Knowing the unknowable

Is everything knowable? Scientists claim that everything in principle can be known. That means to say that although there is the unknown, it still can, if the circumstances are right, be known. However, what makes the known possible? It cannot be more of what is known. What makes experience possible? It cannot be more experience; more experience can widen, enrich, contradict or qualify experience, but it cannot create experience. So what can create the known? It is the unknowable and you are unknowable. As long as you believe that you can eventually know what you are, or know what Mu is, then you will be perpetually walking around in the prison ground of conceptual ideas. This is the great challenge, this is the great impossibility. How can we go beyond, how can we make that leap, from ‘I am something’ to ‘I am’, from the known to the unknowable? We call that leap ‘kensho’ and those who have made that leap could be called realized people. However, we do not leap from here to there. We leap from here to here.

So what exactly is that leap? This really is a question you should ask yourself: what does the leap mean? It is the same question as “Who am I?” or, better still, “ What is my face before my parents were born?”   If you are really asking this question, it is no good to remain within the possible. It is no use at all looking for a technique, a way, a method, a teaching – there are no paths to the top of the mountain: every step that you take goes down.. Many people when they hear this drop their hands and say “Oh what is the point….”

You are the unknowable. That is your true nature. Any attempt to know your true nature moves you away; or, another way to put it, sullies your true nature. It is so essential for your practice to realize this. You must start with the faith, “I am the unknowable.” As long as you want to stay within the possible, within the known, you are giving yourself an impossible task. It is not necessary to say that you are the unknowable. That is gilding the lily. It is not even necessary to say I am. That you are is enough.

As the Diamond sutra tells us, “There are no distinctive marks of Tathagata (an awakened person).” This is important, not simply as an answer to, “How will I recognize a person who is realized?” it also must qualify what you are doing in your own practice. Many people think that an awakened person is in some way a superior person, someone who has got on the inside track of truth, that somehow there is something special about an awakened person. And people have this idea, not because of the teacher or the awakened person, but because they themselves want to be unique; they are practising in order to have distinguishing marks so that other people will recognize their brilliance. This need to be unique, need to be special, need to be someone––very often it is accompanied with the need to be superior–– is a curse of life. I say it is a curse of life because it does not only pertain to human beings, but it pertains to animals also, the alpha complex, the need to be unique. This need is so widespread. It underlies wars and revolutions, divorces and murder, as well most other conflicts and misunderstandings.

It is made obvious by nationalisms. All nations claim they are unique. For example, a short while ago Quebec wanted the fact of its uniqueness written into the Canadian constitution; currently in American politics a politician who does not subscribe to the idea of ‘American ‘exceptionalism’ will not get far as a politician. However Canada is unique because I say it is unique, and I say it because I am a unique person. I bestow my uniqueness on Canada. I bestow it not only on Canada, but on my religion, my family, even the hockey team that I follow. My being unique, special, is something that is constantly part of my experience. And it has to be rooted out, this is the great impediment, this is the obstacle to a real life.

One of the difficulties with being unique is that we want to be it in such a way that we do not have to affirm it. We want to be special, but we do not want to make any kind of overt gesture towards being so. If I have to assert my uniqueness, it means that it is in doubt and indicates that I am no longer unique. My uniqueness has to be taken totally for granted. It is not at all unusual for people to deny that they feel unique. Their uniqueness is unquestioned, it is absolute. This means that when we are practising, our uniqueness is extremely difficult to work with, particularly on a sesshin when there is no-one who is challenging us, no-one to make uniqueness surge up.

Our claim to be unique is why humiliation is such a wonderful medicine if you are really practicing, because the act of humiliating us challenges and overthrows for the moment our certainty of being unique. Even so, as you know, if you really work on yourself, to be humiliated can be extremely painful. On a sesshin, you are not humiliated very much, although some people do find coming to dokusan humiliating. But during everyday life, we are given abundant opportunities to see into the need to be unique. When this happens, be aware; if you become angry, become angry, but feel the pain of the anger, the remorse, the regret. Do not make excuses, to not make promises about future anger, do not criticize yourself, and above all do not blame the other person. Each time you are able to do this, you erode more of the ego or sense of self. A chapter on humility that was written by Hubert Benoit is essential reading if you are going to work with humiliation. If you do not have access to this chapter please send me an e-mail and I will send it to you.

You are unknowable but you live your life as the known, as the unique sense of self. The sense of self is but a set of habits based upon a set of memories. These habits are ways of reacting to situations, and these habits are very deeply ingrained. They have been ingrained, some say, since time immemorial; that we are carrying over our karma, or if you like, the ingrained habits of many lives.

An awakening, even if it is a deep awakening, is not going to shake this castle of concepts and structures and habits very profoundly. Remember that Hakuin, on his awakening tells us, “My pride soared up like a majestic mountain, my arrogance surged forward like the tide. Smugly I thought to myself: ‘In the past two or three hundred years no one could have accomplished such a marvellous break-through as this.’” The sense of self, because it is so well known and familiar, is taken to be precious, so much so that I say that I am the sense of self. Most people who are practicing even search into it to find true self. Even so the sense of self is unnecessary. It is a burden that you carry much as a bag lady carries her precious belongings. One must question this sense of self, at the very core of which lies, festering in the dark, uniqueness.

The struggle to get to know and to go beyond the sense of self is the primary task for any one who seriously practices Zen. The primary task is not to come to awakening. Awakening is a great help in the struggle. Some say that it is essential. But the sense of self is like a cancer that sucks the very life and vitality out of life as is evident in so many people who are exhausted on the treadmills of fame and gain all in the service of their enemy.

The only way to struggle with the sense of self is by being constantly aware of its workings. Life gives us a constant array of possibilities for working with it. For example, you are in a queue and someone pushes in front of you; a motorist blasts you with the car’s horn; or someone steals your purse. Be aware of your reaction.   But you must be willing, ready and alert. The sense of self thrives in the darkness of inadvertence, in the darkness of forgetfulness and ignorance. Shine the light of awareness on to it. Do not analyze what is happening, do not delve into the past for reasons, and above all do not blame others for your suffering. No one can hurt you but yourself.

This work is the work of a lifetime. Impatience, particularly impatience with the practice, is but an expression of “I am important! Why should I have to wait for kensho!” Love the practice, love it as you would love a saviour. Be intent on the process, never mind the result.

Awakening itself is not enough to root out the malignancy. This is why we work on subsequent koans. By passing the first koan, we make a hole in the screen that is apparently separating us from true self, and subsequent koans help enlarge that hole. But it is also said that ending your koan practice is just the beginning of real practise. As Dogen said, “There is no beginning to practice or end to awakening, there is no beginning to awakening or end to practice.” See this as a lifetime’s work, not as something that you are trying to get through, get done with so that you can get on with your life. As long as you have that attitude then you are in hurry and as long as you are in hurry you are wasting your time. Patience is of the utmost virtue in practice, the patience to be what you are.

Only the personality can be recognized, and the personality is built up because I constantly ignore the truth that I am. The habit patterns of the personality are ways of reassuring myself that I am. You must have known times when you have been in a state of utter confusion, utter panic. Then you grasped at anything, anything at all, as a way of reassurance. They say a drowning person clutches at a straw and that is true also of a person in an utter state of confusion. And that straw, because it rescued you from the jaws of hell, becomes like reinforced concrete, another big block in the development of the personality. If at the moment of being in extreme panic you could go with it, you would disappear into the arms of your own true nature. The panic is a fear that indeed you are going to disappear and so you fight against salvation.

An awakened person does not make any claims, grandiose or otherwise. You can be sure that all who proclaim their own greatness and uniqueness are not awakened. Unfortunately, there have been in America a number of teachers who have abused the trust of their students and have pretended to have certain unique powers. Much of this has been aimed simply at seducing the students. It is a terrible, terrible misuse of trust.

The problem is that on the way we can encounter many mysterious and striking experiences. The student mistakes one of these for awakening and then has his or her mistake confirmed to be authentic by a teacher who is not awakened and lacks any authority at all. We do have remarkable experiences – and I am not saying these remarkable experiences do not have their value––but if one clings to them, if one makes something of them, then they are simply another concrete block put into this personality. We must always keep in mind Dogen’s response when asked what he attained from his travels in China: “I walk on my own feet, I see through my own eyes.”

When we are practicing, we might have another kind of experience: the experience of just being ordinary, inconsequential, even perhaps feel that we are a failure. It is not unusual to have this feeling of being ordinary, both on and off sesshin. Often we react with a certain amount of dismay, or with a feeling of having taken a wrong turning. “I have practiced a long time and I am not special. I have to do something about it, my practice has not given me anything, I am just another ordinary person.” This is not an unusual experience. And these are moments to slide into like a thief in the night, just be with that feeling, and be thoroughly, thoroughly ordinary.

We hear about transmission, indeed there is a special ceremony called Inka in which transmission occurs. People sometimes ask whether awakening can be directly transmitted to another. When I first started reading Zen, and read mondos telling of a disciple asking a question and the master replying and the monk coming to awakening I thought, “Gee, that is good, I just have to find the right teacher because he or she will be able to say bingo or whatever it is and I will be awakened!” However in the Dhamapada it says, “By oneself evil is done; by oneself one suffers. By oneself evil is undone. No-one can purify another.” It is worth mentioning that Nisargadatta says the opposite. He says, “Yes, it can. The words of an awakened person have the power of dispelling ignorance and darkness in the mind. It is not the words that matter, but the power behind them.”

However it is not so much the power behind them; it is your readiness. This is why listening to a teisho is a form of meditation. One is very much there, very present, alert, but not in a judgmental way, not in a way by which one filters what is coming through. This obviously is where a teacher must have great integrity and be talking simply from his or her own awakening. But once that is established, once you are allowing the present moment to be, then it is possible for something to be said which somehow sparks a cognitive flash. You do not know what it is – you simply know that it is right. Don’t search to try to find what is just right, don’t try to put it into words. Once you see this “ah yes” it has done its work, it has already lit up part of the darkness. To try to grab it, to try to do something about it, adds another block.

Some people leave the practice after years of practice and feel that they are a failure. By this they mean that they have not attained anything, that they have not attained awakening. They believe that attainment must be manifest; that others must be able to see what has been attained in order to be successful in practice. This is a very common complaint. People come into the dokusan room and say, “I have practiced for a long time, everything is still the same, I have got nothing from my practice.” What is it that they are trying to get? What is it that they want? What is it above all that will satisfy them? I said right at the beginning of this article that an awakened person has no distinguishing marks. So how can we practice for years in the hope of some distinguishing marks?

Regrettably, very regrettably, most people practice Zen in order to have their uniqueness recognized and enhanced. Many people, as I said before, look upon awakening as awakening to their true brilliance. Because nothing has happened, no confirmation of the light that should be shining out of the center of their forehead has been given, they say the practice is no good. This is such a shame, such a waste.

I have said many times that one must start off with the faith “I am”. It is a very simple opening. It is very simple – I am. You don’t need to say the words. Just to be. If one really just is – it is very often accompanied by a feeling of wonder. Ah! Just to be comes sometimes as something of a shock. During Workshops you sometimes get the beginner’s mind. You’ll get one or two people star struck – you can see they are walking around in a daze because they have suddenly realized “I am!” and it is a total revelation to them.

So unless we start here, I am, we are going essentially to try to find something with our practice, try to get something from it. Yet nothing, nothing is comparable to opening to the truth “I am!” Anything else is simply a shadow cast by the light of being. Our practice is: opening to what I am already. “From the beginning, all beings are Buddha.” The problem is that I have spent my life constantly trying to reassure myself that I am. And this has led me to this curse of uniqueness, because I believe that unless I am unique, I am not really; I believe that I lack an essential quality of being. I turn my back on the very treasure that I am seeking. This is why it is so important to work from where you are, and so get back to where you are. You are not going from A to B in this practice, you are going from A to A.

The people that wander around in a daze after simply attending a workshop have already seen something, but it is shallow and without roots. But then there are people like Nisargadatta or Ramana Maharshi. It is possible to enrich, enrich, enrich constantly. Once one has seen this, it is no longer necessary to try to be something special, be something different. It is no longer necessary that I go from being a grubby person without any real attributes to fame and glory. I have no need to attain a brilliance of being, something extraordinary. Let go of that, see that you are really grubby, lacking any attributes, just an ordinary person. The brilliance that you seek is the grubby personality that you despise. That which has no form appears. That which has no form appears as an ordinary person. It appears as an ordinary person because truly there are only ordinary people.

I was in the guard of honour in the Navy, (that truly was no achievement; I just happened to be the right height.) At one time I was in the guard of honour for the Queen and as she went by I thought “My Lord, how short she is!” All that I saw at that moment was a middleaged woman walking past me. We want people who we can look up to. We want to have heroes, this is why we have kings and queens and presidents and leaders and all the rest. We want them to be unique, special, so much so that we will lie to ourselves about them, deliberately overlooking their weaknesses and ordinariness. It is in this way that spurious teachers are able to pass as famous roshis. Kings and emperors were looked upon as semi-divine or, as in Japan, fully divine. Because this is what we want. We want something out of this world. There is nothing out of this world other than your true self. You will not find magic anywhere other than when you get out of bed in the morning.

There is no success, there is no failure. One way to look at it is there is a lake and when the wind blows you get sometimes ripples, sometimes waves. But at the same time, the lake is getting deeper and deeper and deeper. If you live just on the surface, all that you will know is whether there are ripples or waves or smoothness. If there is smoothness, you say whoopee we are getting somewhere! And when there are waves you say, oh dear, I am getting nowhere! But, all the time there is a deepening, an increasing richness which you cannot detect as long as you remain on the surface.

How do you feel today in comparison with how you felt yesterday? You just can’t say. There is no comparison; there is nothing to compare with. You may remember that you felt miserable yesterday, but it is a memory; I am asking for a feeling. How do you feel today in comparison with how you felt yesterday. Stay with the feeling and you realize that it is impossible to make a comparison. Your feelings could be far richer today than they ever were a week or two ago and yet, if you are stuck on the waves on the surface, you will say “well nothing has happened”. Have faith, this is the point, or be faith. If faith, then faith.

You are the unknowable. When emperor Wu asked Bodhidharma, “Who are you?” Bodhidharma said, “I do not know.” You do not know because you are knowing. Knowing is I am; I am knowing. Meditate on this. What is knowing? And how can it have any kind of influence? Knowing is useless, utterly and completely useless. It is as useless as the rose in the garden, as the butterfly that flutters by, as the sun that shines. It is only as a cog in the machine that I can be useful. Only when I see myself as a cog in the machine do I want to have results. A result will mean that I am a bigger cog.

One cog turns another, the whole machine intermeshes. We could see the world as a set of intermeshing causes. Here is a metaphor that might help you: a man lies dead on the floor, bleeding from the head; and there is another man standing with a smoking gun. The question is: what caused that man’s death? You might say: the gun. Or was it the bullet, or was it the fact that this man bought a gun, or was it the fact that it was possible to buy a gun, or was it because the dead man was seducing the other man’s wife, or was it because the man with the gun was poor or unstable or whatever? In other words, all of these are looked upon as causes. You will find some action group or other that will support any one of those causes.

