“When I look at my life, at the mess it seems to be, at the mistakes, confusions and problems that I have created, evaded, or made worse, I find it difficult to believe that simply sitting and following the breath is going to make a difference. Besides, I find the practice so difficult, boring and unrewarding that I cannot find the energy to keep up a consistent practice, and this simply depresses me more. What can I do?”
This question is so often asked. “What can I do?”
A vicious circle is at work: the difficulty of the practice creates a feeling of inadequacy. The feeling of inadequacy makes the practice difficult. Because the practice is difficult, we find less and less time for it, this creates a feeling of inadequacy and so the wheel turns. And in any case, what is the point of it all any way? It is like a maze in which one wanders perpetually.
This maze, however, is not simply the maze of the practice. It is also the maze of life. As Hakuin says, “From dark path to dark path we’ve wandered in darkness, how can we be free from the wheel of samsara.” For the phrase, “Wheel of samsara” just read the “maze of life.” It was the wheel of samsara––the maze––that brought us to practice in the first place. When we first met up with it, hope burst out, together with an awakening of love, a renewal of faith. It all seemed so easy. Indeed, it seemed, in the light of Hope, Love and Faith that anything can be accomplished. But then the clouds came over, and the sun of life was covered once again. Again, we have fallen into the hole of despair and…………….. now what? What can I do? Guilt then nags; shame tortures: tomorrow I’ll do it, tomorrow it will be different, tomorrow will be clearer. Tomorrow, tomorrow is a balm with which we soothe the wounds from the scorching fire of today.
What must I do, what hope have I? The second patriarch, Eka, asked Bodhidharma this question, and Bodhidharma threw back, “The incomparable Truth of the Buddhas can only be attained by eternally 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 the teaching. It is only so much labor lost!”
Sometimes it is necessary to encourage, to restore lost hope and build up renewed faith. Each is whole and complete, all of us know this in our heart of hearts, all can come to awakening. But sometimes to do this is a disservice. One teacher said, “Do not say ‘Cheer up everything will be O.K. Perhaps it won’t be.” On the face of it, it seems too cruel to give the kind of reply Bodhidharma gave to Eka, but in truth he cut away all tomorrows for Eka.
Let us pursue a little further the dialogue between Bohidharma and Eka. The koan says, “The second Patriarch cut off his right arm.” In English we have a saying, “I would give my right arm for such and such!” “Such and such” being something highly desirable. It is an interesting statement and one that can throw light on this enigma: The second patriarch cut off his right arm. What can I do? If I am right handed then I do things with my right arm. To cut off the right arm, literally or metaphorically, is to give up my ability to do. “What can I do?” asked Eka. “Nothing” said Bodhidharma. So the second Patriarch cut off his right arm. He gave up the vain effort to do something.
Eka then said, “My mind is not yet at peace. I beg you teacher, please give it peace for me.” He had done everything and still “My mind is not yet at peace.”
St. John of the Cross, talking about people who are practicing, says the following:
“They have now practiced for some time in the way of virtue and have persevered in meditation and prayer, whereby through the sweetness and pleasure they have found therein, they have lost (to some small degree) their love of the things of the world and have gained some degree of spiritual strength in God; this has enabled them to some extent to refrain from creature desires.”
He then says that when these people really feel that they are getting somewhere at last,
“God turns all this light of theirs into darkness, and shuts against them the door and the source of the sweet spiritual water which they were tasting in God whensoever and for as long as they desired. And thus he leaves them completely in the dark that they know not whither to go with their sensible imagination and meditation; for they cannot advance a step in meditation as they were wont to do aforetime, their inward senses being submerged in this night, and left with such dryness that not only do they experience no pleasure and consolation in the spiritual things and good exercises wherein they were wont to find their delights and pleasures, but instead on the contrary they find insipidity and bitterness in the said things’ pleasures.”
Because of this dryness and aridity, St John says spiritual people suffer by
“reason not so much of the aridities they suffer, as of the fear which they have of being lost on the road, thinking that all spiritual blessing is over for them and that God has abandoned them since they find no help or pleasure in good things.”
