals, because we pray for others much of the day—just by going through the motions—don’t we?”

Dōgen makes clear that attaining the Way is not about that.  He says, “no monk or nun attains [the Way] unless he has the mind of one who has left home.”  Home-leaving refers superficially to leaving one’s home to enter a monastery, but Dōgen makes clear that physically moving your quarters is not really what home-leaving is about.  The word “monk”—from the word mono—implies a mind and heart that is focused on just one thing.  Focused upon, and completely centered in, the Way.  If you enter this monastery without that frame of mind and heart, without that intention and aspiration, you have not truly left home, Dōgen is saying.  In fact, he says, “A layman who has the mind of a monk or a nun who has left home will be released from samsara.”  

Being released from samsara and attaining the Way are the same thing, Dōgen makes clear later in the passage.  In classical Buddhism, samsara is the cycle of birth and death.  Viewed from the perspective of everyday awareness, before attaining the Way, it is the world of our suffering—the world people take up the path hoping, in some sense, to escape.  It is the world in which we are subject to the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion.  For our purposes here, their alternate translations may be more useful:  Greed is grasping for that which we desire; that which we think will enhance the self.  Aversion is pushing away that which we don’t want; that which we think will diminish the self.  Delusion is a specific sort of ignorance: not seeing the world as it is.

So what is attaining the Way, exactly?  Dōgen gives us a pointer.  “It is not that it is difficult to do, but to do it completely [is difficult].  The practice of being released from samsara and attaining the Way seems to be sought by everyone, but those who accomplish it are few.”  And here’s the key bit:  “Life-and-death is the Great Matter; impermanence is swift.  Do not let your mind slacken.  If you abandon the world”—if you leave home; if you give your heart to this—”you should abandon [the world] completely.”

The opposite of ignorance—of seeing oneself and the world in the wrong way, as a realm in which the goal is to find a safe, exalted place for oneself, expecting to stay there forever—is to see the world and one’s life as they are—impermanent—and to appreciate one’s life accordingly.  Dōgen makes clear it’s our mindset and heart-set that matter, not where we live, nor labels like monk and layperson.  

For Dōgen, aspiration for the Way is the key thing.  We all can and should have the mind and heart of a monastic, whether or not we live in a monastery.  To have the mind and heart of a monastic is to have a mind and a heart that is not divided; that is “all in.”  In other words, we must submit.  If we live in a monastery—and, I should add, if we’re a layperson and we go to a Zen center—and if we practice for, or expect, self-aggrandizement, we will not attain the Way.  It’s the nature of our practice to discover, our self-aggrandizement projects again, and again and again—they get more and more subtle, and barely perceptible.

We can’t serve two masters, as the saying goes.  We can’t attain the way with a mind and heart divided. Having the mind and heart Dōgen speaks of, or at least the deep desire to have this mind and heart, is what Zen practice is about.  Plain and simple.

Useless

I gave this teisho during our Full Moon Zen regular weekly practice session on February 25, 2021.

Rocky Flats, Sawada, and Bearing Witness

AUG 4 1989; Rev. Katsuzo Sawada, a Japanese Buddhist Monk in front of state Capitol of Nipponzan Myohoji, continues protest and fast to close Rocky Flats Plant. The fast was started on July 4 by LeRoy Moore of the Rocky Mtn. Peace Center and is being carried on by Sawada.; (Photo By Duane Howell/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

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.

 

Snow in a Silver Bowl

I gave this teisho during our first ever Full Moon Zen Zazenkai (one-day retreat) today.  You’ll find a recording of this talk after the text.

This koan is Case 13 in The Blue Cliff Record:

A monk asked Pa Ling, “What is the school of Kanadeva?”

Pa Ling said, “Piling up snow in a silver bowl.”

Many Zen koans share three qualities.

First, someone is asking about the Great Matter of Life and Death.  They may not phrase or frame the question quite that way, but that is the question nonetheless.  

Sure, the monk in this koan may have been reading one of the Mahayana sutras attributed to Kanadeva, trying to clarify some fine point of his stream of Buddhist thought.  But Pa Ling took this seeker’s question for what it really was: a question about the monk’s own life.