So what is it? It is obviously the whole world is in on any action. This is why, As Gurdjieff rightly said, “Man cannot do.” It is worth seeing into this because by doing so you can be relieved of a great deal of frustration. You can contribute but you cannot determine the value of that contribution or the result that it should get. This of course relates just as much to practice as it does to activity in life. You contribute in your practice; you practice but the result in not up to you. Man proposes, God disposes. That is how it is in the world, and how it is when you are practicing. Instead of using the word God we could say, ‘the totality of the situation’ and it is the true self that is, after all, the totality of the situation.

With the totality of the situation there is no origin, is no cause for you. Nothing brought you into being and nothing can take you out of being. You are not related to anything. How can you be when you are everything. Knowing is not a thing to be bound by causes and results. It is beyond causality altogether. There is no path to awakening. When you are working on yourself, you are exhausting all the resources of your being. You have let it all go. Unless you do so, then there is always something left over that might be it. You will know when all your resources are exhausted because that is the moment of awakening. But you must exhaust all those resources, all that practice, you cannot hold anything back. Let go of all desires that take precedence over the desire for awakening. In the end you let go of all ways, all causes, techniques and methods for bringing about awakening.

Home is the self. “Coming and going we never leave the Self – or true nature.” (It is unfortunate this word self can mean so many things). Home is a wonderful word. When you were young did you ever get lost? Perhaps it was dark, the rain was pouring down, and your feet were getting sore from walking. All of a sudden you realize “I am home!” Utter, utter relief! There is nothing brilliant, exceptional, or outstanding about home. It is ordinary. But it is extraordinary in its ordinariness: security, freedom from fear, happiness, these are the hallmarks of home. When you really see, you see the whole world as home.

Just be! If you are following the breath just allow the breath to flow in and out without obstruction or help. Be thoroughly present to whatever may arise. Not what you think ought to arise, or will arise, or has arisen or could arise, but everything that is at the moment. In this way you will get to know, without comment or judgment, your sensations, feelings and thoughts. Don’t analyze them, don’t take them to pieces, don’t try to feel something about them, above all do not wander about in the past, blaming your mother, father, brother or whomever for your plight. If pain arises just stay with the pure feeling, the pure sensation of pain, just the sensation of pain. If pleasure arises, just stay with the pure feeling, the pure sensation of pleasure. Or the pure feeling of anxiety, just the feeling of anxiety, just stay with this. In this way, you will go beyond them. You go beyond to this that appears to be pain and anxiety. That which has no form appears.

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Case number 55 of the Hekiganroku

Alive or dead?


Quiet and secret, entirely One–unimpeded action, immediate perception, everything manifests awakening. Like a dash of sparks, a flash of lightning, cutting through all confusion. Sitting on the tigers head, seizing its tail he is like cliff a thousand feet high. Can one help people by teaching a single way or not? To test, I cite this. Look!


Dogo and Zen-gen went to a house to show sympathy . Zen-gen hit the coffin and asked, “Alive or dead?” Dogen replied, “I won’t say alive, I won’t say dead.” Zen-gen demanded, “ Why won’t you say?” Dogo repeated, “I won’t say.” On their way home, Zen-gen cried, “Tell me right now teacher, alive or dead; if you don’t tell me, I will hit you.” Dogo said, “You may hit me, but I won’t say.” Zen-gen hit him.

Later after Dogo died, Zen-gen went to Seki-so and told him the foregoing story. Seki-so said, “I won’t say alive, and I won’t say dead.” Zen-gen said, “ Why won’t you say?” Seki-so repeated, “I won’t say, I won’t say.” At these words Zen-gen came to awakening.

One day, Zen-gen took a hoe into the Buddha hall and crossed back and forth, from east to west and west to east. Seki-so asked, “What are you doing?” Zen-gen said,“ I am looking for my teacher’s relics.” Seki-so said, “Vast waves spread far and wide, foaming billows flood the skies – what relics of our late master are you looking for?”

Zen-gen said, “It is a way of repaying the kindness of my old teach r.” Fu of T’ai Yuan said, “The late masters relics are still present. “


Hares and horses have horns
Cows and goats have none.
It is quite infinitesimal,
It piles up mountain high.
The golden relic still exists,
It still exists now.
Foaming billows sweep the sky.
Where can you put it? No, nowhere!
The single sandal returned to India
And is lost forever.

This is a tragic Koan. However, before commenting on it, perhaps I could dwell for a while on the introduction. The introductions, provided by Zen master Engo, often set the background to a Koan. In a similar way, we live our life against a “background.” Sadly, most people ignore this background. All they see therefore, are disjointed, fragmented elements with no cohesion, coordination or intrinsic meaning. This makes them believe that they have to find, or even give, life a meaning. They believe that life must have a point and that this point must be found in what they are doing, or in a relation with some special person, or in being “successful,” or whatever.

Although I use the word “background” this is only a metaphor. Another way of saying the same thing is to say that we are always living in samadhi; samadhi is our natural state. But samadhi does not exist like the sky or space. Unfortunately, when I talk about a background, one immediately, whether one likes it or not, conjures up something, an essence or substratum However, what I mean by this background is the very absence of an essence, the very absence of any reality outside. Everything, including time and space, something and nothing, life and death, is eternally coming into being, and I do not mean everything is becoming. Samadhi, or what one might like to call Buddha-nature or Bodhi-nature, the original, primordial Light or the One, is the source of this fountain of being.

Quiet and secret, entirely One.

I am not part of the Whole; I am the Whole, the One. Most people find this so difficult to understand. They believe things surround them and so think that they also are things among things. Then they generalize and believe further that all these things collectively make up a whole of which they are now a part. Such beliefs involve a separation, a dualism. They imply “me” and “it,” “me and the world,” “me and the Whole,” “me and Cosmic consciousness” . We must let go of this opposition, this separation if we want to see into this koan. This is why Engo starts right off saying, “Quiet and secret, entirely One.” This is it!

Notice, Engo says “Quiet and secret.”Quiet… The One is the Silence of Silence. It is the Stillness of Stillness. It is secret, hidden … we look for it in vain. When one looks at a flower, all one sees, is the flower. When one looks at another person, all one sees is that other person. One sees a stone and all that one sees is a stone. Things among things. One forgets oneself. And yet, and yet! Quiet and secret is the One.

Unimpeded action, immediate perception, everything manifests awakening!

This is how it is! Vital, alive, brilliant. Our technological society, and the science that has made it possible, offers us a dead world. Space travel is the vogue and out-of-space is a chilling, dead, vacancy, a gaping void, like some horrible monster’s mouth. Then matter, separated from life, has been broken down into units or waves. All is just dead movement. Animals are mindless machines. Even human beings are seen as complicated robots, programmed, hard-wired, switched on and off.

We laugh at “primitive people.” We say they animated nature, and smile at them, because they saw spirits in trees and in the rocks. They saw fairies in the glen. They are so ridiculous, utterly ridiculous … We, on the other hand, have an objective viewpoint. We see things objectively! Naturally, when we see things objectively, everything becomes an object: you, me, our lives, our hopes and fears” just. objects, or movement of objects! Preferably square ones, so that we can measure them exactly. However, is it possible that the primitives did not animate the world, but that perhaps, we have killed it? Perhaps the whole world, including rocks and stones, was once alive, once, really alive. When one sees it from the standpoint that each of us is the Whole, each of us is in samadhi, each of us is samadhi then all is alive. Samadhi is an ever-uprising, ever-flowing, ever-springing stream of being, of knowing. Then the whole world again comes alive, alive with unimpeded action, immediate perception, then everything will manifest awakening!

Unimpeded action, immediate perception, everything manifests awakening. Like a dash of sparks or a flash of lightning, cutting through all complications.

When we practice Zen, we want to raise the dead. We want to bring back to life our own lives. When you ask the question “Who am I?” You must see yourself as living. You are alive! If you see yourself simply in terms of thoughts and ideas, if you know life itself only as a concept, you will not be able to realize this most obvious truth! Concepts kill, concepts freeze. You are not a concept. You are an immediate, living quality. One awakens to just this. Once you become alive, the world becomes alive, everything is alive. In the Rock Opera, Jesus-Christ Super Star, Jesus sings, “If you shut me up, the rocks and stones will start to sing. In Zen, it says, “The rocks and stones preach the Dharma. The rocks and stones will start to sing! Wake up, wake up! Let the rocks and stones start to sing!

Engo then says, “Sitting on the tigers head, seizing its tail. This is a very dangerous thing to do and not something I would recommend. What Engo means is that you practice in the midst of dangers, in the midst of it all. If you want the tiger’s cub you must go into the tiger’s cave. A painting by Shi K’o of a Zen master leaning on the back of a tiger, fast asleep is the picture of the fully awakened man.

Sitting on the tigers head, seizing its tail he is like a thousand foot high cliff. Who is the “He” to whom Engo refers?

He then asks, “Is there a way to help people by teaching a single way?” What is a single way? It is the way by which we see “singly.” In the Gospels according to St. Thomas it is said, “If thine eye be single, thy whole body is filled with light.”


Before we go to the case, perhaps we could comment on a two mondos that involve Zen-gen. He is the monk who struck the master. Later, he became in his own right, quite a famous master.

A monk once asked him, “ I am very close to you, separated only by the window; why is it, I do not see your face?”

The face is often used in Zen to refer to Buddha nature. Can you see why? A break-through koan asks, “What was your face before your parents were born?” Another master said, “The mountains, fields, and trees, these are my face.” What then is this window that separates Zen-gen from the master’s face? I often use the window as a metaphor for a koan. Alas! if you cannot see through a koan it is not a window but a thousand mile high cliff. Zen-gen says, I see it but I don’t see it. Why don’t I see your face? All that separates is a window, not a wall, but a window! Normally a window doesn’t separate anything. Normally a window is there, in order to avoid separation, it is there in order so that you can see through it. And yet this monk is saying, “ I am separated only by a window, why I can’t see your face?

Then master Dogo declared, “The universe is never veiled!” This reply is like the sub-title of the book that I wrote on the Mumonkan, “The World a Gateway.” What is it a gateway to?

In the other mondo, that took place after Zen-gen had become a Zen master, a monk told him, “I have come to train myself in order to solve the question of life and death.” This is worthy objective. It is said that if one cannot face death one cannot face life. However, Zen-gen answered, “At my place, there is not such thing as life and death.” Another master said, “If Buddha is in life and death, there is no life or death.”


Another mondo involves Seki-So, who comes in towards the end of the koan. He was also a very famous Zen master after having been a disciple of Tozan. One day, Tozan said to his monks, “After the summer sesshin you disperse, some going east, some going west but you should go through the thousands of miles of country where there is no blade of grass.”

In the Zen tradition the year was divided into four parts each of three months: the spring months were devoted to practice, the summer months were devoted to pilgrimages, the autumn months were again devoted to practice, and the winter three months were again given over to pilgrimages. Rochester Zen Center was organized in that way. The teacher was there for two terms of three months and, during the other months, he was away.

Anyway Tozan says that you should go through the thousands of miles of country where there is no blade of grass. What sort of country is that? The Prajnaparamita says, “no eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, mind.” To understand what the sutra means you must journey through the country where there is no blade of grass.

Then Seki-So said, “When I go out of the gate I find grass there.” Did he miss the point? or did he take what Tozan was saying one step further? Why does he say, “ When I go out of the gate I see grass.” Bodhidharma talks of vast emptiness and not a thing that can be called holy. Joshu speaks of the oak-tree in the garden. Which of the two is right?

So, let us return to the Koan. Dogo was the teacher and Zen-gen his disciple. It is quite likely that Zen-gen, insofar as he was accompanying the teacher on this occasion, would have been a close disciple to Dogo. Zen-gen and Dogo went to the house of a lay student who had died, to make a condolence call and to express their regret and sympathy. While they were there, Zen-gen struck the coffin and asked, “Alive or dead?

In a way, I suppose, we could say that Zen-gen is asking, “What is life, and, above all, what is death?” This question about death, what is death, what will happen to me after I die, can bring one to the brink of desperation. One can become completely suffocated by it. I suffered just this kind of torment for about two years in the early part of my training. Everywhere I went, this spectre of death accompanied me. I would sit, it would sit. I would get up and walk, it would get up and walk. Having breakfast, going to bed, at work, wherever I went, there were this horror of death, this terrible feeling coming from the realization that everything was coming to an end, everything was impermanent

The question, “What is the point of life which ends in that way, in nothing!” was a constant torture. I was haunted by the recognition that in 50, 100 years, everybody around me, would be dead. Strangers would populate the whole world. Everything one has done, that seems to be so meaningful, would be completely forgotten! Two hundred years, not even the dust will remain! I was filled with a sense of hopelessness, I felt that any kind of activity, in these circumstances, was useless.

Buddha also must have been haunted by a similar horror. It is said that he met a sick person an old person and a dead person, and that these encounters completely overwhelmed him, so much so that he had to leave home and search for a way out of the horror of impermanence. However, these encounters are simply a graphic way of saying that he encountered sickness, old age and death.

I wondered at the time, and sometimes still wonder, how people without any spiritual sustenance do not also walk around in horror! What enables people to be so stupefied that they don’t wake up to the terror of the situation?

A monk went to his teacher and said, “I am not afraid of death!” The teacher answered, “Oh, what a pity!” The fear of death is one of the greatest friends that we can have on the spiritual path. It forces us to look, to ask seriously, “What is it about? What does it mean? What am I doing? What am I?” Anytime the fear of death strikes you, do not waste the opportunity that is offered. Treasure the moment, use it! Sit on the tiger’s head, grasp the tiger’s tail … Because this is the way, truly, to open yourself up to what is worthwhile.

A Zen master, Suzuki Shosan, who lived during the 1600’s, had been a samurai earlier in his life. As you know samurais were trained to face death at any moment. In Shosan’s time a samurai was completely at the service of his Lord. If the Lord told him to commit suicide, he would have had no alternative but to do so. In other words, the samurai was living constantly on the edge. Suzuki Shosan practiced Zen and, in his own way, became a famous Zen teacher,. He did away with all the koans and just had his students meditate on death. As he said, “Make the one character ‘death’ the master in your heart, observing it and letting go of everything else.”

Gurdjieff used to say that we are asleep and far from any contact with what is real. He said that the only hope left for humanity was that some kind of organ should be implanted in us, to remind us constantly of our own death and the death of all those around us. Remember, all those whom you hate, despise, all whom you look upon as being problems in your life, as being enemies, as well as all those you love, those who are your friends, they too will all die.

This is similar to something else that this samurai Zen master, Suzuki Shosan, said, “How idiotic, nobody from a hundred years ago is around today. All traces of them have vanished. But forgetting this, we desire trivial things and become planners and schemers. How stupid!”

Many people find walking around a cemetery and reading the inscriptions on tomb’s stones very tranquilizing. I shall never forget some inscriptions on a set of six tombstones in a Montreal cemetery. Five of them were in memory of people who had all died in the same year. One of them lived on and died 40 years later. The one who lived, was a woman. Of the five who died in that same terrible year, one was a man and four were evidently children. One could not help feel the tragedy soaked in those stones. And yet, a peace pervaded them nevertheless.

Suzuki Shosan said, “Guard this feeling of death with all your might! That is all I ever say. As long as Shosan is alive, he will talk of nothing but death.”

Guard this feeling of death! Guard this fear of death! This is what we have just said, “Guard it, because it is your friend!” Unfortunately, the fear of death takes us by the throat most often at 2.30 in the morning when our resources and defences are at their lowest. All that we want to do then is to throw up the battlements, surround ourselves with stone walls, get out the guns and shoot down the enemy. Anything! This is when you put steel in the concrete bunker that you call “myself,” to reinforce it. This is when you slam down the portcullis, tear up the drawbridge. This is when the ego, the sense of self, the feeling of “I am something,” is imbedded ever more deeply, deeply into your being. But it is precisely at this time that you can open yourself, because, paradoxically, it is now that the bunker is at its weakest. The enemy is already on its way in. The enemy which is yourself.

Buddha gave an account of his own struggle with the enemy , an account that is very inspiring. He said, “Suppose I spend nights in shrines of forest, park, or tree, fearsome and hair-raising though they may be, making such shrines my lodging for the night, that I might behold for myself the panic and fear and horror of it all … a deer maybe came upon me, or a peacock threw down a twig, or else a breeze stirred up a heap of fallen leaves. Then I thought here comes that fear and panic and horror.

He actually went into these shrines and the forests to allow fears, panic and horror to overtake him.

“Then I had this thought, ‘Why do I remain thus in constant fear and apprehension? Let me bend down to my will that panic fear and horror, just as I am, and just as it has come to be.’ So, as I was walking to and fro, that panic, fear and horror came upon me. Then I neither stood still nor sat nor lay down, but just walking up and down I bent that panic and fear and horror to my will.”

Buddha says that by going out to meet fear, one will eventually find a way through it.

It is obvious that this question of death and its meaning must have been a terrible torment to Zen-gen. I say it is obvious, because later, on his way home, he attacks Dogo and cries out, “You must tell me otherwise I will hit you.” He then goes on to strike the master, which was, of course, a very serious thing to do. But it shows the degree of desperation that Zen-gen must have felt.

The three kinds of death

What is the fear of death, anyway? It is as well to get to know the size of your adversary. There are three kinds of death.

Anonymous death

There is the anonymous death. This is the death that you see on TV or read about it in the newspaper. Ten thousand people in China were killed in a flood, or forty thousands Turkish people were killed in an earthquake, or 250 people died in an airplane crash. Numbers, deaths. In this age of “faction” or infotainment on TV we are never quite sure anymore whether death is real or simulated. One is never sure whether the news shots are real or whether they have simply been taken out of old films and are being used for some reason or other. What is number anyway? Ten thousand, hundred thousand? Forty million people were killed in the last world war. Some people think fifty millions! But, ten million more or less, what is the difference? This is what I mean by anonymous death. Many people expect to die this is the kind of death. It is so prevalent that they expect to die an anonymous death.

Death of a loved one

Then there is another death. The death of someone you love. Her, death rips away half a world. You see her die. You hear her agony. You feel her fear. You want to do something to release her pain but it is all out of your reach. It is like someone slipping away, drowning. You can’t quite reach her fingers as she slides away. One is left in that stunned, dead kind of feeling , numbed and asking what it all means? But her death tells you nothing about your death. It tells you a lot about loss, about grief, about pain. But, it tells you nothing about your death. One can learn nothing about death by seeing another die. All that it tells you is that you are in the face of an utter mystery.

One’s own death

The only way that we can know anything, anything at all about death, is by dying. This means that, because we are not dying physically, when we are afraid of death, we are not afraid of physical death. We are afraid of the idea of death. Socrates in the Apology said that perhaps death is the best thing that could ever happen to me. Why do I know that death is something bad? When we are present at the death of another we see all those people crying. We are stunned; we don’t know what is going on. So we think the worst.

Shakespeare wondered about the dreams that we may encounter when we have shuffle off this ‘mortal coil.’ “Ah, there’s the rub,” he says, “ Who knows what dreams may come?” However, most people are not afraid of the dreams. Most people say, “I don’t mind the dreams –– I don’t want the nothing.” It is the idea of nothing, which paralyzes. It is this idea of “nothing” that we must take a close look at. If you work with the fear of death, look at the idea of nothing. Is this what you are afraid of, and is this the same as death? Are you afraid of the idea of annihilation? If you look a little closer you may see that it is not just an idea of annihilation that you fear, it is also the idea of being swallowed” The fear of death is the feeling of being swallowed.

What can swallow you, if not you yourself? This is the source of our fear! We are constantly fighting against ourselves. All our struggles to maintain, to hold on, to resist, to live at all costs, comes from the fear of this giant behind us, this enemy, this dark sinister force which bears down on us, threatening to engulf us. We live in terror until we turn around and find that this dark sinister force is simply our true nature. A poem called the Hound of Heaven, written by a catholic priest, the English poey Francis Thompson, is about a man running away, pursued by a hound, by a ferocious dog. The poem is about the terror that he feels as he runs from “the hound of heaven,” as he calls it. Eventually he can run no more and he stumbles and falls. As he lies there, he turns to find that it is not a fierce hound that awaits him, but God.

Angelus Silesius said, “If you die before you die, you do not die when you die.” If you turn and face the hound of heaven, if you look down its jaws and see that it is God, how can you ever die after that?

But, as we said, it is in the chilling hours of the morning, when you can hear your own heart beating, pounding, when your hair stands on end, that one needs the courage to look down the jaws of the hound of heaven.

Carl Gustav Jung, the psychologist said “When one is alone, and it is night and so dark and quiet that one does not hear or see anything but the thoughts that add and subtract the years of one’s life, and the long sequence of those unpleasant facts, which prove cruelly how far the hand of the clock has advanced and that slow and uncheckable approach of that dark wall, which threatens to swallow up irretrievably all I love, possess, hope and strive for, then all the wise dicta go into hiding and fear descends upon the sleepless like a choking blanket.

An English poet said,”

We are the fools of time and terror
Days steal on us, and steal from us ; yet we live,
Loathing our life, and yet dreading still to die

The koan once more

Against the background of all of that, one must understand Zen-gen’s anguish when he said to his master, “Tell me or I will strike you!” Why does Dogo say, “I won’t say alive, I won’t say dead!” What does he mean? I won’t say alive, I won’t say dead! Zen-gen strikes a coffin so how can Dogen say alive? But, he can surely say ‘dead’ Zen -gan is asking about the corpse in the coffin , but is that what Dogo is talking about?

Tell me, right now, are you alive or dead? Now you say, I am alive, but what do you mean by that? Do you know really what it means to be alive? Do you know it, or do you think it? Is being alive an idea that you are holding carefully, protecting very carefully in the same way that you are holding, protecting very carefully the idea I am a person? If so, are you saying that that idea is alive? But of course ideas don’t live. Life lives ideas.

What gives life? It is not life itself. It is like daylight. Daylight does not simply come from the sun. Daylight comes because the light of the sun strikes the atmosphere. Life comes from the light of life striking an organism. Just as light and the atmosphere are indistinguishable and so give daylight, so the light of life and the organism are indistinguishable and so give life. What is this life giving force? If it is life giving, why should it not be also death giving? We think that this Quiet and secret and entirely One must only give life. But why should it give only life? The quiet and secret, entirely one is it alive or is it dead?

After Zen-gen had struck the master, he had to leave the monastery for fear of reprisals from the other monks. Later, after Dogen passed on, Zen-gen went to see another master Seki-so and told him what had happened. Seki-so also said, “I won’t say alive, I won’t say dead!” Zen-gen asked, “Why won’t you say?” Seki-so repeated, “I won’t say alive, I won’t say dead!” Zen-gen came to awakening. When Dogen said, “I won’t say, I won’t say!” Zen-gen was thrown into such anguish that he struck out. When Seki-so said, “I won’t say alive, I won’t say dead,” he came to awakening. What was the difference? What did he see the second time that he didn’t see the first?

The first time he saw, ‘I won’t say, I won’t say death’, as a denial, negative. It was a barrier. Zen-gen perceived Dogo as refusing. The second time, he sees, ‘I won’t say alive, I won’t say dead,’ not as a refusal to answer, not in a negative way, but in a positive way. It is said “ If there is Buddha in life and death, there is no life and death.” Or let me put it this way: beyond life and death, what are you? Beyond being and not-being, what are you? Don’t say nothing.

One day Zen-gen took a hoe into the Buddha hall and crossed back and forth, from east to west and west to east. Seki-so asked, “What are you doing?” Zen-gen answered, “ I am looking for my teacher’s relics.

It was said that a very holy man, when he died, would leave a deposit from his neck, like a necklace. It was called Buddha’s necklace. These hard deposits, calcium I suppose, do not burn during cremation. They are very highly prized as relics coming from a holy man, and are sometimes put into stupas which become sites for pilgrimages. But what was Zen-gen up to? He is walking back and forward in the Buddha Hall with a hoe. The Buddha hall is like a Zendo. It is a place where a number of Buddha figures can be found, and it is used very often as a place for meeting and for talks and so on. But you certainly do not go in there with a hoe. You are not going to dig anything at all in a Buddha Hall! What is Zen-gen doing? What does he mean when he says that he is looking for the relics of the master? In any case, where are the relics of the master right now?

Seki-so said, “Vast waves spread far and wide, foaming billows flood the skies – what relics of our late master are you looking for?”

In other words, the whole world is full to the brim. How can you hope to find these relics that you are looking for? Everything is form. Where are you going to find emptiness? Everything is One. Where are you going to find anything else? Then Zeng-gen said, “It is a way of repaying the kindness of my old teacher.”

Somebody asked Hakuin, “what happens after we die?” Hakuin answered, “ I don’t know.” The man said, “Well, what do you mean, ‘I don’t know?’ Are you not a Zen master?” Hakuin said, “Yes, but not a dead one.” This question has haunted human beings at all times. The story of Gilgamesh is very, very old story which some people say to be six thousand years old. It was handed down in an oral tradition a long time before it was written down. Gilgamesh went on pilgrimage after his great friend had died. He wanted to find the meaning of life in the face of death. In other words, the struggle with the meaning of life and of death is one the oldest of the struggles that human beings have engaged in and they have come up with many different ways of dealing with this question.

Each one of us, in our own way, has to come to terms with it.. We may come to terms with it by ignoring it and letting it lie on the wayside. However, the trouble is that if the question dies on the wayside, so does the question of life. It is the way that we work with the fact of death that will determine the quality and way that we live. None of us can predict how we are going to die, whether we are going to die peacefully or whether we are going to die stricken with fear. To boast in any way that one is going to die a death of equanimity is utmost foolishness. All kinds of hazards or problems can strike us at the moment of death. However, we can struggle to face the fear of death, because the fear of death is not the fear of physical death. The fear of death that we can struggle with, is the fear of death of the personality. This is what we are afraid of, the death of the feeling that I am in control, the death of the sense of self.

Christ said “Except a seed falls into the ground and die, it remains alone. But, if it dies, it brings forth much fruit.”


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Give peace, Oh Lord!

This is a transcription of a teisho given at the time of the beginning of the Iraq war. I believe that it  may still have relevance.

Case no 41

Bodhidharma sat facing the wall. The second Patriarch, having cut off his arm, stood there in the snow. He said, “Your disciple’s mind has no peace as yet. I beg the teacher to give it rest.” Bodhidharma replied, “Bring your mind here and I will give it rest.” The Patriarch said, “I have searched for that mind, and finally see that it is unattainable.” Bodhidharma said, “Then I have put it to rest.”


The broken toothed old foreigner crossed the sea importantly from a hundred thousand miles away. This was raising waves when there is no wind. Bodhidharma had only one disciple, and even he had only one arm. Well! well!


Coming from the west and directly pointing.
All the truth comes from that.
The jungle of monks being all at sixes and sevens
Comes from these two chaps.

Hui-Ko, the second Patriarch was an intellectual, and he suffered from the blight of many intellectuals: he was very arrogant. He had heard about Bodhidharma, who was sitting in a cave facing the wall, and had decided to go to him for his teaching. As a teacher, one often encounters this arrogant attitude. People will say that they have done some Zen, or have read a few books on Zen, and they would like to come along and discuss it. There is no please or whatever. And they are not really wanting to discuss anything; they simply want to tell you what they know. Quite likely Hui-Ko went to Bodhidharma with that kind of attitude. So long as one is going to «get» something, whether from practice or from a teacher, one already has barriers and blocks to surmount.

Bodhidharma refused to have anything to do with him. But something about Bodhidharma must have made Hui-Ko wonder. So he stood outside the cave waiting for Bodhidharma to acknowledge him. As he stood there snow began to fall. But still he stood outside the cave. Eventually, the snow reached to his knees. He again asked Bodhidharma for his teaching and Bodhidharma turned on him and said, “The incomparable truth of the Buddhas can only be attained by immeasurable striving, practicing what cannot be practiced, and bearing the unbearable. How can you, with your little virtue, little wisdom, and with your easy and self -conceited mind, dare to aspire to attain to true teaching? It is only so much labor lost.”

“Practicing what cannot be practiced.” What does that mean? We are constantly told to “practice what cannot be practiced.” Anything that you do, any practice that you have, is no good, it is so much labor lost. When a monk went to Rinzai and was about to ask him for his teaching Rinzai hit him. “Why are you hitting me,” complained the monk, “I have not even opened my mouth yet.” “What is the good of waiting until you have opened your mouth?” growled Rinzai. Anything you do, even to think of opening your mouth, is too much. Now practice!

Bodhidharma also says, ‘bear the unbearable.’ The unbearable is not the pain in the legs or the wandering mind. The unbearable is to realize that we’re not this puffed up, important person that in our heart of hearts we believe we are.

Bodhidharma makes a direct assault on Hui K’o. No ‘compassion’ there, no ‘powder and rouge words,’ (to use an expression of Harada roshi;) no “little Jesus meek and mild” approach. He is tearing down Hui-Ko’s enemy, compelling Hui-Ko to bear the unbearable. This is a true teacher at work.

The koan then says, “Hui-Ko cut off his arm.” Of course the possibility of doing this is very remote. It would, in any case, make an awful mess. I don’t even know how one would start to do something like that. But we must not take what the koan says too literally. Certainly, Hui-Ko took extreme measures. We have in English an expression, ‘I would give my right arm for that,’ meaning that I prize it very, very highly. I am prepared to give my right arm for it. The right arm, at one time, was the arm of power, the sword arm, the arm with which you would defend yourself, or overcome an adversary. To give one’s right arm would be to put oneself into a powerless situation or powerless position. This is how we must understand Hui-Ko’s meaning.

Bodhidharma had crashed through his arrogance. Hui K’o said, “Your disciple’s mind has no peace as yet. I beg the teacher to give it rest.”

What a beautiful word is the word ‘peace.’ It has an aura of gentleness, of tenderness, of lightness.

Peace! Peace on earth! “Give peace, Oh God/ Give peace again.” Peace, in search of which we have fought so many wars.

At the start of the war in Iraq, about a million people marched in Washington demanding peace. In Montreal about a hundred and fifty thousand people marched through the streets demanding peace.

After a recent workshop a woman became very incensed with me, saying how disappointed she was with the workshop. She said that it was interesting enough, but how could I avoid the issue, the threat of war in Iraq that was hanging over us at the time. What did I have to offer except sitting in front of a wall ‘watching’ the breath? In times like these, she said, one turns to spiritual leaders to give guidance and support. What was I offering but an escape?

She too was demanding I give her peace.

But we cannot demand peace. We cannot look upon it as our right. Everyone wants peace. During the Vietnam war people marched in demonstration and, of course, those demonstrations were as useless as these more recent ones were. Nothing came of them except perhaps to help America lose the war. They did not bring peace! They brought a capitulation. During those demonstrations in Washington in the 70’s, Pierre Trudeau looked out of the window, he was at a meeting with the president of the U.S.A. at the time, and he remarked, “Don’t those people down there realize that we want peace as well?”

Why do I say these demonstrations and demands are useless? First let’s be honest, the idea that we can have eternal peace is a pipe dream. I have given reasons for saying this in my book, Creating Consciousness.

But of more practical importance is that if we are to take part in marches for peace, we should at least have spent a few years finding the source of our own war and struggling, to some extent, to bring about some kind of internal reconciliation, some kind of peace within ourselves. Otherwise, all that we are doing is projecting our own war in this demand for peace. War between nations is the sum total of all of our own, individual wars that has spun out of control. A war is human suffering made manifest, not in the victims of the war but in the fact of the war. And our suffering, as Buddha said, comes from desire.

People say that all that George W. Bush wanted in the Iraq war was to ensure that the US has control of the oil there. They say this with fury and declare that this is terrible that he should do such a thing. But they arrived at the demonstration, in which they expressed their fury, in a car. Are they prepared to give up their car? Are they prepared to give up travelling by bus or plane, to give up their furnace and air-conditioning for this peace?

Voltaire, that great activist, was a pamphleteer who used wit and satire to try to bring about social change. He was, among other things, against the excesses of the Church. He said that in reality all theological disputes ultimately come down to one question: should the shirt be worn inside or outside the trousers. But, after a lifetime of activism, he came to the conclusion that what he should do was to cultivate his own backyard.

I am not saying that one should not join in peace marches if one feels there is any point in doing so; it depends on one’s own political affiliation and faith in the democratic process. But let us dig our own backyard to start with. Let us really go at it and find some way in which we can extirpate these eternal conflicts in ourselves and which, willy nilly, we’re constantly projecting on to others, even when we march for peace.

If one does truly want peace then one should be prepared to die for it. I remember Gandhi somewhere at one time said that if one is going to engage in non-violence then one must be prepared to die in that process. One should be like a soldier on the battlefield risking his life in the same way. He said if one is not prepared to do that then one must fight. And if one doesn’t fight then one is a coward.

But the real fight is the fight to face the pain of our conflicts. It is the fight to release ourselves from the grip of the tyrant from which all our conflicts and pain arise, the fight in which we must die to be reborn.

Oscar Wilde said that sentimentality is wanting to enjoy an emotion without being prepared to pay for it. I have had perhaps half a dozen e-mails from different teachers, including one from the Buddhist Fellowship for Peace, exhorting me to join in with meditations for peace, prayers for peace and so on. This seems to me to be cheap sentimentality. What do they think we do here every time we cross our legs, if it isn’t a prayer for peace?

If every moment of our practice is not a prayer for peace, if we are not praying for peace when we sit, then we are wasting our time. This struggle for peace is the eternal struggle. As Shibayama said, “You who have not spent sleepless nights in suffering and tears, who do not know the experience of being unable to swallow even a piece of bread — the peace of God will never reach you.” This is the way that we will find peace! Not in the world, but in ourselves. And if we find peace in ourselves, perhaps we can shed just a little, oh, so little, light on this troubled world. One more quote from Shibayama says, “I myself shall never forget the spiritual struggle I had in sheer darkness for nearly three years. I would declare that what is most important and invaluable in Zen training is this experience of dark nights that one goes through with one’s whole being.” Without having passed through the fire of the spiritual struggle, what use is there for special prayers for peace, special evenings of meditation? And if we have passed through the purgatorial fires, again, what use is there for those special demonstrations of our love for peace?

One of the finest examples of spiritual writing that I have come across is the following by Bodhidharma. « If a follower of the way falls into any kind of suffering or trial one should think and say thus:

“During countless past ages I have abandoned the root and gone after the branches, carried along on the restless, bitter waves of the sea of existence, and have, because of this, created endless occasions for hate, ill-will and wrong-doing. The harm done has been limitless. Although my present suffering may not be caused by any wrongdoing committed in this life, yet it is the fruit of my errors in a past existence that happens to ripen at this moment. It is not something which men or gods have given to me. Let me therefore take, patiently and sweetly, this bitter fruit of my own making without resentment or complaint against anyone or anything.”

When this way of thinking is awakened the mind responds spontaneously to the dictates of Reason, so that this can even help one make use of other people’s hatred and so turn it into an occasion to advance toward the Tao. This is called “the rule of the repayment of debts. »

As Bodhidharma says, “During countless past ages I have …created endless occasions for hate, ill-will and wrong-doing.” At the beginning of each sesshin we chant the repentance gatha. This can be seen as a summary or condensation, you might say, of the fourteen reminders, and when we chant the gatha we are repenting our failure to have lived up to the fourteen reminders. « All evil actions committed by me since time immemorial, stemming from greed, anger and ignorance arising from body speech and mind I now repent having committed.” We recognize that we hurt others so thoughtlessly; we hurt them so easily. We are at a check out counter and the clerk does not go fast enough, and so we snap, growl. Perhaps that person behind the counter has just heard some very bad news; perhaps that is why she is slower. But, we believe, that does not matter.

We now have the phenomenon of road rage. Somebody cuts in front of us in a car and we are prepared to kill them. We become angry and hurt someone; In their pain they turn on another, who carries his resentment home and inflicts further pain there. And so the ripples spread out accumulating as they go, feeding back to their source and out again and the explosive mixture is brewed, waiting for the moment when war breaks out again.

As Bodhidharma says, “The harm done has been limitless. Although my present suffering may not be caused by any wrong-doing committed in this life, yet it is the fruit of my errors in a past existence which happens to ripen at this moment.” Somebody asked in his misery at what he was suffering, «What have I done to deserve this?” Someone else interjected, «Plenty!”

And then Bodhidharma says, and this is so important, “It is not something which men or gods have given to me. We suffer because we are human. In our suffering we lash out at others and so sow the seeds for more suffering. Bodhidharma gives the way to find peace: “Let me therefore take, patiently and sweetly, this bitter fruit of my own making.” This is the formula for peace, not waving placards, not chanting «Bush et Blair criminels de guerre,» because, as he says, we must accept this bitter fruit “without resentment or complaint against anyone or anything.”

Now, so often, we cannot do this. So often our anger just erupts. We just can’t help it. But after the fact we can help it. All right, so we have blown up. Afterwards, any reasonable person feels remorse, regret. They feel sad. At that time, within that pain of remorse and sadness, we can pay our debt. By staying with the pain, with the remorse. One stays with the pain instead of blaming; instead of complaining “If they had not said that,” or “If she had not done that” and so on. One stays with the pain instead of blaming oneself, promising to do better in future, saying «I don’t know what’s the matter with me. I have been practicing for God knows how long. I must get hold of myself. In future …» and all this kind of thing. All of this is just bluff, smoke, trying to avoid the pain, the remorse, the regret. We must stay in the pain, in the middle of that furnace, that purgatorial fire. Through those purgatorial fires alone will we find the peace that we seek. In this way we can make use of other people’s and our own hatred, « and so turn it into an occasion to advance toward the Tao. » This Bodhidharma calls “the rule of the repayment of debts. »

Bodhidharma sets an extremely high standard for us if we really take what he says to heart.

People come to the Center and say that they want to come to awakening. This is not what we’re about. We are not here simply to come to awakening. We are here to pay off our debts. Of course, we all start off, every one of us, wanting the pearl of great price. Every one of us imagines what it will be like when others look up to us in awe, wonder, when we have that halo! But, as we labor, and as we drag ourselves through the dust across the desert, through the dryness, with the sun beating down mercilessly day after day, our feet burning, nothing on the horizon to give us any kind of hope, we come to let go of the pipe dream and begin to see that something much deeper, much more profound than self glory is driving us on. We are now driven to find true peace.

I rarely talk about peace. Peace is one of those words that I am afraid of using. The word ‘peace’ is like the word ‘love.’ For years I was afraid of using it. I remember Joshu, who said, « Whenever I use the word Buddha I wash my mouth out for three days afterwards.” Some of these words like love, peace, God, are like having treacle in your hair. You just can’t get them out. They have been so used, so abused, sold so cheaply. Anyone can get a following if one sprinkles these and similar words around like confetti.

But even so we are looking for peace. We do seek peace. Remember those wonderful lines of Jesus: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” And then as St. Paul says, “The peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” That is the peace that we want. Not the peace that we can demand, not the peace that we can negotiate, but the peace that is beyond all understanding.

Hui K’o said, “Your disciple’s mind has no peace as yet. I beg the teacher to give it rest.”

Bodhidharma replied, “Bring your mind here and I will give it rest.” Again he is very direct, very forthright. Again, no ‘powder and rouge’ words. « Bring your mind and I will set it at rest. And the Patriarch said, “I have searched for that mind, and finally see that it is unattainable.”

The question, of course is, with which mind did he seek that mind and find it unattainable?


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“In life’s dream, passing from heaven to hell, each realm seems real.”

According to Buddhist mythology there are six realms: two deva realms, the human realm, the realm of animals, the realm of hungry and thirsty ghosts and the realm of fighting demons. According to some Buddhist traditions, these are real worlds, and we transmigrate through these worlds according to the karma that we accrued during a life time.

The Zen tradition, on the other hand, says that in one lifetime we are constantly passing through these realms. We can even pass through them in a single day. Somebody smiles at us and tells us how beautiful or handsome we are, and we fly up into the deva realm. Then somebody looks at us angrily and immediately we plunge into the realm of fighting demons. We pass a shop and see something that we would like to buy, and we are into the realm of hungry and thirsty ghosts. And so it goes. As we pass through these realms, each one seems real. When we are angry, we are really angry. And it seems as though the whole world is red. The whole world is fiery.

There are two deva realms: one is the realm that rich and beautiful people inhabit. You see their photographs in Paris Match or People and other magazines. This is one deva realm. The other deva realm is the transcendental state, a samadhi condition. But we might go to the botanical gardens and walk around and enjoy the beauty and peace of the place and we pass into a kind of deva realm. The whole world is blue and green, everything is beautiful.

Or we decide that we really do have to get a new car, and we start worrying about what kind of car, from where to get the money, whether or not we are getting a good deal – and we are in the world of hungry and thirsty ghosts. We are constantly migrate through the six realms during sesshin. Someone comes into dokusan totally identified with his mind state. In the next dokusan he comes in an entirely different mind state and he is totally identified with that.

Perhaps you have noticed that when you are sick, you just cannot imagine being well; when you are well it is difficult to imagine being sick. What I say is real, is real. Not me, the personality, that says it is real, but that which bestows reality.. Even as you sit here at the moment, you see the room as real. You see it as something in its own right, having its own reality. And yet in a couple of days time, all of this that we are now experiencing will just be a vague memory. Although this is well known, what it implies is invariably overlooked. At what moment does what you are presently experiencing as real , ‘out there,’ become a memory ‘in here,’ in the mind? Where is that line between perception and memory?

Life is a dream. As we get older, life becomes increasingly like a dream. So much has come and gone. So much tension and excitement, drama, fears, failures and achievements have come and gone. And all are now quite insubstantial. Even the worst moments in the past are now quite insubstantial. And yet at the time it was so terrifyingly real.

“In life’s dream, passing from heaven to hell, each realm seems real.”

When you are asking, “What am I?” you are asking, “What is real? What does it mean, it is real?”

We have to remember that the word ‘reality’ has two meanings. Reality as the content of reality, and reality as the fact of reality We talk about the content of reality when we say, “Well your reality may be like that, but my reality is different.” Or, we say the reality of a bushman is quite different from the reality of a twentieth century manager. We are quite used to using this word reality as meaning the content, the experience that makes up what we call our reality.

But we say, “It is real,” which is a different use of the word ‘real.’; we say, “this room is real,” or “my pain is real,” or ‘my suffering is real,” “my thoughts are real.” What does it mean, it is real? Careful investigation will show that if the world is real then I am a phantom, I am a ghost. But if I am real then the world is a dream. How is this shift possible?.

“But with awakening the whole cosmos is completely empty.”

Cosmos, universe, or world mean the totality of experience that is possible at any given moment. It does not mean the galaxies, stars and suns, planets and moons. It means all that is graspable in a moment. And it is empty. One can accept that a memory is empty. If I have the memory of a table, I don’t expect to be able to dig inside my brain or mind or body and fish out a table. I can remember an ant or I can remember an elephant, it makes no difference. But we seem to think that this room in which we are sitting at the moment is real, even though the memory we have of it a moment later is empty.

When the world is real I am a ghost. The difficulty that many people have with the koan, “What am I?” comes from this truth. They work with the koan against the background of what they consider to be the ‘real’ world, and so in asking the question they are looking for a ghost.

If you say to somebody that the world is a dream, he might well say, but if a bus were coming roaring at you, you would not say that, would you? In other words, the ultimate in reality is impact by a bus. Then, working on the koan “What am I?” he tries to conjure up a self against the background of that immense bus. And of course, it seems very ghostly, like a phantom. But the Hindus have a saying: “Dog, no stone; stone, no dog.”

People, when seeing the vastness of the stars and galaxies, feel their own insignificance. But they forget that they are seeing that vast universe. It is as though by seeing the universe they swallow the universe. And the universe swallowed is not much more than a grain of salt. Do not seek to know yourself against the world, but know yourself as the world, as the reality of the world and as the reality of all possible worlds. Hakuin rightly says, “What is there outside us, what is there we lack?”

“But with awakening, the whole cosmos is completely empty.
No bad fortune, no good fortune. No loss, no gain.”

What is good fortune? What is bad fortune? Milt Erikson, the psychologist, starts off one of his books by saying, “Fortunately, when I was seventeen I had polio.”

Fortunately! Good fortune! How can we ever get around that? What is good fortune? Dogen’s parents died when he was young. I think his father died when he was three and his mother when he was eight. On the face of it, it was a tragedy; but it lead to his questioning and to awakening. As a consequence of the last world war, at the age of ten I was separated from my parents, brother and sister and evacuated from my home in London. For the first time I saw flowers and trees and fields in their natural state. I spent a whole year living with some very remarkable people. The experience changed my life for the better. On the face of it, to be torn away from one’s parents at the age of ten or eleven and to be put among strangers seems to be a tragedy. What is good fortune? What is bad fortune? What is loss? What is gain?

You know the old, but still very useful, saying: one person says, “I only have half a glass of beer” and another says, “I have a whole half glass of beer.”

This illustrates two kinds of attitudes towards the same situation. For one person the whole world is loss. For the other person the whole world is gain.

“No bad fortune, no good fortune. No loss, no gain.”

One must not believe that this implies a flat insipid life. It does not mean there are no problems. People are sometimes amazed when a person who is awakened is thrust into a situation of extreme difficulty. They cannot understand it. Sometimes, during a workshop I am even asked, “Does an awakened person feel pain?” One man told me that when he first went to a workshop he was put off because he saw that the teacher was obviously very stiff when he got down from the tan. People get a strange idea of what practice is all about. It is about the ups and downs of life. One has ill health and good health. It is not ‘my’ good health or ‘my’ bad health. But, there is nevertheless good health and bad health. There is the ability to do things and the inability to do things.

In nirvana there is nothing to ask or to seek.
Dust builds up on a mirror not cleansed.
With one decisive stroke now, lay the glass bare!

Dust builds up on a mirror not cleansed. The writer, Uchua, had his awakening confirmed by Hui-Neng! Hui-Neng put his fist through the mirror on which dust could build up by saying “There is no mirror, where could the dust alight.” What then, does Uchua mean, “Dust builds up on a mirror not cleansed.”

The mirror image is used in two ways: the mirror is a metaphor for the Atman, an underlying ever-present self or I that is a substratum. Christianity has the same notion of an underlying substratum: the Supreme Being, a being that sustains the world and is everlasting. This could be seen as a mirror.

Zen has no substratum; it has no ‘everlasting,’ no eternity. Although we talk about Buddha nature and the Self, “I am,” we nevertheless constantly undermine or cut it away. The koan Mu means no-substratum. To see into Mu is to see no substratum. This does not simply mean that the world is empty; it means that emptiness itself is empty. One goes beyond being and not being. There is no “I am.” no knowing. Knowing is not always present. Knowing does not endure, it is beyond time. When one knows, one knows. Dogen says Buddha nature is impermanence. It is like a fountain constantly gushing up. Buddha nature is impermanence: that which changes never changes.

Seeing is constant but does not endure. Seeing is constant to that which is seen. Monks in Japan are called “unsui,” meaning clouds and water, that is to say complete flexibility. Nothing is frozen. Nothing is brittle and hard. When you are asking, “What is Mu?” or when you are asking what is anything, this is the direction in which you must look: Buddha nature is impermanence, no substratum. This is why the practice is an arousing; arouse the mind! At the moment, the mind is torpid, dull. It is as though it is encased in a prison of concepts and words having no flexibility. Right is right. Wrong is wrong. Good is good. Bad is bad. I am me, you are you. The world is the world. This is this, that is that. And yet behind that frozen, rigid, inflexible world is a constant, dynamic, scintillating knowing.

“Dust builds up on a mirror not cleansed.”

As the dust builds up so this world becomes more and more rigid, and more and more we feel that we are caught up, bound up in the world.

And then he says,

“With one decisive stroke now, lay the glass bare!”

The decisive stroke is necessary. Awakening is always sudden, out of time, a cognitive flash. It is a moment out of time, or eternity within the moment. It is a moment of knowing without content, a moment of certainty without being certain of anything. And so we cannot anticipate. Do not anticipate, do not imagine. Do not try to conceive it, because it is in itself beyond imagination and conception. Imagination and conception are ways by which we maintain the mind in its frozen state. Our practice is a proposition. We propose constantly. We offer, we give ourselves over, we open ourselves. These are the words that best describe the practice.

Just as you cannot anticipate awakening, so awakening is possible at any moment. If you have the attitude, “well obviously I can’t come to awakening; my mind is so dull, so torpid; I’ve got a lot of work to do so just let me plod on. I am a plodder, but that’s all right. I’ll keep going and I’ll work at it and you know… “ This will not work! This will not do!

You are already Buddha. Hyakujo’s teacher asked him to rake in the ashes to see whether he could find some fire, and Hyakujo raked everywhere and said, “No, there is no fire at all.” And then the master said, “Now let me have a look.” And he raked around and he came across a little spark and he said to Hyakujo, “Is that not fire?” And with that Hyakujo came to deep awakening.

In Zen it is said, “Even in the driest well there is water.” Whatever you do, do not make judgements about yourself, about the kind of person you are, about the prospects you have. “From the beginning all beings are Buddha.” This is the truth. This is how it is. Right now, right now you can step out and let the whole burden drop. Right now!

And then he asks,

Who is it that has no thought? Who is it that is unborn?”

His question is not, who is it that has a thought? But who is it that has no thought? It is not, who is it that is in birth and death? But who is it that is unborn? You must go beyond no thought, beyond the unborn. It is not enough that you reach a state of equanimity: another step must be taken. A koan in the Mumonkan: asks, “How do you take a step from the top of a hundred foot pole?” How do you get beyond the unborn? How do you take a step beyond no-thought? How do you leap from “No one walks along this path”? There is knowing, and then there is knowing. And this knowing is just like an intense flash of light. The intense light that would come from the most precious jewel.

And then the song says,

“It’s as if really not born yet not unborn either.”

This is, unfortunately, how we live much of our lives: “as if really not born and yet not unborn either.” We live our lives in an intermediate state, a twilight realm. We are twilight people so often. We are promising constantly, but the promise is never fulfilled. We live in a world of shadows. Not born and yet not unborn. The clarity, the completeness, the wholeness that is possible, constantly evades us.

The song continues:

“Put this question to a wooden puppet:
Can Buddhahood be found by seeking it?”

Why does he say, “Put this question to a wooden puppet.” In a way, that line answers the question: “Can Buddhahood be found by seeking it?” A monk asked a Zen Master, “What is the truth?” The master replied, “Ask the wall.” The monk said, “I don’t understand!” The master said, “I don’t understand either!”

Why does the master say, “Ask the wall”? Why does the master say, “Ask a wooden puppet”? If you can see into that, then you see the answer to “Can Buddhahood be found by seeking it?”

Of course, the answer at one level is, no, Buddhahood cannot be found by seeking it because one is already Buddha. This, superficially, is what the ninth koan of the Mumonkan, Daitsu Chisho Buddha, is about. But one must go much deeper than that. That is just an intellectual understanding.

Ask a wooden puppet, ask the wall, ask a stone. You say, but a stone can not speak, a wooden puppet is mute, a wall is inanimate. But it is said that inanimate things preach the dharma.

“Just let everything go – earth, air, water, fire, wind.”

When Dogen was in China, he was sitting late one night and his master chided another monk who was dozing in the zendo and hit him with a slipper shouting, “This is no place to sleep! You must let fall body and mind.” Body and mind must fall. Drop body and mind. If you want to see into Mu, drop body and mind. If you want to see into Mu, drop everything; earth, air, water, fire, wind. This is everything that can be seen and known, everything that can be grasped, everything that can be felt. Go beyond it all. You are not something. Awaken beyond form. What is this?

What am I? My face before my parents were bon.

And then he says,

“Then drink and eat as you please, in Nirvana.”

This is like Hakuin who shouted at a monk, “Hey young man, die! Die now! And then do as you please.”

When you are working on your first koan, you feel like you are rolling a huge rock up hill, a rock that is just beyond your strength. It slips and you stuff your foot under it; you push and it slips again, you heave your shoulder against it and it rolls up the hill a little and so you push and then it slips again and it rolls down. You grab it, stop it, push up again and again. It moves a little, and you push.

Two monks were on a pilgrimage monk carrying their belongings on the end of a stick as was the custom. One monk had recently come to awakening. The other asked him, “Well what is it?” The monk took the bundle off his shoulder and drops it onto the ground. The first monk says, “Oh, is that all?” The other monk grabs the bundle, puts it on his shoulder, and goes off.

One drops body and mind, and then one can pick it up but it is no longer a burden.

“Everything in the universe is fleeting and empty.”

Not only everything in the universe is fleeting and empty. The universe itself is fleeting and empty. There is no universe, no world, no cosmos. Do away with it all! Keep cutting through this attachment, this wanting something.

“Everything in the universe is fleeting and empty.
This is the perfect awakening of the Tathagatha.”

“From the beginning, not a thing is.” What is this? What are you? Why this grasping? Look into the grasping, the wanting, the needing, longing, yearning. What is it? Give yourself over to it. Become it. Let it swallow you up. Let it take you home. Wanting to be something is, ultimately, wanting to come home.. You are not wrong in your longing: you just do not long enough. Desires are not a problem,; the problem is a desire for this or that but are desires for this or that when you can desire the whole.

What are you? What is it? What is this world? Do not get into philosophy or anything like that. Thinking about it is no use. It is an experiencing. What does it mean to experience? The water is cool, the sky is blue and the grass is green.

An intelligent questioning is necessary. It is not simply throwing yourself at it. When we say become one with it, the most immediate way that you can do so is by awakening to it intelligently. It is like you are talking to someone and you want to remember the name of an author, and it just wont come. The name is right there, on the tip of your tongue. You keep feeling around for it, you almost get it. Finally the mind yields it up, although it may not be until the next day. That is how you practice with Mu or Who. There is a kind of grasping and letting go simultaneously, an intensity but an intensity within a relaxed state.

You say, but I’m not sitting 7 or 10 hrs a day on a mat when I am trying to remember names. Much of my time on sesshin is spent fighting pain. And this is true. But one fights the pain, one struggles with the discomfort of a sesshin Then there are times when, as a consequence, this pearl of great price comes within the range of your perception. And then you can turn this sharp diamond mind to see right through it. Do not feel that the struggle that you make on the mat to keep the mind from wandering is in any way a waste of time.

It is exactly like a person learning to play the piano. You have to go through boring finger exercises day after day, day after day. Even the great geniuses still go on practicing day after day. But then comes the possibility to play a sonata, or to play a concerto.

A true follower of the Way speaks with certainty.”

‘Speaks with authority’ might be better When you knows you know. You do not have to hedge or twist. In the dokusan room, we ask, “What is Mu?” You know, you know. You have authority, the response comes right from the heart, right from the center, right from the truth itself and nothing can stop it.

While you should not talk about things for which you do not have the authority to speak, that of which you do have the authority to speak of, you must speak. When people ask you questions about Zen, if they are sincere, genuine questions, you must speak from your own experience, but don’t go beyond it.

“You, who lack will and self discipline, be inquiring.”

Arouse the question! You who lack will and self discipline, arouse the question Be inquiring.

“Going straight to the root is the whole mark of the Buddha.
Picking at the leaves and collecting the branches is no use at all.
Most people do not know the pearl that answers all wishes,
The great pearl that is found in the storehouse of the Tathagatha.
Its miracle workings are neither empty nor not empty.”

During a dokusan someone asked, “What is the use of Zen?” And he added, “There are other disciplines in which you send help to other people, you send out love and peace into the universe.” Until we have really seen into this sense of ‘I’ then all of the good will and good wishes that we have towards others is always tainted. While it is true that it may be possible to help others through prayer and meditation, nevertheless the greatest help you can give to others is to reduce the strength of your own sense of self importance. No doubt many are helped by sesshin who do not even know a sesshin is in progress. We are one mind. And to the extent that we are authentic and sincere in our practice, to that extent, we are at this very moment fulfilling our vow to save all sentient beings. Even so cutting out the root of the sense of self is the greatest help that you can give. It is a lifetime’s work, and at the end of the lifetime the root may still be flourishing. But this is the direction we must go. If you want to help others, first of all, help yourself. And there is no better way to help yourself than seeing into the illusion of the belief, of the craving, ‘I am the center of the world.’

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The Song of Awakening was composed by Uchua, a Chinese Zen master, a contemporary of Hui-Neng.  He came to awakening after having read some phrases from the Vimalakirti Sutra, and went to Hui-Neng to have his awakening verified.  That he came to awakening while reading is important.  The anti-intellectual attitude that so often pervades Japanese and American Zen gives us the impression that any kind of intellectual activity, any use of the mind through words, concepts and ideas, is taboo.  But most of the Zen masters were very familiar with the sutras. For example, Bodhidharma who taught transmission beyond words and letters, passed on the Lankavatara sutra to Hui K’o the second patriarch. For someone to come to awakening when reading is not at all uncommon.   Another famous example is Chinul, one of the founders of Korean Son (Zen) Buddhism. This reading is not, of course, done to acquire knowledge and information, but seeks to penetrate through the layer of words to the core of understanding.  A Zen master said, “When you have the meaning you can throw away the words.” But first you must get the meaning, and for this you will need the words.

The Song of Realizing the Way, or Song of Awakening, begins with:

“Have you ever met the one versed in the way of ease,
One with nothing to do and nothing to get?”

On the face of it, this seems to be asking whether you have met an awakened person.  But that would be a superficial reading of these lines.  “The one seasoned in the way” is your true nature. When you ‘see into,’ or ‘meet,’ your true nature you have the feeling of everything suddenly being easy – you are “versed” in the way of ease.” You feel ‘oiled.’

Periodically, during a sesshin, you will encounter this feeling of ease.  For a long time you just sit feeling dryness, bareness, as though walking along a dusty, cobbled road on your knees. Suddenly, you feel an easing.  Your heart seems to soften, and you feel the rightness of what you  are doing.  It is important not to wallow in that feeling, although one has a great temptation to do so. But by not disturbing, by not trying to get something from it, you can stay in that way of ease in a free way.   This is the antechamber to awakening.  If you try to seize it, or push it, or use it, then you walk out of the antechamber, back onto the dry and dusty road.

“One with nothing to do and nothing to get.”

The miracle of wakefulness is the miracle of ‘not doing.’  “No one walks along the path.”  No one walks, talks, sees, and eats.  The belief that ‘I’ must do, ‘I’ must be in control, ‘I’ am the one that matters, is the primary illusion.  The way of ease is a way of not doing.  But the way of not doing is not the way of doing nothing.  Walking, there is no one that walks, but this is not a blankness, not an absence but a presence.  On the contrary, when I say, ‘I’ walk, then  that is an absence: it is an absence of the vastness of being.  That is a loss.

We are afraid to let go.  We feel if we do so, things will fly out of control.  We feel that then anything can happen.  On the contrary, when we let go of the illusion of being in control, then everything goes according to the way the situation requires.  You see this with great artists. A good musician, for example, has gone beyond technique.  When a great musician plays, there is no one who plays.  Similarly with a great athlete; she has no  sense of being in control.

When you ask, “Who am I?”  you are not seeking someone or something, you are asking about the illusion of being the do-er.  The illusion of being the one who does things.  There is nothing to do.  Nothing to master.  When we can allow this to be the case then everything is done, everything is mastered.  A Zen master said, “I do nothing all day, but nothing is left undone.”

The song goes on and says:

“The real nature of ignorance is Buddha nature itself.”

In Buddhism ignorance is the major klesá. A klesá is that which brings suffering to others and to ourselves. There are two other klesá: anger and greed. Greed, anger, and ignorance are the three supports of our personality. An ignorant person is one who ignores, or turns his back on, his true nature. He does this by forgetting the world of unity and harmony, and dwells instead in the dualistic illusions of you and me, God and me, the world and me.

We tend to ignore those we do not like as well as the things we do not like. But they do not disappear. In the same way, our true nature does not disappear when we turn our back on it. On the contrary, turning our back is none other than the activity of true nature, just as the illusion of a dualistic world is our true nature in action.

The song goes on to confirm this by saying,

“The empty illusory body is the very body of the Dharma.”

Hakuin puts it this way in his Chant in Praise of Zazen: “This earth where we stand is the Pure Lotus Land, and this very body, the body of Buddha.”

We are not trying to get out of this world.  The world, material things, are not evil, nor are they an obstacle, or obstruction to awakening.  We are not trying to get away from every day life and existence and go to a Pure Land beyond it all.  We cannot, because the world and things and our every day life are the manifestations of our true nature.  What I see is what I am.  What I experience, what I know,  is what I am.  Someone might say, “But you say we cannot see ourselves, we cannot experience ourselves.”  And this is true.  But it still remains that what I see and what I know is what I am .

One of the most difficult things for us to understand is that reality is not a quality of the world, it is not given to us by the world. What we say is real, is indeed real.  What we know as real, is real. We give reality to the world. This is not the reality of the reflective mind, the mind that reflects itself and believes that it sees a real world. It is what Mind, the Great Mirror Wisdom, itself knows.

Although the mind reflects itself, it cannot get outside itself to appraise, or question, our knowing.  And yet this is what we are so often trying to do when we ask the question,
”Who, or what, am I?” We try to get outside ‘I am’ to know ‘I am.’ Someone put it rather neatly the other day when we were talking together; he said, “It is like a camera trying to take a photograph of the inside of the camera”.  This is the ultimate in the reflected mind.  The effort to get outside the mind is already the reflective mind at work.  There is no hiatus, no moment when I am the mind and another moment when I can get outside the mind to see it.  This is why we say that when you ask the question “Who am I?” I am is already fully manifest.

We ask in dokusan,  “who is it that asks the question?”   And students say, “I do.” But by saying this they separate themselves from themselves.  The “I” that they speak of is seen as an object in the world.   It is ignoring this truth of separation that is the root of suffering

Talking, as I did just now, about ‘Mind’ and the ‘reflective mind’ gives the impression that there are two minds. However, there are not two minds, a mind that seeks the way and a mind that is sought.  There are not two selves, the ego and the Self.  This is why we say that awakening is like melting.  Hakuin tells us in his Chant in Praise of Zazen, “Like water and ice, without water no ice.” With water and ice there are not two substances water and ice, but, instead, water and frozen water.

In a sesshin we can get to a point where we just cannot go forward, nor can we retreat back to where we were. Yet we just cannot stay where we are. Like a rat in a bamboo tube, as Hakuin would say. This causes people to fall into despair.  This is one of the main complaints that I hear in the dokusan room,  “I am just stuck!  I don’t know what I am supposed to be doing.  I don’t know where to go from here.  What must I do?”

These people do not realize that their practice has brought them to that point.  At the beginning of practice we are filled with all kinds of wild hopes, illusions and expectations. As we practice, slowly these are stripped away. Each person’s very nature is knowing,  the practice is to awaken to knowing.  And necessarily, although we may not be conscious of it, knowing eats away at the illusions we bring to practice. One of the main illusion is that there is something to attain.

When we start practice, we are full of illusions, full of images and ideas of what it means to be awakened.  Time and again I have seen people come to start practice thinking, “I don’t see what all the fuss is about.  This practice is easy.  Why do people say it takes years to see into it?” I had just this feeling at the beginning.  One has a kind of buoyancy, a confidence, an attitude of “let’s get this over quickly.” This buoyancy, this ‘confidence’ feeds on all kinds of subtle images and thoughts, expectations, beliefs, and dreams.  The work that we do, simply by keeping coming back to the question, “Who am I?” or “What is MU?” causes these illusions to drop or drain away, melt away.  When these dreams, illusion beliefs, and all the bits that we have read and chewed over begin to drop away, we reach the state where we do not know what to do anymore, we feel stuck.

Some people say, “I think  Zen practice has taken away my faith.  I had a lot of faith when I started this practice.  But I don’t seem to have any faith anymore.  I seem to have lost it all.  It seems to me I don’t even have the motivation I used to have.”  All this is true; all this is good. It is not faith that they have lost but illusory beliefs.

A book, He Leadeth Me, tells how a Jesuit priest sustained himself with prayer during a period of solitary confinement in Lubianka prison in Moscow.  Eventually, because of the pressures that he had been under, the sheer agony and anguish of his existence in Lubianka, he signed a document that declared that he was a spy for the Vatican. When he returned to his cell, he felt that he had betrayed himself and that everything, even God, had deserted him.   And he fell into the darkness of deep depression.  Then he remembered the agony of Christ in the garden of Gethsemany and how three times Christ had asked that the cup be taken away from him, and three times Christ had said, “Thy will be done”.  And it was at that moment, when he fully entered into his own despair and yet could in turn say, “Thy will be done,” that he suddenly came to a very deep awakening.

It is not necessary for us to suffer that kind of agony;  undoubtedly too much agony can be an obstruction to the purification that is necessary.  We can only tolerate so much.  But sesshin is a harmonic of that priest’s time in the isolation cell.  You are told to keep the eyes down.  You face the wall.  You sit and you must not move.  The food is very plain and only available at meal times.  All distractions are covered up or taken away. Mirrors are covered up.  All that can interest you or take you out of yourself is obscured.  In other words, this denudation process, of taking away and stripping down, is the process of true spiritual practice.  And so when you see yourself in this condition, this inability to go forward, to go back, this inability to stay where you are, and are pervaded by general irritability and the feeling of having been betrayed, of having been abandoned, this is the doorway, this is the way through.  You should not try  to scramble back up again,  look around,  or protest.  You go on. But, you do not go on as a hero.  You simply go on.  You simply take the next step. Thy will be done.

And then the song says,

“When the Dharma body is realized there is nothing at all.
The original nature of all things is innately Buddha.”

Your original nature is what you see.  No ‘me and the world,’ no ‘me and you’.  When you see a flower, you think that you see the colour and the form.   Yet all that you are seeing is light, but you don’t see the light, you see the colour.  You think that you see things, other people, objects, space.  But you do not see objects, things, other people, space.  You see light.  And the light is knowing.  This is why, “what you know as real, is real.  What you know as so, is so.”

People sometimes have the most extraordinary beliefs: cannibals for example. That is to say, the beliefs are extraordinary as far as you or I are concerned. But they are not extraordinary from the believer’s point of view.  From their point of view, what they do is what is right; they would think that you or I are doing extraordinary things. When I first went to France from England I could not understand why all the French drove on the wrong side of the road. There is no world outside knowing.  Knowing is the world.

This is the meaning of “When the Dharma body is realized, there is nothing at all.”   Innately, the original nature of all things is knowing (Dharma body).  But I do not mean knowing things; knowing is things.  Emptiness is form.  When you are asking “Who am I?” there is not an ‘I am’ that you are going to find.  The question is already it.  We say, “It is going to rain, or “It is time we left,” or, “It is a long way home.” What is ‘it’? ‘It’ and ‘I’ both affirm a non existent duality. The sense of self, the sense of being something is quite unnecessary, it is a burden that we carry for no reason at all.

The song says,

” Elements of the self come and go like clouds without purpose.”

The elements of the self are the skandhas.  The word “skandha” is often translated as ‘heap.” However, it would perhaps be better translated as ‘collection.” The five skandhas are:  the skandha of form, of feeling, of thought (ideation, concept, images), of intention (will, motivation, desire,) and the skandha of consciousness.  We constantly identify ourselves with these five skandhas.  We think we are the body; this is the skandha of form.  We see the body, we see it from outside.  We see the form of it.  We feel the pain of it.  We also identify ourselves with our feelings.  With our emotions: I am angry, I am sad, I am happy.  But then we get into more refined feelings:  the feeling of being, the feeling of knowing, the feeling of beauty, and we think this feeling is really me.  This is very much New Age.  But feeling, too, is empty.

As the Prajnaparamita says, “feeling, thought, and choice, consciousness itself, are the same as this, dharmas here are empty.”

We identify ourselves with our thoughts, desires and intentions.  We think that the intentionality that we have, the search that we have to see into our true nature is ‘my’ intention, ‘my’ search, that the intentionality is me.  We say, “ ‘I’ want to come to awakening.”  But the search to awaken is also empty: empty of ego, sense of self or personhood.

And then we have consciousness.  So many people feel that as long as they sit and  are conscious of being conscious, aware of being aware, this is the ultimate.  They believe that if they cling to consciousness of being conscious long enough then some truth will surely reveal itself.  But the belief in consciousness as the ultimate is a cul-de-sac.  It is a dead end.  One must get out of that belief by any way possible.  All five skandha are empty, all are forms of knowing. Nothing holds these five together.   The sense of a unified integrated self, particularly the self which is held together by understanding and intuition, is an illusion.

The song goes on to say,,

“Greed, hatred and ignorance appear and disappear like ocean foam.”

What is interesting about this is that it says that greed, anger, hatred and ignorance do appear.  People have the impression that the mind of the awakened person is empty, vacant without thought or feeling.  When the expression, or the metaphor of empty space, is used, it is used because empty space and true nature are non-obstructing. True nature, like space, has no barriers. True Nature has nothing that obstructs, hinders, or catches.  But the awakened mind is not a vacant mind.  It is not a mind that floats on cloud nine. As Zen master Joshu says, “It is not cold ashes, it is not a dead tree. It is a hundred flowers in colourful bloom.”

Ummon says, “This old monk loves anger, loves joy.” Hakuin’s books overflow with passion like lava flowing from a volcano. To be unobstructed by greed, anger and delusion we must let go of ‘I am angry,’ ‘I am greedy,’ ‘I am ignorant.’  We cannot escape our karma.  Karma is like an ocean in which waves of thought, passion and action are constantly churning. Karma is not happening to us, but rather, because we are human beings, we are human karma. Karma includes delusive passions.

So often people ask, “What is the use of my practice?  What good is it?  It has done nothing for me.  I still get angry, so surely I have taken the wrong route.”  Or they feel suffering, despair, or they encounter difficulties and then say, “I don’t understand why my life is so difficult.  I have been meditating now for five, six years, and my life is still so difficult.” This is similar to the Christian who says, “I have faith in God, why is my life so full of trouble ?  I pray to God, I am a good Christian….”

The only answer is, it is because you are a good Christian that you are able to suffer, that you have the strength to recognize that you suffer.  It is because you have done so much zazen that you are able to awaken to the pain of life.  You are at last coming home.  At last seeing what the first noble truth or axiom of Buuddhism “Life is founded on suffering” really means.  Now you can go through the suffering.  To see, “Life is suffering” is only half way.  Go on!  But this does not mean go on out of suffering.  Rather, to use the words of Jesus, “Pick up your cross.” Not only your own  but also the cross of whomever you see around you.

An anti-life attitude of wanting to escape from life and its suffering so often pervades spiritual practice.  But life is wonderful!  Like Baso said, “Everyday is a good day.”  And like Baso also said, “Sun faced Buddha, moon faced Buddha.”  Remember that this was when he was dying and in considerable pain.  One of his senior disciples came to him and asked him, “Well, how is it?” In other words, how are you facing this situation?  What is it, talk to me from your suffering.  And  Basso said,  “Sun faced Buddha, moon faced Buddha”.

A sun faced Buddha was reputed to have lived for kalpas.  A moon faced Buddha lived just a day and a night.  Whether for a long time or short time, suffering is still suffering. We cannot escape, but we no longer need to endure suffering.  It is that ‘I’ suffer that is the problem.  Erase that and every day is a good day.

“Greed, hatred and delusion appear and disappear like ocean foam.”

In other words, no ‘I’ clings to greed, hatred and delusion.  This does not mean an absence of emotion but that life flows unimpeded.  We are told at the beginning of a sesshin:  “You will pass through all kinds of mind states, but do not be identified with any of them.  Let life flow.”

“When you reach the heart of reality you find neither self nor other and even the worst kind of karma dissolves at once.”

This does not mean the karma vanishes.  If it were to vanish, then the whole world would vanish.  If we get rid of anything, then we get rid of everything. Everything is connected with everything else.  But let the sense ‘I am the do-er,’ ‘I am the sufferer,’ ‘I am the one,’ dissolve.  “I” is the hook that ties you to karma.

Devadatta, Buddha’s cousin, because he was envious of Buddha and of his spiritual riches, tried to kill him on three occasions.  For this he was plunged into the very deepest hell.  He called out to Buddha for help and Buddha sent Manjusri with a message: Devadatta would remain in the deepest hell for five kalpas (an infinite length of time) but at the end of that time he would become Buddha.  And Devadatta said, “In that case I can turn on my side and rest in the fires of hell in peace.” By fully accepting his karma Devadatta was freed from it.

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Coming and going we never leave home

True self is no-self. Does this mean that we are nothing, a kind of ghost in the machine? We are told, “You are not something”. Even so, the ghost of something stalks across the landscape of the mind: it seems that there is something that is “not something.” No-self is like a spirit hidden in the darkness. Perhaps this is how people developed the idea of a soul, or of a spirit. They could see clearly enough that a person is not just the body. But they still had ‘something’ in mind: a sense of something in its absence. But true self is no-self: there is not even an absence.

We live in a world constructed with words and thoughts. Words and thoughts are like a skeleton fleshed out with sensations, emotions and feelings. Because we are so dependant on words and conditioned by thoughts, we are no longer aware of them. Instead our awareness has been trained completely into clustering or freezing around concepts that we believe make up reality

I wonder how a cat sees the world? We have the tendency to imagine the world through the cat’s eyes much as we see the world through our own, but from a lower perspective, from a lower viewpoint, perhaps hazy and dark. But is this how a cat sees? Trying to see the world as a cat sees it is an invitation to step outside the very basic categories, concepts and words by which we structure our perceptions. This is simply an exercise and not by any means a practice. It is a way of trying to stretch the mind, to loosen it up, to be less centred on our habitual way of perceiving.

To return to “true self is no self,” Nisargadatta once said, “I am the beingness of being, the knowingness of knowing, the fullness of happiness.” The beingness of being, what is that? He could have also said, “I am the sound of sound or the color of color. “Mu” is the beingness of being, the knowingness of knowing. When you see the world, you do not see the seeing. The seeing of the seeing is the knowingness of the knowing. Gurdjieff said, “You forget yourself.” What is the self that we forget? We do not forget the sense of self; we are always reminding ourselves of it. We are always reaching into the sense of self, into the sensation of being. I deliberately use the expression ‘the sense of self,’ because that is all that it is: a sensation focused around a center. But, like everything else, we take it for granted, we never ask, “From where does the sense of self come?” What is the sense of self? Gurdjieff is not referring to the sense of self when he says that we forget our self. We forget that we are the beingness of being, the knowingness of knowing; we forget that we are the reality of it all.

Our sense of self is often accompanied by a certain feeling, a feeling that is habitual, repeated over and over and over again: it might be the feeling of hopelessness, or the feeling of anger, or of anxiety. We have a constant feeling: a kind of spasm within the feelings; it is that spasm that gives us the assurance that we are.

“Who walks?” It is walking that walks, I am the anxiety of anxiety, the laughter of laughter; apart from this there is nothing that I can call ”I”. When I say there is just walking, it seems as though I am reducing a person, you, to a machine. This is what the neuroscientist would like to say: there is just movement of molecules, of impulses along nerves, a concatenation of intricate wiring that is fired, and the action is carried out. He too would say that there is no consciousness in those movements or impulses; there is no intention involved in them. Sure enough, you could look through the most powerful microscope possible, and you would not find any consciousness there. But the neuroscientist is not saying what I am saying when I say, “walking walks.” I am saying that consciousness focused by the sense of self cannot do anything other than register what is happening. ‘No one walks along this path this autumn evening.’

A scientist decided that he would find out how much a soul weighed and so know how much substance is in the soul. So he weighed someone before and after death. I think he found a difference, but it was not the difference of the soul leaving the body. There is no difference in that way because there is no soul that leaves the body. So what is there? What does it mean, “Walking is just walking,” if it does not mean a machine, and if it does not mean that somewhere diffused in that machine, one way or another, there is a ghost that is operating it. You can only answer that by returning to your self, by remembering the self that is no-self. You must return to no-one reading this article. You cannot search in the body. Nor can you go to thoughts and concepts about ‘walking is just walking.’ You walk without any preconceived notions, without even the notion of having no preconceived notions.

What are you? What does “true self is no-self” mean? I am not asking what do the words mean; what is the meaning behind the words? Or, if your practice is Mu!, what is Mu? What is reality? What is is? These are not of course different questions, “What is Mu?” and “Who am I?” Both lead to the same destination.   “What is Mu?” is less seductive than “Who am I? The question, “Who am I?” can lead us into subjective states, into sensations, emotions and feelings believing that one or other is the true self. We can lose ourselves in the feeling of subjectivity. Many of us tend to explore feelings in the mistaken belief that we are exploring ourself.

“What does it mean to be?” might be thought to be a harder question. “What does it mean to be?” is another way of asking, “Who am I?” It also is another way of asking, “What is Mu?” What does it mean to be? It is no good trying to understand this in terms of the meaning of the words ‘being’ or ‘existence.’ It is also useless to try to get some feeling of being. Being is beyond any thought, feeling or sensation of being. You must look right into the heart, or right into the light, or perhaps better yet, right into the darkness of being, or right into the darkness of yourself. But it is only obscure, it is only dark, as far as the conscious mind is concerned, because the conscious mind has lived its whole life in artificial light.

Another problem that goes along with this question, “What is Mu?” is that we are used to the idea that when we apply the mind, we apply the mind in abstractions and relationships. We deal in generalities, in universals. But to practice is to come to what is given, concretely, now. without any presumptions, or expectations. You cannot even rely on Mu to be ‘something’ that continues into the next moment. You have to investigate again, and again, and again. It is not enough simply to have come to a conclusion. You must come to a new way of being.

One might ask, “If I am beyond words, what shall I look with?” The question is a good one. In a way, the answer is “Nothing. Let it be. Don’t look.” Do you remember the koan where the non-Buddhist asked the Buddha, “Don’t give me words, don’t give me silence.” Buddha just sat. What does “just sitting” mean? Buddha is not answering the question. Buddha just sat, and in that just sitting is everything: it is silence and talking, it is sitting and standing. When you are working on “Who am I?” you must ‘just sit.’ If you do this, then the restlessness and distress, the constant movement of the mind will surge up. You will then tend to leave ‘just sitting’ and launch yourself into the torrent of mental agitation. But no. You must be anchored. This is one of the reasons why we have the zazen posture, and why the zazen posture is so important. But, the posture must be a good posture, the back straight, the centre of gravity low. This gives us at least a physical anchoring, a stability, and because of this stability this other, deeper, immutable stability that we are can ‘appear’ as the absence of everything else. Immutability, the beingness of being, the knowingness of knowing, the immutability that you are, is the ultimate security. Immutable stability is impregnable. It is the ultimate refuge because you see there is no need for a refuge. When you are asking this question “What am I?” or “What is Mu?” you are returning to “Buddha just sat.” You are returning to the immutability that you are, the ‘unmovability’ that you are.

As long as you read in the abstract all that I am writing, it will mean nothing to you. The personality cannot feed on the abstract because what is abstracted is reality. As a personality ‘I’ have all kinds of desires, needs, lacks; all kinds of conflicts, worries, confusion. Taking what I have said as a theory will mean that it has no life and does not touch what is essential in life. This is a complaint made so often: “I came for bread and you gave me stones.” For this reason we have a very high turnover in people practicing Zen at the Montreal Zen Center. Most people come for some solace, or they are looking for some kind of medication. Their life is in turmoil, or their life is in ruins, or their life is totally and utterly unsatisfactory, and they look for a magic potion, they look for it in a new collection of concepts and words.

The mind has a kind of ‘Midas’ touch. Instead of turning everything to gold, it turns bread into stones. People come and they are given a question, “Who are you?” and they cannot relate struggling with this question “Who am I?” with the torment of, “Does she love me or doesn’t she love me?” or “Is this cancer or isn’t it cancer?” or “Will I get the sack or won’t I get the sack?” Most have a sense of the weariness and the slackness of life. And they are told to ask the question, “Who am I?” What connection does this question have with my misery? How will it deal with any of that torment of life in any way whatsoever? Of course, it does not have any connection. If you stay only with the words, with the thoughts, “What am I?” you just go from the reality of being to a dead castle of thoughts.

A man once said to me, “It is the privilege of a human being not to solve his problems but to step outside them.” It took me many years to realize how true that is. This is how it is. As long as you nag away at problems, as long as you feel they are what is of concern, then of course, they will be what is of concern. They will be of concern because by nagging at them you affirm them. You made the problems in the first place, and by wanting now to get rid of them, you are perpetuating the problems. Stepping outside can be likened to a person who is having a very difficult dream, a nightmare; the best thing you can do for that person is to wake them up.

We are not saying that awakening means that you have no problems. Somebody asked Nisargadatta, “Do you have problems?” and he said, “Yes, I have problems. As long as one has a body, one suffers.” Someone said to Buddha, “The good Gautama neither knows nor sees suffering.” And Buddha replied, “It is not that I do not know suffering, do not see it. I know it; I see it.”

But the absolute quality of the problems, their ‘do or die’ aspect, the feeling that my whole life is ruined or threatened because of this or that, all that drops away along with the spasm . I lose the sense of being identified with what comes up. I still have to solve problems that arise, but I do not have to be identified with them.

It is not so much that we step outside the problems: we realize that we are already outside them. We can then see thoughts, ideas and worries just like we would see the crowd passing by if we were standing in St. Catherine Street on a busy day. We do not get into the middle of the crowd and try to stop it; we do not hold our arms out to stop the flow. People just pass by.   In just being, we do not stop the flow. The flow is just a flow.

Because we take our problems for granted, we consider that this is how it has to be. Some people do not even realize that they suffer. They are suffering terribly, but they are so convinced that this is how it has to be that they no longer see it as suffering. This was brought home to me very starkly, one day. When I was working in a company, I had to ask my boss for time off in order to go to sesshins. He asked me one day, “What exactly are you doing? Why are you doing all this?” I said, “Well, I’m like most people. My life is suffering. I suffer quite a deal, and I want to see the source of it and find what I can do about it.” He said, “You say everyone suffers? I don’t suffer.” He looked at me out of haunted eyes and said, “I don’t suffer. How can you say everyone suffers?” I asked myself at that moment, “This man does not know he suffers! How is that possible?” We take our suffering for granted. We feel this is how it has to be. There is no alternative. By practicing zazen, we do not get rid of problems. We no longer see them in an absolute way; our problems are no longer absolute, we realize that we suffer.

When people asked Buddha, “Is this the case?” he would say, “It is a viewpoint.” Or they would ask him, “Is this not the case?” and he would say, “It is a viewpoint.” Or they would ask, “Is it both the case and not the case?” and again he would say, “It is a viewpoint.” In other words, see it from that point of view, it is a viewpoint. We say that Buddhism does not aim at giving correct knowledge or a correct viewpoint. Buddha is not saying, “Look, I have the truth.” What he is saying is, “It is a viewpoint”. Moreover, Buddha is not saying, “It is only a viewpoint.”

Let me tell you a story about when I was young. I used to love going to the Tuppenny Rush.   Tuppennce was two pence, two pennies, and the rush was because you had to get into the ‘cinema’ first. Otherwise, you wouldn’t get a seat. I used to go to see the Saturday films, which would be projected onto an ordinary bed sheet.

Sometimes, when the film was well underway, somebody might want something that was behind the screen, and he would go behind using a flashlight. Of course, that ruined the film. Here’s this guy galloping along on his horse trying to get this Indian, and, all of a sudden, he is obliterated by the light of a flashlight shining at the back of the screen. In other words, I would see the film without seeing it as having an absolute reality. The light defused the tension; it takes the poison out of it.   I’m offering you awakening; to awaken to the viewpoint, the iewpoint that is your life. You’re not living your life; you are living your viewpoint of your life. The viewpoint is the flashlight behind the screen. You live your life, not the life.

If you feel that your life is in a mess, do not try to sort out the mess. You need to see it as a viewpoint, as a way of seeing. The way that you see your life is just one way of seeing it. You think it is the only way of seeing it. It’s not that there is a better way of seeing it, but what you think of as your life is a way of seeing it. To realize, to waken to the viewpoint, will be like a flashlight behind the screen. Your life will no longer have that stark, absolute reality that you think, indeed are quite sure that it has. You relinquish your identification with it. You say, “I am that.” You are not that. All that you can say is “I am.”   In this way you let go of the sense of being inevitably involved, of having to be involved, of having to resolve the tangle of life.

Nisargadatta says, “What you believe you need is not what you need.” What you believe you have to do about your life, you do not have to do. Your life will be lived whatever you do. The die is cast now. When we were young there were forks on the road that we could take ― there were many of them when we were young ― but every fork we took reduced the number of the forks we could take until eventually the road is set out before us. Now all we have to do is walk it. But who is it that walks? This is important, not the road that you walk. A homeless man living on the streets in Austin, Texas, wrote an interesting book. He described a thoroughly interesting life, thoroughly exciting, and thoroughly worthwhile, although he didn’t work at all and had no home. Reading his account, I thought, “That sounds a fascinating life. Perhaps I could try that, perhaps I could become homeless.” What you believe you need is not what you need. We set up barriers to climb over, and, having climbed over them we build more barriers, and we get weary, and we say, life is just climbing over barriers all the time; why isn’t it more smooth going? Then we build up another barrier and start climbing over it.

Once we see––and we do not have to see very deeply––but once we see there is a way of stepping outside, of no longer being identified with our anxieties and worries, then that is that: I am not that. Once we see, “I am not that,” then we knows this truly is the way. I am…that is all. Everything is an illusion and an obstacle. By seeing you life as a viewpoint you can see that all experience is experience; it is not experience of ‘something’; it is not the experience of a reality outside the experience. Reality is given to it by your identification with it. Because you say, “I am it,” it, whatever ‘it’ is, becomes real. If I am a confused life, then that life is a very real confused life. ‘I am’ is too simple. We ask, “Is that all? Just to see that I am?” Refusing the simple, people say, “I am hungry for bread, but you give me stones.” To return to what you already are is too simple and so therefore too difficult.

I ask people, “What are you?” and so often they are unable to respond because they are trying to tell me what they are. Instead of returning to what they are–– or perhaps it is better to say, to that they are–– instead of being, they try to think of an answer, they try to give a ‘thought structure’. This is the way the mind is conditioned to work. But the only response to the question “What are you?” is simply to be. In the same way the answer to the question “Who is it that walks?” is simply to walk. There is nothing else but being; there isn’t something that is. Being is. You do not need to be something to be. That “something to be” is an unnecessary addition. It is the dream. And it is the total entanglement of your life.

Many of us believe, “If I practice, I’m going to get understanding; I’m going to get high level experience; I’m going to reach high spiritual states; I’m going to become a good person, a loving person,” and all of the other acquisitions we believe will come with awakening. We come to practice with the sense of “I want to get.” A frequent complaint that I hear in dokusan is, “I haven’t got anything at all out of this practice. I have been practicing, how long have I been practicing, and I haven’t got anything, nothing.”   Practicing to acquire is like gold imagining that an addition of copper will improve it. A philosopher said, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” ‘I am’ is to will one thing. Purification is seeing that you simply are. Purification is not rejection of the impure; it is seeing that you are. It is knowing that you know. Circling around the question, “What am I?” fiddling with it, discussing it, looking at it from different angles, assessing it, protesting about it, all this is simply vanity.

Someone might say, “Seeing that I am is easier said than done. Seeing that I am is like being told to just get rid of my life. Undoubtedly the entanglement of life comes from the content of the mind. But the mind is there is in all its confusion.” But, where do we get the certainty that the mind is there other than from the mind? Our reaction to the situation is part of the situation. A painter is part of the painting. We have this tendency to separate the mind and say, “The mind over there is the problem.” But we fail to recognize that that statement, “The mind over there is the problem” is the mind at work. It is similar to when someone says, “I know I’ve got a big ego.” It is the big ego that is talking. All that we do and think ultimately is in order to protect, nourish and support the mind itself, but it is the mind itself that does all of this nourishing. It all comes out of the fact that I have to be! This is why Rinzai asks, “What is the use of waiting until you have opened your mind?”

The compulsion to be is the compulsion to survive. I have to survive; I have to be. “Having to be” is the problem. When we sit following the breath, involved with the koan, or just sitting, we are letting go of the compulsion, the necessity, to be”. This is why people get upset when they are told to “step outside the problem.” They think, “Even though my life is a mess, I have to be that life, because there isn’t anything else. That is what I am. Without that I am nothing. I am a vacancy. I am a void. I’d sooner have a disastrous life than be nothing.” But again, it is the mind, the “having to be” that has to be. The mind has to have the mind.

In the entrance to the Montreal Zen Center zendo building you will find a statue as well as a picture of a carp. These are to remind us constantly, as we come through the entrance into the zendo, of what we are coming to do. The carp swims up against the stream, and we are going against the current. The current is the current “having to be.” To let go of “having to be” is to go against the current. “Just being” is letting go of the compulsion “I have to be.” Coming home to the truth that you are, breaks the lynch pin that holds you to the illusion of life. Stepping outside the illusion takes you beyond experience.

But, then, how do you step outside the troubled mind?

By returning to the truth that you are. And how do you do that? You ask the question “What am I?” and whatever offers itself to you is a viewpoint. Anything that you can experience is a viewpoint. In other words, you are simply letting go of your identification with the viewpoint. You are breaking the connection. Practice is a long journey because we are thoroughly identified with the mind, but each time we come back to the question, if we really enter into the question, or rather each time we really allow the question to be, we cut another link and another tie has been broken.

The statement, “Stay with the questioning. Allow the questioning to be,” is too simple. We get a thought, “Well this is interesting,” and before we knows it, we have wandered into the never never land of endless thought. We are right back into misery again. We want to be entertained. Practice is too boring, people say. “When I do zazen I get bored.” Although getting bored is natural, we reject it and seek drama. We stir up whatever will, one way or another, distract and provide drama and action. It is so hard and requires such discipline to realize that there is only one thread throughout practice: to stay with the questioning, be the questioning. Let nothing else intervene.   Lose interest in thoughts. As Nisargadatta would say, “Stay beyond all thoughts in silent being awareness. It is not progress, for what you have come to is already there waiting for you.” Coming and going we never leave home.

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Seeing is the room

The moon is the same old moon,
The flowers are not different,
But now I see
That I am the thingness of things.

Satori poem

When you read one of these postings, or when you read a conversation with Nisargadatta, it is not enough that you simply know the meaning of the words that are being used. You must also understand the meaning that the words are trying to express. If you stay with the meaning of the words alone, you will remain on the surface of what is being said. This is the way we read a newspaper. To understand the meaning that the words are trying to express requires more attention. It is like reading poetry, or even like reading a novel. You ‘inhabit’ the poem or novel. Sometimes an analogy is used to help to convey the meaning. This is done because with an analogy or metaphor it is sometimes easier to get behind the words and see the meaning.

We are often told, “Go beyond thought,” or, “You are beyond all form.” In an earlier posting I reminded you that the Prajnaparamita, one of the the basic sutras of the Zen sect, ends with a mantra: gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, Bodhi , sattva. In English this mantra is saying, gone, gone , gone beyond, gone right beyond: pure knowing, rejoice. That these words come at the end of a sutra which has been boiled down to the essentials of practice is significant. All true practice is going beyond.To go ‘right beyond’ is Bodhi.

Let us ask once more, what does ‘to go beyond’ mean? Some people think that to go beyond has a mystical significance, that going beyond is to enter into a ‘higher realm.’ But this is not so; there is no higher realm. Every minute of the day offers us the possibility of ‘going beyond.’ This is why Nansen told Joshu, “Everyday mind is the way.”

In that earlier posting, I used the analogy of a painting to help show what it means ‘to go beyond.’ We see the painting but ignore the canvas on which it is painted. I have used another analogy several times in the past, but repeat it to give you once more the opportunity to go beyond the meaning of the words to the meaning that the words are wanting to convey.

Imagine that you are in a cinema. You are involved in all that is occurring on the screen. A man falling in love with a woman, a jealous husband , a quarrel, war, the countryside, laughter, tears, the whole passing parade of life is on the screen. You are involved in it; you are one with it. At the end of the film all that remains on the screen is a simple white light, and you say, “Let’s go home.” All the drama, all the excitement, the tension and emotions that you experienced with the people in the film––the lust and love, anger, fear–– all of this was made possible by modifications of that simple, white light. Yet, at no time during the film, were you aware of the light. The white light was beyond the film.

We must not be led astray by the words, “The white light.” It is not a light that you can see. A story is told of a Chinese emperor who was present at the dedication of a stupa. During the ceremony, he saw a bright white light. All those present, except one man, congratulated him on his good fortune. The emperor asked the man why he had not joined in the congratulations. The man, a Buddhist monk, said, “What you saw was the light of your guardian angel; it was not the light of Buddha.” “What is the light of Buddha?” asked the emperor. The monk walked away. He answers the emperor’s question exactly, but do not be fixated on the monk walking away.

Thoughts and ideas, your emotions, the feeling of “I am,” the belief “the world is real,” all the drama of your life, all the excitement, the fears, the failures; all are modifications of the white light, the white light called knowing, the light of Buddha. This is why the Diamond sutra ends with

Thus shall ye think of all this fleeting world:

A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream;
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

Different states of mind are constantly coming into being. At one time you can be quite depressed, quite in the dark, unable to go forward, and the next day, almost without you realizing it, you suddenly feels that life is easy, you love life. Then, another switch, and you are now bored or angry or whatever. These states just come into being and go out of being constantly, endlessly, without interruption. One state of mind follows before another state of mind has truly passed away. We feel what we experience is permanent, stable. But it is not what we experience that is permanent and stable. The white light is stable but it changes constantly; it is neither permanent nor impermanent. Yet, it never changes, forever remaining the white light.

When we wake up from sleep, in retrospect, sleep seems to have been just a blank, an absence. But these ‘blanks’ can occur when we look back on a day. Sometimes at the end of a day we just cannot remember anything that we have done, and it seems as though we have lived in a complete vacuum all day. We were asleep with our eyes open. But, when we were living through that ‘vacuum,’ we were deeply involved, present; not necessarily present to what we were doing, but involved, immersed in thoughts and dreams, memories, all mixed in together with what we were doing.

But we were present, even though to a dream. When you are asleep, you are beyond all the manifestations of the waking state. Each moment during sleep, you are present, deeply involved, totally involved, but, when you awaken, nothing stands out in the memory. Moreover, during sleep, we drift without any kind of hiatus, any kind of break, into dreams. Sometimes, the dreams are sufficiently striking that they persist into the day. But this is rare. Even as we wake up, the dream just disappears, and we think, “Well, I didn’t dream last night, it was all a blank.” But we were very present while we dreamed.

What I call the white light, awareness, what in Buddhism is called Bodhi, is the constant factor in everything. Sometime, because it is constant, it is called immutable. We must be careful, however, not to look upon the white light as having an independent existence apart from the world. In the Prajnaparamita it says, form is emptiness. Everything is emptiness: the world is the white light. But the Prajnaparamita also says that emptiness is form.

When we’re working on “Who am I?” we must separate the content from the substance. The content is the sense of self; the substance is the white light. We must go beyond the sense of self to the white light. Discern, if you like, or cognize, or penetrate, or go beyond the form to the white light. We use different words––white light, Bodhi, knowing, awareness, prajna, but in the end, although each has its own nuance, whether to call it knowing or Bodhi, awareness or prajna, is a matter of taste.

One of the more difficult aspects of practice is our struggle with thoughts. We do not need to chase them away, but recognize they’re just that. They are thoughts. They are modifications of the white light. It is the white light that gives them their apparent reality and value.

Thoughts are continuous to the point that they establish what seems to be a wall of reality, which you are constantly up against. And you have taken this wall of reality so much for granted that you think that when you’re in contact with it you are in contact with the real world. When you say the world is real, what you are really referring to is the world of thought that is constantly flowing through. And when you truly investigate thoughts you see this world has no substance; the thoughts have no substance. The world is simply the stream of thought, and thoughts themselves come out of awareness. When I say the world has no substance, I mean it has no independent substance: it has no independent reality.

This is why we are told, ‘it’s all around you,’ and, ‘it is like one in water crying I thirst,’ because it is all constantly coming out of awareness, or Bodhi.

“When you no longer think a thought, where does it go?” One can have the most painful thoughts, thoughts, for example, of being a total failure, which cause great pain. But what happens to that thought when you sleep? How real is it? Thoughts whip you, hurt you and then disappear, giving way to other thoughts, no doubt just as painful. From where do these thoughts come? To where do they go?

We go to sleep; then what happens to the self? Nothing. What can happen to an illusion? What can happen to the fairy that is not in the corner? Going to sleep, as you know, can be a very sweet process. Deep sleep has a beauty about it; it is suffused in love. What is that sweetness, beauty, and love? Deep sleep is, in its way, nearest to our true nature. Not because in sleep we are absent; when we are asleep the veil of illusion is thin. When we sleep thoughts have no ‘I.’

When we sleep, we do not solve the day’s problems, we do not take the day’s worries and solve them one by one, and, having solved them, then go to sleep. We don’t even let them go. Going to sleep is just like mist that just disappears when the sun rises. Ice dissolves in water, but in what are the thoughts dissolved?

The problem is that we take the content of thought seriously. If we get a thought, ‘I am no good’, we take that thought as being something that has value, truth, in and by itself. But the “I” that is no good is an ingredient in the thought itself. Outside the thought, ‘I am no good’, there is no “I” that is no good. However, once you have this thought, then a number of other thoughts and feelings flow from it. But if we are really aware as the thought, ‘I’m no good’ it dissolves, it is unable to stand up to the light of awareness. It’s true that often as soon as we cease giving the thought our full awareness it comes back, but this does not mean the thought is real. It simply means that there is a habit, a tendency for the mind to run in certain grooves. Even with the thoughts “I am something” or “I am the body,” or perhaps “I am a person,” it is the same. The ‘I’ that is the body is part of the thought, “I am the body” outside that thought there is no ‘I.’ The painter is part of the painting.

It is true also of the question, when did I come into being? The very idea of things coming into being is dependent on ‘I am.’ I am prior to all that can happen, not prior in time but in order. When you are asleep, there is no question of beginnings and endings. But as you wake up so the day is planned, a sequence comes about: this has to be done first, that has to be done next, cycles of action with a beginning, middle and end come into being, and so there is the appearance of a beginning and an end. But, when one looks closely, none of these cycles of action have a beginning. They all flow out of what was already going on.

For an event to begin, a context must exist in which the event can find its place. Because I believe that the world exists independently of me, I believe that that makes it possible for me to come into being. I believe that at birth I come into and at death go out of the world, a world that exists independently of me. Therefore, I believe, I have a beginning.

The Prajnaparamita says, “no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind”. The nose, eyes, ears have no independent reality of their own. Colour, sound, smell, touch or what the mind takes hold of likewise have no independent existence apart from the white light. There is no world into which I am born, nor is there a world that I leave behind at death. This is why we say at the end of the Prajnaparamita, , “gate, gate, paragate.” Once we have gone beyond, then there is no eye, ear, nose; just in the same way that if you are in a cinema and you look up and see the light, you lose the film entirely. This is why Hakuin says, “If you die before you die, you do not die when you die.”

The Prajnaparamita also says, “form is only emptiness.” When you look around, you see things; these are the forms; the seeing is emptiness. The thoughts that hurt so much, these are the forms: knowing these thoughts is emptiness. But we overlook the seeing and the knowing. All that we are concerned with is the form, and because of that we assume the form has a reality. It is almost as though a thought is an independent person. Indeed, for a long time before we established this sense of “I” am something, and introjected it, then thoughts were other people. For example, where it says in the Old Testament that “God spoke to Moses” we would say today that Moses thought.

We see this so clearly in the Buddha story: when he sat under the Bo tree he had great determination, yet, even so, he was immediately assaulted by Mara. Mara comes to visit during sesshin. When you first come to sesshin, you have great determination. And, as you sit, Mara begins to attack you. The first assault of Mara is the assault of “I”. I am something. I am something special. Mara’s spears and arrows are the shafts of shame and anger that we feel; Mara’s daughters are the sexual feelings that pester us.

Claiming that Mara attacked Buddha, means that we tend to look upon our doubts and the mental assaults as independent existences. Yet, their power comes from knowing itself. To acknowledge this, to take the thoughts over and see them for what they are, is the work that we have to do.

When working with any particular troubling thought, notice that you do, in fact, feel that it has an independent existence, that you are seeing the thought as something other, almost as another person.

This otherness of thought is particularly apparent in that continuous mono-dualogue that goes on in the mind. One has the feeling of explaining to, arguing with, discussing with, another person hidden somewhere in the shadows of the mind. Being aware of thoughts as separate will make the separation dissolve, and with this dissolution the thought loses its power.

Alternatively, if the thought is very powerful, and constantly giving you trouble, think the thoughts as your own, give yourself entirely to the thoughts, agree with the thoughts one hundred percent. Don’t resist them in any way whatever. Take the thoughts over as your own and once you do that fully, thoroughly, then again the thoughts lose their power entirely, because their power comes from the separation, made more powerful by the resistance that you gave it.

What we can say, therefore, is that the thought and all that goes with it, has no beginning but is constantly coming into being, and it does so ‘now.’ The thought ‘I am the body’ is coming into existence now! It’s not something that came into being sometime in the past at birth. Now the thought is arising.

It is important, when you are struggling with thoughts, to realize that those thoughts are now. When you are working on “Who am I?” you are working on “Who am I?” now. You cannot get away from now. People say, “But I’ve always had this problem,” but this always having this problem is now! “This problem came from my childhood.” But that childhood is now!

‘Now’ is awareness. We overlook our awareness of a memory and so believe the memory has a reality in the past. Once we recognize that the memory is indeed now, and that now is awareness, now is the white light, we put awareness back into the equation, and then we can see that there is no past, there is no future. At the same time, once we put the knowing back into the thought (knowing this thought), the thought is no longer something other than knowing. Because we resist the thought, or try to extract the knowing from the thought, believing the thought to be something other than knowing, we say, “The thought is over there; I don’t like that thought, I don’t want that thought,” then the thought takes on a reality of its own.

People often say, “I’m just being bombarded with thoughts; I just can’t get away from them. Every time I look around there’s another thought in me somewhere.” As long as you are looking on a thought as something that is coming at you, that you are being bombarded by thoughts, then you give thoughts an independent existence. To take over and truly look at thoughts, above all negative thoughts, requires a degree of determination, a degree of strength of mind,

When you are asking “Who am I?” you are not trying to find something called ‘I.’ You are steadily seeing into the dream, “I am something,” that is consistently reinforced by the flow of positive and negative thoughts

Self forgetfulness is darkness. Self forgetfulness is forgetting knowing. Self forgetfulness is moving out of now. When we move out of now, when we are lost in thought, then thoughts are independent of us. They are something apart. But when we remember ourselves, remember awareness, then thoughts are no longer independent. They arise from and they return to awareness.

We try to change ourselves, which really means changing our thoughts about ourselves. By doing so, we forget our self, we forget the medium in which thoughts arise. We forget the knowing. We are not present.

Wisdom lies in remembering the self, which means, being the white light in which everything arises. Dogen says, “The practice of Buddhism is the study of the self.” And then he says, “The study of the self is to forget the self.” In other words, when, through exhaustive practice, we really get to know the self, then the illusion of the self–– I am this but not that––becomes translucent. And then he says, “To forget the self is to be one with the ten thousand things.” Everything is in the medium of knowing. Everything is but shadows thrown by the light. To see is to be.

Practice, as Nisargadatta once said, consists in reminding oneself forcibly of one’s pure beingness. Our being is our knowing. We have to arouse the mind, awaken to the knowing. One way or another we must keep constantly to the truth that everything arises out of awareness. But this awareness is not something; it is not a substratum. It is like vast space, but only insofar as there is no obstruction.

We practice to break the spell cast by thoughts. Our suffering is not caused by thought. Thoughts are ways by which we obscure the cause of our suffering: the wound in our being. By obscuring the wound, thoughts prevent us from seeing our problem clearly. Because we cannot clearly see the problem, we do not know how to work with it. We should not believe that if we did not have troubling thoughts, we would not have to practice. Nor should we believe that the best way to deal with thoughts is to suppress them. We can only suppress thoughts by other thoughts.

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