This is my second piece on a pilgrimage through “don’t know” to intimacy.
Here’s a story that takes place in 9th or 10th century China during a break in a Zen/Chan practice period:
Three pilgrims, including two monks who have been practicing in a monastery on one hill and a nun, who has been practicing in a nunnery on a hill not far away approach a swollen stream on foot. The taller monk picks the nun up and carries her across on his shoulders, so she can proceed on her practice period break as they continue on theirs. After they leave her, the shorter monk then exclaims to his brother, “How could you forget our commitment to keep our minds from getting agitated during practice period, to not even look at women. How dare you flagrantly violate that rule, by carrying that nun on your shoulders across the stream!”
The taller monk replies, “Oh, is she still on your shoulders? I put her down when we left the stream.”
The story is told to point out the absurdity of letting any rules or even thoughts get in the way of spontaneously helping someone who is in genuine need. The rule, whether it’s in our head or on paper, too often inhibits our natural empathy with someone else’s suffering. But the other side of this which the story does not bring out, is that maybe it’s important to have rules that will help us getting caught by urges which disturb the stillness at the center of our being. Isn’t an awareness of that stillness, the ideal catalyst to genuine intimacy? Which monk’s example do we want to follow in our own pilgrimage opening into interbeing?
Maybe, rather than thinking there’s a right solution to whatever problem has fallen into our lap, we can go deeply into “don’t know” with curiosity. Without focusing on what’s right and wrong, can we explore something which we have no knowledge about with the inquisitiveness of what my teacher called our “beginners’ mind.”
Here’s my Banana Split story as an example:
I was driving Suzuki Roshi to our new Zen Monastery in Carmel Valley many years ago, when he asked to stop for coffee. I was taken aback, because I had been purifying my system for a couple of weeks in preparation for my monastery experience by cutting out both caffeine and sugar. But he was insistent. As soon as we sat down a waitress passed with a banana split for the someone at the next table. Suzuki asked me with delighted curiosity, “What’s that?” and after I answered immediately exclaimed “I want one of those.” She brought him one and he looked at it deliberately and carefully, saying, “just like America, everything mixed together.” Then he took a small bite of the chocolate, the strawberry, and vanilla ice cream as well as the banana, itself. Then he pushed it over to my end of the table and said, “you eat it.” I did and showed up at the monastery with a pretty bad stomachache.
That evening he gave a talk on beginner’s mind, explain that true Zen practice meant exploring whatever come your way instead of being inhibited by what you know or don’t know.
Regardless of what problems come up in our Zen practice or lives, can we approach them with the innocence of “What is it?” Can we look at all its related aspects, just opening to seeing what there is to see?
We are so dominated by habits of mind. I have been watching how my own grandsons have begun to lose their innocence and are continually competing to be the one who knows (and the older one generally wins). This a natural part of childhood development, but, as Zen practitioners, through our pilgrimage through “not knowing” into intimacy, we gradually realize that its less important to be the one who knows than it is to be awake to what’s happening.
Often, I talk about Dogen’s statement, “To study the Way is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self, to forget the self is to be intimate all life.” Sometimes I refer to this as our journey to both bring alive and act from our own heart-mind. The more honestly, and bravely we study the self, the more clearly we experience “clear seeing,” even if it’s an odd looking banana split on the table next to ours. And we can’t jump to forgetting the self until we’ve explored whatever presents itself, good or bad, with our beginner’s mind. When we do this, Zhaoshou’s teaching that I ended the last piece on becomes our own and all spiritual pretension vanishes.
Case 80, The 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 late: “it flows away, no one knows where. It flows on from instant to instant, and there is nobody in the world who can foresee its destination.”
I will continue this discussion in my third piece.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher