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  • Dharma Talk with Nomon Tim Burnett : Holding Opposites

Dharma Talk with Nomon Tim Burnett : Holding Opposites

  • Friday, November 03, 2023

Nomon Tim offers a reflection on holding opposites - gratitude and tears - in the opening Dharma talk of the community's first Samish Fall sesshin.

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Tim's talk notes:

Welcome - what a wondrous Dharma assembly. This new Fall Sesshin is clearly a hit. I'm happy to say that Samish has given us this first November weekend next year too. It's a little chilly true and also wonderful. Bob Andrews was telling me we should come practice here in each season - wonderful thought. A nice contrast to when we're here at mid-summer being here in the Fall turning towards Winter. Honoring the seasons with practice and the seasons of practice together.

From the organizers side simplifying a bit and bringing less gear has been a big win. SO MUCH easier for us to host sesshin here. One thing we dropped that I did feel the impact of was not having the echo han. Inside my e-cabin I couldn't hear the han starting up even Terrill was definitely doing a great job. To be honest we actually just don't have a second han right now: we broke two in a row last couple of times we had an echo han, but one of our excellent woodworkers can make a new one from really tough wood.

For the rest of this sesshin though I thought of a simple solution: the bell atop the dining hall is pretty clear in the cabins. Kata, since you're needing to keep track of time too would you be willing to give that a ring at 10 minutes before we need to be back here? So that bell will mean "the han is starting" - then you can finish you coffee and ease on down to the zendo for tenken duties inside here. Would that be ok? Thank you.

More words of gratefulness:

I'm grateful for our lineage of devoted monastics and lay practitioners who've kept the gentle flame of this practice alive for thousands of years. And let's not forget their many many supporters in each generations: people fed them, helped build the places of practice, appreciated the importance of it all.

I'm grateful we have our wonderful practice of oryoki eating back. Deep bows to Joden Bob and his teams for making us food just right for us to receive just enough into our three bowls. And to everyone's willingness to eat in that way. It's a beautiful practice - the beauty might be more obvious once you have the basic movements of it in your body though!

I'm grateful to get to practice under this big sky, half moon, open lands and waters place with so many other beings who live her. We get to practice here! That's amazing. So grateful.

I'm grateful to the Samish Nation and their Coast Salish relatives up and down these shores who tended these spaces for at least 10,000 years in our Western historical way of thinking: from the beginning times in their probably wiser way of seeing the world.

I'm grateful to the Community of Church. They were called the Reformed Latter Day Saints when we first came here in 1993 to practice sesshin so they've gone through some changes too. Gracious hosts, good friends, devoted to the ministry of service to all of the communities with full inclusion - everyone is truly welcome here.

I'm grateful to my parents, your parents, all of our parents. The Buddha spoke in an interesting way about the debt of gratitude we all owe our parents. Here's an entire little Sutta - early Buddhist teaching - about this called the Kataññu Sutta

"Monks, I will teach you the level of a person of no integrity and the level of a person of integrity. Listen & pay close attention. I will speak."

"As you say, lord," the monks responded.

The Blessed One said, "Now what is the level of a person of no integrity? A person of no integrity is ungrateful & unthankful. This ingratitude, this lack of thankfulness, is advocated by rude people. It is entirely on the level of people of no integrity.

A person of integrity is grateful & thankful. This gratitude, this thankfulness, is advocated by civil people. It is entirely on the level of people of integrity."

"I tell you, monks, there are two people who are not easy to repay. Which two? Your mother & father. Even if you were to carry your mother on one shoulder & your father on the other shoulder for 100 years, and were to look after them by anointing, massaging, bathing, & rubbing their limbs, and they were to defecate & urinate right there [on your shoulders], you would not in that way pay or repay your parents.

If you were to establish your mother & father in absolute sovereignty over this great earth, abounding in the seven treasures, you would not in that way pay or repay your parents.

Why is that? Mother & father do much for their children. They care for them, they nourish them, they introduce them to this world.

But anyone who rouses his unbelieving mother & father, settles & establishes them in conviction; rouses his unvirtuous mother & father, settles & establishes them in virtue; rouses his stingy mother & father, settles & establishes them in generosity; rouses his foolish mother & father, settles & establishes them in discernment: To this extent one pays & repays one's mother & father."

Maybe a little bit of religious enthusiasm in the end there: just rouse your unbelieving stingy mother and father in the Dharma and that enormous debt is fully repaid.

Maybe a good way to think about this is that is to work with our own doubt and stinginess and rouse our inner parents and our inner child both to the dharma of virtue, generosity, and discernment. We carry our parents inside us also.

Either way we owe our existence to our parents and grandparents all the way back to the beginnings of our species in Africa.

And some words of encouragement for the practice of gratitude from Brother David Steindel-Rast - an Austrian born Franciscan monk who has become a leading advocate for the practice of gratitude - he's been a friend of San Francisco Zen Center as well.

You think this is just

another day in your life?

It’s not just another day.

It’s the one day

that is given to you today.


It’s a gift.

It’s the only gift

that you have right now,

and the only

appropriate response

is gratefulness.


If you learn to respond

as if it were the first day

in your life

and the very last day,

then you will have spent

this day very well.


Begin by opening your eyes

and be surprised

that you have eyes you can open.

That incredible array of colors

that is constantly offered to us

for pure enjoyment.


Look at the sky.

We so rarely look at the sky.

We so rarely note

how different it is

from moment to moment

with clouds coming and going.


Open your eyes.

Look at that.


Look at the faces of people

whom you meet.

Each one has an incredible story behind their face,

not only their own story,

but the story

of their ancestors.

All that life from generations

and from so many places

all over the world

flows together

and meets you here

like a life-giving water

if you only open your heart

and drink.


Open your heart

to the incredible gifts

that civilization gives to us.

You flip a switch,

and there is electric light.

You turn a faucet,

and there is warm water

and cold water,

and drinkable water.

It’s a gift that millions

and millions

in the world

will never experience.


And so I wish you

that you would open

your heart

to all these blessings

and let them flow through you,

that everyone

whom you will meet on this day

will be blessed by you,

just by your presence.


Let the gratefulness overflow

into blessing all around you.

And then it will really be

a good day.


May today be just such a good day. And tomorrow and the next day and every day each of us has to walk upon this earth and breathe this air and be with the other creatures we share this beautiful planet with.

So much to be grateful for. And so much to be so sad about.

The deep taproot of our practice is that every anything includes its opposite. That our way of dividing things up into this and that is narrow, limiting, and often blinding. The teachings of form and emptiness - the relative and absolute - the historical and ultimate dimensions are the path to real freedom. And ultimately are our most important gift to the world.

So all this lovely gratitude in it's fullness also includes pain, separation, and sorrow. It's all here. Our deep work is opening to this - allowing this truth - breathing with it. Opening our hearts to it all.

As we sit here in safety with clean water to drink and food security as you know millions of people are in fear for their lives or have already lost their lives of their relatives to violence, to diseases we know how to prevent or treat, also the to preventable results of natural so-called disasters. In Israel and in Palestine. In Libya. In South Sudan. In Turkey. In Ukraine. In Eastern Nigeria. Somalia. So many places. It must be hard to feel any hope in so many places in our world. Big dramatic disasters and looming new ones.

I have a new mindfulness student living in rural Indonesia. The dry season is going on much longer than it usually does and the farmers who depend on the rain are fearful of a very lean year. Our sangha met this challenge some years ago when I was in rural Kenya. My sponsored daughter there's family had a farm right near an irrigation canal that had water year round but had no way other than buckets to bring the water from here to there. And same problem the rainy season wasn't happening like it had for many years earlier, generations maybe, so the sangha raised money for a gas powered pump for irrigation in the village and it helped many people.

We are blessed this retreat that much of produce was grown right here in the Skagit Valley but none of us are likely to drop into poverty or hunger if there's a bad year.

The World Bank says:

There are an estimated 500 million smallholder households globally, amounting to upwards of two billion people. Mostly small-scale farmers cultivating less than five acres, they make up a significant portion of the world's poor who live on less than $2 a day.

So we have Whole Foods, the one I went to in Seattle yesterday had some kind of scanner for your palm - pay with your palm! - how science fiction is that? We have Whole Foods with science fiction gadgets in the same world as subsistence farmers living on less than $2 a day. And why are the rains not coming? Climate change. Who brought the climate change? We did - cultures like ours living in comfort burning fossil fuels. We are each of us a part of this. A part of everything. No separation.

Gratitude and tears. Tears and gratitude. Opposites that inter-are.

Gratitude for the Samish people who tending this place for longer than I can imagine and tears for them, with them, for what some of our ancestors did here.

I recently learned that it's known how smallpox first came to the area. It was carried to Victoria, B.C., by a passenger steamship in 1862. The authorities there recognized it quickly and took public health steps - for the white people. Victoria was a major trading hub and there were large numbers of First Nations people camped there to trade and do town stuff - over 2,000 native folks were there, the beaches full of their canoes and shelters - but as they started getting sick from smallpox, the Victoria authorities forced them to leave. Public health measure, right? Where could they go but home to their villages all over Vancouver Island and across the waters, Semiahmoo, where I also practice regularl,y was one place people went home to. Went home with smallpox. It spread quickly from that point all over the region. Soon to right here.

The first history I learned about small pox was a lie. That story was it was mostly just bad luck: the Europeans brought smallpox by accident, the native populations had no immunity. Truly tragic but just how it goes. But a more true story is that many of those deaths could have been prevented by vaccination and public health practices that the white settlers had access too. An effective vaccine was discovered in 1801 and European communities were also pretty effective at using quarantine to slow the spread. People still died in Europe from smallpox too but not many.

But very little of this was offered to the native community. The history shows a few rays of light in an utterly dismal history that we party to.  One doctor in Victoria, Dr. Helmcken, vaccinated over 500 people in a tribal group called the Songhees and they suffered very little loss. But overall up and down the region about half of Coast Salish people died from Smallpox with some communities suffering even worse.

I'm sorry to share this with you but I think it's important to bear witness to it. I know I have brought this up before. Important to shed some tears together where this happened each time we come here to practice. This wasn't that long ago. This happened to the ancestors of people I've met.

So it really could have been otherwise. Native populations were definitely in trouble no matter what but it didn't have to be like that. But the limited views of our European settler ancestors mostly didn't include indigenous people as fully human.

This was an editorial in the Port Townsend newspaper from May 1862:

"The Indians are a loathesome and indolent race, of no earthly use to themselves or anybody else in the community — save the doctors — and their presence gathers and retains a set of graceless white vagabonds, who ... get a precarious living by peddling villainous whisky among them. ... These social lepers are far worse than the small pox. In ridding ourselves of one, we no longer encourage the other. Let the Indians be sent to the Reservations where they belong ... [and then] our natural resources would rapidly develop, society would improve and strengthen, and free-love and atheism find fewer endorsers on the shores of Puget Sound" (May 24, 1862, p. 2).

And I'm sure these were people we would appreciate in many ways. Hard working determined settlers, loyal to their families, doing their best to make things work in a new place. And yet.

One result of all of this is that when settlers arrived in increasing waves in the 1880's and 1890's they came into a land that had already been largely depopulated by disease. I wonder what vague notions they had about "the indians".

Probably it wasn't actually that clear to them that they were taking over the lands of others. It looked empty. They also wouldn't have recognized or understood the land use practices of the Indian communities either. "I don't see any houses, no one lives here: I'll start my farm, I have a land grant from the government" - not knowing that that field was burned annually to promote camas bulb production and that folks would come every Fall to harvest them. Not knowing about important fishing and hunting grounds. So many layers to the story of the enormous cultural and ecological changes that happened here. 150 years ago - not long ago really. I'm kind of proud of being in Bellingham over 30 years, that's 1/5 of the entire history of Euro-American habitation of this land. Hard to get my mind around that.

And yet it is the nature of living beings: we get sick and we die. Lately I've been practicing again with the verse of remembrance and recommending this to folks:

I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape having ill health.

I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change.

There is no way to escape being separated from them.

My actions are my only true belongings.

I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.

My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

Being alive is wonderful and its wonder includes sickness, old age and death. Can we feel deep interbeing of those two: they look like opposites at first but they are one thing. Birth-and-death. The verse on the han reminds us of this. When Terrill strikes this for us he is sounding out BIRTH DEATH GREAT MATTER.

Holding opposites that aren't really opposite. They are facets of the same jewel. Don't narrow your view so that you think they are so separate. Our Chinese Zen ancestor Shitou reminded us of this this morning to:


In the darkness there is light, but don't see it as light

In the light there is dark, but don't take it as dark

How do we understand it? He recommends another analogy

It's like the front and back foot in walking.

In that moment the front foot is the front foot and the back foot is the back foot. But the back foot is then the front foot, they both have front-back nature. Just as we have life-death nature. B

Just as we have generous grateful kind honest forgiving nature and we have narrow hateful othering nature.

The Buddha talks about this in grand technicolor ways in the Lotus Sutra. The most wonderful example, I think, the BIG REVEAL from the Buddha of the Lotus Sutra is many chapters in.

There's a great set up for this surprise message from the Buddha pointing to this ultimate holding opposites nature of all existence too.

Here's the setup: a bunch of Great Bodhisattvas from another world system (Buddhist cosmology is a total multiverse!) are worried that after the Buddha's extinction the wonderful teachings of the Lotus Sutra will be lost so they offer to come to our world and teach it after he's gone.

Buddha, our Buddha Shakyamuni, says no, no problem I have lots of help. And at that moment the Earth literally opens up - like fissures everywhere I guess but no buildings fall down and nothing falls in - a graceful earthquake - and numberless Bodhisattvas spring out of the earth. And they are awesome: golden hewn bodies, immeasurable radiance, deep knowledge and compassion they can fly through the air too and visit Buddha's that are hovering in this great floating jeweled stupa that the Buddha conjured up earlier in the Sutra. But the point is there are a big bunch of them and they are deeply and fully trained and awake and ready to carry on Shakyamuni Buddha's work.

The visiting Bodhisattvas from the other world are blown away and they and the Buddha's other students are really surprised and confused: where did these guys come from? And the Buddha explains oh they've been training with me for numberless eons and now they're ready to teach the Lotus Sutra.

But wait the students ask, you've only been teaching for 45 years on this earth how did you have time to train them?

And then….ta da….the Buddha says well I only appeared to be like a regular mortal as a kind of skillful means. So you could relate to me and also feel a little urgency around your practice that I won't be around forever. But actually I just showed you the appearance of being a more or less ordinary guy: actually my lifespan is vast almost beyond measure and I'm more of a manifestation of the Buddha nature of the universe than a person. Woah.

Kind of wild stuff but a deep pointer to us: are we just this limited body-being only here for a short time? Yes, better practice.

And are we also this immeasurable light wondrous Buddha love and there is no death and no birth? Yes, better practice.

Dogen makes this point over and over too. The nature of wind is permanent, because of that we need to fan ourselves. Don't doubt mountains walking. Don't doubt our awakening.

Don't miss Raizelah's upcoming shuso class on Dogen's Genjo Koan this winter. Or join our weekly Reading Dogen group that Chris has been faithfully hosting for 3 years now - she tells me they're about a third of the way through Dogen's Shobogenzo essays. Wonderful. Talus recently gave a really great talk on the Mountains and Rivers sutra also - it's on our website. Maybe we're starting to deepen our appreciation for good old Dogen. It's a process.

Our Dharma heritage is so vast. In his commentary on the Lotus Sutra, Thich Nhat Hanh adds a section on the six paramita practices - which are briefly mentioned in the wonderfully bizarre and exuberant sutra but not explained at all, so Thay helps us with that. I was deeply moved by his exploration of Kshanti which is usually translated as patience. It's deeply relevant to this discussion of our Dharma jewel of holding, and merging with, interpenetrating opposites.

[Peaceful Action, Open Heart p. 255-258]

Hearing his words with the horrible conflict happening right now in Palestine and Israel it's like he was thinking of that isn't it?

Gratitude and tears. We get to practice here. A place of great beauty. A place of, I think, some kind of deep dharma power. And a place of great sadness. As we sit here about where the Samish winter village long house stood. There was a big barn here when the Community of Church started gathering here for worship in the 1950's. They tell me it was not just drafty and cold and hard to get anything remotely clean but the swallows would nest in the rafters and poop on their heads. Laura and Jim who are our main cooks in the summer sesshin remembered this from when they came here as kids. Jim said at one point they got kind of desperate to do something about this so he and a couple of other young men got fire hoses and trying to wash the nests away but it just made a mess, they got all wet and the whole place was a soaking muddy mess and the swallows rebuilt their nests pretty quickly. Hopefully it was in the spring before the young hatched out, I was kind of afraid to ask. Go swallows!

Eventually they built this basketball church zendo we are blessed to get to use. I was thinking just this morning how lucky that was. That they built this open multi-purpose space. Must be the Church's basketball coach had a lot of influence. More likely a group would built a big church with pews and everything. Not to mention likely it wouldn't have occurred to them to share it with Buddhists, and artists, and leadership groups, and recently a group for people of color learning about camping - how wonderful is that?

Deep gratitude for this place, and for these teachings we have had the incredible good fortune to receive. For this community. So grateful. And sad too.

I think I'll close with a little poem Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in appreciation of studying the Lotus Sutra:

At night as I recite the Lotus Sutra

The sound moves the galaxies

The Earth below wakes up

In her lap suddenly flowers appear.


At night as I recite the Lotus Sutra

A jeweled stupa appears resplendent.

All over the sky bodhisattvas are seen

And Buddha's hand is in mine.


These beautiful teachings shining joyful light through our tears. May little rainbows of compassion flow out through all of the universes!

Thank you.

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