What is this experience of life and death?  Who am I?  

Second, the response to the question about the Great Matter in many koans leaves one scratching one’s head, at least if we try to approach the koan discursively; didactically.  Approached that way, the koan seems paradoxical.

Finally, many koans are brief.  Something vast and deep is expressed in just a few words.

This lovely koan has all three of these qualities.

Kanadeva was an Indian sage, a student of Nagarjuna, who lived in the Second Century and is widely considered to be one of the greatest Asian philosophers.  Nagarjuna is regarded as the 14th ancestral teacher in the mythical line of succession that begins with Shakyamuni Buddha and extends to all Zen teachers alive today.  So Kanadeva is our 15th ancestral teacher.

According to Buddhist lore, when Kanadeva first met Nagarjuna, his teacher, Nagarjuna gave him a bowl of water.  Kanadeva, the story goes, dropped a needle into it.  

Good luck finding that needle, and fishing it out if you do!  If you manage to grab it, you may well get Kanadeva’s point—literally be pierced by it, which is the only way we can ever truly get anything, of course.

Who knows whether Pa Ling’s answer to the monk’s question—this image of snow in a silver bowl—was consciously connected to the story about Kanadeva’s first meeting with Nagarjuna.  Pa Ling’s response undoubtedly emerged, stream of consciousness, in his imagination as the monk posed his question.  Whatever else it may have been influenced by or connected to, it certainly was connected to that very teacher-student meeting; to that moment.

If we approach this koan, or any other, primarily in a discursive way, we won’t find what we’re seeking.  

What did Pa Ling mean?  

Is this image from a scene at the temple where he taught, with which the monk also would have been familiar—perhaps a bowl that collected rainwater during parts of the year, and snow in the winter?  If so, why did Pa Ling offer this image?

Was this a line from a poem long forgotten?  

Why a silver bowl?  Silver is a precious metal.  Was it an altar bowl?  The altar would have been indoors, where snow doesn’t fall.  Why bring the bowl outside, or the snow inside, to pack it full?  Was Pa Ling saying something about the absurdity and futility of filling this—this emptiness that’s always chock-full?

I don’t know.  Even if we knew, would this knowledge answer the monk’s question, which is our question, too?

Still, what a lovely, captivating image Pa Ling rendered.  We’re still talking about it, captivated by it, centuries after his encounter with this nameless seeker, as if we were that monk.  As if the snow were still falling.

We are that monk, and the snow is falling, still.

A koan is not a paradox, just as our lives are not a paradox.  Koans invite us to encounter life as if it were not a paradox.  They can teach us to do that. 

I grew up in a small town high in the Colorado Rockies, in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, near a peak called Mount Shavano, which was visible from any spot in the broad valley in which we all lived.  There’s a deep crevice in the face of Mount Shavano, in which a glacier has formed.  In the spring, when the snow melts and the valley, and all the peaks that create the valley, turn green and brown and gold again, ice and packed snow remain in that crevice, revealing the shape of an angel. 

Growing up, the Angel of Shavano was always visible above us, throughout the spring, summer and fall, when the packed snow from endless winter storms had disappeared down the edges of our mountain bowl, flowing into the tributaries, streams, and rivers that sent life giving water in all directions, to California, the Midwest, even Mexico.  

Year after year, the angel went into hiding again, when winter came.  Ever-present, and hidden in plain sight.  

I loved those winters.  Standing anywhere in that valley as the snow fell.  Especially at night, when the sky was blueblack, the moon cast silver across the valley, the air was still, and it was so silent you could hear a pin drop in that snow bowl.

Stick out your tongue right now and catch a snowflake. 

Reach down and scoop up some snow.  Pack it in the silver bowls that are your hands.

Cock your arm.  Aim. 

Watch out!

Certainty as Delusion

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.

Jack Miles, Religion As We Know It

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
Tricycle Talks

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

On Breathing: Body Exposed in the Golden Wind

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.

On Breathing: Body Exposed in the Golden Wind

Not Entering Nirvana

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.

Not Entering Nirvana

The Ox Doesn’t Know

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Sung-shan clapped his hands three times.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you not know.

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