‘When I eat my dinner, my thinking mind does not digest it; something else digests it. Some other power pumps my blood and circulates it through my body. My hair and nails do not tell me they grow; they grow while I pay no attention. Something else is living in this body. The part I call myself is only a little part of the whole. I cannot refuse to see without closing my eyes. Whether I want to hear or no, sound vibrates on the drum of my ear. The activities of my eyes and ears do not belong to me; they belong to something within me. So we discover that what we call ourselves, our ego, is a very small part of us.’ (Zen Pivots)
The past week has seen the kind of endless blue skies that I do not get tired of in San Francisco; they are common enough (for all that it has been a wet winter), but there have been some recent days where, unlike recent weeks especially, the wind barely blew, and that is a rarer occurrence. Such days are not as clear as those where the north wind dries out the dust and allows the eye to reach further (like the times you can see all the way to Point Reyes), but they are most enjoyable.
Last weekend I offered two roams, on Saturday the regular kind, and on Sunday, the Airbnb version, pretty much for the first time since the turn of the year. On top of Mountain Davidson, in stark contrast to last year’s cold gusts, it was balmy and still; on Tank Hill, nothing to disrupt the comfort of sitting on the exposed slopes. Blossoms are out; sweet-smelling ceanothus, poppies, wild irises and other common flowers whose names I have not held onto, were in profusion. Red-tails are circling the valley thermals, and when we settled down for the Monday sitting on the Embarcadero, we were closely investigated by a hummingbird for a few minutes. I was in shorts and short sleeves, and did not worry about getting cold.
The usual cast of characters – the man who waves at everyone (and gets surprisingly few responses); the man who struts angrily around (who ran behind us this week, and re-emerged a few moments later with a lacrosse stick, though luckily he didn’t seem ready to follow his strong language and aggressive energy with any actual blows); the array of joggers and runners; the lunchers; the dog-walkers, mothers, fathers and other child-minders – were joined by a greater than usual number of promenaders enjoying the warmth of spring.
At the time of writing, it is due to rain on Wednesday, the first day of spring, as well as Friday, and through next week, so I will just have to practice with my preferences, and remember the gifts of impermanence.
Looking down on the city from Mount Davidson on Saturday.
Outwardly still while inwardly moving,
Like a tethered colt, a trapped rat;
The ancient sages pitied them
and bestowed upon them the teaching.
According to their delusions,
they called black as white;
When erroneous imaginations cease,
the acquiescent mind realizes itself. (Tozan Ryokai – The Song of the Jewel Mirror Samadhi)
A recent comment asked me to clarify what Red Pine meant when he wrote, ‘none of the things that fill our lives is by itself false. It is only our conceptualization and attachment that make them false.’ Did that mean that we can claim the ‘power to make (2 + 2 = 4) false?’ It took me a while to think about how to respond to this, and Tozan’s words were one of the things that came to mind.
The penultimate couplet here is rather ambiguous – a function of what I understand to be the lack of descriptive pronouns in Chinese: I have heard it interpreted both as the student (those outwardly still while inwardly moving) or the sage calling black as white. If it is the student, then the erroneous imagination is the way we take impermanent things – such as the self – to be permanent. I like the version (perhaps because it fits all the stories of zen masters of old) that it is the sages calling black as white, to shift the student from their habitual ways of thinking to seeing a more complete truth (and then I got to thinking of the parable of the physician who fakes his own death ‘yet cannot be charged with falsehood’, from Chapter 16 of the Lotus Sutra, my favourite section).
Okay, so is there a more complete truth than 2 + 2 = 4? Well, again, supporting stories come to mind, this time a typically earthy one from Uchiyama Roshi realising that when he pissed in the ocean it made no difference to the ocean, so he could see how 1 + 1 = 1. There is a way, in the absolute realm, where there is no distinguishing 1, 2, or 4, or +, or =.
And, the essence of our practice is not to take that absolute view as a way of negating the conventional view. As Dogen says in the Genjo Koan, “When one side is illuminated, the other side is dark.” Which means that we usually only see things either from the conventional way or the absolute way, but as I understand it (i.e., incompletely), we continue to trust that both sides are always present, and live accordingly. Both the relative and the absolute are not just true, as I have heard Shohaku saying many times, and not just intimately connected, but continually intertwining. And Dogen, in the Genjo Koan again, talks of “The Buddha Way… leaping clear of the many and the one.”
It’s this leaping clear from getting stuck that Red Pine is also talking about; the reason – for me – that the sages wanted to disrupt the students cognitive coherence was because we are all so used to depending on it. Should a student get stuck in emptiness, the sage is (or certainly was) ready to dispense a slap to remind the student that the conventional physical being can not be ignored either – but that is usually the lesser of the problems we face.
Somewhere in the sutras, and a better scholar than me could no doubt find it, I think there is reference to the Buddha telling his students that if a better explanation of reality comes along, then they should be ready to let go of their previous understanding and accept the new version. So I am not really worried about 2 + 2 continuing to make 4, and right now I am happy that it does. Perhaps in the quantum realm we will eventually discover something different. If there is anything that I have learnt in two decades of reading Dogen and sitting zazen, it is that I don’t really understand much, and what I might come to understand, is not really the work of the mind.
‘We came from Truth, we are in Truth, and we will go back to Truth. It is impossible for each of us to observe the whole Truth. Although we trust the functioning of our whole body and mind, we still have to admit to the limitation of our sense organs, of our body and mind. Watching the ancient light from innumerable stars, we identify that as the present. Watching the ancient rock, we have countless ages beside us. Still, we pay little attention to the rock. Listening to the sounds of insects flying around, we measure them as very short-lived creatures. Or standing by the aged, old trees, since our senses are very much related with the eternity of things, it feels good to stand beside them. Yet, we know all existences have an ending. I still don’t know what comes after that ending, and the limitation of our knowing is very obvious.’ (Embracing Mind)
The quiet morning has a few cloud friends
that are gone when I look for them again
in this one summer to which I have come
after everything that I remember
what can I call it before it has gone
it does not hear me and does not know me
it passes without seeing I am here
it is only me going my own way
there is no one else who can forget it
Merwin is another poet whose work I heard often at Zen Center, and I always enjoyed hearing it. In his obituary, I read that he studied with Robert Aitken in Hawaii, which makes sense.
‘Doubt is essential to actualizing understanding. Truly productive doubt must bring us to a point in which we drop our intellect and enter the realm of actualization. Before we can attain a mental state of spontaneous response, we may need to wander in the fields of intellectual investigation…
People learn in different ways, but however we may pass through this process, it begins with a question. The question is critical. Our tendency is to define our experience not open it up to further ambiguity.’ (Being-Time)
Having reached the end of Shohaku’s book, I have picked up Shinshu’s again, so look out for more posts featuring both in the near future. Here, she makes a similar point to one that I have quoted from him, which was something I tried to communicate in the class as well.
‘When you pay attention to real reality, you see that human knowledge exists right in the middle of change – there is nothing to get a hold of. So finally, human knowledge is empty. But that emptiness is not merely empty; something is moving in there. That something moving is mind itself. Mind doesn’t have any form of its own, it’s just dynamic functioning. Mind itself is the perfect network of the Buddha way, extending in all directions: to you and all sentient beings.’ (The Light That Shines Through Infinity)
‘None of the things that fill our lives is by itself false. It is only our conceptualization and attachment that make them false. Meanwhile, the perfection of wisdom transforms these obstacles into aids to enlightenment… Buddha likened his teachings to a raft, and told Subhuti to let go of all teachings, all dharmas as well as no dharmas. Just as the no dharma of emptiness must be put aside, the dharma of prajna must also be left behind, lest it become a new obstruction or attachment. Thus, such a teaching not only transcends the world of language, it also transcends itself. No other teaching is so self-effacing and yet so sure of itself. It is self-effacing because it asserts nothing. And it is sure of itself because it asserts nothing. It frees us of all assertions and opens the door to all knowledge. This is why it is called the “perfection of wisdom.”‘ (Commentary on the Diamond Sutra)
This is the crux of the teaching, beautifully articulated. Writing it out, I thought of the koan of the seamless monument. And yet, we have to take care, because of our human predilection for conceptual distinction, not to grasp the knowledge that the door opens us onto, and be trapped there.
I was thinking of Hongzhi’s phrase ‘like spring arising in everything’ as the title for this post while I was driving up to Wilbur on Friday. The sky was mostly optimistic blue with bright clouds, there was a sense of burgeoning, with the luminous greens of the hills, and, in the Capay Valley, not just endless almond trees in blossom, but also bright carpets of blossoms under the trees. The redbuds were not quite there, and the creeks were running fiercely; on the hillsides there were gullies running, and signs of slides everywhere. I felt like I was done with the rain, that I had got good value out of my rain gear this winter, but it was time for spring.
I knew the forecast was not as hopeful as I was – Saturday was drear, and it rained or drizzled most of the way through the chilly day. And then Sunday was the same, until the afternoon, when the wind started to pick up from the east, and the sky started to clear. I ran on Friday afternoon, up the waterlogged trails, my first run in almost three weeks and I felt a little rusty. That night my occasional foot tendon pain flared up into a constant throbbing that impacted my sleep; I might have been tempted to run again, even at the risk of further injury (I had barely noticed while I had been running, though I was stiff afterwards) but I hadn’t brought a rain jacket to run in. Instead I read and rested, and since I had some writing to do, took care of that, and editing the many hundreds of photos from the Mountain Seat weekend.
I was totally thrown by the clock change on Sunday – I knew it was coming, but had not realised it would be that weekend. My watch said one time, my laptop another, and the three clocks at Wilbur disagreed with each other. I remembered a time when I had been in Istanbul by myself about thirty years ago, and was flying back on the day I knew the clocks were going back in England. My Turkish wasn’t good enough to find out if it was also happening there, and the people who could speak to me in English weren’t so sure themselves, so I just left for the airport several hours ahead of when I needed to, just to be sure.
Luckily I had it straightened out this time before the morning meditation, though a couple of people who had intended to come ended up missing it. Since I had Shinshu’s book with me, I took the opportunity to talk about Uji at the end of the sitting, though I don’t think Dogen said anything specifically about daylight savings. I had good numbers of people coming all weekend, and mostly very solid sitters. I hope that the next time I am there, at the end of April, it will be warm enough for the screens to be off the yoga deck. I might have missed the redbuds though.
On the way out the road was as treacherously slick and muddy as I can remember it, and there was one last downpour as I headed south on Sunday evening, with the later evening light feeling like another release from the long winter (I know people who have real winters will be rolling their eyes).
By the time of the Monday sit, there was unbroken blue sky for the first time in many weeks, and it was lovely to sit with the sun warming my back. I noticed, riding home, that the west wind, itself a harbinger of summer, had picked up, slowing me down.
The 505 and Highway 16 providing beautiful spring views.
Cache Creek was flowing strongly.
Compare and contrast with just a few months ago.
‘Heaven and earth make offerings. Air, water, plants, animals, and human beings make offerings. All things make offerings to each other. It’s only within this circle of offering that we can live. Whether we appreciate this or not, it’s true.
Without demanding, “Give it to me!” we make and receive offerings. The world in which we give and receive is a serene and beautiful world. It differs from the world of scrambling for things. It’s vast and boundless.’ (The Zen Teachings of Homeless Kodo)