‘Speaking dharma happens in myriad ways, in all kinds of actions, not only those that issue from throats. In just this way, all beings speak dharma, including the insentient ones. In this speaking dharma by insentient beings there are all buddhas, all ancestors. The speaking of the insentient isn’t limited by their conditions. There are conditions, and there is the dharma that is universal, that is not itself the limited conditions it is about. All buddhas are present throughout the universe, not picking and choosing.’ (Receiving the Marrow)
‘Always acting alone, walking alone,
The enlightened travel the same road of freedom.
The tune is ancient, the spirit pure, the style poised,
The face drawn, the bones hardened; people take no notice.’
When I first discovered the Shodoka, the Song of Realising the Way – and it felt like a discovery as it was not something that we chanted or studied in my first few years at Zen Center – I remember thinking that these lines were admirable, but I didn’t really want to be alone. The wish for deep connection has always held sway in my life, though it has not proved easy to combine a dedicated residential practice with romantic relationship; the tensions I have felt around that have caused me many difficulties over the years.
There are other ways, though, that I do feel largely independent, and for the longest time, that meant keeping most people at bay, from a felt need to protect myself, and an introvert’s wish to be able to recharge alone. Having spent the previous ten years in London living on my own, being in community was a great challenge to these preferences, though I noticed that the abundant silence at Tassajara made it easier. My favourite physical activities, cycling and running, have also been mostly solitary pursuits, though they don’t always need to be, and at times I have enjoyed sharing them. On my recent trip to England, I noticed that there were times when I felt totally relaxed among my friends, and then there was the joy of navigating the solo journey to my next destination with my bag on my back and my camera in my hand, independent like a tortoise or a snail (while I was extremely well fed by all my hosts, I also found it a relief to be back in my own kitchen, eating my more regular diet again – more fruit and vegetables, yoghurt and eggs than I was getting, a lot more water and a little less coffee).
Nevertheless, years of practice have allowed me a different way of meeting others: I don’t worry about other people so much, and I don’t worry about myself so much. I don’t often feel the need to protect myself from imagined harm or psychic incursion. I know that I am flawed and stupid more than I would prefer to be, but that is the reality. I have found that sometimes it is okay to be vulnerable and honest rather than always having to put a ‘good face’ on things. And I understand that just about everyone else goes through the same struggles and is making the same effort.
All of this is part of my thinking as I prepare to give four classes at Zen Center on the Brahmaviharas; for the past few years I have been curious as to how our way of behaving with others has been shaped by our online activities (fully aware that this blog gives a very carefully edited version of who I am), and how qualities that are promoted in our practice and training can help us navigate the perils of being authentically ourselves, by connecting more fully with others. I hope that if you are local you will join me, and I will do my best to reflect back on what I learn from sharing my thoughts with others.
‘Our practice is not just effort. You come here and study or practice zazen so that you can understand what is Buddhism. I’m making an effort to give you some understanding of Zen. That is true. That is actually what we are doing here. I shall be very much disappointed if you come to zazen thinking, “Now I know what Buddhism is.” If you think there will be no need to practice zazen, to study Zen, I shall be very disappointed. I want you to come here even though you understand what Buddhism is. I am not selling you something, but I want you to be my customer. And I want to live with your support and I shall be very glad if you have some joy in practicing here. This is actually Buddhism. It is not a matter of enlightenment or understanding.’ (Genjo Koan – Three Commentaries)
‘Dropping off body and mind is good practice. Make a vigorous effort to pierce your nostrils. Karmic consciousness is endless, with nothing fundamental to rely on, including not others, not self, not sentient beings, and not causes and conditions. Although this is so, eating breakfast comes first.’ (Extensive Record, 306)
I was very happy to find this one. It may be that I am taking it too literally, being a big fan of breakfast (and as such rather dismayed when I first arrived at Zen Center and discovered I had to get through more than two hours of the morning schedule before being able to eat). It may be that he is echoing Joshu – you can’t wash your bowls unless you have first eaten your breakfast.
The teachings of the insentient are inconceivable.
If you listen with the ears, you won’t understand.
When you hear with the eyes, then you will know.’
