A splendid branch issues forth from the old plum tree.
Thorns come forth at the same time.
-Keizan-Zenji, Transmission of the Light
This poem is an early example of the Japanese Zen aesthetic of Wabi Sabi. Wabi Sabi has three primary features or virtues: imperfection & irregularity; age; simplicity & naturalness. We find them all manifested in pottery, brush painting, tea ceremony, poetry, as well as the lives of Zen adepts.
Today, I will go into imperfection. All life has imperfections. Regardless of how good we are at meditation, there are times when our fear or anger get the best of us. Buddhist mythology refers to six psycho-spiritual realms, including a hell realm. We all enter this lowest realm at times where our sense of flawedness prevails.
Supposedly the guardian spirit, Jizo Bodhisattva travels between the hell realms acting as a guardian and guide. When someone reaches out skillfully to us when we are in a Hell Realm, that person is manifesting his Jizo power. On a few occasions I watched my Zen teacher manifest this power. One morning a small group of us including Suzuki, were getting set to go to a lecture at an art museum in San Francisco. At the last minute my roommate, Ruth, who I shared a duplex with, across the street from the Zen center, decided not to come even though she had been very enthused the night before. Ruth had fallen into a deep trough with her depression and had not attended group meditation for some time. When we got to the museum, we sat down in the auditorium to hear the talk, but, mysteriously, Suzuki disappeared, so that he missed the entire talk. When we left the theater, there he was exiting the gift shop. “Sensei,” I exclaimed, “Where we you during the talk?” “Buying a card for Ruth,” he replied quietly. He must have given it to her shortly after we came home because I saw it on the coffee table in our duplex. I said something to her about the card and she exclaimed, “What a man Sensei is, he accepts me, warts and all.” This is a great example of Wabi Sabi. And soon Ruth began meditating with us again.
When we’re in a Hell Realm it’s hard for us to reach out to others because we often feel drained and exhausted with a sense of hopelessness. But with a little support, change is always possible. Instead of trying to be perfect or pretending, can we embrace our vulnerability, our flawedness?
Here’s a second story about my first teacher. He had been asked to speak at Stanford University where I was a student. I knew he was a little nervous about this. His English was quite broken and he commented that he didn’t like to speak to people who were not meditation practitioners. But he agreed. And there I was sitting in the front row of the auditorium next to him. As he was being introduced, he whispered to me, “I scared,” gently grasping my hand. Then he got up and gave his talk in a relaxed and engaged manner. His ability to be quietly transparent with me seemed to help him let go and engage fully.
Each of us is flawed because life has wounded us. When we open up to our wounds/flaws, we have the capacity to move beyond being crippled by them. Sometimes our flaws become a catalyst for opening up to new opportunities. An example was my friend, Al. Al had two adult children commit suicide. As he sat in meditation each morning, he experienced wave after wave of anger, guilt, and sadness. As he simply allowed his emotions to course through him in a non-judgmental way, without repression or judgment, he used the energy from his pain to pour himself into developing a Suicide Awareness service which is now helping family members throughout the country help folks who are suicidal and help loved ones who have lost a family member or friend to suicide.
Sometimes our opening up to our flaws includes reaching out to others for support in a way we wouldn’t normally risk doing. We realize that others are flawed in similar ways to us and develop bonds, which can be deep and long lasting. What better example of this is there than the tremendous success of Twelve Step groups during the past thirty years?
Suzuki commented once, “To appreciate our human life is as rare as soil on your nail.” When we can just look at the flaw without projecting anything on it, we may find ourselves embracing it and even appreciating its irregular and quirky beauty. The dirt on our fingernail shows our engagement, our involvement in life beyond any idea of perfection.
As Madonna sings, “Just take me with all my stupid flaws. I’ll never be as perfect as you want me to be. Take me, with all of my beautiful scars. I won’t apologize for being myself. I love you the way that you are . . . Don’t judge me, although I’m incomplete. My imperfections make me unique. That’s my belief. I come to you with all my flaws. With all of my beautiful scars.”
What a wonderful antidote to shame. We can begin to feel connected to our core self and to others on a visceral level. We can discover beauty right in the heart of our broken parts; hold it, and even cherish it, the opposite of the inner tyrant’s blood sport: “find the dysfunction — and pulverize it.”
I will close with a Zen story followed by a quote from Leonard Cohen.
One day some people came to the master and asked ‘How can you be happy in a world of such impermanence? The master held up a glass and said, “Someone gave me this glass, and I really like this glass. It holds my water admirably and it glistens in the sunlight. I touch it and it rings! One day the wind may blow it off the shelf, or my elbow may knock it from the table. And I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”
“Forget your perfect offering. There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. This crack is where lasting love takes root.” -Leonard Cohen
A splendid branch issues forth from the old plum tree.
