In this piece I would like to reflect on a couple of verses from Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching, composed in China around the time of Buddha:
He who stands on tiptoe doesn’t stand firm.
He who rushes ahead doesn’t go far.
Often, I talk about the difference between the tortoise/turtle and the hare/rabbit. The rabbit is running, running, running, trying to win the race. He may run three laps around the lake surging forward on his tiptoes without seeing the sky, the trees, or even the kids playing in the water, because he is so intent on getting somewhere, becoming someone, or just winning. The turtle just takes one step and then another, one breath and then another, appreciating and reveling in the greenness of the grass, the blueness of the sky, the stillness of the lake… and when he gets a little excited or anxious about winning or losing the race with the rabbit, he just draws his head and legs into his shell and rejuvenates himself by doing absolutely nothing.
At some point the turtle realizes that his inner world and his outer world are not separate and that he has already won the race, while the poor rabbit is always judging and comparing himself to others and misses the deep happiness of just being.
Through turtle practice we learn to stand firmly where we are. As Lao Tzu’s fellow Taoist Chuang Tzu says, “Sink into your rootedness in the great mystery. Your vitality and power are hidden there. A wedge cannot enter as long as you are just who you are.”
This is the secret to the turtle’s imperturbability and longevity.
You may wonder how you can settle into this imperturbability yourself. Miles Davis was asked how to become a trumpet playing master. He said, “It’s simple. Just blow, blow, blow.” Meditate, meditate, meditate. There will be times which are boring and times that are frustrating, as blowing, blowing, blowing must be, but this continual, non-judgmental effort is the core of our Zen practice. It’s hard work and we are bound to feel at times like we are not making progress. It may even seem that our meditation is nothing but unpleasant work.
But Is it possible that our meditation can be play as much as it is work? Did you know that turtles love to play and that a happy turtle is a playful turtle?
When I was a boy, I had a turtle who loved to play with an empty shell I put in his tank. He would slide the shell across the tank bottom and chase it. He even played with snails I put in his tank. And when I took him outside to my yard he would dig, dig, dig in the ground with great abandon and then look up to me in what seemed like a grin.
Humor, laughter, and play breaks down the division between the beautiful and the ugly, the spiritual and the material, the sacred and the profane. Here are two stories:
1.) A Zen student went to a temple and asked how long it would take him to gain enlightenment if he joined the temple.
“Ten years,” said the Zen master.
“Well, how about if I really work hard and double my effort?”
2.) Seeing his teacher on the other side of a raging torrent, a student waved his arms and shouted out, “Master, master, how do I get to the other side?”
The master shouted back, “You are on the other side.”
This teacher is pointing out that if we don’t rush ahead, but instead sink firmly into the earth which we are standing on, grit and all, whatever happens, we are always “on the other side.”
The Chinese poet Yuan Mei wrote,
I burned incense, swept the earth, and waited for a poem to come… then I laughed and climbed the mountain, and leaning on my staff, I laughed again. I’d love to be a master of the blue sky’s art: See how many sprigs of snow-white cloud he’s brushed in so far today!
Even though there is a 2000-year gap between Lao Tzu and Yuan Mei, I think they are best friends!
In my last piece I explained the unconscious or storehouse consciousness. In this piece I will discuss two complementary practices that free us from the contamination of negative or unwholesome seeds stored within this storehouse. The first is altering the seeds we place in there through our intentions and actions. The second is practicing meditation so can stop producing seeds and empty out those that we are storing. As we let go of projections from the past we store within our unconscious, we dip into a stillness which is always at the center of our being.
Yogacara teachers refer to paramita practice as a wonderful way to replace unwholesome seeds with wholesome ones. The six core paramitas are patience, generosity, morality, effort, meditation, and wisdom which I have discussed in other pieces, so I will only give a single example of how this works.
Let’s say that the current “shelter in place” limitations due to the coronavirus are making you anxiously impatient. Maybe you obsessively use the media to try to figure out when the pandemic might subside, and your life might get back to normal. You might practice the paramita of patience by repeating a phrase to yourself whenever you notice your agitation about this is rearing its head. You could use my teacher, Suzuki Roshi’s phrase things as it is,based on the teaching of radically accepting what life hands us. If you do this every time your agitation arises, you are planting new, positive seeds in your own storehouse. Or you can find a different word or phrase which resonates with you. We need positive seeds to enhance and sustain our meditation practice.
The second practice yogacara teachers recommend is meditation, which is also the 5th paramita. Through meditation it is possible to still the rushing waterfall of experience (perfume, seed, experience, perfume, seed, etc.) which I discussed in my last piece. Luckily, the yogacara unconscious both stores memories and is the seat of our quiescent Buddha Nature, unchanging, unborn and fundamentally real.
Extended meditation periods or retreats are times when we have the best opportunity to notice our seeds without judging them an, as a result, they shrivel up.
When ego (mana in Sanskrit), calms down in the stillness of our meditation, the storehouse empties out and functions as a mirror, reflecting all life within it. As the Chinese Zen teacher Shen Hui said in the 8th century, “Those who see into the storehouse have their senses cleansed of defilements, and open to Buddha-wisdom.” To settle into this mirror mind we need to recognize bad seeds as they appear in our meditation. If we do this without watering them, they dry up on their own.
Here’s an example: Let’s say a memory of the delightful taste of some beverage like coffee comes up during my meditation, followed by a craving to have a cup. All I need to do is recognize the craving; fully accept it; allowing the seed to shrivel and die as I keep coming back to my breath and my other sensations.
In meditation retreats you may notice forgotten scenes from childhood and jumbled scenes of unknown people arising or possibly be disconcerted by feelings of rage or grief. As you bring any of these negative seeds into full consciousness, opening to them without entertaining them, they begin to vanish.
These two yogacara practices, adding good seeds into our storehouse and releasing our attachment to all of our seeds, do not transform us overnight. Changing ingrained patterns takes similar dedication and proactivity to walking after surgery. But sooner or later each of us can tap into Shen Hui’s mirror mind and begin to enjoy our lives right in the middle of difficult times like the one we are currently having.
We have a tragic human history. Generation after generation, we have been caught by the limitations of our conscious mind and unaware of how negative projections from the past influence our behavior. If we add some good seeds into our storehouse and meditate with consistency and determination, our projections dissipate. The process of opening up to them and not activating them is very simple. The more we do this, the greater possibility there will experience “mirror mind,” our own still nature, which reflects all life within it.
In my next couple pieces, I am going to suggest how Buddhist yogacara teaching helps us work with experiences which we are not generally conscious of. I think this teaching is particularly relevant, as fears which seem uncontrollable can unexpectedly arise during these difficult times.
In yogacara teaching, there are several levels of consciousness. The 8th (deepest) level, the storehouse-consciousness, is very similar to the western unconscious. It is a subjective phenomenon, a repository for all our memories, and it colors everything we do. If ten people look at a complex rock formation, one may see a baby’s face on it, another an animal, another something else entirely.
The 7th level (the level just above the storehouse), referred to as manas, is what we call ego in the west. It is the seat of our, “This is me. This is mine. This is not mine”orientation. Manas/ego, generally keeps a tight grip on the storehouse. Its primary function is to store seeds (emotional memories from the past).
Seeds are of two kinds; positive and negative. And movement between ego and the storehouse is a three-part process:
First, I have a conscious experience, second, that experience emanates a perfume, third that perfume coagulates in our unconscious into a seed- then I have another experience which activates another seed, which leaves a further residue which creates yet another seed- on and on and on.
This continual movement from experience to stored memory to projection to experience creates a rushing waterfall of experience, residue, seed, experience, residue, seed, so we are continually captured and propelled forward by our projections from the past.
There was a woman in the office I used to work in who activated all kinds of negative reactions from me… and sometimes she did nothing at all but walk past my desk. As I practiced paying attention to why my seeds were getting so activated, I realized that her actions were igniting memories I had not been conscious of about my own mother.
The pandemic that we are currently in is very likely to activate negative seeds in all of us. As a friend told me about his experience being hospitalized with the virus for three days in March, (and his wife added that she didn’t know if he was going to live because he had so much difficulty breathing), I started getting afraid myself, activating some of my negative seeds. I remembered being by another friend’s bed more than 30 years ago as he was gasping for breath just before he died of pneumonia.
Negative seeds serve an important function, since they warn us about potential danger. But if this warning light is on too much of the time, we can lose our balance and can no longer enjoy our moments.
Luckily, the seeds we produce are not all negative. Positive or wholesome seeds both create and are a result of positive experiences.
In my next piece I will discuss two complementary practices based on yogacara teaching: Altering the seeds we plant through our intentions and actions;
Practicing meditation so can see through ego, and dip into our deep, quiescent nature, released from the tumult of the rushing waterfall.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher