Now I wish to discuss using suffering as a portal to what Dogen calls “boundless light.”
“The whole universe is one bright pearl. We cannot help but love this one bright pearl that shines with boundless light,” says Dogen.
As much as the oyster would like to cleanse itself of the piece of sand, patiently opening up to it in a non-judgmental way is the doorway to liberation. Zen practice is all about opening to whatever suffering we have instead of reacting with defeat, humiliation, shame, passivity, helplessness, or guilt.
American culture seems to have had a primary focus on reducing pain for some time. But what about ancient Greek culture? In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus’s struggle to return home entailed great suffering, noble suffering, even glorious suffering, which gave his life deep meaning. And the same can be said of the 20th century European existentialists.
“It is not humiliating to be unhappy. Physical suffering is sometime humiliating, but the suffering of being is life,” wrote Albert Camus.
Soren Keirkegaard’s biographer wrote of him, “By the age of 25 he had lost both his parents, and five of his six siblings. In addition to this, his sensitive temperament, his tendencies to melancholy and anxiety, and his difficult relationships to his father and his one-time fiancée Regine gave him an intimate understanding of various kinds of psychological pain. Rather than avoiding or denying suffering, Kierkegaard was unusually willing to confront it and investigate it. His sensitivity to suffering extended to others: one of his friends remembered that "he gave consolation not by covering up sorrow, but by first making one genuinely aware of it, by bringing it to complete clarity.”
In American culture we tend to view success as primary, which includes the ability to control outcomes. We tend to hide deep internal conflicts, stress, or anxiety so we will not be labeled as incompetent or as a loser. Why acknowledge suffering if it only stands for failure?
For two or three years, we could not understand why my grandson was so anxious and did so poorly in school. Then he was tested and received a diagnosis of dysgraphia, difficulty in writing. Once his suffering was acknowledged ad its cause understood, he and his teachers both relaxed considerably into simply dealing with “what is.” He no longer needed to conceal his suffering but became open about it. This made all the difference in the world to his experience at school. Avoiding suffering flattens life. One way we can normalize suffering is by naming it, as was done in my grandson’s case.
And it’s a basic principle of Buddhism that it’s our reaction to suffering, rather than suffering itself, that’s a problem. Our goal is to separate our resistance to suffering from the actual pain and loss. There is always going to be both in life.
The year 2020 was a year for Americans in which many experienced an inordinate amount of stress and chronically high stress levels often lead to physical and mental exhaustion. In years like the last, depression or anxiety was really on the increase. Often these are accompanied by exhaustion. We wake up in the morning feeling tired or “weighted down.” Often this means that our brain stem or amygdala has been incessantly on alert, preparing us to fight or flee. The more our brain stem is chronically on alert, the more we misperceive our current situation. We are succumbing to pressure from past suffering projected into the future.
“Fight, flight” isn’t intended to be turned on for long periods. The continual flood of neurochemicals which make up this process may cause damage to our heart, glands, and entire nervous system. On the one hand, we are built to cope with pressure and to recover when over. On the other hand, if our amygdala is lit up for a long period of time, we become out of balance or sick. Our brain is built to handle periodic or brief episodes of stress but not built to handle the continual level of stress many Americans were feeling for the duration of 2020.
So, what’s the antidote for constantly feeling stressed? I’d like to suggest that there are four things we can do.
First, we can ask ourselves: “Is this really dangerous or am I simply feeling a lot of pressure?” We can assess our situation and then clarify what action is called for, accepting that there are times when you will feel pressure and times when the outcome of a difficult situation is very ambiguous.
Second, as in my grandson’s case, we can name the problem and acknowledge the challenge that the pressure presents.
Third, if we’re still feeling inadequate, confused, or scared, we may need to think how we can bring balance into our lives. Maybe our eating or meditation has gotten out of whack. Are we getting outside even in winter? Are we keeping heart connections going during these COVID times when we are each in our own little pods?
Fourth, if we are developing a “story” or identity of being anxious or depressed, we might ask yourselves, “In what way does feeling stressed all the time serve me? If I weren’t so stressed, what would I be feeling? How would I live differently?”
There is a huge distinction between “I am a depressed, anxious person” and “I am feeling stressed or down.”
If we do all four of these with patience and persistence, we may be surprised to notice that the abrasive piece of sand inside is actually encompassed, as Dogen suggests, by boundless light, turning it into a pearl.
Now, let’s reflect on a stanza from a poem by Garcia Lorca and one by Allen Ginsberg. As I said in my last piece, all we have to do is follow the ballet dancer, Nijinsky’s advice, “It’s really quite simple. I merely leap and pause. Leap and pause.”
The best poetry shows us how to leap from the known to the unknown. It ties things together which don’t at first seem to relate to each other and that is genuine intimacy.
The poet Garcia Lorca lived in a very difficult time in Spain when civil war was raging. He was assassinated by fascists for the boldness of both his plays and his poetry. In spite of all this, he was a master at pausing and leaping.
Here are the first few stanzas of one of his poems, “Little Infinite Poem:”
To take the wrong road
is to come to the snow
To come to the snow
is to get down on all fours for 20 generations
And eat the grass of the cemeteries
Often in our spiritual practice we think we are on the wrong road. But if we continually ground ourselves in our meditative practice, staying with our commitment regardless of how dissatisfying or even “wrong” it feels, at some point we are able to leap completely beyond good and bad or right and wrong and come to the snow.
I am writing this during a light December snowfall. Snowplows have not been out yet, nor sidewalks shoveled. How still and at peace everything seems, with no cars on the street, no people outside. The neighbor’s black dog is lying just outside their back door and he too is covered with a thin coating of snow.
Can we “get down on all fours for twenty generations” and deeply appreciate this pristine coating new fallen snow gives to all beings surrounding us? Can we give ourselves to the life force moving from the distant past to the endless future and “eat the grass of the cemeteries?”
Suzuki Roshi said that his teacher had a permanent callous on his forehead from doing prostration after prostration in the meditation hall day after day, decade after decade. Can we humble ourselves in this or some other manner? If we do, we will enjoy the nutrients of the grass of the cemeteries, the nutrients that come from the rich humus underneath. Real humility emanates from our immersion in the humus, giving ourselves completely away to something unimaginably both grounding and spacious which is not a thing at all. When my second teacher lived at Eiheiji monastery in Japan, the monks had almost no food. Three times a day, they had soup made from the weeds that grew outside. My teacher said once, “Grass soup, best thing I ever taste!” But we have to do a lot of pausing to discover the power of this kind of nutrition.
Instead of getting down on all fours and eating the grass, we continually aggress against those we identify as "other.” As Franz Kafka said, "What do I have in common with others? I hardly have anything in common with myself! My thoughts run around like a wild horse, and feelings jump about like a monkey in the forest."
Kafka was a great writer, but he had not learned to pause. He was caught, as so many are, in the neuromuscular lock of fear which gives us no room to experience intimacy... with the grass, with the rich humus underneath it, and with generations and generations of life all around us.
Allen Ginsberg’s "Song" is another good example of leap poetry. Here is the first stanza:
Under the burden
under the burden
the weight we carry
Can you see the leap from the twin burdens of solitude and dissatisfaction to love?
Here is the final stanza:
I always wanted,
I always wanted,
to the body
where I was born.
Can you leap with him, beyond the weight of your worries and concerns to your original body, the body of the universe, love embracing love?
And the final lines with their repetition of a single affirmative word, followed rhythmic phrasing like the beating of a heart:
yes, yes, that’s what I wanted, I always wanted, I always wanted to return to the body where I was born
Dogen called this “the body beyond the body,” the body Ginsberg longed for. Ginsberg wrote that poem in 1954, well before the time he began his Buddhist meditation practice, but even then, he had an inkling of the power of the simple act of pausing and leaping.
When Yaoshan was sitting in meditation, a monk asked, “What do you think about, sitting in steadfast composure?” Yaoshan said, “I think not thinking.” The monk said, “How do you think not thinking?” Yaoshan said, “Non-thinking.”
When we think non-thinking, we naturally embrace the anxiety of being human rather than indulging it or repressing it, as Basho, Lorca, Ginsberg, and Dogen were able to do.
Dogen lived in 13th century Japan, a time dominated by strife much worse than we have been experiencing. Here are two of his key instructions for pausing:
Sit zazen wholeheartedly and let go of all things; gathering together all distracted thought and scattered mind within this posture keeps your heart and mind from being stirred.
When we do this over and over, we discover that, as Dogen says, “We can wander at ease... beyond the boundary of delusion and enlightenment, free from the paths of ordinary and sacred, not caught by ordinary thinking.”
The pause and the leap are both separate and not separate. We start with an aspiration to meditate and we practice pausing over and over... until we realize that as Dogen suggests, “between aspiration, practice, enlightenment, and nirvana, there is not a moment’s gap.”
We discover that all moments are whole, lacking nothing, regardless of what we think or how we feel about them.
Huineng asked a monk, "Do you depend upon practice and enlightenment?" The monk replied, "It’s not that there is no practice and no enlightenment. It’s just that it’s not possible to divide them."
In the sixth grade my parents sent me to ballroom dancing lessons, which I endured for some time. The highlight of my couple of years there was watching the married instructors, who were experienced stage dancers, do the tango. The seamlessness of their pauses and leaps entranced my friends and me, in spite of our hatred for this antiquated practice our parents forced on us.
Of course, I had no understanding then the wholeness is always seeking wholeness, (little) self is always seeking (big) self, even though so called “little” is continually cradled by so-called “big.” If only I had known that in the sixth grade.
In moments of confusion, can we remember to pause completely so we can leap completely? Dogen suggests, “when you are fully present, you are free of how broad or narrow it is where you are.
This is what he calls “actional understanding,” or in my paraphrase “life giving life to life.” Breathing in, we pause, breathing out we leap, breathing out we pause, breathing in we leap:
In plum blossom scent
Now I’d like to talk about “leaping beyond dualistic thinking.”
The famous early 20th century ballet star Vaslav Nijinsky, when asked about how he had developed his technique to such perfection, replied, “It’s really quite simple. I merely leap and pause. Leap and pause.” Let’s look at pausing and leaping in dancing, poetry, Zen practice, and life.
To really pause, to completely still the body and mind for even a moment, is difficult. But without the pause, the leap loses its connection with reality; it loses its rootedness. The leap, then is impulsive and lacks balance, as with George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. When I was in my early twenties, my fury at the promoters of the Vietnam war led me to join a group which chased Hubert Humphrey when he came to my campus to speak. This impulsive leap almost got me arrested, and only widened the gap between the pro and anti-war groups.
This past year has been a difficult one for most Americans. The pandemic has gone on unabated (although now there is finally a vaccine becoming available); Donald Trump and his supporters are continuing to insist he won the election; the racial divide has grown wider than ever since George Floyd’s death. But the pandemic has also given us the opportunity to pause. And if you do this, you realize that, regardless of how stressed you are, you are still breathing. And as your breath ebb and flows, you can experience the ebb and flow of any anxiety which might be present.
Whether you are sitting in meditation or not, you always have the opportunity to pause and breath fully and completely into any and all emotions that are arising. And if it’s a difficulty you’re experiencing, that’s fine, since difficulties are the path to freedom. There’s really no other path.
Our Zen practice is to be with whatever arises. Difficulties are the path. It might even be possible to open ourselves to deeper and deeper feelings and discoveries with each breath. This is really pausing. Instead of acting impulsively, really pausing.
The summer after I chased Humphrey, I spent three months at Tassajara Zen Monastery in Carmel Valley. And the practice there, of course, was in the art of pausing. It was only after I had spent time there that I was ready to again insert myself into activist politics without leaping impulsively. For the next fifteen years I continued my immersion in both daily meditation and periodic retreats. As a result, when my only brother suicided by hanging himself from a sheet in a locked hospital ward, instead of acting impulsively myself, I paused meditatively for about a year, sitting day after day right in the middle of my confusion, fear, guilt, and feelings of impotence. I was comforted by the quiet presence of our teacher, Katagiri Roshi, who sat with us every day. Finally, when I had regained some balance, I was ready to leap into acting to both advocate and develop humane community-based alternatives to a locked hospital for people like my brother. And it worked!
Many of our best writers have spent time pausing reflectively before they leap. Maybe they are reflecting upon a difficulty; maybe they are reflecting upon a theme that arises out of that difficulty; maybe they are reflecting on an image or a series of images. Pausing doesn’t make us any surer of what we’re doing but it can give us both a sense of balance and a rootedness in something deeper than our mindless chatter. Pausing is the best preparation for leaping---but at some point, we do have to take the risk and make the jump.
Here is Agnes de Mille: “Living is a form of not being sure, not knowing what next or how. The moment you know how, you begin to die a little. The artist and poet never entirely knows. We guess. We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark.”
As I think of what Ms. De Mille said, three poets who lived in times of social unrest not unlike ours come to mind: Matsuo Basho, Garcia Lorca, and Allen Ginsberg.
Here’s Basho, writing in 18th century Japan:
In plum blossom scent
Aside for a stay of a couple of years in a Zen monastery, Basho was a traveler, meditatively traversing Japan on foot time and time again over the course of his life. In the circumstance above we can imagine him on his journey, finding himself immersed in fog and then pop, the sun appears.
I take this as a metaphor for our spiritual journey. Sometimes we are immersed in the fog of confusion, not knowing anything. Even our meditation isn’t going well. If we continue on our journey in a meditative way, so each step is actually a pause, when we least expect it, everything opens up and we feel the warmth glow of the sun shining on all of life. And at the same time our path opens up before us, reminding me of Suzuki Roshi’s saying, “There are no enlightened people; only enlightened activity.”
How might we walk peacefully on our own path when its foundation is constantly crumbling or we feel we are constantly in fog? First it was the virus, then George Floyd’s death, then the looting and burning throughout our city. What’s the role of our supposed protectors, the police, in all of this? Where can we find any kind of stable footing and see more than a few feet in front of us? Can we notice our urge to leap simply to get out of our current situation? Or are we inclined to just withdraw completely and freeze?
Maybe it’s possible to pause and be present for each of our feelings. Can we give a warm hug to our fear and confusion? Can we relax into uncertainty even though chaos is swirling around, and we feel we have no place to settle? It is possible that our discomfort arises not from uncertainty, but from our resistance to it. I wonder if we can simply follow Nijinsky’s advice: “It’s really quite simple. I merely leap and pause. Leap and pause.”
The best poetry and the most deeply satisfying lives involve leaping from the known to the unknown. As we leap, we experience interbeing in which the sun does, indeed, shine on everything and we walk on the path bathed in its glow.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher