‘It’s an idea of the mind to believe that the ego can escape itself and project itself into the fundamental universe.’
I was chatting with my dharma sister Kim about her recent visit to sit sesshin at Tassajara, and in the course of the conversation, pulled out the notebook I had when I was shuso there, nine years ago now. It is full of quotes that resonated for me, observations, notes for the dharma talks I gave, and sketches of the encouraging words I was asked to provide for the evenings of sesshin. This is from the first category, and there may be a few more snippets appearing here soon.
‘As the Buddhist tradition evolved, relations between the two basic types of meditation were worked out in considerable detail. Calming meditation came to be regarded as a necessary condition for advancement in inshght meditation, because it gathers the mind out of distraction, teaches it the power of concentration and focus, and enables the mind to forgo the pleasurable distractions in which the rest of us are frequently engaged. Similarly, insight meditation came to be regarded as a prerequisite for advancement in calming meditation, since only in reflection on the dharma does the rationale for the pursuit of enlightenment become cogent and clear. In insight meditation, the Buddhist worldview is articulated and cultivated to the point that it becomes a part of the mental makeup of the practitioner.’ (The Six Perfections)
A paragraph like this reminds me that, at Zen Center, there was not a lot of emphasis placed on this kind of analysis of different types of meditation – there is just shikantaza, sitting without ‘gaining ideas,’ as Suzuki Roshi would say. Perhaps if I had asked my teachers about it more in my early days, I might have heard more about these distinctions.
After my last teaching session on Wednesday, I went out to pick up my weekly bread order, from the bakery I used to buy from at the Mission market. The afternoon was still warm, and I felt a sense of deep ease. I have a class on Saturday morning, but the long weekend had started, with a lot of free time and very few obligations. The work emails and messages dwindled away.
A friend of mine in England, whose mother died recently, has been cleaning out the home she grew up in, and determining what to do with everything – her possessions and her mother’s. I have of course been dealing with a version of that at one remove – and when I next travel to England I will have to devote a fair amount of time to sifting, organising, and perhaps shipping. My friend happened to mention a couple of plates she was going to move on, and I half-jokingly said that I would have loved to have them.
The other evening I found on my doorstep a package from England, with familiar handwriting, which indeed contained the little plates mentioned, so they now have pride of place in my kitchen built-in. I also received, that same day, a stimulus cheque from the State of California – something I remember reading about in the summer, but had completely forgotten was going to be distributed.
So I feel wealthy. Having already received one holiday bonus, I had treated myself to a couple of things; the rest has gone in the bank, though I expect to put most of it to good use soon. By the standards of the last couple of decades, and especially the first few years out of Zen Center, I feel like I have no money worries. And that is something I can feel thankful for.
While I rarely have any problems getting to sleep in the evening (and at monks’ hours, as well), I do sometimes wake up in the small hours, and usually have to read myself back to sleep. This past week or more, my sleep has been longer and largely uninterrupted, so I feel rested and healthy.
I am more grateful that conditions in the Bay Area allow for some socialising, as I wrote about the other day, and that I can see friends again. I have also been invited for dinner this evening, and I know I will have a good time with the assembled company.
I am always grateful for sunny days, and I shall also be grateful when the rains return, as I hope they do soon.
So even though this year has been difficult in some important ways, there seems to be much room for gratitude along with the sadnesses. I hope you can easily think of things you can be grateful for.
‘When we don’t see the reality of our lives, we are ignorant of impermanence, egolessness, that is, emptiness and interdependent origination. We think protecting and strenghtening our ego is most important. When we meet with an object, we judge whether this thing is useful to make our ego happy, and if so, we want to get it and make it our possession. This is greed. When we meet things we don’t like or value, we want to stay away, but somehow those things come toward us. Then we get angry and we hate it.
When we sit facing the wall, it is very clear that all things welling up from our minds are illusions because there are no objects. We only have the wall in front of us. Facing the wall is facing the buddha. We simply sit still in front of the absolute and let go of our thoughts.’ (Sitting Under The Bodhi Tree)
Typing out the first paragraph, I thought that this way of behaving is what small children do – but that is really just a less nuanced version of what we do for the rest of our lives.
This week I have a sense of things easing up for Thanksgiving – at least I can say that for myself, since I am not burdened by expectations of providing food and entertainment for others. As always, I enjoy the extra free time offered by the holidays to get out more on my bike, and the weather looks like it will be co-operating with this wish. There will also be a roam on Sunday afternoon which I am looking forward to very much.
As my schedule has felt a little lighter, I have started trying to brush up on my in-person social skills again – which is definitely easier to do when it is warm enough to sit with friends in the park, or as happened on Sunday evening, on the beach. I had already ridden along Great Highway in the morning, right before the sun came up, and the moon was descending towards the horizon in the ocean. The whole day was clear, and the sunset gorgeous. It is so easy to feel thankful to be able to spend time in such a way, in a place I can ride my bike to easily – and I know we could use a lot more rain soon!
After the sun went down, we could start to see stars and planets: for the first time in a while, I took out my star chart app – the brightest one was Venus, then we spotted Jupiter close by; a few moments later, Saturn was visible, in a straight line between the other two, and all three lining up to point down to where the sun had just set. It must mean something…
The disciples Daowu and Yunyan stood in attendance to the master. Master Yaoshan pointed to two trees, one flourishing and one withering, and asked Daowu, “Better to flourish or to wither?” Daowu replied, “To flourish.” The master said, “Shining everywhere, bright and glorious.” Then, he asked Yunyan, “Better to flourish or to wither?” Yunyan replied, “To wither.” The master said, “Shining everywhere, let it wither and fade.” Another disciple, Novice Gao suddenly came, and the master asked him also. Gao replied, “Let the withering one wither, let the flourishing one flourish.” The master looked at both Daowu and Yunyan and said, “wrong, wrong.”
As the old conjugation has it: better, best, bested.
I thought this one was worthy of a re-run in its entirety, but then I couldn’t resist adding that, as Dogen says about Bodhidharma’s four successors, they all have it entirely right.
‘Climate chaos makes us fear that we will lose what is beautiful in this world. I want to say that in 50 years, and 100 years, the moon will rise, and be beautiful, and shine its silvery light across the sea, even if the coastline isn’t where it used to be. In 50 years, the light on the mountains, and the way every raindrop on a blade of grass refracts light will still be beautiful. Flowers will bloom and they will be beautiful; children will be born, and they, too, will be beautiful.
Only when it is over will we truly see the ugliness of this era of fossil fuels and rampant economic inequality. Part of what we are fighting for is beauty, and this means giving your attention to beauty in the present. If you forget what you’re fighting for, you can become miserable, bitter and lost.’ (from the Guardian)
‘A community of practitioners traditionally is called a “pure and clean, great ocean of people.” Don’t defiled thoughts arise at all in their minds? Yes they do! In fact, because monks live in a quiet setting without moving around much, they actually have more random thoughts that are difficult to deal with. Even though various thoughts can be as powerful as a typhoon, an important point of practice is to remain unmoved by them. While they may very well have various mental or emotional problems, monks in a monastery just keep practicing quietly. By doing this, they truly understand that thoughts are merely the brain’s secretions. This is the reality of practice in a monastery.’ (Deepest Practice, Deepest Wisdom)
This resonates with my own experience. With limited stimulus, and a lot of silence, the mind has free rein. What you learn to do is just sit with it.