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THIS PRECIOUS OPPORTUNITY TOGETHER
December 4, 2014 Rohatsu 2014 Bellingham
Let’s reflect a minute on how rare, how precious, this opportunity to practice together is. So many factors have to be present for us to be able to do this. Of course each of us made some kind of choice to be here. To show up. Sometimes we notice that level of condition, our own choice, or own motivation. But it goes much deeper than that, doesn’t it?
Spend a moment feeling your breathing. Feeling the body. Feeling contact between the body and the cushion or the chair. Giving yourself to yourself. Dropping in.
Not perfectly comfortable maybe, not utter joy and contentment may, but pretty good eh? A body and mind that can sit, can practice. Be with that a moment
Now visualize someone you know, or have known, who wouldn’t be physically able to be here. So many people are ill. Bedridden. For so many people just keeping alive is the main thing. Or maybe someone who was hurt or in an accident. The frustration of losing mobility and being stuck somewhere. I was visiting a Zen student yesterday who’d just moved to Bellingham, very excited to come practice with us. She went out to dinner with her brother. On her way out the door after a nice meal her foot caught on something on the floor. Down she went breaking her arm and her leg both. She’s been stuck in a rehab place for nearly two months now. I’ve been trying to encourage her to practice there but it’s not easy. Conditions are more challenging than we are enjoying. This really happens to people. So visualize yourself in that situation. Ill. Hurt. Broken. Unable to come to the zendo or receive teachings.
Feeling the feeling of that. How would you practice?
And return to the feeling of being here. Now. Ah….
And now visualize someone who suffers from a serious mental disability. Retardation of some kind. Dementia. Alzheimer’s. There’s a day treatment facility for adults with autistic spectrum in town, sometimes you see a group of those folks walking around downtown with their supporters. They give off some happiness for sure but they are not going to be able to practice in the way we are in this lifetime. So many people just lack the mental resources to do spiritual practice.
Imagine if you were in that situation. What would that be like? Can you get inside that and feel into it. Would everything that happens be disorienting? A surprise? Maybe you can think of a time you were really disoriented and confused? Or just imagine the roughness of that kind of mind.
And return to the feeling of being here. Now. Ah….
Now think of the many people throughout history, and now, who live in situations where the luxury of spiritual practice would be unthinkable. People living in war zones. People living with intense economic hardship. I often remember a powerful encounter with a homeless who was hungry that I had during one of our weekend retreats with Norman at the old place on State Street. The folks living under our bridges are just trying to stay warm this morning, figure out how to get some food or some basic needs. And of course we have so many war zones all over the world. I read a wonderful thriller set in Somalia and Kenya which helped remind me of the daily existence and poverty there. There are no meditation retreats. What would it be to live as a refugee or a homeless person. Day to day to day to day. Be in those shoes.
And return to the feeling of being here. Now. Ah…
Lastly visualize the great teachers and spiritual masters who practiced so diligently to develop these ways of practice. To drop through the projections and craziness of their minds. Many of them practicing with very little support. So isolated, either physically or spiritually and emotionally. We don’t really know what it was like for Suzuki Roshi and Katagiri Roshi coming to America in the 50’s. Barely speaking the language. Conflicting demands and requests on them. The people around them not having any context for this practice. We highlight the ways they celebrated the openness of that – beginner’s mind – but I’m sure it was also really tough. Disorienting. I don’t think they magically knew just how to present Zen practice. What to emphasize? What to leave out? When to correct the students’ form and understand? When to just give them time to grow into it. What if they never get it? We romanticize them now but I’m sure it was pretty tough. Put yourself in their shoes. How hard to keep going sometimes!
And return to the feeling of being here. Now. Ah…
This opportunity to practice is so precious. So rare. And how easily we get distracted. How easily the mind focusses on our dissatisfactions and issues. Not that we can’t bring up our issues – we can and we should – but what do we hold closest to our hearts? Do we show up whether we feel like it or not? In the traditional Buddhist scheme this birth as a reasonably healthy human being who somehow is able to practice the Dharma is extremely rare. Extremely precious. Let’s do our best to bring that thought back to mind throughout our retreat. And if you’re visiting for the talk, you too can practice in this way out in the busy world.
Speaking of Suzuki Roshi, our Rohatsu Buddha’s Enlightenment sesshin is a celebration of ancestors. We celebrate Buddha and we celebrate the chain of men and women who’ve practiced from Buddha’s time to now. We celebrate that aspect of this precious moment now. This sesshin brought to you by Buddha and company.
Since we are in the Suzuki Roshi and Katagiri Roshi lineages here I thought we’d appreciate some words of Suzuki Roshi together. I was looking through a treasure trove of digital dharma files I have and found a folder called “SR Archive” which turns out to be all of the transcripts the students at San Francisco Zen Center made of his talks. They are arranged in date order so I thought it might be interesting to read the earliest one.
TEACHER AND DISCIPLE, Shunryū Suzuki-rōshi, December 1961 and February 1962
Emptiness does not mean annihilation; it means selfless original enlightenment which gives rise to everything. Once selfless original enlightenment takes place, very subjective and objective existence resumes its own nature (buddha-nature) and becomes valuable jewels to us all.
In Mahāyāna Buddhism every teaching is based on the idea of emptiness, but most schools emphasize its expression in some particular sutra—the Lotus Sūtra, the Avatamsaka-sūtra, the Mahāvairochana-sūtra, and others. In Zen we do not emphasize the teaching until after we practice, and between practice and enlightenment there must not be any gap in our effort. Only in this way it is possible to attain the perfect enlightenment from which every teaching comes out. For us it is not teaching, practice, enlightenment; but enlightenment, practice, and the study of the teachings. At this time every sutra has its value according to the temperament and circumstances of the disciples.
This “gap” is an important teaching. Not turning away from what’s arising now is how I understand it. Not pulling ourselves away. Being right there. Right there with everything that arises. Breathing it in. Merging with reality. With what Suzuki Roshi called “things as it is.”
Confusingly a similar concept of finding the space between stimulus and response as things come at us is an important skill in practice too. We find a spaciousness so we aren’t led around by the nose by our judgments and resistances. We learn in that space to see this is just what it is I can be with it.
So oddly the practice of feeling into the spaciousness is the same as the practice of no gap. It’s a question of point of view or language.
So it is the character or personality, the cross-current of teacher and disciple, that makes transmission and real patriarchal Zen possible—practicing from the point of view of the enlightenment of the Buddhas and patriarchs. So the relationship between the teacher or Zen master and disciples is quite important for us. By believing in one’s master, one can attain his character and the disciple or student will have his own spiritual unfoldment.
This is a central idea in Zen and also in Tibetan Buddhism and probably other schools too. Less so in the Thervadadin Buddhism that informs Vipassana where the teacher is seen as more of a spiritual friend. The traditional understanding in Zen is that the teacher embodies something that cannot be expressed in words. And an experienced teacher is an essential element in our practice.
The aspect of me, Tim Burnett born in La Jolla, California in 1966, which operates in words through my personality and history feels a little funny talking like this though. I am apparently sitting in the teachers seat and giving a teaching but I do not feel special or wise or enlightened in a self-conscious way. I don’t go around making too many brilliant insightful remarks like a mythical Zen master either.
And it might be that’s just your bad luck that we are entering the age of ordinary teachers. Suzuki Roshi was operating in the age of Special Teachers. And in that situation he was empowered to do lots of special things and his surviving students still talk about the amazing things he said and did and his presence. I remember Norman complaining about that at one point. They’d have a special celebration of say, the 50th Anniversary of SF Zen Center’s founding, and round up all of the surviving Suzuki Roshi students they could find who would then tell the same old stories they always tell. Wonderful stories though.
But there’s another aspect of this where it might be this archetype of the teacher and student is alive and well. Fully functioning. It’s more subtle and you have to hang around a while to even notice it. A long term practitioner who’s received some support to practice in an insightful way does embody something. There’s a feeling to it that’s hard to describe.
One time I went to Norman’s house in California to spend the day with him learning how to do the calligraphy on the back of the rakusu people receive in the jukai precepts ceremony. Norman and I hung out all day and practiced that. He made me some really tasty coffee and a nice lunch. We went for a walk in the neighborhood. He didn’t give me any particular teachings or advice. We just spent a quiet day together.
And when I got back to where I was staying that night I noticed how different I felt. How much more grounded. A sense of depth and appreciation for this human life. It was really striking once I noticed it. I think my sister in law pointed it out actually and I was like “yeah…you’re right!”
Norman was just present with me. And come to think of it I don’t remember him having to veer off to attend to other things all day. Maybe he answered a phone call at some point I don’t remember but he was really there with me. He was present. And it wasn’t like he was doing me a big favor or felt like he was “working” that day. We were just enjoying our companionship in the Dharma. And it was a really profound day I will never forget.
Maybe if we’re lucky here in Bellingham and in Seattle we can be that kind of teacher for each other. Each in our own way. It’s not about spiritual zingers. It’s about being deeply together. Walking the path together.
Suzuki Roshi goes on and tells a story from the ancestors
Once when Yakusan-zenji was asked to talk about Buddhism he said: “There is the teacher of scriptures, there is the scholar or philosopher of Buddhism, and then there is the Zen master. Do not acknowledge me.” Day after day, from morning until night, he behaved like a Zen master. “Why don’t you acknowledge me” is what he meant. To practice Zen with disciples, to eat with them and sleep with them is the most important thing for a Zen master. So he said, “Why don’t you acknowledge me? I am a Zen master, not a teacher of the scriptures or a philosopher.”
So we say, “Only to sit on a cushion is not Zen.” The Zen master’s everyday life, character and spirit is Zen. My own master said, “I will not acknowledge any monastery where there is lazy training, where it is full of dust.” He was very strict. To sleep when we sleep, to scrub the floor and keep it clean, that is our Zen. So practice is first. And as a result of practice, there is teaching. The teaching must not be stock words or stale stories. But must be always kept fresh. That is real teaching.
But we do not neglect the teaching or sūtras of Buddha. Because we want to find out the actual value of the teaching, we practice Zen and train ourselves to have the actual living meaning of the scriptures. But this practice must be quite serious. If we are not serious enough, the practice will not work and the teaching will not satisfy you. If you have a serious friend or teacher, you will believe in Buddhism. Without an actual living example it is very difficult to believe or practice. So to believe in your master and be sincere—that is enlightenment. So we say, “Oneness of enlightenment and sincere practice.”
I didn’t know it at the time, but the first problem given me by my master was this story about Yakusan-zenji, which I have just told you. I could not acknowledge my master for a pretty long time. It is quite difficult to believe in your teacher, but we must know our fundamental attitude toward Buddhism. That is why Dōgen went to China. For a long time he had studied in the Tendai school, the very profound, philosophical school of Buddhism, but still he was not satisfied. Dōgen’s problem was, “If we already have buddha-nature, why do we have to practice? There should be no need to practice.” He was quite sincere about this problem.
I do worry a little if we’re serious enough here. It’s a subtle thing to be serious in a wholesome way. Not too heavy. Not judgmental or too precious. Not reinforcing the illusion of our separateness or the illusion of our incompleteness.
I worry that I’m not devoted enough to the Dharma. And it’s okay I can practice with that worry and be with it. Try to invite it to encourage me to sit every day and show up for my life. To not lay any trips on anyone else but to be upright in my own life.
We can see the effects of taking this seriously in an uwholesome way. That feeling of never being good enough. Not living up to some kind of idealistic monastic vision. And we can see the effects of not taking it seriously at all. We know that “everything is practice” but that is so damn easy to misunderstand. But each of will have our own expression. Not everyone can come to the zendo all the time. And I have to admit I worry about this point a bit as I said.
So I’ll just invite each of us to consider: what does serious practice look like for me? What’s the right way? We need some encouragement sometimes to work through our desire for comfort and our laziness but do we turn it into self-aggression if we try too hard. It’s a subtle and important point.
Buddha-nature, you know, is neither good nor bad, spiritual nor material. By buddha-nature, we mean human nature. To be faithful to our nature will be the only way to live in this world as a human being. So we call our nature buddha-nature and accept it, good or bad. To accept it is a way to be free from it; because we do not accept it, we cannot be free. If the idea of human nature exists in your mind, you will be caught by it. When you accept it, you are not caught by it. So to accept does not mean to understand it psychologically or biologically. It means actual practice. No time to be caught, no time to doubt.
A more eloquent way of exploring this question of what our practice is about. Are we trying to improve ourself? Or are we trying to understand the actual nature of the self. I love the active verb in this sentence: “We call our nature Buddha-nature and accept it, good or bad.” We need to call out to our life. Call out to the world. Call out to each moment. Engage. Re-engage. And accept the answer that comes back in response to our calling. And this acceptance is not a self-conscious kind of psychological understanding. Dogen reminding us over and over that we may not know enlightenment in a self-referential cognitive way. It’s a deeper feeling than that.
Dōgen tried to be satisfied with some teaching or answer which was written, but as long as he was concerned only with the teaching, it was impossible to be satisfied. He didn’t know what he wanted, but as soon as he met Zen Master Nyojō in China, he knew. Dōgen was quite satisfied with Nyojō’s character and Nyojō said to Dōgen, “That I have you as a disciple is exactly the same as Shākyamuni Buddha having Mahākāshyapa.” So that was the relationship.
The teachings come to live in embodied relationship with real people. This is so easy to miss. We like to make things abstract. And we like to make them our own in a way that limits the teachings. The teachings are bigger than that. Nyojo by the way is the Japanese version of Dogen’s teacher Ryujin’s name.
In this way, Zen teaching and understanding is transmitted. Nyojō said, “You must transmit this teaching to someone.” This looks as if he were trying to bind the disciple, but once you understand what he actually said, everyone you meet and everything you have becomes valuable to you. So Dōgen said, “Everyone is your master, don’t pay any attention to whether they are a layman or priest, a woman or man, young or old. Everyone is your teacher and your friend, but as long as you discriminate this from that, you will not meet a Zen master.”
If we are real Zen students, we sleep where we are, eat what is given to us, and listen to the teacher, good or bad. The teacher may say, “How are you? If you answer, I will give you a hit, if you don’t answer I will give you a hit.” He doesn’t care what you think about it. If you get hit with the stick, you will get something. Whether the answer is right or wrong, whether you get hit or not, is not the point. So Dōgen said, “If you want to listen to a Zen master for absolute truth, you must not think about his rank, his accomplishments, deeds, or shortcomings. Accept him just as he is because he is a bodhisattva.” That is the right attitude toward life—just accept it. If your attitude is right, everything you hear will be Buddha speaking. Then the master is not teacher or student, but Buddha himself.
This last part is quite a relief because I myself don’t feel so accomplished. And that’s okay.
Let’s practice carefully and fully together in this retreat. It will be over before we know it. Please don’t waste time. And the way to not waste time is to forget about time, forget about you. Just keep showing up. Just meet everything fully, with no gap. When there’s no gap there’s no me, no you, no zendo, there’s just this. And our willingness to enter fully into just this without any holding back is a great gift to ourself, to the world. That’s truly making wise use of the precious opportunity of human birth.