As William Blake says, “In every cry of every Man, In every Infants cry of fear, In every voice: in every band, The mind-forg'd manacles I hear” and, as many of you know, he urged us to break out of these manacles, and clean the doors of perception, so we can see everything as it is, infinite.
Dogen gives us his advice about how to do this: “Examine walking backward and backward walking and investigate that walking forward and backward never stopped since before form arose.”
Instead of thinking that you are a “stubborn person,” an “anxious person,” or “depressed person” or even an enlightened person, a genuine pilgrim learns how to just walk, just travel, and even just dance. Whatever limitation you put on yourself is both artificial and arbitrary and puts your mind into a kind of vice. And Dogen also says, “Take the backward step that turns the light and shines it inward.”
Whatever you are concerned about, is it possible to trace it to the root where there is no inside or outside? Consciousness says, “I am here, you’re all out there,” or “I am anxious…. you are enlightened.” Is it really true? What about, “We are all enlightenedly anxious or anxiously enlightened?” Is it possible to trace each thought to a place closer and nearer than any labels which divide things up, and return to your original wholeness?
A few years ago I gave long term meditation support to “Nancy.” Nancy shared with me that sadness came up each time she did a meditation retreat. I coached her in retreats, so she was able to get closer to the contours of this feeling until it was no longer just her sadness. She realized two things: 1.) it was real and deep; 2.) it was continually changing. And when had this realization and just let it do its thing, it was no longer problematic. Whatever you are concerned about, trace it to the root.
Jane Hirshfield, commenting on her memory of time spent at Tassajara Zen Monastery, comments, “Even now, decades after, I wash my face with cold water, not for discipline, nor memory, nor the icy, awakening slap, but to practice choosing to make the unwanted wanted.”
Yes, exactly Jane, thank you.
As Dogen says, “If you follow the river all the way back to its source, there are clouds. If you follow the clouds all the way back to their source, there is the river.” The place where mountains and rivers meet are exactly the same place where you and I meet. No need to even be deterred by clouds!
Some time ago, I discussed following the cairns, regardless of how infrequent they are so we can meet in the innermost part of the country, the innermost part of our being and all being. But when our minds are going over and over and over everything that has happened to us and might happen and could happen or should happen, we may completely lose track of the cairns and find ourselves in a mosquito infested swamp. No need to despair. Dogen reminds us that “There are mountains hidden in swamps.” Gradually the sediment in the swamp settles and at some point the mosquitoes don’t even bother us! Every spring for the past few years, the mosquitoes have been feasting on my skin in early morning walking meditation in the backyard at our Zen center. Maybe my blood has gotten sour over the years, but I have found time and time again that if I just let them do their thing, completely accepting any distress or impatience that comes, they no longer disturb me.
Let’s look at a Zen story from the golden age of Chinese Zen:
Gateless Barrier, Case #10
A student of the intimacy came to the master Caoshan. He said “My name is Qingshui. I am solitary and destitute. Please give me alms.” The master responded, “Venerable Shui!” Quinshui immediately responded, “Yes!” Caoshan replied, “You’ve already sipped three glasses of the finest wine in the nation. And yet you say you’ve not put the cup to your lips.”
Qingshui was a student of the wild, a student of intimacy. He may have felt as isolated and alone as I did years ago at the end of two months at Tassajara Zen monastery, when I would obsessively count my mosquito bites. He may have felt as sorry for himself as I did, but neither of us really had anything to complain about. We weren’t homeless, hungry or at all unsafe and we were surrounded by nature!
But we were both feeling disconnected and bereft, as many people in our community have been feeling due to the pandemic; the precariousness of our country’s democracy; the effects of climate change’s disruption on our planet. his uneasiness is creating a dark night of the soul for many in which, like Qingshi, we cry for help.
The core Buddhist teaching that everything is transient cannot paper over our anxiety that everything we believe in, everything we value, everything we love and care about seems to be on the verge of going, going, going.
Instead of turning to some superficial pleasure, social media addiction, or other distracting behavior, can we be courageously honest like Shui was when he exclaimed to the teacher that he felt solitary and destitute. “This is where I am. Help”! he seems to be exclaiming.
And, of course, he doesn’t realize that this feeling of being enveloped by darkness, totally isolated, and alone could even mean that he is very close to opening to heart-mind. He may even be ready to fall into a radical acceptance of what is and the wonderful sense of interbeing with everyone and everything that accompanies this. Luckily, he had a spiritual friend to help him go beyond the limitations of his plaintiff cry, a spiritual friend who reminded him, “You’ve already sipped three glasses of the finest wine in the nation.”
At the height of Chinese Zen’s primacy from about 650 to 1100, monks and nuns traveled on foot from one monastery or teacher to another, which is where the verse "To drift like clouds and flow like water” comes from. And, of course, clouds and water do not know where they are going or what will happen to them; they just move.
And a little over a hundred years later, the Zen teacher Dogen broadened this emphasis by saying that external travel is not necessary at all because the true nature of pilgrimage is within, and our original place is always right here, even though all of our thoughts and feelings inside are also always moving or traveling. Dogen suggested we can be like “Nanyu, who, one by one and episode by episode, encountered the myriad delusions, and saw through, and beyond, to the flesh of the teacher’s face.”
If we follow trails within our body/mind, we come to realize “The whole Universe in the ten directions” is the whole human body.
Even though it is unlikely that John Muir, the American 20th century trail blazer was exposed to Dogen, he wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe. Keep close to Nature’s heart... and break clear away, Wash your spirit clean.” And in the 19th century, the Japanese Zen poet Basho wrote about traveling into a wild part of Japan seemingly untouched by humans and hearing songs being sung as farmers planted rice. As Basho listened, he wrote, “rice planting songs in the innermost part of the country.”
If we go farther and farther into the innermost part of our being, letting go of any attempt to get anywhere, we may be surprised to discover a song of its own emanating from our heart-mind.
But we can only do this through the “stupid zazen” my second teacher talked about. Stupid zazen is all about walking the trails of feeling and sensations inside you, letting yourself be turned sideways, upside down, or even inside out. The trail into the center of heart-mind is not linear.
As serious pilgrims, each of us can move deeper than the limitations of our conscious mind. The best way to do this may be, as Dogen said, “letting our fists and noses take the lead. Once the fists and noses have all taken up residence in the halls of the monastery, they hang up their traveling bag in their place for the duration of the retreat.”
Can we allow our fists and noses to fully explore the wilderness we encounter below the surface chatter of our minds? Even when there is no cairn, no trail marker at all, can we marry ourselves to our breath as it courses through our body? When Aristotle coined the term “good spirits” in Greek, he must have been well aware that the word for spirit is also the word for breath.
As I write this piece, folks are engaging in Zen center’s longest annual retreat, Rohatsu, honoring the historical Buddha’s final phase of pilgrimage. At Zen centers/temples all over the world people will be sitting silently doing absolutely nothing except following their breath/spirit for a week. This process of allowing the crust of our ego and defense mechanisms to crack open inevitably results in tapping into our deeply joyful heart-mind, the heart-mind of the universe. Due to my illness, I will not be joining but I will be in good spirits anyway, as each of us is, whether we realize this or not, as long as we are breathing.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher