My next few pieces will be on the pilgrimage that I am helping my students make through not knowing into intimacy. To do this successfully we need to break through any ideas we have about what being “spiritual” means.
Here’s an example from the 10th century in China:
A student of the way asked Yunmen, “What is Buddha?” Yunmen replied, “Dried shit stick.”
When we do a spiritual practice of any nature, we don’t want to be disrespectful to an icon that is present in our given tradition, whether it be God, Jesus, or Buddha. But when these icons get in the way of living authentically from the ground of our being which is also the ground of all being, our teacher may need to remind us that the icon is only a symbol. So much of religious practice is based on giving ourselves to an icon, which one of my own deceased teachers, John Welwood, called spiritual bypassing: "using spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks."
Recently, I have been teaching a course on the semi-mythical lay teacher, Vimalakirti, who, in the 2nd century stood out as a critic of all spiritual pretension, showing us where we get caught by both our obvious and more subtle attachments to practicing the dharma. And Vimalakirti was followed by a whole parade of Chinese characters like Han Shan, who is known to have lingered outside the monastery gates with a wild and unruly countenance, waiting for his buddy Shih Te to steal scraps from the kitchen to bring to him. If the record is accurate, he and Shih Te engaged in frequent raucous episodes in which the two laughed and played together.
Way too often we get so far ahead of ourselves in our spiritual practice that we neglect the needs of our ego, our feeling self and thinking self. Instead of dealing being creatively playful or dealing directly with an emotionally charged issue, we may say to ourselves, “All I have to do is trust in Buddha, big mind, emptiness, God, or a higher power.” Instead of connecting straightforwardly with our emotional reality, no matter how forbidding, we protect ourselves from feeling something we don’t want to feel.
In our meditation practice, can we allow any emotions that might surface to be felt in our body/mind? When you do this, it may or may not be helpful to label what you are feeling. The important thing is to not minimize or overlook the feeling.
When emotionally charged thoughts come up in your meditation, can you just observe them? If there’s a powerful resistance to an emotion, might you want to look into what’s causing it or what’s keeping you from feeling it? I call this shining your flashlight in the cave below the surface of your chattering mind. The moment we say to ourselves, “this should (or shouldn’t) be happening” or, “this is just ego” we are leaving the darkness of the cave which is the only place we will discover the light that is continually shining from it, the light that enables us to work and play with both lightness and abandon.
This does not preclude extending compassion to ourselves or others as we focus on the place of their hurt or ours. And if sitting with an emotion seems too uncomfortable, we can turn off our flashlights for a while and say to ourselves, “I see my (her) suffering. And I hold myself (her) and the suffering in my heart with love and kindness. May this suffering be eased.”
We need to realize that feeling is a form of intelligence and that just as it is, our body/mind is attuned and innately intelligent, so intelligent that it takes into account many factors all at once. If we do this, when a sticky feeling comes up, we might be curious rather than judgmental. “Let me shine my light into the next cranny and see what’s there.” And if the problem or situation still seems too complex or disturbing, can we hang out in not knowing? Vimalakirti, who is pretending to be sick in bed, is approached by each of the historical Buddha’s ten most wise disciples. They think they know, and Vimalakirti continually dismisses the superficiality of this knowing.
Can we tolerate having an unresolved problem lingering and even look at it playfully instead of fast forwarding into knowing the so-called “solution”? Can we shine our light on it, remaining open to solution(s) we haven’t discovered yet? If you do this with patience and persistence your mind quite naturally descends into your heart as your breath descends into your belly. When this happens, we are no longer impeded by rocks that dam up the river of our lives, the river of being. Then even the sound of the rocks which dam up the stream have a delightful melody.
Here’s another early Chinese teacher’s comments pointing to a way of live which both healthy and deeply satisfying:
Case 80, Blue Cliff Record:
A monk asked Zhaozhou, "Does a newborn baby possess the six senses or not?"
Zhaozhou said, "It is like throwing a ball into the rapids."
The monk later asked Touzi, "What is the meaning of 'throwing a ball into the rapids'?"
Touzi said, "Moment-to-moment nonstop flow.
Hsue Tou commented: It flows away, no one knows where, flows on from instant to instant, and there is nobody in the world who can foresee its destination.
More on this next time.
In my final piece on three attitudes that inform our practice, I want to discuss what I call the “Shattered Mirror” approach. We have been experiencing more shattered mirrors in this past year as Americans than I can ever remember. Dogen, who lived in a culture at least as fractured as ours said, “A greatly enlightened person is nevertheless deluded— to understand that is the quintessence of practice.”
What did he mean by this? Contemporary Buddhist leaders of Dogen’s time like Shinran believed that they were living in the fallen age which Buddha is supposed to have predicted; the third age, in which any awakening a person had would have no lasting effect.
But this was not Dogen’s sentiment at all. For him and for me, enlightenment is not the absence of delusion and delusion is not the absence of enlightenment. Delusion and enlightenment have no fixed nature. They are separate yet indivisible, like two sides of the same coin.
“Great enlightenment is ever intimate with delusion,” Dogen said.
Our primary meditation practice is to shine an unwavering light on each of our delusions. The ability to shine our light of awareness on a delusion with absolutely no judgement is already enlightenment. In my first book I pointed that even though our flashlight sheds light within the cave beneath our surface level of existence, the cave extends forever. There are always undiscovered nooks of anxiety and crannies of fear and doubt. All you need to do is shine your steady, calm, flashlight inward and you will gradually penetrate the cave’s depths. Even when you have a strong desire to run away, can honor your commitment to stay and explore―not with your head, but with your entire being, with gentle, kind awareness?
Anxieties begin to dissolve. They may disappear entirely for a while, but there’s always another cranny you haven’t seen yet. And your flashlight never runs out of batteries!
To quote Dogen again, “Great enlightenment is ever intimate with delusion.”
About 20 years ago I worked with a guy I will call Dan. “Before I started practicing, my relationships with women were always difficult,” Dan explained in a one-to-one visit. Things would get all tangled up. So, he would back off. Then the woman would back off. Then he needed her to be close. She’d come back. And then he needed more space, and he would back off again.
He added that in his current relationship, he didn’t feel so tied up in knots. “The problem is, I don’t know how much is due to zazen and how much is that I am still distancing myself for protection.”
Distancing is associated with suppressing, repressing, or denying feelings. People confuse distancing with detachment, which I talked to him about.
He began inviting his feelings in. As he did this, he realized how abandoned he felt when his new partner moved away and how overwhelmed he felt when she got close. As he kept shining his light on his experience the glue which held his feelings of abandonment together began dissolve and he felt a lightness he had not experienced since he was a child.
Dan discovered, as many others have, that ironically, intimacy is the best path to detachment. When we practice bare awareness of whatever drama is dominating our consciousness, the intensity recedes, because we are just stopping, looking, and listening to the movie that is appearing on the screen of our consciousness.
I am not talking about oneness of light and darkness; I am talking about interplay. This type of intimacy sensitizes us to the complexities of our problems. We are able to just be with them, with compassion and kindness. As Dogen says, “When the dharma does not yet completely fill your body and mind, you think that it is already sufficient. When the dharma fills your body and mind, you think that something is missing.” When you kindly hold your frailties like a wounded bird or animal that you love, you see that enlightenment is ALWAYS intimate with delusion.
And of course, we need to distance ourselves sometimes. We need to go into a neuromuscular lock to protect ourselves from being harmed and that’s both necessary and perfectly okay, but please don’t confuse it with genuine detachment.
When we are patiently and persistently intimate with any coagulated thought-emotion regardless of the pain, dis-identification occurs on its own and our pain miraculously dissolves. But if fear pushes us away, it is not detachment, it is distancing.
Furthermore, light is always mediated by darkness. There’s no universal light that we just melt into, where there’s no trace of ego left for the rest of our lives. We need a healthy ego. It’s a wonderful manifestation of Big Mind or Heart-Mind.
Since we are allowing natural interplay to occur, we don’t have to conquer darkness or despair or even struggle against them. Maybe you can see that this third attitude or approach is more nuanced than bright mirror or no mirror, and you don’t have to suffer from the tyranny of the single description.
A semi-mythological figure from China is Butai (J. Hotei), who carried a sack full of oranges around with him to give to kids and homeless people. When he was asked about the fundamental meaning of life, he dropped his sack. And when he was further asked, “How do you live this meaning,” he picked up his sack and walked away.
“We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing,” said George Bernard Shaw.
I worked with a woman several years ago who was an “advanced” meditator. She was going through a divorce and was consumed by suffering and discouraged about her meditation. Before she and her husband broke up, she had many bright mirror experiences in her meditation. But now she said, dust clung to her mirror regardless of how long or effortfully she meditated. She had taken a class when we studied Hui Neng. In a one-to-one she had with me, she said, “I realize this is all made up, that there’s no mirror mind, but I am still continually suffering.”
I knew she was a musician and had an auditory orientation, so I encouraged her to take some deep breaths with me as I rang the meditation bell a dozen or so times. When her face and shoulder had softened, I asked her, “Are you suffering now?” When she replied, “yes” I asked her to hold her suffering. Then I said, “How about embracing both your suffering and your no suffering?” I watched her for a couple of minutes until she quietly exclaimed “This is great. I feel like I am holding my twin boys. One has been really misbehaving and the other is just being sweet, but I love them both equally.”
As Dogen said, “A greatly enlightened person is nevertheless deluded.”
This happened during a long winter in Minnesota that never seemed to end.
A few days later she emailed me the following poem:
“Snowfall after snow fall,
Delusion piled on delusion,
I continue my practice forever.”
This is my second post on three attitudes which are fundamental to Zen training and practice. In the first one, I discussed the teaching poem of Shen Hsui, the “loser” in the famous, although probably mythical, poetry contest which took place in the latter part of the 7th century in China. I call this the “no mirror” attitude in contrast to Shen Hsui’s “mirror wiping” attitude.
Here’s the poem”
“The body is not the the Bodhi tree
Nor the mind a mirror bright
Since from the first no thing exists
Where can dust alight?”
This poem emanates from the tradition of the prajna paramita sutras, which are important in our tradition, since we chant the shortest of them, the heart sutra, every day. This group of sutras focus on deconstructing all of our beliefs about everything.
Here’s a little background on Hui Neng. He grew up in a more southerly area than Shen Hsui and is considered the founder of the southern school of Chan.
His father, an exiled administrator, died when Hui Neng was three. This plunged the family into poverty, and Hui Neng began supporting himself as a woodcutter. He was at the market one day and heard someone chant from the Diamond Sutra, “Awaken to the mind which does not abide anywhere.”
Apparently, he did just that!
Wanting to deepen this awakening he learned that he could study/practice at Hung Jen’s monastery in northern China. Hung Jen recognized his great potential. However, since he was both young and illiterate, he assigned him to the rice-hulling shed instead of sitting with other monks in the meditation hall.
Hui Neng knew nothing of the poetry contest until he heard a monk chanting Shen Hsiu’s verse. He asked another monk to take him to the wall and read the verse to him. He then asked the monk to write his verse, which I have just quoted, on the wall.
In his poem, Hui Neng, in contrast to Shen Hsui, is suggesting that a path which leads us somewhere other than where we are right now is of no value. Reality cannot be captured by any concepts. In line with the prajna paramita sutras, he points out that awakening is not about traveling from here to there. It’s not about working hard and checking our investment each day. Questions like, “Was my zazen sincere, or was I just spaced out the whole time? Am I working hard enough? Shouldn’t my mind be calmer by now?” are irrelevant. All we have to do is stop dividing things up through our thinking. Whereas the first poem promotes different forms of dust wiping meditation, he second poem indirectly implies that all we need to do is let go of everything we know and learned. Then we see clearly that our divisions, categorizations, and judgments are all mere fabrications.
Whereas Shen Hsui’s form of meditation is one in which we sit still, for Hui Neng whether you are sitting, standing, or lying down makes absolutely no difference. Even the labels which delineate sitting, standing, or lying down are just constructs and all constructs are fictional. If we pay attention with bare awareness- stopping, looking, and listening to whatever we encounter before our mind slices and dices or tries to remove dusts- the natural activity of what my first teacher Suzuki Roshi called “Big Mind” manifests itself.
“If you want to tame your sheep or cow, give it a large pasture,” he said.
Both of the poems imply that we can empty ourselves of the three most prevalent dusts of greed, anger, and delusion. The Bright Mirror poem suggests there’s a path from being blinded by these to enlightenment. The No Mirror approach is much simpler: Just let go of all the ideas you’ve accumulated about getting rid of dusts and come back to what is before you contaminate with any overlay of thought.
But with no path to do this, practitioners might easily become discouraged or confused.
When I teach meditation, I focus on the value of moving between focused dust wiping and bare awareness. For many years, I have moved between these two in my own meditation, often beginning with a focus and then when I get settled, broadening beyond it.
I would like to finish this piece by briefly mentioning a limitation of each of the attitudes expressed in these poems. Shen Hsui’s approach encourages competition with yourself or others to clean your mirror. It can result in a narrow, judgmental meditation which never sinks into Big Mind since as, I have suggested before, it is the nature of the mind to project memories into the present and future. Furthermore, the dust wiping approach seems to empower those people who are “good at it” and disempowers those who aren’t. On the other hand, Hui Neng’s approach suggests the discriminating mind is of little value, which is certainly not the case. Knowledge, reasoning, logic, and scientific pursuit are features of being human that have proven to be of great value. Any time we go too far in one direction at the expense of the other, our view of reality becomes distorted. Wholeness is lost.
In my third and last post, I’ll discuss one more attitude toward Zen practice which comes from the teaching of Dogen: the Shattered Mirror.
In my book Nothing Holy About It, I discuss three attitudes from our tradition that inform our practice. In the next two or three posts I want to briefly review what I said there and elaborate on points I have thought about since the book was published six years ago.
The first two are poems come out of a fictionalized story from 8th century China. It takes place in Hung Jen’s monastery. This early Zen teacher is ready to appoint his eventual successor and calls on his monks to write poems to express their understanding.
The head monk, Shen Hsui, wrote a poem anonymously on the wall because he was afraid to fall short of his teacher’s expectations. This poem was received by his teacher somewhat positively. One translation reads: “The body is the bodhi tree; The mind the mirror bright; Be careful to wipe it clean; and let no dust alight.”
This poem harkens back more than a thousand years to the Theravada or “teaching of the elders.” We also find these instructions in the earliest Yoga scriptures and in European deep thinkers like William Blake with his famous statement, “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”
This is based on the belief that our natural state of mind is mirror-like and reflects everything within it. In our meditation practice, we patiently and persistently polish this mirror so that it reflects everything accurately. As a result, its luminosity penetrates everything. Sometimes the practice of mirror wiping, (which includes a commitment both to daily meditation as well a longperiods of sitting in retreats), can be both arduous and tedious, but if we have a goal and a clear direction, we keep at it.
Its roots are in Indian yogacara practice. Yoga means, “to yoke.” As we empty out all the gunk we carry around in our heads, we yoke ourselves to a spacious timelessness which includes all life.
Dust is always accumulating: our concepts, ideas, worries, and anxieties are always arising and darkening our vision. This past year has been like no other in most of our lives in the amount of dust it has stirred up. What’s been happening in our country has created a dust storm which has discolored all of our mirrors.
It’s been a year when many have needed a routine of focused meditation more than ever. There are so many “dust wiping” techniques you can use; whether it is watching or counting your breathing, scanning your body for places of stress of tension, repeating a phrase or mantra over and over as you sit, doing a loving-kindness meditation or even listening to a guided meditation app.
Often, I compare this “dust wiping” practice to learning to play a musical instrument. If you practice every day regardless of your level of success, sooner or later you will learn to wipe the dust away even after sitting for a short time. You may wonder how the poem which promotes this practice was the losing one. I will talk about this in my next post.
This post is about the following interchange between two Chinese Zen practitioners which supposedly took place in the 9th century. First, I will focus on Avalokitesvara, who is the subject of their discussion. Then, I will discuss the interaction between the two monks.
Blue Cliff Record, Case #89
Yunyan asked Daowu, “‘How does the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara use those many hands and eyes?”’
Daowu answered, “‘It is like someone in the middle of the night reaching behind her head for the pillow.”’
Yunyan said, “I understand.”
Daowu asked, “How do you understand it?”
Yunyan said, “‘All over the body are hands and eyes.”
Daowu said, “That is very well expressed, but it is only 80% of the answer.”
Yunyan said, “How would you say it, Elder Brother?”
Daowu said, “Throughout the body are hands and eyes.”
Avalokiteśvara is the bodhisattva who vows never to rest until he has freed all beings from their emotional suffering. Despite strenuous effort, he realizes that he can only reach out to some of them. After struggling to meet the needs of so many, he gets a tremendous headache and his head splits into eleven pieces. Buddha then gives him eleven heads with which to hear the cries of the suffering and reach out to all of them. He tries to reach out to all those who need aid but finds that his two arms shattered into pieces. Once more, Buddha comes to his aid and gives him a thousand arms to use to help folks.
With all these arms, hands, and in addition, eyes, he now can embrace everyone. Not knowing whether he will be effective at supporting or connecting, he reaches out. When he does this, he is not split by different thoughts about being good enough helper or how long it will take. He is just naturally extending himself. To do this effectively, he must allow his measuring, judging mind to descend into his heart so he can act from heart-mind.
With his new ability, he (or in Chinese and Japanese Buddhism, she) now has the ability to reach out to everyone who needs support. And according to Daowu, she proceeds like someone in the middle of the night reaching out to adjust their pillow. In this situation our eyes are not enough, our ears are not enough, our thinking is not enough. Even the color of our pillow and its other features are irrelevant. To find our pillow we only need to do one thing: let go of our self-talk, which means letting go of the need to have things figured out or even to “know” anything. She just extends herself beyond the limitations of her knowledge or understanding.
This is not to imply that knowledge and understanding are unimportant. They are a vitally important component of who we are, but its only 80%, as Daowu suggests. Our ability to successfully reach out to someone whether we know or understand them is vast and unlimited.
I saw Suzuki Roshi reach out in this way on a number of occasions. Years ago, at Tassajara Zen Monastery, a student continually overslept and missed the early meditation that was a mandatory part of the program. Those who were in charge of practice got together and based on their understanding of him, determined that he just wasn’t suited for a monastic situation and told Suzuki he should be kicked out. Suzuki listened to them and said “Donald has a very good heart and a deep desire to learn our way. I am going to make him my attendant.” The practice leaders scratched their heads. Didn’t he understand Donald’s obvious limitations? But As the months and years went on, this student became one of Suzuki’s most prominent and well-respected disciples.
Now I want to discuss Daowu and Yunyan a little more and the difference between the depth of understanding of each.
What do you think the difference might be in the understanding of Daowu and that of Yunyan? If Chinese lineage charts are correct about that early time period, both these fellows had the same teacher. A personal relationship between a student and his or her teacher has been one of the key distinguishing features of Zen since its beginning. There are a number of stories about Daowu, but Yunyan is less well known.
To reach beyond Yunyan’s 80% and be a fully functioning bodhisattva as Daowu was, I think we need to do three things:
First, we need to allow ourselves to sink into the great spaciousness of not knowing. Our ego operating system, which is vitally important to our well-being, is continually trying to know as much as possible to give us a feeling of security in an insecure world. But if we allow the thoughts which keep our system revved up, to slow down, our mind quite naturally descends into our heart. Then we can settle deeply into a kind of knowing which brings great clarity rather than confusion and we find that we can respond to someone’s pain with both compassion and wisdom.
Second, we need to fully bear witness to peoples’ suffering. By deeply listening to them and being there for them, our mind begins to descend into our heart. My friend, Patrick, before he took me on the first of many treks to reach out to folks in homeless camps, gave me one piece of simple advice. “If you completely focus on being with them, listening to them, paying attention to them with no hint of judgment or attempt to give advice they will begin to trust you.”
Most people who are in psychological pain don’t want or need to be fixed, don’t want us to look away, don’t want us to sink into despair about their situation or condition. But if we can empty out our thoughts entirely and be an undiluted presence for them, together we can work wonders. This means holding a space open, refusing to close our eyes, turn away, or use psychological mechanisms to distance ourselves from them or their situation. There’s no greater gift we can give someone than deeply listening to them from heart-mind.
The third thing we can do to manifest Avalokitesvara’s power is to do our best to act with lovingkindness toward everyone and everything. This seems like a tall order, but through our meditation practice, our mind naturally to descend into our heart time and time again. When this happens, we see/feel others’ suffering as not separate from ours without a trace of co-dependency. When we develop the capacity to embrace not knowing, we find that bearing witness easily follows and loving kindness emanates from these two. Lo and behold, we have developed the capacity to find our pillow in the dark.
This teaching seems to have fully penetrated Daowu’s psyche. He understands that Avalokitesvara models a connection to others that emanates from within and throughout his body, not just on its surface.
The more adept we become at reaching for our pillow, the more all the if’s, and’s, and but’s that circle through our minds subside. We have moved from the interdependent web of life as a good idea, to a description of who and what actually is. The haiku poet Issa feels this when he writes, Hey! Don’t swat: the fly wrings his hands on bended knees.
On the other hand, when we aren’t doing this, as the third ancestor Seng Tsan says, “Heaven and earth are torn apart.” Daowu isn’t necessarily a better person than Yunyan, but Yunyan’s mind hasn’t fully descended into his heart at the moment of their interchange and Daowu’s has. Are you ready to allow your own mind to make this same descent?
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher