The following is an edited transcript of a teisho that I gave during the Sept 2013 four day sesshin. Monique Dumont has kindly transcribed it .
In the last blog I pointed out how radical Zen Buddhism is. The very idea that we have of being a person — an isolated and separate individual, someone with a body, mind and even a soul that is quite apart from the flow of life, with a will of our own and our own aims and goals — is an illusion. We must see into this illusion: this is what practice is all about. This is the reason for koans such as “What am I?” and “What is MU?” Both of them point, one at the shadow and the other at that which makes the shadow possible. The Prajnaparamita Hridaya, which is the basis of Zen practice, is devoted to expanding on this truth: “No eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, mind, no colors, sounds, smells, touch, or what the mind takes hold of,” and so it goes on; everything that we think of as ourselves or as our own is shown to be empty.
It is very distressing to hear people say that they are working on “Who am I?” yet, when asked, have no idea about what they are doing. You simply look into that which you think you are. You look directly at that. You know what you think you are: it is that which sustains you from the moment you get up in the morning to the time you go back to sleep; but even during sleep it still invades your dreams. It is that sense you have of being, the sense of being a person, of being someone. You say, “I see, I hear, I walk, I talk. So, what is this I? What do you think you are? You are not what you think you are, but that doesn’t mean to say you don’t think you are it.
Practice must be a 24 hours job; it is not a nine to five. It is not something that you do for one hour in the morning, and then forget for the rest of the day. If you are serious, zazen on the mat is not the whole practice; the practice is full time. But that full time practice is only possible if you have the urgent need for practice to be full time. In turn, that urgent need is only possible if you are convinced. You must be convinced that the way you are living at the moment is both unsatisfactory and constantly causing different kinds of suffering. If you are not convinced of that, then you are just playing at practice. If you pretend your life is not one continuous stream of suffering with 5 minutes intervals of truce every now and then, then you are not seeing things straight and clearly. This is particularly true now: you are all getting older and you will get older still! You cannot stop the onrush of time.
Our constant protection of the sense of self continues even in our practice. We hold the practice at arm’s length, so to say. The Indian sage, Nisargadatta, points out, very wisely, that the painter is part of the painting. You should dwell on this phrase and see how it applies. When you are asking the question “Who am I?” most of you ask the question at arm’s length. Like all the other questions in your life, you feel that you have a question here and over there somewhere is the answer. But it is not like that. The question is already the answer; the painter is part of the painting. As long as we look at this objectively, from outside, at arm’s length, then all we are going to see are a number of various interesting concepts and ideas; but when we enter into it subjectively, then it becomes something which is full of feelings, dramas and different kinds of emotions. Furthermore, when you are really asking this question, “What am I?”––you don’t’ have to ask it verbally––if you are really searching constantly into what is, then you are asking the question without even verbalising it. If you are striving to see this, you are striving to let go of all of the screens and words and images that you have tried in the past to cover it all up with. When you are trying to penetrate into that sense of self, you are asking the question “What am I?” or you are asking the question “What is Mu?” Now, give yourself over to this question unconditionally, and this is the way by which you can truly let go of these various verbal conceptual impediments.
We protect the sense of self, and one of the ways we do it is with vanity and pride. We see ourselves as being separate and special, see ourselves as being unique–– we don’t necessarily put it that way to ourselves, but it is in all our attitudes, the very way we go about anything, we always act on the assumption, “given that I am special”, “given that I am unique.” This is why we get indignant, self-righteous at the merest slight, why we feel that people don’t consider us enough, why we feel that the world is against us; why we experience all the other kinds of misery and grief that we heap on our own heads with that underlying assumption “given that I am unique”. And, insofar as the struggle to maintain that sense of self, protect it, feed it, nurture it, insofar as that is and has been for a whole life time and possibly many lifetimes, our sole occupation, our sole real value, then when we come to look into this sense of self, really to search into it, then necessarily we are going to suffer. We are going to feel a sense of frustration and inadequacy; we are going to get a sense of failure, a sense of desperation, and also of course with it comes an underlying despair. Anyone that has really worked in this way, and has come to any sense of realisation has gone through the valley of despair.
People protest about the practice, object to the feeling of despair. They have been working for many years and the work has brought them to the point that this artificial structure, this phantom, this shadow, is beginning to fade, and they do everything they can to put it back again. They ask for ways by which they can reconstruct it, not directly, but that is what they are asking. When they say “I am despairing”, they are asking “can you help me put it back as it was when I was comfortable, when I could lay in bed and sleep without these damned crumbs waking me up all the time.”
If you are going to do this practice, you must do it. There are no half measures. In China, as you know, in the best monasteries, a monk who wanted to join the monastery had to wait about a week on the steps of the monastery without any kind of attention other than monks occasionally bringing him something to eat and drink. A monk had to stay there a week like that and then, if he was still there at the end of the week, the head monk might invite him in. He would be put into a room on his own, again for a week or so. Only after that would he be allowed into the main hall to participate in the monastic affairs. The reason for this is that anyone who was lukewarm, anyone who was half-hearted, would be driven away; and it was in that person’s interest to be driven away, because you cannot come into this practice, get moving half way through, and then decide “I want to get off”. You are in it; there is no turning back now. Alright, you can leave the Center, people do that, but it won’t be a decent life after. There’ll always be that nagging sense, that feeling of having done half of what was possible, and so you have missed the best thing you could have done in your life. You are in it now. Go! go the whole hog, don’t turn back, just let it be: This is the way! Without that kind of “élan”, that kind of “let’s go” feeling, you’ll be suffering more than you ever would have been if you’d never heard of Zen.
Nisargadatta says on another occasion, “You must put in true worth before you can expect something real. What is your worth?” That is a good question. What is real about you? What is not another idea, not another artificial image, something else that has been stuffed into the breach to plug it against the awful sense of nothingness that often arises in your life. What is your worth?
Someone asked him, “By what measure shall I measure it. How can I know what my worth is?” And Nisargadatta says, “Look at the content of your mind.” Again, if you are doing a 24 hour practice, this won’t be difficult. One of the things we often suggest is that every now and again you take a snapshot of what is going on, you just get a feel for your reactions to situations, good and bad situations, a time when you are very angry, a time when you are very happy, what are you then, what is it that make you, ‘you’ in that situation? But at the same time you can assess what is the content of your mind. What are you thinking about: revenge, resentment, how you wish the world was different, a feeling of being hard done by? What is the content of your mind on a day to day basis? How much of it is open to what is, open to the possibility of realisation and truth, how much of your time is spent like that? If it is mainly the former, that is your worth; if it is mainly the latter, that is your worth.
This is a very good exercise. It is during these moments in the day that you can see what you really feel… when you are sitting on the tan, it is something of an artificial situation, and there is a kind of area set up, a zazen area, which is somewhat artificial. But it is not artificial when you get into bed or out of bed, when you are feeling ill, when you are waiting in the doctor’s waiting room. All of these times are when you should really to be there, these are the times to see, not in any kind of analytical, conceptual way, but just a complete open mind to what is. Once you can do this, then you are beginning to get into a 24 hours a day practice. It is particularly valuable when you get that feeling of the nothingness of life, when you feel a kind of boredom, a kind of uselessness, a kind of ‘what is the point.’ You get to see what is going on there then: get to know yourself.
Nisargadatta comments, “The value of regular meditation is that it takes you away from the humdrum of daily routine and reminds you that you are not what you believe yourself to be.” Does it? Does your meditation do that, or does it send you off to sleep? Are you meditating in order to get that comfortable feeling, or are you really working, trying to open up to what is? This is the problem: we develop a habit of zazen. It is like brushing your teeth in the morning, it is just one of those things you do. You sit there, mostly waiting for the bell to ring, so you can get up and do your thing. But early in the morning, when you first get up, is a wonderful opportunity to really penetrate into the heart of things.
As you possibly know, there are at least two aspects of the mind: the ‘conscious spotlight mind,’ and non-reflecting awareness in which everything, the awareness and ‘the world’ are one. We tend to think of this as the ‘unconscious,’ but it is not unconscious at all; it is far more conscious than what we think of as our conscious mind. This non reflecting awareness is most present early in the morning just after you awaken; it fades into the background as it is overtaken and dominated by the cares that we have, stemming from the urgency to develop the sense of self so that it is strong and secure and comfortable and winning. Early in the morning, therefore, if you allow it to be, can be a very valuable time. Just as you wake up––some people wake up at half past two in the morning––if you then simply allow the mind to rest freely, without it pursuing any kind of idea, above all any kind of worry, if the mind is open, then you can get a very deep awareness of what is essential. Because the spotlight mind, the so-called conscious or reasonable mind, is at rest.
Unfortunately also, sometimes first thing in the morning, tension can be at its greatest. This is when you get those dreams in which you are searching for something, you are trying to find your way home, you can’t find the key, or you’ve lost your car, or some similar situation. You are searching to find that center of gravity, that stable point around which this sense of self is created.
Regular meditation, letting go of the humdrum of daily routine, as Nisargadatta has said, reminds you that you are not what you believe yourself to be. That reminder is the basis of “What am I?” “What am I?” is a constant reminder to come back to what is. When you work on “Who am I,” eventually you must just allow the truth to reveal itself. Do not look for the truth to reveal itself, just allow it to open up.
But, as Nisargadatta rightly says, even remembering is not enough: “action must follow conviction.” That action is to lend yourself to what is revealed, however difficult that may be. When you really see into the openness, the non thingness of things and of the self, then there is a recoil, then you feel “No, not now…. later!.” You must let yourself go forward, because that is the moment where the possibilities become actualities.
The questioner asks, “Is not gradualness the law of life?” Nisargadatta says, “Oh no, the preparation alone is gradual, change itself is sudden and complete.” It is like when you’ve got a problem, you can spend weeks on wrestling with it and then, all of a sudden, you’ve got the answer. But that is only possible because the yearning for a resolution continues throughout all that preparation. The preparation is guided by that yearning for a resolution, but the resolution itself is sudden and unpredictable. There are some Zen masters that claim they can tell when a person is near or far from awakening. But no, that is not possible. It is not possible for people themselves to know, so it is certainly not possible for someone outside. And this is why you should not sit there saying, “Well, it does not seem anything is happening” or whatever, because in that way you’re letting go of that drive, that sense of resolution being possible. An urgency, a kind of yearning need, is what sustains true zazen. This is why we say if you just be patient, start off allowing whatever is to be, that yearning will arise because it is natural, it is not something you can artificially create. And if you allow the yearning long enough, then sooner or later, some resolution occurs. Very often the yearning comes out as a sense of profound dissatisfaction, but even so, under that dissatisfaction, indeed the reason for that dissatisfaction, is a yearning for the complete, yearning for the whole, yearning for the real. And so anything other than the real, anything fragmented, anything that does not come whole, is unsatisfactory. Our fragmented life leads to the various feelings that we have of nothing being of much use, everything being pointless, and all the rest of it.
The resolution is sudden and we cannot predict it’s arrival. You allow; and that resolution will take care of itself. “Gradual change does not take you to a new level of being; you need courage to let go.” If you are following the breath and you are really working towards allowing the breath to flow, or, better still you recognize the direction to go is towards allowing, then you are not trying to turn it on as a technique. Allowing the breath to flow is not a technique. It is a way of being. By allowing, a possibility arises; out of that possibility an actuality occurs. But let it come, don’t chase it, don’t be in a hurry. This is the problem with most people: they are in a hurry, they haven’t got the patience necessary to let the flower bloom. “You need courage to let go.” By following the breath, by allowing, you develop the courage, and with the courage you are more able to let go, to just be with, to follow, to be one with the breath and this in turn gives more courage. All this is true as long as all the time the practice is genuine, authentic, and honest.
A questioner says to Nisargadatta, “I admit that it is courage that I lack.” But Nisargadatta says, “No, it is because you are not fully convinced.” And this is the problem with many people. They would like it to be so, they would like what I say to be true, they are fully in agreement with everything I say, they go along with it, but they are not convinced. Underneath, there is “Yes, but even so, it is not like that really. I really am a body, I really am in a world of things, at the end there is just death and nothing else. I like what he says; I would love to live like that, but….” You know, this sort of nagging underlying feeling of leaking away, even in the midst of being filled with the truth. Again the thing is not to snuff out those doubts, not to stamp on them, not to grind them under the heel of wilfulness – allow them to be, be one with.
Very often your doubts are very good, they are real doubts. Because what they are doubting is not the truth, you cannot doubt the truth, truth is truth. With the doubt you are doubting your own way of conceiving the truth. Even when you listen to someone, even while you say, “Yes I agree with what you say,” you have already turned what is being said into something else. Perhaps you’ve been a Christian all your life, you hear something about Buddha nature and you say, “Oh yes, I see, he is talking about the soul.” No, it is not the soul, it is Buddha Nature. But you do not have what it takes to ponder the meaning of this term, ‘Buddha nature,’ and so turn it into a more familiar term that you think that you understand. Already, because you turn Buddha nature into something else, already doubt is possible because Buddha nature is not the soul, that is not what was said, that is not what was meant. So don’t be in a hurry to stamp out your doubts, let them come up – what are you truly doubting? This is very important. As long as you go on and ignore the doubts, deny them, and say, “I have been practising too long to have those doubts,” you lose the possibility of going deeper. Doubts are possible at any stage in the practice. Some of my greatest doubts rose up the day before awakening. I remember I wanted to walk out of the Zendo.
“It is because you are not fully convinced.” And this is where reading is helpful, if you can read intelligently, because our intellect must be satisfied. Particularly, if we are of an intellectual bent, particularly if we’ve got an inquiring mind, then we do need to satisfy the intellect, up to a point, because otherwise it will generate the doubts. And this is why when you read you must read intelligently, not just to gain information, you read to challenge what you already believe to be the case. Not to prove it wrong but to go beyond it.
He says, “Complete conviction generates desire and courage.” Of course it does. Once you are really convinced that awakening is possible, that a transformed life is within your reach, once you are convinced, nothing can stop you, nothing. A sense of supreme power arises coming from the fact that everything that was before an obstacle turns into another aspect of your drive. This is why, in some of the accounts of people coming to awakening, they seem to be doing extraordinary things; it is only extraordinary because everything that was a problem now becomes the solution.
He says, “Meditation is the art of acquiring faith through understanding.” Very interesting. Not through knowledge, not through knowing more, but through understanding. And understanding is not by any means a conceptual thing. A mother very often understands a child in a way that nobody else can ever do. She does not put it down and say,” well Freud said,” or “Jung said,” no, there is a feel. She knows. Because deep down she has really become one with her child, she is totally at home as the child and so therefore, naturally, she can understand. And this is how it is, this is why you work, you raise doubts, you investigate problems, you don’t let things slip, saying it does not really matter – it does matter. This is where you get involved, constantly involved.
Quoting Nisargadatta again, “Meditation is the art of achieving faith through understanding. In meditation, you repeatedly consider the teaching received in all of its aspects until, out of clarity, confidence is born and with confidence action.” This is important, this is why we say intelligence is necessary, but that can also be misleading. It is necessary to take everything and examine it, but examine it within the framework of what you have already really understood. Understanding is like a constant integration, a constant bringing together of all kinds of knowledge which is otherwise totally scattered. When there is this completely organic whole of understanding, then out of that wisdom will naturally arise.
“Understanding and action are inseparable.” I think it is Spinoza who said: will and understanding are one. It is out of an integrated being that true will is manifested and true will is quite different to self-will. Self-will is simply the dominant desire of the moment. People say athletes, Olympic athletes, must have will power to be able to continue the arduous training they go through. A friend of mine was an Olympic runner and she was always at it – she had the desire to win. She saw herself always crossing the line first; this was her ultimate and only desire. As a consequence, out of that, followed all the rest. It was not her will, it was her desire. On the other hand, you may see people who are in agony, when they walk you can see they are crippled, their body all twisted, and yet they go on. They have will.
And it is this way that you must practice: not for the desire for some result or achievement but because it is in you to do it, it comes out of you naturally. And if you have an integrated understanding, then this natural dynamism of life will come out as a single will. Kierkegaard said, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.”
“If action does not follow understanding, examine your understanding.” Not your knowledge, your understanding. Understanding always has a major feeling component, knowledge can be completely without feeling. Philosophy for instance has no feeling. It is that feel for things, like we said about the mother, it was her feeling that was her understanding and it is your feeling for life, which is something we have neglected terribly. This feeling for life is often neglected in academia. The writing of many academics is devoid of any kind of feeling; it has a dryness, a deadness, a lack of real involvement.
“Self-depreciation will take you nowhere. Without clarity and emotional assent, of what use is will?” Then the questioner asks, “What do you mean by emotional assent. Am I not to act against my desire?” You can’t act against your desires, your desires lead you to the action. To act against your desire means to say you have a stronger desire, not a complete lack of desire. This idea that one has to get rid of desire, has to get rid of need, is absurd. Desire is life. Desire and life are one – desire is the forward thrust of life; Life going onwards towards life. The difficulties arise when desires come out of an emotional response, not a response from understanding. A person without desire is dead
“You will not act against your desires.” You can’t. “Clarity is not enough, energy comes from love. You must love to act, whatever the shape and object of your love.” A mother sees her child in trouble and she won’t hesitate to go immediately to his help. And this sense of being ‘one with’ is important: not emotional love, nor the love of emotion. Real love is not an emotion. Real love is simply acting as a complete human being – which means you are at one with whatever there is. As Nisargadatta says, “Energy comes from love. You must love to act whatever the shape and object of your love. Without clarity and charity, courage is destructive.” Without clarity, without awareness, without openness to what is, courage is destructive.
But returning to how the teisho began. See into this truth, however strange, however absurd, however unbelievable it is: you are not a person. You are not what you think you are. The investigation into the sense of self, whatever shape or form it takes, must, one way or another, undermine that conviction, that absolute certainty “I am something”. You must undermine that certainty, and, in undermining it, you will suffer. But in suffering, you’ll become free.