It is only when we have reached the point of no return that this dark night really becomes a torment. Before then, we can always back off, pretend that it does not matter, go to another Center, find another way. We can always blame the teacher, the teaching, other people. But after the point of no return, after we have burnt our bridges and have nowhere to turn, then this dark night can become intolerable, and we may suffer untold anguish. We have to go on, but we cannot. Hakuin says that it is like a rat in a bamboo tube; Yasutani roshi says it is like swallowing a hot rice cake that gets stuck in the throat.
Our practice has nothing whatever for the personality. Yet, everything we do in life, one way or another feeds, protects, soothes, comforts, stimulates or enhances the personality. We expect at least as much from a spiritual practice. More indeed; we want to be exalted, uplifted, raised to new heights of joy, peace and beauty. We want to get into heaven, as Gurdjieff said, “with our boots on.”
It is true that when we look at our life and see all the mess and confusion, we do wonder how just sitting is going to make any difference. After Eka had said, “My mind is not yet at peace. I beg you teacher please give it peace for me.” Bodhidharm simply said, “Bring me your mind and I will set it at rest” How would you bring me your mind? Eka said, “I have searched for my mind but cannot find it.”
So with what mind did Eka look for the mind? Hakuin said that true self is no self; true mind is no mind.
When we hear Hakuin’s “true self is no self” we wonder whether this means that we are nothing. Although “true self is no self,” even so the ghost of ‘something’ stalks across our mental landscape: or, rather, a “not something.” It is like a spirit of some kind; perhaps this is where people had the idea of a soul, of a spirit, because they could see that we are not simply the body, and so we have to be something more. Something that we might call an “ontological residue.” We have the sense of something in its absence. But no, it isn’t like that. There is no absence even.
Because we are so linguistically determined, because we are so conceptually conditioned, because, through our education, our awareness has now been trained completely into clustering or freezing around concepts and thoughts, we are unable to see that reality has no form. I wonder how a cat sees the world? One has the tendency to imagine the world through the cat’s eyes to be from a lower, dimmer, perspective. But , ask yourself, is this how a cat sees? Such a question is an invitation to step outside the very basic categories by which we structure our perceptions. This is simply an exercise, it is not by any means a practice that I recommend, but it is a way of trying to stretch the mind, to loosen it up, to be less centred on the human, conceptual, way of perceiving.
You are, as Nisargadatta once said, “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 you forget? We do not forget the sense of self; we are always reminding ourselves of it. We are always reaching into it, into this sense of self, into the sensation of being. Our sense of self is often accompanied by a feeling: a feeling that is habitual, repeated over and over and over again: it might be the feeling of hopelessness, or of anger, or else the feeling of anxiety. We have a constant feeling, a kind of spasm within the feelings, and it gives us the false assurance that we and the world are real.
Gurdjieff is not referring to the sense of self when he says tht 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. But, by putting it into words once more, I have betrayed the very meaning that I am trying to convey, because you can now look at it at arm’s length, from ouside, like looking at the corpse of a butterfly.
“Who walks?” It is walking that walks, it is speaking that speaks, it is sitting that sits, it is laughing that laughs, it is anger that is angry, it is anxiety that is anxious. You are the anxiety of anxiety, the laughter of laughter, the walking of walking, the sitting of sitting. When the teacher says there is just walking, we wonder whether he is reducing a person––me––to a machine. This is what a neurologists would do. He would say that there is just movement of nerves, of impulses along nerves, a concatenation of intricate wiring that is fired, and then we walk. He would claim that there is is no awareness, no intention, involved in walking. He would say that you could look through the most powerful microscope possible, the most complicated imaging apparatus, and you wouldn’t find any awareness or consciosness.
So what is there, then? What does it mean, “Walking is just walking,” if it does not mean that we are machines, and if, also, it does not mean that somewhere diffused in that machine, one way or another, is a ghost that is operating it. You can only answer that by returning to yourself. You cannot go to the body. You cannot go to thoughts and concepts about it: all that you can get out of thoughts , are more thoughts. You walk without any preconceived notions: even the notion of having no preconceived notions.
What are you then? Or if your practice is Mu, What is Mu? What is reality? What is is? These are not different questions, “What is Mu?” and “Who am I?” They 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 the subjective states, and we can lose ourselves in subjectivity, in insights, memories and dreams. We then explore subjectivity in the mistaken belief that we are exploring ourself.
“What does it mean to be?” is another way of asking, “Who am I?” It is no good trying to answer this question by looking up the meaning of the words ‘being’ or ‘existence.’ It is useless to try to get some feeling of the relation that being has with other states. 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, the light of concepts and thoughts.
This is the problem that goes along with this question, “What is Mu?” We are used to the idea that when we apply the mind we must use abstractions and relationships. We deal in generalities, in universals. But the whole point about this practice is coming home to what exactly is given, concretely, at this moment. You cannot even rely on what is at this moment continuing 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.
Someone might ask, “If we are beyond words, how can we talk about what we are?” The question is a good one. In a way, the answer is “We cannot. Don’t let’s talk.” You remember the koan where the non-Buddhist asked the Buddha, “Don’t give me words, don’t give me silence.” And Buddha just sat. Buddha gives the perfect answer. What is this “just sitting”? 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, and you will tend to leave ‘just sitting’ and launch yourself into the torrent of mental agitation. But no. You must be anchored. This need to be anchored is the chief reasons why we have the zazen posture, and why the zazen posture is so important. It is so important that our posture is a good posture: the back must be striaght and the centre of gravity low. We do not have to sit in the lotus posture to achieve this. The stable posture gives us at least a physical anchoring, a stability, and because of this stability this other, deeper, immutable stability that we are can then exert its influence. Immutability, the beingness of being, the knowingness of knowing, the immutability that you are, is the ultimate security. It is impregnable. When you are asking this question, “What am I?” you are returning to “Buddha just sat.” You are returning to the immutability, the unmovability that you are.
Nisargadatta once told a questioner more or less what I have been saying and the questioner retorted by saying, “Metaphysically what you say holds together. There is no food for me in what you say. It is so completely beyond my urgent needs. When I ask for bread you are giving me jewels; they are beautiful no doubt, but I am hungry.” The questioner is saying that what you [Nisargadatta] are talking about offers nothing to me as a personality. As a personality I have all kinds of desires, needs, lacks, all kinds of conflicts, worries, confusion. What you are saying doesn’t touch any of them. This is a complaint made so often. This is why there is a very high turnover in people practising Zen at the Montreal Zen Center. Most people come for some kind of solace; they are looking for some kind of medication for a sick personality. Their life is in turmoil, and is totally and utterly unsatisfactory. They come and they are given a question, “Who are you?” and there is no way they can relate struggling with this question “Who am I?” with this 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?” There is always a sense of the weariness and the slackness of life. And you are told to ask the question, “Who am I?” What is the point? How will it deal with any of that torment of life in any way whatsoever? And of course, it doesn’t. You just step out of the whole issue, leave it behind.
I remember 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 realise how true that was. This is how it is. As long as you nag away at these problems, as long as you feel they are the issue, they are what is of concern, then of course, they will be the issue, they will be of concern, because that is what you are doing. You make the problems in the first place, and by wanting now to get rid of them, you are perpetuating the problems. It is often 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 ‘seriousness,’ the feeling that my whole life is ruined or threatened with ruin because of this or that, all that drops away. We are no longer identified with what comes up. We have to resolve problems, but we are not identified with them. We see thoughts, ideas and worries just like we would if we stood along the side of St. Catherine Street on a busy day; we just let the crowd pass by. We don’t try to get in the middle and stop it, hold our arms out and stop the flow. People just pass by. It is exactly the same to just be. In just being, we do not stop the flow.
The questioner said, “When I ask for bread, you are giving me jewels; they are beautiful no doubt, but I am hungry.” Nisargadatta replied, “It is not so. I am offering you exactly what you need: awakening.” Because we feel that our problems are, in some way, insurmountable we consider that this is just how it has to be. There are some people who do not even realise 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.. I used to have to get time off now and again to go to sesshins, and I would talk to my boss about this. 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 lot and I really want to see the source of it and 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 realised at that moment that 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; it is life and there is no alternative.
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, he was saying that you are seeing the situation from that point of view, it is a viewpoint. Buddhism does not aim to give you correct knowledge or a correct viewpoint.
Let me tell you a story. When I was a child I used to love going to the Tuppenny Rush. “Tuppennce” was two pence, two pennies, and the “rush” was because you had to get in first, otherwise, you wouldn’t get a seat. The rush was to see the Saturday films and these were projected onto an ordinary bed sheet set up as a screen. Sometimes, you would get to the middle of the film and somebody would want something behind the screen and would search for it with a flashlight. Of course, that ruined the film. Here’s some cowboy galloping along on his horse trying to get the Indian, and all of a sudden he is obliterated by the light of a torch shining at the back. In other words, I would be seeing it without seeing it as having that absolute realness, that absolute starkness. It is defused; the poison is taken out of it. This is what Buddha is saying. He is saying, “I am offering you awakening, to awaken to the viewpoint that you have on your life. You’re not living your life; you are living your viewpoint of your life. This is your life; it is not the life.”
Nisargadatta says, “You are not hungry and you need no bread. You need cessation, relinquishing, disentanglement.” He is saying that if you feel your life is in a mess, what you need is cessation, relinquishing, disentanglement, you do not have to sort out the mess. You need to see it as a viewpoint, as a way of seeing. Without the viewpont there is no life. But you overlook the viewpoint. While it is the only way of seeing it, neverthelss it is a viewpoint. It’s not that there is a better way of seeing it, but what you think of as your life is your way of seeing it. To realize this will be like a flashlight behind the screen. You life will no longer have that stark, absolute reality that you think, indeed you are quite sure, it has. You will wake up to the dream; you do not wake up from the dream. Relinquishing is relinquishing your identification with situations. You believe “I am that.” You are not that. All that you can say is “I am.” The question ‘What am I?’ is not designed to get you to see what you are so much as to get you to stop identifying yourself with what you think you are.
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 on. The die is cast now. When we are young there are forks on the road that we can take ― there are many of them when we are young ― but every fork we take reduces the number of forks we can 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. The road can be anything; the road of a rich person or a poor person; of a wise person or a dull person A man in Austin, Texas––he was a homeless man living on the streets––wrote an interesting book. He lived a thoroughly interesting, exciting, and worthwhile life, although he didn’t work at all and only owned the clothes he walked in. But nevertheless, 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 after we have climbed over them, we build up more barriers, and then we get weary, and we say, “What is it with Zen? All you have to do is climb over barriers all the time. Why isn’t it more smooth going?” Then we build up another barrier and start climbing over it.
Nisargadatta says, “Your real need, I know.” ‘I know what your real need is; you don’t.’ That is an interesting statement. But once you see––and you don’t have to see very deeply––but once you see there is a way of disentangling, or of stepping outside, then you see “I am not that.” Once you see that, then you know this truly is the way. He says, “You need to return to the state in which ‘I am,’ your natural state. Anything else you may think of is an illusion and an obstacle.” This is disentanglement. You now can see that all experience is experience; it is not reality itself. The 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 confused life. “Believe me, you need nothing except to be what you already are.” It is too simple. Is that all? Just to be what I am? This is why the man says but I am hungry, you’ve got to feed me; you’ve given me jewels. That’s too easy, too simple, to return to what you already are.
We say to people, “What are you?” and time and time again they are unable to respond because they are trying to tell me. Instead of returning to what they are, instead of being, they try to think, they try to give a thought structure, because this is the way the mind is so conditioned to work. But the response to the question “What are you?” is simply to be. In the same way the answer to the question “Who walks?” is simply to walk. There is nothing else but being; there isn’t ‘something’ that is. Being is. You don’t need to be something to be. That “something to be” is the unnecessary addition. It is the dream. And it is the total entanglement of your life.
Nisargadatta says, “You imagine you will increase your value by acquisition.” In other words, you think that, “If I practice, I’m going to get understanding; I’m going to get good experience; I’m going to reach high spiritual states; I’m going to become a good person, a loving person,” and you believe that all of these you are going to acquire as a consequence of awakening. We have the sense of “I want to get.” Very often, when they come to dokusan, people say, “I haven’t got anything at all out of this practice. I have been practising, how long have I been practising, and I haven’t got anything, nothing.” Nisargadatta says, “You imagine you will increase your value by acquisition.” It is like gold, imagining that an addition of copper will improve it. “Elimination, purification, renunciation of all that is foreign to your nature is enough.” What is purification, elimination? It is simply seeing that you simply are. It isn’t a rejection. It is seeing that you are, not what you are. It is knowing that you know. And then he says, “Eliminate all that is foreign to your nature, all else is vanity.” And this is the case. This circling around the question, fiddling with it, discussing it, looking at it from different angles, assessing it, protesting about it, all of this is simply vanity.
The questioner says, “It is easier said than done. A person comes to you with a stomach ache and you advise him to disgorge his stomach. Of course without the mind there would be no problem, but the mind is there most tangibly.” This is a bit like someone saying, “Well, you are telling me just to get rid of my life. There is no question that my life is tangled.” You can’t doubt that; life is tangled. This is what the questioner is saying. The mind is there; after all, the entanglement of the life is in the content of the mind, so the mind is there. Nisargadatta says, “It is the mind that tells you that the mind is there.” Your reaction to the situation is part of the situation. A painter is part of the painting. We have this tendency to separate out and say, “The mind over there is the problem” without realising that that statement, “The mind over there is the problem” is the mind at work. It’s like when people say, “I know I’ve got a big ego.” It is the big ego that is talking. Nisargatta says, “All the endless arguments about the mind are produced by the mind itself for its own protection, continuation and expansion.” It all comes out of the fact that I have to be.
The compulsion to be, and that always mean the compulsion to be ‘something,’ is like the compulsion to survive. I have to survive. I have to be. And it is “ I have to be” that is the problem. You do not ‘have to be;’ you do not have to do something, know somehting, have something, to be. When we are sitting and allowing the breath to breathe, we are letting go of the “have to be:” that compulsion, that necessity. This is why people always get upset when told “step outside it.” Underlying their distress is, “I have to be what you want me to step outside of.” 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.
In the entrance to the Zendo building is a statue of a carp. This is to remind us constantly, as we come through the entrance into the zendo, of what we are coming to do. The carp swims against the stream and we, by practicing, are going against the current, the current of “having to be.” To go against the current “having to be” is let it go: to let go of all our achievements and of all our wish to achieve. “Just being” is letting go of the compulsion “I have to be.” Coming home to the fact that you are, breaks the lynch pin that holds you to your life of suffering.
Nisargadatta goes on to say, “It is the blank refusal to consider the convolutions and convulsions of the mind that can take you beyond it.” Stepping outside it takes you beyond it. Again, how do you step outside it? 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, you know right away, that is a viewpoint. Anything that you can experience, that is a viewpoint. In other words, you are no longer indentifying yourself with what offers itself. You are breaking that identification. It is a long journey because you are thoroughly identified with the content of your mind, but each time you earnestly come back to ‘What am I?’ if you really ask the question, you cut another link and another tie has been broken.
Then the questioner says, “Sir, I am a humble seeker, while you are the supreme reality itself. Now the seeker approaches the supreme in order to be enlightened. What does the supreme do?” Nisargadatta says, “Listen to what I keep on telling you and do not move away from it.” But of course, everybody moves away. 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 know it, we are lost in the maze of thought. We are right back into misery again. We want entertainment. Struggling with the question, or ‘just allowing,’ are too boring, people say. When I practice I get bored. So we stir up interest, one way or another; we create some drama, we arouse some action. Yet, only one thread should persist throughout life, and that is the thread of practice, and the practice is to stay with your questioning. Be your questioning. Let nothing else intervene.
Nirsagadatta would say, “Having reached that far, abandon all thoughts, not only of the world, but of yourself also.” In other words, no longer be interested. Lose interest in thoughts. “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.