‘It’s so important, in our own lives, to enjoy the freedom of emptiness, but never to ignore the consequences of form. There is no death, and we all die. There is no male or female, and only women can give birth to a child. Living an awakened life is not so complicated. We get up in the morning, go to the bathroom, get dressed, and do our work. There is nothing special. And in this “nothing special,” everything shines with its own light.’ (from The Hidden Lamp)
This is a repost from a couple of years ago, but as so often, if I take a look in the archives here, I find a lot of good stuff that I had forgotten all about, which is worth bringing to the foreground again (not to mention I have been pretty busy of late…)
Somehow, almost imperceptibly, we have arrived at mid-summer, with the temperature having crept up a few degrees over the past week. The humidity did as well, but right now we are in the middle of a San Francisco-style heatwave (perhaps the third such week this year), and we can enjoy early morning and late evening sun in our north-facing bedroom, with all the windows wide open.
It was, naturally, much warmer when I drove down the Peninsula to officiate a wedding in Los Altos on Saturday. I was wearing my robes, and was glad the ceremony was in the late afternoon, and the open air location was shaded. This was the biggest wedding I have done in at least a year and a half, and the first time I have stayed for dinner since that time. I left before the dancing, and drove back with the sun setting behind the fog bank west of the 280.
Officially California has re-opened, though I will still be wearing masks indoors for the foreseeable future. I did feel emboldened enough to schedule a roam, for this Saturday. There seems to be some pent-up demand in the Meetup group, which has grown significantly in size since lockdown started, and now I have a waitlist, with several of the people on it having also snagged places on the next roam. I was also asked if I would lead a roam for Zen Center as part of the delayed Zen-a-thon, and last I heard, that had reached a number that I would consider full capacity.
And then things start to happen with the re-opening as well: one evening this week, almost at monk’s bedtime, I had a text from a friend I have more or less fallen out of touch with over the course of the pandemic, suggesting we should meet up soon; close on the heels of that, a text from Nancy the tanto inviting me to give the talk at Zen Center next Wednesday. My dance card is definitely filling up.
‘When I started to sit regularly, once a week, I experienced deep emotions each time. Sometimes I wept, while sitting, tears rolling down my cheeks and dropping off my chin. At times I would have an emotional insight while sitting. Later, [Suzuki] Roshi would talk about a subject directly related to my insights and feelings, seeming to read my mind. I felt as if he were lecturing just to me. In dokusan, and individual interview, I asked him about this. Roshi answered, “Nothing special. Nothing special. That’s the way it seems when you begin to get the idea of Zen practice.”‘ (from the Jikoji archives)
I have heard many practitioners over the years echoing some or all of these sentiments.
‘A monk asked, “I’ve heard the ancients had a saying, ‘When feelings arise, wisdom is blocked; when thoughts change, the substance is isolated.’ How about when feelings have not yet arisen?” The Master said, “Blocked.”’
So where did the monk go wrong? I would suggest he doesn’t need to trouble his mind about things that haven’t happened, because it will get in the way of meeting what is actually arising.
Friends of my childhood Are all well known now. They discuss philosophy; They write essays and criticisms. I am getting old; I am good for nothing. This evening the rain is my only companion. I burn incense and lay myself in its fragrance; I hear the wind passing the bamboo screen at my window.
Last weekend, I attended this year’s virtual iteration of the Gen X teachers’ conference. While four hours on Zoom is a lot, it was wonderful to be back in the company of this peer group of teachers. There were about fifty people on the call, and I knew at least forty of them, either through Zen Center or from previous conferences.
I think Buddhist teachers tend to be pretty good at attuning to current realities, and the main theme of the conversations was how we had all been dealing with teaching through the pandemic, and strange demands of the interface of video and sangha. Prompted by one powerful presentation, there was discussion on finding what I noted as ‘models of vulnerability’: how to be honest about our own struggles; does this set up an expectation for our students to be taking on emotional labour of supporting us; or does it increase authenticity and intimacy in the group.
As always, these remained open questions, to be navigated with compassion and curiosity. What I aspire to is the constancy of being able to meet people, as outlined in the post by Joe Moran the other day, and in these words by the ever-illuminating Corey Ichigen Hess:
‘Being with people, caring about people, lifting them up, listening to them, appreciating them, showing them that they are beautiful and that they are connected to life. Life is not against them. Being yourself, loving life, welcoming them into your joy. Not forcing them to see the light. Letting it be contagious. Most of my work has been covert operations to spread joy and unity. Connecting with them and with this great life energy always there, it feeds everyone, everyone is lifted.’
Somewhere, probably on the Ino’s Blog back in the day, I had a little rant about a particular English 20th Century philosopher who seemed to be very pleased with himself for having discovered that the self didn’t exist as an independent entity. Apart from the irony of what looked like self-aggrandisement, I could only wonder how anyone making a living as a philosopher these days can have managed not to read a word of Buddhism. And then the other day I was reading an article on theNew Yorker website, and came across this paragraph:
‘We are not, as many of the most influential twentieth-century philosophers would have it, trapped within language or mind or culture or anything else. Reality is real, and right there to experience—but it also escapes complete knowability. One must confront reality with the full realization that you’ll always be missing something in the confrontation. Objects are always revealing something, and always concealing something, simply because they are Other. The ethics implied by such a strangely strange world hold that every single object everywhere is real in its own way. This realness cannot be avoided or backed away from. There is no “outside”—just the entire universe of entities constantly interacting, and you are one of them.’
If this is a revelation to you, I sincerely urge you to head over to the Genjo Koan, where Dogen expounded all of this more succintly and poetically, and which he elsewhere summarised as ‘shoho jisso’, which, depending on your mood, you can translate as ‘all things are ultimate reality,’ or, ‘the ultimate reality of all things.’
‘When we practice in this hall, there is no teacher and no student. We are all sages. Even though your practice is not good enough, we cannot say your practice is not good enough. It is good anyway. You have your own past and future. You have a bright future – to be a sage. Don’t worry.’ (Genjo Koan – Three Commentaries)
I picked up this book again recently, as I have been listening to some of Suzuki Roshi’s lectures on the Genjo Koan. While there are many lovely passages like this, I found myself a little frustrated that all the dozen or so talks he gave on the piece, at different stages of his time at Zen Center and Tassajara, were blended together. Perhaps I will just have to read all the transcripts in order to see how he expanded the teaching as his students got more of a hang of what he, and Dogen, were talking about.
‘Rarely do we reside in no place. We think about what day of the week this is; upon hearign a bird sing, we think about its name; upon seeing a flower, we think about how nice it looks. Instead of residing in no place, we reside in a small self. This is necessary for functioning in the world, but it is not the actual truth. Only when abiding in no place can we experience the direct truth. When we hear the birds chirp from no place, our mind is freshly born in every moment. Because we seek comfort, we feel we have to reside somewhere. Because we are part of society, we feel we have to refer to others by judging them. But that’s not how our mind works when it is functioning at its clearest. If we don’t encounter the sunlight and moonlight and all the ten thousand things exactly as the are, we’ll become lost in our ideas about those things. Only while directly perceiving can we live and work responsibly and creatively.’ (Not One Single Thing)
I was very happy to pick up this book from the Zen Center bookstore a couple of weeks ago. It is a commentary on the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Ancestor, and this paragraph refers to the phrase ‘Abiding nowhere, let the mind shine through’, from the Diamond Sutra, which caused Hui-neng to awaken when he heard it.
This is one of those paragraphs that pretty much encapsulate everything you need to know about practice. I can sometimes look at something like this and wonder if I have anything to add. And I know that what I can add, in normal times is the ability to bring this particular teaching into a particular moment for particular people, to make it alive in the moment, in a way that reading mostly falls short of. So I will keep going.
‘The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas believed that looking at other people’s faces was how we learned to be human. Every face we meet, he thought, reminds us that we share the world with people who are fundamentally like us but who are also, like us, irreducibly unique…
I find myself agreeing with the Mexican priest in Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory, who believes that when you look hard enough at other people’s faces, at the corners of their eyes and the shape of their mouths, you can’t help feeling tenderly towards them. Hate, he thinks, is “just a failure of the imagination”. Or perhaps just a failure to look.
People younger than me have a phrase they use when conversing online: “I see you.” It can be used for everything from complimenting a friend on a new haircut to comforting them when they feel rejected or wronged. At heart it means “I have noticed your existence.” Now that we are locking eyes with each other again, I realise how much I have missed being “seen”. The other day I saw a friend outside the supermarket and we stopped to talk, maskless and a few feet apart, like we did in the before times. The face in front of me didn’t blur or pixellate like the ones on my laptop, nor was there any disconcerting time lag in the way it responded to mine. It just picked up where it left off a year ago, noticing my nods and smiles and mirroring them with its own – a wordless message I had almost forgotten how to read. Roughly translated it said: “I see you.”’ (from the Guardian)
There was a lot in this timely article that felt resonant to me. The second paragraph reminds me of the practice of eye-gazing, which we would do sometimes at Zen Center, especially in the Young Urban Zen group, and where I would inevitably feel able to see and meet the person I was gazing at as Buddha. And I know that our practice overall offers a greater strength and ability (and perhaps stability) for meeting people, for seeing them, because we can only really see when we get out of our own way first. Even without the practice context, when I go about my day, just nodding or saying hi to people offers the same sense of seeing and being seen, that our existence has been noticed.