Tozan’s enlightenment poem is really talking about something else, but it came to mind when I read this recent article in the New Yorker, mainly from this line: ‘What is seeing, after all, if your tongue can do it?’ If you follow links on the ideas page regularly, you will know I am a sucker for articles about the brain and our limited, if burgeoning understanding of it (while I was reading the article I thought of some of the typical analogies invoked to convey the length of a kalpa as appropriate for how far we have to go to reach full anything like a full understanding of the workings of the mind).
The title of the post, in case you don’t recognise it, is from the Harmony of Difference and Equality, and again, is really talking about something else, but the fundamental point is the interconnectedness of everything. As Shohaku’s translation has it:
Each sense and every field
Interact and do not interact;
When interacting they also merge –
Otherwise, they remain in their own states.
‘When Shishuang met Daowu, he said, “What is the transcendent wisdom that meets the eye?”
Daowu called to an attendant and he responded. Daowu said to him, “Add some clean water to the pitcher.”
After a long pause, Daowu said to Shishuang, “What did you just come and ask me?”
Shishuang started to raise his previous question when Daowu got up and left the room. Shishuang then had a great realization.’ (Zen’s Chinese Heritage)
As another sage once said: say something once, why say it again? Daowu had already offered a clear explanation. What else is it going to look like?
Hearing, seeing, touching and knowing are not one and one;
Mountains and rivers should not be viewed in the mirror.
The frosty sky, the setting moon – at midnight;
With whom will the serene waters of the lake reflect the shadows in the cold?
A monk asked, “What about when the golden manacles are not open?”
Touzi said, “They are open.” (Zen’s Chinese Heritage)
As the old-timers would say, who is binding you?
‘Zen master Baoche of Mount Mayu was fanning himself. A monk approached and said, “Master, the nature of wind is permanent and there is no place it does not reach. Why, then do you fan yourself?” “Although you understand that the nature of wind is permanent;” Baoche replied, “you do not understand the meaning of its reaching everywhere.” “What is the meaning of its reaching everywhere?” asked the monk again. The master just kept fanning himself. The monk bowed deeply. The actualization of the buddha-dharma, the vital path of its correct transmission, is like this.’ (Genjo Koan)
The search for meaning is the itch under the skin of human life, one that we are all drawn to resolve for ourselves. One thing that attracted me to this practice was that it makes no extravagant claims about the meaning of life, but instead turns our attention to paying attention to each activity as fully as we can.
This above story, as with Dogen’s other skilful analogies, featured in my teaching in England. Right at the end of the Genjo Koan, he re-iterates that the essential thing is to actualise our awakened nature through the practice of meeting the need of this moment, whatever it looks like. This is what he calls practice-realisation and by affirming this, he answers the question that dogged him as a young monk: that if we are born with Buddha Nature, why do we need to practice? Baoche demonstrates how, without our own practice, we do not manifest this awakening, and at the same time lets us know that awakening is not some esoteric truth that we have to search for elsewhere, but always available right in front of us.
When I read contemporary articles pointing to the way we can find meaning in our lives (or even this slightly more downbeat one about how we might struggle to do so if most of our work is automated), I note the prescribed ingredients (belonging, purpose, transcendence and storytelling in the former case, all of which are good sense, and all of which, as it happens, are things you receive in abundance in spiritual community) and see the same fundamental point: nothing esoteric, just paying fresh attention to what or who is in front of us.
‘What do we do with our lives when we get off the cushion? This is the great difficulty. We cannot languish on the cushion forever, we cannot hide in Zazen, yet Zazen is the profound Teaching that actually shows us how to live in all aspects of life. These aspects of practice are Buddha Nature in action. We engage in rituals, we chant, we ring the bells, we make offerings, we cook, we eat, we clean the temple, we study, we sew our robes. These Buddha Nature activities go on ceaselessly. At the same time that we say these expressions are Buddha Nature in action, there can be no “inaction” to Buddha Nature because Buddha Nature is all the activity of life.
Yet we ask the question: How do we actualize? For lay practitioners this may be a more pressing question than it is for a monastic whose life is circumscribed within the whole expression of Zen. But even Dogen did not try to answer this question except to say repeatedly, “Examine it for yourself.”‘ (Receiving the Marrow)