Sitting Long and Getting Tired

Sitting Long and Getting Tired

Koan 17 of the Hekiganroku


Cutting through nails and breaking steel for the first time, one could be called a Master of the First Principle. If you run away from arrows and evade swords you will be a failure in Zen. The place where even a needle cannot enter I’ll leave aside for a while, but when the foaming billows wash the sky, what will you do with yourself then?


A monk asked Kyorin, “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the west?” “Sitting long and getting tired.”

Kyorin was a follower of Ummon, and he worked with him for about twenty years. During the first eighteen years, all that Ummon ever said to him was, “What is it?” At the end of the eighteen years, Kyorin turned to Ummon and said, “I understand.” Ummon said, “Well, why don’t you demonstrate it?” Kyorin had to stay another three years.

Why is it not enough simply to understand? Ummon is not saying that understanding is useless, nor that we should give up trying to understand. The longing to understand is the power that drives practice. Zen, unfortunately has acquired an anti-intellectual reputation, many students taking literally what some Zen Masters have said. Understanding can take us to the door, but it cannot take us through.

From the beginning not a thing is. The problem is we try to interpret what Hui Neng means; we try, indeed, to understand it. We try to find a context in which to integrate what Hui Neng has said and so make sense of it. In the same way, when we are working on Mu, we try to find a context. We ask ourselves. “What does Mu mean? In asking that we try to find a place for Mu in our experience. Of course, Mu has no place in our experience. It is exactly the same when you are asking the question “Who?” We try to find an experience which will be an adequate response to the question “Who am I?”

On another occasion someone asked Kyorin, “What marvellous medicine does the Master prescribe?” Kyorin says, “It is not other than the ten thousand things.” What sort of medicine is the questioner asking about? It is the medicine that can resolve all our doubts. Do you see the floor? Take that twice a day. You think it is something other than the floor, the walls, the roads. You are certain there has to be something more. When commenting on Nansen’s, “Everyday mind is the way,” someone said that everyday mind means the mind purified of all of its doubts, concerns and conflicts. No, no. Your everyday mind is the way. This is why I say, “Don’t worry about the personality. The personality has enough to worry about; we don’t have to join in.”

You feel that there is really something: that this room, this cushion, this floor, this room is ‘something.’ But this ‘something’ must be questioned. “Isn’t the room here?” people ask; but that very room that they are asking about has passed, already gone, before they have ended their question. The room is now a different room. Just as they end the sentence, they, in speaking, are changing the room because of course the room included the question, “Is not this the room?” The room isn’t just the four walls, the floor; it is only when we use our spotlight mind, when we conceptualise, pick out, describe, or define, ‘the room’ that it becomes something with four walls and a floor. You cannot count all that makes up a room.

We forget the seeing and are only concerned with the seen.

Once you are open to this, then you will realise that ‘from the beginning not a thing is.’ Once you see it this way, then that very sense of “something” drops away. This is why Kyorin says the medicine is not other than the ten thousand things. Not other than the cushion, the floor, the room.

When I say that you ignore the seeing and only know the room, I am not suggesting that you try to see a void, or a hole, or an absence, where beforehand you saw the room. When the master says ‘not a thing is’ he is not digging holes in existence. It is that isness that is the question. What does it mean ‘to be’? The isness of the room, the isness of yourself are not different. To see into one is to see into the other. The most fundamental question then is ‘What is this isness?’ It is not permanence; it is not an enduring substratum, a ghostlike support. What is this isness then? When you are asking Mu? ‘No’, it is a clean sweep. No isness, no permanence, no essence.

The questioner goes on to ask, “What happens to one who takes this medicine?” Kyorin replies, “Sip some and see.” It is no good talking about this really; everything comes down to “Everyday mind is the way.”

Engo starts the introduction by saying, “Cutting through nails and breaking steel.” We all know what “Cutting through nails and breaking steel” means. It is that quality that comes during the second or third day of sesshin; it is a very fine description of that feeling, a kind of pain, but at the same time there is an austerity, yet also a cutting through. Underlying it all is what I call the desert, what others call boredom. When he says, “If you run away from arrows and evade swords you will be a failure in Zen,” he means that one must face this quality of zazen: this hard, austere, merciless quality of zazen; one must walk through it upright, open; but, to be able to do that, one must have come to terms with boredom.

Boredom is so prosaic that one wonders how it could fit into spiritual practice. How can one talk about facing boredom when we have got this great work of seeing into our true nature? To talk about boredom with the same breath that talks about practice seems indecent, it seems to be letting the side down. If I am sitting in boredom, being bored, I am not the valiant spiritual warrior who strides through the battle of existence, the spiritual warrior who cries out,

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire![1]

An interesting commencement address was given to some eager beaver students who had just graduated, ready to undertake the exciting, adventurous and dramatic process of life. A writer, Joseph Brodsky, giving the address, had the courage to tell them that for much of their lives they were going to be bored. Without doubt, he knew that our society is one that is least equipped to handle boredom. With all the gadgets and gimmicks, with all the different forms of entertainment and distraction that we have, with all the means by which we can become distracted from distraction by distraction, how can we face boredom?

Brodsky said, in the process of giving his commencement address, that boredom is an invasion of time into our set of values. We have the way that we feel things ought to be, and then time intervenes. It is like when you are waiting in a doctor’s waiting room: you’ve got your priorities, things that you want to get on with, and you’ve got to sit in this waiting room for two or three hours. It is an invasion of time into your set of values.

He went on to say, “It puts your existence into its proper perspective, the net result of which is humility.” This is what the desert, what boredom can do for us. It is a violation of our expectations like nothing else. It cuts through and it cuts us down to size, and this is why boredom is so difficult to work with, so difficult to face and to open up to. Sitting in boredom is just like cutting through nails and breaking steel.

Many people when they are practising feel they shouldn’t be bored – they feel that they have to get on with the great work, they have got to strive — and so they conjure up difficulties and start working with those difficulties. They find something––anything––that will distract, give the impression that things are happening, give the impression that really this is true spiritual work that they are doing, and that they are not just sitting, bored.

To work with boredom means being completely one with it, being completely open to it, to be aware as boredom instead of being aware of boredom. Not judging yourself in relation to it, nor judging it in relation to yourself, but just entering into the condition, letting go of the very word “boredom,” entering into that state of no-thing-ness, nothingness.

Brodsky goes on to say, “The more you learn about your own size, the more humble and the more compassionate you become.” One reaction to boredom is anger, rage. It comes from a petulant belief that things ought to be different, that this is not how things ought to be. “I didn’t opt to suffer in this way; I do not mind the suffering of a martyr, but will not accept the suffering of boredom.” So a fury develops. Alternatively, a deep sense of depression develops, a feeling of helplessness in the face of the boredom, a feeling that one is unworthy, that one can’t deal with it, that one should be able to deal with it but can’t. Or, there can be a deep anxiety that comes in relation to boredom, a sense of time wasting, of losing time, of time not being productive and fruitful, a kind of panicky feeling.

But in the face of all this, for the first time, we begins to realise that we cannot do anything. This is one of Gurdjieff’s dictums: “Man cannot do.” It is a very profound statement. We think that we are in charge. We think that we are “the master of our fate, the captain of our soul,” as an English poet would have it. We think all we have to do is make up our minds and that will be enough. And then we sit cutting through nails and breaking steel. The more you face this truth, “I cannot do it,” the more humble and the more compassionate you become. Your heart softens. As Brodsky says, “If it takes paralysing boredom to bring your insignificance home, then welcome the boredom.” You must welcome the boredom, not simply put up with it. To accept boredom is not enough, you must embrace it. Only after you have completely embraced it can you go beyond it.

Brodsky continues, “What’s good about boredom, about anguish and the sense of meaninglessness of your own and of everything else’s existence is that it is not a deception.” Boredom is not an idea: it is the absence of all fruitful ideas. It is a cleansing of the soul. “The meaninglessness of your own existence and of everyone else’s existence is not a deception.” We feel that we are so important. We feel that there is something that is special about us. But there is nothing like waiting for a few hours in a doctor’s waiting room to disabuse us of that, as long as we do not sit and grumble and protest and moan. Brodsky advises, “Try to embrace or let yourself be embraced by boredom and anguish, which are larger than you anyhow.” Boredom and anguish are larger than the feeling “I am important.” They are more true, more real.

He advises further, “No doubt you will find that bosom smothering, yet try to endure it as long as you can and then some more.” In other words, don’t set a term for how long you are prepared to embrace it, or as he puts it, “to be embraced by it.” Being embraced by it is your practice. In fact, working with this embrace is the greatest practice. Everything else that comes in sesshin comes as a consequence of the way that you open yourself to this vast Gobi desert of the soul. “Above all,” Brodsky adds, don’t think you’ve goofed somewhere along the line. Don’t try to retrace your steps to correct the error.” This is one of the things we feel, “This boredom isn’t it; this isn’t practice. How can this do any good whatsoever? What is the point of sitting with this anguish, this torment, this nothing? This is absurd. I’ve lost my way.”

Many people feel that the spiritual path is a path of ecstasy, enthusiasm or excitement. We want to see dazzling images of Christ or Buddha…not nothingness. Yet it is in the complete absence of excitement, bereft of enthusiasm, dried up of emotion that the true cleansing of the soul, the real purging of the spirit takes place This is the true purgatorial fire through which we must pass. As the English poet, W. H. Auden said, “Believe your pain.” We say, have faith in your suffering; it is leading you, it is guiding you, it is working for you. Without it, nothing can be accomplished. The sense of self has been built out of cast iron layered onto reinforced concrete and lined with impenetrable steel. Do you think you are going to cut through it in a weekend? Of course it is going to take time, energy, pain and hard work, and working in this desert is the work. Boredom is not a cul-de-sac. It is not straying from the path. What is good in practice may not be good in life; but what is good in life may not be good in practice. It is one of the most painful experiences, to be utterly bored.

We always come in to practice bathed in the magic and miracle of “At last I’ve found my way home.” The beginner’s mind is so wonderful to see. One sees it in workshops. It is a pleasure to give workshops. People’s eyes are sparkling after a workshop; there is a sense of energy and one can feel that. Sometimes people write afterward saying how much their lives have changed and how they now see what is necessary in their life. A lot of the accounts that one reads about spiritual work and spiritual experience are written by people who have had a week at the most of meditation, perhaps twenty minutes a day, and they go into raptures about how important the practice is. It is this kind of writing that leads us to believe that this is really what spiritual practice is about: these great moments of insight, these dazzling times of serenity, this sense of peace and beauty and wonder that pervades the whole world.

Just in case you think that this has no bearing on spiritual work, let me read you something from St. John. “One is left in such dryness that spiritual things and devout exercises, wherein one formerly found pleasure and delight, appear bitter and insipid.” He says furhter that the devout exercises wherein he formerly found pleasure and delight appear bitter and insipid. We know that changeover. That’s when one begins to think, “My God, what have I let myself in for?” It is, of course, at this stage that ninety percent of the people who came in and enjoyed the magic and who were going to practice and go to monasteries, leave.

St. John says, “As long as the aridity, the dryness of the night of sense lasts, spiritual persons suffer great tribulations.” This is so. We feel we want to get on, that this boredom is not right, that there’s got to be something else. We ask ourselves, “Why am I doing this? What have I done wrong? Is there another teaching? How can I get out of this?” Many people go off into a sort of dopey state, drift off into a kind of half sleep. Others get all kinds of thoughts, images, sexual images and feelings, all kinds of past woes, anguish, regrets, anything the mind can dig up rather than stay in this aridity and dryness of the night of sense.

This anguish that people feel comes not only on account of the dryness they experience but because of the fear that they have lost their way. This is the biggest challenge. One cannot help but feel that this boredom is not right. It is alright to hear about it when one listens to a teisho. One accepts it. Yes, this is good, next time it comes I’m really going to work with it. And then it comes. This isn’t right. What’s the point? What’s it about? In other words, this sense “I am in control, I am the one, I can do it,” just won’t give up. As we say, there are people that rage against this.

St.John goes on to say, “These people, when they get a glimpse of this concrete and perfect life of the spirit, which manifests itself in the complete absence of all sweetness, which manifests in aridity, distaste, and in the many trials that are the true spiritual cross, they flee from it as from death.” He goes on to say, “They seek themselves in God” — in our terminology, they seek themselves in awakening, they feel they have come here for awakening — “[to seek oneself in God] is the very opposite of love.” To seek oneself in awakening is “to seek the favours and refreshing delights that come from it.” In other words, it is not really awakening that they are after; it is the feelings that they believe are going to accompany it, and above all the feeling of uniqueness and superiority which they will at last be able to enjoy to the fullest. St. John says, “Whereas to seek God in oneself is to incline oneself to choose all that is most distasteful, and this is the love of God.” Unquestionably, St. John of the Cross was an extremely developed spiritual being, and unquestionably he himself had passed through the desert, because otherwise he could not speak about it with such compassion.

But everything is grist for the mill. Everything. That stupidity you feel, that utter senselessness of what you are and what you are doing: all is grist for the mill. I know that while cutting through nails and breaking steel even to lift an eyelid, an eyebrow, feels like moving a ton weight, nevertheless, at some level, turn to it, see it as the practice.

The koan asks,

– “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West?”
– “Sitting long and getting tired.”

Sitting long and getting tired. Grist for the mill. When you have really sat long, have really worked your way through again and again, have passed through the furnace again and again, and have seen into the various mechanisms, machinations, twists and turns of what we call the self, what is left? Paradise? Kyoren says: “Sitting long and getting tired.”

This is perfect.

A haiku sums up this koan so well:

“The shell of a cicada
It sang itself
utterly away.”

[1] William Blake

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3 Responses to Sitting Long and Getting Tired

  1. Tamara says:

    “You feel that there is really something: that this room is ‘something.’ But this ‘something’ must be questioned. “Isn’t the room here?”; but that very room that they are asking about has passed…The room is now a different room..they, in speaking, are changing the room because of course the room included the question, “Is not this the room?” The room isn’t just the four walls..
    Once you see it this way, then that very sense of “something” drops away.
    When I say that you ignore the seeing and only know the room… It is that isness that is the question”
    Thank you Mr. Low for this post – the above extract from the post, on Everyday mind is the way, is not clear to me. The isness of the room includes the question “is this not the room” & how the room changed because of the question. Can you please help clarify?
    Much appreciated, thank you

  2. reggie says:

    I cried when you wrote that 90 percent of people leave after the going gets tough. It just seems hard to accept most of us won’t get to the other shore. Seeking security is so tempting when humiliation or boredom comes. For every time I try to face it, there are those other times I run away and curl up in my fetal position for shelter. It makes it seem even sadder for me in my stage of spiritual journey when you ask what you can look forward to even after you pass the furnace: more of the same. I obviously don’t yet see into “sitting long, getting tired.” Help me see.

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