• Home
  • Dharma Talk with Nomon Tim Burnett : One Day Sitting - Perfect Just As You Are

Dharma Talk with Nomon Tim Burnett : One Day Sitting - Perfect Just As You Are

  • Saturday, September 23, 2023
  • 7:00 AM - 5:00 PM

Nomon Tim offers a reflection on at the beginning of the community's one day sitting.

Stream audio:

Stream video:

Tim's talk notes:

Reference: Jiryu has a nice article on Zhiyi's Six Dharma Gates.


Good morning, I'm so happy that we all get to be here together - in person and online. A day of practice. A day of being. We are called human beings but we often have a lot of trouble with just being. Sometimes we get worried, we have trouble balancing things out, we get reactive, we have doubts. Other times we're happy, a little excited - it's great to be alive. Our practice is to broaden this frame. To allow it all, appreciate it all, and be free in the middle of it all.

The theme of the retreat is from an a famous story about Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. He was with a group of students in the early days in San Francisco. Early 1960's probably. He gazed at them and said, "you know I think you are perfect just as you are." They were probably a bit astounded. Do you feel perfect just as you are? And here's a great Zen master they were all pretty excited to get to be with telling them this. And then he went on, "and I think you could use a little improvement."

I was trying to find that story in the famous book of his short talks Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind and I couldn't but the internet pointed me to a talk by one of my teachers: Zenkei Blanche Hartman. Given soon after she become to first female abbess as San Francisco Zen Center in 1996.  Here are a few paragraphs of what Blanche said:

There's an old story about a sailing vessel off the coast of Brazil. The crew had run out of fresh water and when they spotted another vessel they signaled to them to please come and meet them, that they were out of fresh water, which is a very dangerous thing on the ocean. They were out of sight of land. And so they signaled, "We need water. We'll send some boats over." And they got back the signal, "Put down your buckets where you are." Although they were out of sight of land, they were where the Amazon River empties into the ocean. It's such a massive river that even out of sight of land, there is still fresh water.

So, "put down your buckets where you are."

Our practice and our realization is right where we are. There is nothing missing right here.

In one of the enlightenment stories in the Dentoroku (Transmission of Light), the stories that Keizan Zenji compiled of the enlightenment experiences or koans related to each of the ancestors of the Soto lineage, there is one I want to share with you from Lex Hixon's translation in Living Buddha Zen (Transmission #40), Tao Ying to Tao P'i:

The living Buddha Tao Ying enters the Dharma Hall and remarks to the assembled practitioners: "If you wish to attain a Limitless result, you must become a limitless being. Since you already are such a being, why become anxious to bring about any such result?"

This is like Suzuki Roshi's teaching, "You're perfect just as you are" or Matsu's "This very mind is Buddha."

So, "since you already are such a limitless being, why be anxious about such a result?" So are we practicing just to express this limitless being, or because we think we're not a limitless being?

And once we discover we are a limitless being, will we continue practicing? Well, of course. That's what limitless beings do. This is Dogen Zenji's practice enlightenment, practice-realization. This practice itself expresses the limitlessness which is our essential being. 

Practice as discovering that we're limitless beings. That we're perfect just as we are. To deeply feel into that. To practice accepting that - or maybe to practice imagining that one day we might be able to even a little bit accept that we are Buddha.

I've shared many times before that when I ordained Norman gave me three instructions: be humble, see everyone as Buddha, and try to help.

The middle practice is the most important, and maybe the hardest when we see others as limited beings: see everyone as Buddha.

Lately I'm realizing that he meant to see myself as Buddha too.

Can I imagine that.

Another great teacher in our American Zen family Taigen Leighton said that actually zazen isn't meditation to try to improve ourselves - although it also is that I think - "…and you could use a little improvement" - but actually zazen is being Buddha. He's a bit of an academic and he coined the term, "enactment ritual". Everything we do here is not to improve something but to be something, to be Buddha, to be our limitless selves. Can you feel something of that?

I’m quoting my teachers a lot this morning: a really important talk Norman once gave and I've probably listened to many hundreds of his talks was about the process of change and transmission and learning in sangha, in our way of practice. I wish I could find this talk, I looked in a collection of his talks and essays that was published recently called When You Greet Me I Bow, but it wasn't there. In the talk he basically said the way of growth and change together in the sangha is from hanging around and practicing. Nothing fancy to it. Greeting each other with kindness, being quiet when it's time to be quiet, sitting, walking, chanting. Studying a bit. Not being lazy - showing up, but not trying too hard either.

Suzuki Roshi's English was a bit quirky to say the least but here's how he made the same point:

“But as long as you think, "I am doing this," or "I have to do this," or "I must attain something special," you are actually not doing anything... when you do not try to do anything special, then you do something. When there is no gaining idea in what you do, then you do something.”

You do something. Another teacher of mine, Jon Kabbat-Zinn, loves to talk about "non-doing" which is what Suzuki Roshi is talking about here. Dogen says think not thinking. Suzuki roshi is saying do not-doing. And when is that happening? When there's no gaining idea.

So we are here to remember something. To remember our limitlessness. To remember our true nature is one way of talking. To remember that we are all Buddha. Dogen said the only way to be a Buddha is to be a Buddha with another Buddha. Only a Buddha and a Buddha.

I can sit in my lovely office and think about this stuff but when I get to sit with you and talk with you about the Dharma is when it comes alive. Only a Buddha and a Buddha.

So we aren't hear to do anything but we could use a little improvement. A little guidance and direction is helpful if we can hold it all lightly - if we can hold it all with the feeling that we're already fine. We're already okay. There's nothing missing. The problem of our life is that we think there's a big problem.

Here's Suzuki Roshi again on the quality of our effort in practice:

Strictly speaking, any effort we make is not good for our practice because it creates waves in our mind. It is impossible, however, to attain absolute calmness of our mind without any effort… So it is necessary for us to encourage ourselves and to make an effort up to the last moment, when all effort disappears.

So how to do do this non-doing practice. This effortless effort? How do you orient? Where do you put your attention?

A wonderful pre-Zen Buddhist Chinese ancestor named Zhiyi who left us with a meditation manual he wrote in the 6th century. That recommends working our way, very gradually, through six meditation practices. I want to focus on the first two and briefly mention the rest, we'll get into those in more detail another day.

The first one you've probably heard of: breath counting. So lest you think that's a modern day idea to count the breaths, it's ancient.

[give the instructions]

Here's a little from Zhiyi himself:

As for the cultivation of counting, the practitioner regulates and harmonizes the breath so that it is neither too rough nor too subtle. One proceeds in an unhurried fashion, slowly counting, going from “one” on up to “ten.” One focuses the mind on the counting and does not allow it to run off and become scattered.

There's a dramatic story in David Chadwick's biography of Suzuki Roshi Crooked Cucumber. It's summer time at Tassajara Zen Monastery maybe a year or two after they founded it in 1967. If you go down the creek a bit there's a really nice swimming around at a place called the narrows. It's all rock smoothed and sculpted by the creek. Very pretty. I think there's a kind of natural water slide between two pools too, very sweet place. Suzuki Roshi was there with the students swimming. It turns out he wasn't a very strong swimmer and somehow he got disoriented underwater and almost drowned. When they helped him out and he lay there gasping for air he was a bit shocked to see how panicked he felt. He figured his practice would help him stay grounded. So he decided to return to this practice of breath counting and encouraged many of the students to do so two.

Here's what he said later:

You may think it is silly to count your breath from one to ten, losing track of the count and starting over. If you use a computer, there will not be any mistake. But the underlying spirit is quite important. While we are counting each number, we find that our life is limitlessly deep… To count each breath is to breathe with our whole mind and body. We count each number with the power of the whole universe. So when you really experience counting your breath, you will have deep gratitude… You will not be so interested in something just because it is considered great, or uninterested in something usually considered to be small.

I did nothing but this practice for the first 5 or 6 years of my studies. At one point I was getting really bored with it. I could more or less do it, sometimes. But it felt very rote and automatic. It didn't often feel the spirit Suzuki roshi is talking about here - feeling the whole universe. I was at Tassajara where we sat a LOT and I went to see Blanche the teacher I opened this talk with. I think I was half hoping she'd give me a new practice. Back then we didn't have the internet or mindfulness classes or meditation apps. Breath counting was the only practice I knew. Blanche smiled and said, "oh getting boring? well why don't you start at 10 and count back down to 1, you can't do that on autopilot as easily."And so I did that for a few years.

Breath counting: I recommend it.

Zhiyi's 2nd dharma gate is to release the counting and follow the breath. Following.

A colleague of mine Jiryu writes about following and the transition from counting to following. He speaks my mind so clearly I'll just quote him:

Zhiyi describes how, as we settle into the counting, the breath will grow smoother and more subtle, as will the effort of attention. As the breath and the mental effort quiet down, there may emerge a sense that the counting is not really helping anymore. It is no longer supporting our deepening concentration—it has actually become rather loud in our head, more a distraction than anything. What’s all that inward shouting about numbers? Can’t we just sit here awhile, alone with the breath? As Zhiyi puts it, at this point “one’s state of mind is such that one does not wish to engage in counting.”

It can’t be emphasized enough that this “not wishing to engage in counting” is not the same as just giving up on the practice. It isn’t that we’re bored counting, or that we never really committed to it in the first place and are fishing around for something else to do. Sloughing off one practice and sliding into another (or out of practice entirely) is, as often as not, simple laziness, forgetting or bailing on the practice that we sat down intending to do.

Honoring the trajectory is altogether different—we are letting go of the counting in order to follow the path toward further subtlety. There can be some effort here, some hand in letting loose or relinquishing the heavier effort, but ideally this process is utterly natural, effortless. We just naturally turn away from the counting and toward the quieter practice of following. Counting drops away like an autumn leaf.

At this point, we don’t add anything new to our meditation. The counting has fallen away, but the attention on the breath is still there. It’s the same practice, just with no number. In modern Zen, this second gate, “following,” is understood as the second phase of meditation practice: what Zhiyi describes as “relying single-mindedly on following the coming in and going out of the breath.”

I sometimes think of this practice as a form of counting, but just counting to one. Our full attention is on this one breath. We don’t need to bother with what comes before and after, we don’t need to track any sequence—we are just totally absorbed in this one breath.

Just follow. Feel the full breath cycle. Feel it in your body. Enjoy the varied and subtle sensations. And nothing you need to do with any of this.

As following gets subtler and quieter there can be a sense of deep stillness. Of stopping. And that's Zhiyi's 3rd Dharma Gate: stopping.

Someone was asking me about Shikantaza and it has this quality of stopped. Just sitting isn't doing anything at all. It's stopping.

That's plenty of practice instruction for one day. And by the way I'm really happy to talk with you about your zazen experience in dokusan. That's where I am a lot more likely to be truly helpful than in giving some kind of general suggestions like in a talk like this. When we bring up the dharma together in the dokusan room please feel warmly inviting to bring your zazen experience up and we can explore. And it's really okay if you have some fear arising that you're not good at this and it'd be embarrassing to talk about what really goes on in your mind or something. I'm a lot more worried about people who think they have it down actually. Back to Norman's first instruction to me as a young priest, be humble, realize you don't know anything.

But to feel thorough a brief kind of outline of the 4th, 5th and 6th gates. These get more technical and subtle.

The 4th gate is contemplation. A deep penetrating wonder emerges. Consciousness gets curious about consciousness and experience but in a deeply grounded steady way. What is this? What is breath? Who breathes? Contemplation is a practice of profound curiosity.  A good approach can be sitting with a question. Again, I might suggest a practice like this in dokusan but I don't want to make a general suggestion. It's not like this stuff is dangerous or bad for you if the time isn't right but I don't think it's that helpful either.

The 5th gate is called turning. Here's Zhiyi's instructions - listen with your heart and don't worry too much about making sense of this stuff. It's a deep experiential practice of inhabiting the subtle teachings.

In a case where the practitioner employs wisdom in her practice, he engages in a skillful reductive analysis whereby they turn back to the root and return to the source. At this time she generates emptiness, signlessness, and wishlessness, the 37 wings, the four truths, the twelve causes and conditions, and the correct contemplation characteristic of the Middle Way. On account of this, she succeeds in gaining entry into nirvana.

You understand all experience completely through the frame of Dharma. A kind of turning your mind right around from self-focused conditioned thinking to the great bodhicitta thought of awakening.

And the last of Zhiyi's six dharma gates is called "purification" is a deep settling into the ultimate reality beyond of all concepts of self and other, freed from any hint of these concepts we lay on things like,  "I'm here sitting." The Heart Sutra says there is no pure and impure and in the sixth gate we open to the purity that holds these apparent opposites.  Zhiyi lists off the incredible and subtle concentration states you pass through as the impurities in your heart-mind fall away as the being that you think of as you when you're thinking of thing releases from absolutely everything.

And you're perfect just as you are. Send down your bucket right here. In this ocean of mindfulness and compassion with these companions. Let's especially enjoy Master Zhiyi's first 3 gates, we can let the second 3 take care of themselves. breath counting. following the breath. stopping. You could take one up quite strongly and exclusively for a while. Or you could also yourself to move gently between the three in some organic way.

Here's a fun poem to close - I love the way she acknowledges the craziness of the mind and encourages us to accept it all. Perfect as you are. Limitless beings all. Send down your bucket.

Dorianne Laux - Antilamentation

Regret nothing. Not the cruel novels you read

to the end just to find out who killed the cook.

Not the insipid movies that made you cry in the dark,

in spite of your intelligence, your sophistication.

Not the lover you left quivering in a hotel parking lot,

the one you beat to the punchline, the door, or the one

who left you in your red dress and shoes, the ones

that crimped your toes, don’t regret those.

Not the nights you called god names and cursed

your mother, sunk like a dog in the living room couch,

chewing your nails and crushed by loneliness.

You were meant to inhale those smoky nights

over a bottle of flat beer, to sweep stuck onion rings

across the dirty restaurant floor, to wear the frayed

coat with its loose buttons, its pockets full of struck matches.

You’ve walked those streets a thousand times and still

you end up here. Regret none of it, not one

of the wasted days you wanted to know nothing,

when the lights from the carnival rides

were the only stars you believed in, loving them

for their uselessness, not wanting to be saved.

You’ve traveled this far on the back of every mistake,

ridden in dark-eyed and morose but calm as a house

after the TV set has been pitched out the upstairs

window. Harmless as a broken ax. Emptied

of expectation. Relax. Don’t bother remembering

any of it. Let’s stop here, under the lit sign

on the corner, and watch all the people walk by.

www.RedCedarZen.org     360-389-3444     registrar@redcedarzen.org
Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software