Thorns come forth at the same time.
I ended my last post about the first chapter of Transmission of Light with this statement from the 14th century Zen teacher, Keizan:
“Truthfully, your skin, flesh, bones, and marrow are totally ‘and.’
The host inside the house is ‘I.’ It has nothing to do with skin, flesh, bones, and marrow.”
Now he reverses himself, in typical Zen fashion. He is warning us not to get attached to any concepts, even supposedly sacred ones. He does this by alluding to an interchange, which Bodhidharma had with his senior students. At the end of this interchange he praised Hui Ko as his best student, the only one to get the marrow of his teaching.
Keizan is reminding us that as soon as we single out someone or something as being best, we create problems. My root teacher, Suzuki Roshi, refers to this here:
If you think the aim of Zen practice is to train you to become one of the best horses, you will have a big problem. If you practice Zen in the right way it does not matter whether you are the best horse or the worst one. When you are determined to practice zazen with the great mind of Buddha, you will find the worst horse is the most valuable one. In your very imperfections you will find the basis for your firm, way-seeking mind. Those who can sit perfectly physically usually take more time to obtain the true way.
This reminds me of a time when I was practicing with him in San Francisco, having a hard time sitting still. I had the following dream: I went into the meditation hall and there were two really tall guys sitting in statue-like erectness and taking up the entire space, so that their heads reached the ceiling. There was no room for even a small fellow like me in the zendo. Then my teacher came in (He was even smaller than me). He proceeded to turn somersaults on the floor all around them playfully, beckoning me to join him, so I did! The two tall guys, who were sitting like statues didn’t even notice us.
I was excited to tell my teacher this dream, which I did while driving him to the Zen center where he lived. But he fell asleep before I finished telling him.
The message in the dream buoyed my practice at a time I was judging myself as a failure. The dream turned that around. I went from feeling like a failure to thinking I had a “special relationship” with my teacher. Then he fell asleep while I was talking, which didn’t make me feel so special any more. Still, the after-effects of the dream helped continue my practice without judging how well I was doing. It’s quite wonderful how deeply we can enjoy our moments and our lives when our inner tyrant loses its power over us. When this happens, we discover that, as Keizan says, we are able to “practice fully, penetrating in all ways, clarify Buddha’s enlightenment and your own enlightenment.”
This is my second commentary on the first chapter of the 14th century Zen master Keizan’s book The Transmission of the Lamp. I ended the last one with the quote, “If you want an intimate understanding of enlightenment, you should get rid of you and Buddha.”
Every morning at Zen centers throughout the world, there’s one chant that’s invariably recited, the Heart Sutra. This sutra does such a good job of getting rid of you and Buddha that sometimes its called the Heart Attack Sutra. It denies the validity of all the beliefs that span the previous five hundred years of Buddhist teaching.
This sutra ends with a declaration similar to Keizan’s: get rid of attachment to any concepts about Buddhism or the world in general and you will enter “Nirvana,” Nirvana not being a highfalutin state but merely one in which we have “blown out” the arbitrary boundary between self and other or ourselves and the world. When we do this, we are able to authentically be alive in this moment.
This blowing out of a self which is continually judging, evaluating and comparing leads to a realization, according to Keizan, that “I” is the Great Earth and all beings as “and.” You are the Buddha’s eye; the Buddha’s eye is the entirety of each of you. Or as Jesus said, when asked whether he had seen Abraham, the most ancient and honored ancestor of his Judaic tradition, “before Abraham was, I am!”
But then Keizan reverses himself, as do many Zen masters when he states “’And’ is not ‘I’ as the old fellow Shakyamuni Buddha.” He is reminding us not to get caught by the grandiosity of feeling one with all life. This can, ironically, turn into a type of narcissism. Yes, we are undivided, you are me, but also you are not me. You can never know what’s going on in my head, nor can I know what’s going on in yours.
Then Keizan concludes this part of the chapter by first warning us not to get caught by either difference or identity. This being so, “I” and “and” are neither identical nor different. When we are not caught by attachment to either identity or difference, Keizan continues, we realize that human life includes both. Truthfully, your skin, flesh, bones, and marrow are totally “and.” The host inside the house is “I.” The more I am completely myself, the more I realize and live from a sense of deep connection with all life. Another way of saying this is that I honor my small self while feeling connected to all life beyond its perimeter, what my root teacher called Big Mind.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher