Appreciate Your Life

May 12, 2015
Is this man enlightened?
Is this man enlightened?
May 14, the day after tomorrow, marks the 20th memorial of Taizan Maezumi Roshi, who founded the large White Plum family of sanghas, as well as a lineage of teachers, that now study and practice the dharma all over the world. I would like to quote from his book:
“We have a practice known as the paramitas. Paramita means “to have reached the other shore.” Dogen Zenji says, “The other shore is already reached.” In other words, the meaning of reaching the other shore is to realize that this shore is the other shore. This life is the unsurpassable, realized life. There is no gap. . . . [W]e are already living the buddhas’ life. Regardless of whether we realize it or not, regardless of whether we are new or old-time practitioners, we are intrinsically the buddhas. Yet until we see this, somehow we simply cannot accept that fact. We get stuck when we try to figure this out intellectually. From the intellectual point of view, the start and the goal must be different. This shore and the other shore cannot be the same. Then what to do? There are as many different paths to realization as there are people. But we can say there are two basic ways. One way is to push ourselves to realize that our life is the buddhas’ life. Another way is to simply let our life be the buddhas’ life and just live it. In a way, this is the difference between koan practice and shikantaza. But whichever practice you do, the point is the same: Do not create a gap between your life and the buddhas’ life.”
I did some study with Maezumi Roshi, not a great deal. In my experience, and in the experience of others to whom I spoke about him, his message in every talk and interview was the same: Everybody is a buddha, including you. The question for me and for other practitioners was how to realize that out of our own experience.
As soon as you say that, the Hitler question comes up: Was Adolf Hitler also a buddha? To our brain, the statement that we are all buddhas is so outrageous that automatically it swings into dualisms: The Dalai Lama yes, Hitler no.
But what about you? What about me? Am I a buddha? What about the hundreds of Eves that appeared throughout today: the hurrying Buddha, the buddha who has a hard time making up her mind, the independent Buddha, the critical buddha. We see buddha as perfect—and we are. We are perfectly who we are this moment. The moment changes, we respond, and once again we’re buddhas, perfect as we are this moment.
Unbelievable, my heart says, and yearns to experience this, yearns to feel it. Okey-dokey, my brain says, I know just where to start: Books, teachers, retreats, workshops, lots and lots of stuff. We say, just sit. Do nothing. Can I breathe? Can I feel at home? When I’m really at home there’s a basic sense of wellbeing just sitting on a cushion or a chair, a feeling that this moment is sufficient, that I’m sufficient. It’s so simple and natural that there’s nothing to add or think about. It may be hot, it may be humid—and I’m ok. I notice the gaps and the fragmentation, I may even notice discomfort, but there’s a stability that runs through all this, that comes out of being home.
As my attachments loosen up, and especially the attachment to self-centeredness, my being the prime author and arbiter of life, I begin to notice how often I generate my own suffering, how often I do harm. We talk a great deal about attachments, but what’s called for here is letting go of something so much more basic. There’s nothing wrong with the self per se, in fact, there’s nothing wrong with curiosity about the self. Who am I? is one of our oldest questions, and wishing to come up with an answer and express that answer is one of our greatest challenges. But as Dogen wrote, it is precisely when we forget the self that we are studying it most intimately. We get stuck when we try to figure this out intellectually, Maezumi Roshi said. Realizing the self involves forgetting it, again and again and again. The only way I’ll answer the question, Who am I?, is by letting my life be the buddhas’ life and just living it as deeply and intimately as I can.
When we ease up on that most basic attachment of all, the I- I-I or me-me-me mental framework, the clouds seem to fade one by one and the vastness of the world, the oneness of life, opens up more and more. This is available to each and every one of us in our respective lives. We don’t have to be different, our life doesn’t have to be different. In that sense we can say that the purpose of practice is no purpose. If we have a purpose, then we have problems. We set up all kinds of goals and we reach for them. But the amazing thing is that the goal is right here!
I don’t sit into who I want to become but into who I am. I don’t choose a role model, I don’t look for things outside of myself. I drop deeper and deeper into my self and the wisdom is there. But what about all my craziness? What about my laziness, my anxieties, the way I blank out when it comes to money? Please don’t make a big fuss. Your neurosis is your style, Trungpa Rinpoche said. Can you appreciate your life in the simplest way possible?



January 2015
Is she in shadow or is she in light?
Is she in shadow or in light?
Zhaozhou once asked Nanquan, ‘What is Tao?’ Nanquan answered, ‘Ordinary mind is Tao.’ ‘Then should we direct ourselves toward it or not?’ asked Zhaozhou. ‘If you try to direct yourself toward it, you go away from it,’ answered Nanquan. Zhaozhou continued, ‘If we do not try, how can we know that it is Tao?’ Nanquan replied, ‘Tao does not belong to knowing or to not-knowing. Knowing is illusion; not-knowing is blankness. If you really attain to Tao of no-doubt, it is like the great void, so vast and boundless. How then can there be right and wrong in the Tao?’ At these words, Zhaozhou was suddenly enlightened.
It’s easy to conclude that it was Nanquan’s sterling words that brought on Zhaozhou’s breakthrough, but in doing so you’d be ignoring the years of practice that Zhaozhou did both before this famous dialogue and after. Zhaozhou stayed with Nanquan even after his major realization till Nanquan’s death, then wandered from monastery to monastery and didn’t begin to teach till he was 80, becoming one of the greatest of all Chan masters.
So what was Zhaozhou practicing all these years? You might call it the practice of paradox.
Do I direct myself towards it or not? Yes or no? This way or that way? These are all examples of an either/or type of reasoning. This kind of reasoning is useful in making everyday decisions: Should I go to the post office today or should I go tomorrow? Do I read this book or do I read that book? But that kind of reasoning is also very limited.
You are probably aware of the hypothesis of multiverses, according to which, when I wonder whether to go to the post office today or tomorrow, a universe unfolds in which I go to the post office today and simultaneously a second universe unfolds in which I go to the post office tomorrow. In other words, both eventualities co-exist, only in separate universes.
The paradigm of Indra’s Net of pearls brings both eventualities together. Here, every thought, concept, feeling, or being is a pearl. Each pearl lies in a node of the Net, thus connected to all the other pearls, and each pearl reflects all the other pearls. I can go to the post office today is one pearl. I’ll go to the post office tomorrow is another pearl. One doesn’t nullify the other; both co-exist in this infinite Net.
Here’s another situation that doesn’t lend itself to either/or thinking: I love him and I hate him at the same time. Two opposite feelings, but still two pearls existing in the same net. Temple Grandin, the autistic expert on animal science, has written that the reason she won’t marry is because she can’t love and hate at the same time. She explains that the frontal part of the brain of severely autistic people like her, which deals with integration of contrasts and opposites, is different from its counterpart in people who are not severely autistic. Those of us who are not autistic people instantly get that one can love and hate a person at the same time, while Grandin wrote that in her case, the minute her partner gets angry or upset or withdraws, she’ll be convinced that there’s no more love in the relationship. In her case, it’s either-or. In our case, it’s both-and.
Parker Palmer, the educator, has written: “Paradoxical thinking . . . comes from the capacity to entertain apparently contradictory ideas in a way that stretches the mind and opens the heart to something new. Paradox is also a way of being that’s key to wholeness, which does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.” He talked about the depressions he’s coped with in his life, and then added: “Eventually I was able to see that the closer I move to the source of light, the deeper my shadow becomes. To be whole I have to be able to say I am both shadow and light.”
We often think that practicing will keep us in the light, or at least bring us closer. And we want that, don’t we? Like Zhaozhou, we want to direct towards something, light rather than dark, wholeness rather than fragmentation. And yet, “[t]he closer I move to the source of light, the deeper my shadow becomes.” That’s been my experience, too. The greater the light, the more corners it reveals that are in shadow. Do I disown those parts of me?
“Embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.” Embracing brokenness for me means embracing myself as I am. The Hasidic version of the start of life is that God created a holy vessel, which then shattered into pieces, and we are all shards of that holy vessel trying to come back together again. According to the Big Bang Theory, a singularity expanded to become gases and eventually infinite particles, to which we then gave names: planet, comet, sun. In some ways they both come to the same thing: We are fragments, each shaped differently from the other. One has concave sides, another has convex. One’s corners are sharp and another’s are round. One is shy and the other likes to brag; one is socially adaptable and the other wants to hide. We call some aspects shortcomings and others virtues, not very different from how we label some people autistic and others normal. Basically, we’re like serrated rocks that are never the same. But keep in mind that we’re not just unique, each of us is whole as we are, in our respective uniqueness.
If that is the case, then is our objective to become smooth? To get rid of my brokenness, my jaggedness and unevenness, the surfaces that are fine as they are except for my judgments of them?
I am both shadow and light. In beginning the 108 Days of Practice, Genyo quoted the great Chan master Linchi: “You must right now turn your light around and shine it on yourselves, not go seeking somewhere else. Then you will understand that in body and mind you are no different from the Ancestors and Buddhas, and that there is nothing to do.”
This is very poignant for me. We’re broken vessels and we want to be whole. Many of us come to practice because we want to go after the light. We want to do what Zhaozhou suggested, go towards something. It could be a career, a lover, a zendo or a teacher or guru. Linchi says not to go out to seek wholeness but to go in. Turn your attention inwards and rest there. Does everything get lit up? I doubt it. The deeper I go to the source of light, the more shadows I find. So is the work to go further and further into light till I get rid of all shadows, or is it to find the light in the shadows? To find that I’m both light and shadow.


What Is Buddha Activity?

December 2, 2014
Lots of activity going on
Lots of activity going on
            In the Record of Transmitting the Light, Zen Master Keizan presents the following account of the enlightenment of the Indian teacher, Aryasimha:
The twenty-fourth patriarch was the Venerable Simha. He asked the twenty-third patriarch, “I want to seek the Way. What concerns should I have?” The Patriarch said, “If you want to seek the Way, there is nothing to be concerned about.” The master said, “If I have no concerns, who carries out Buddha activities?” The Patriarch said, “If you have some business, these are not merits. If you do nothing, this is Buddha activity. A scripture says, ‘The merits I have achieved are not mine.’” Hearing these words, the master entered the wisdom of the Buddhas.
If you want to seek the Way, there is nothing to be concerned about. But how do you seek the Way if you have no concerns about it? That’s the same question posed by Joshu to Nansen, in the famous koan that appears in the Gateless Gate:
            Joshu earnestly asked Nansen, “What is the Way?” Nansen answered: “Ordinary Mind is the Way.” Joshu asked: “Should I direct myself towards it, or not?” Nansen said: “If you try to turn toward it, you go against it.” Joshu asked: “If I do not try to turn toward it, how can I know that it is the Way?”
Indeed, the Venerable Simha then asks, If I have no concerns, who carries out Buddha activities? This question is so resonant. We frequently identify ourselves with our concerns. Who am I? I’m the mother who’s concerned about her children. I’m the son concerned about his parents. I’m the manager who worries about problems at work, the teacher who thinks frets about his students or the doctor about her patients. If I have no concerns, who am I?
If you do nothing, this is Buddha activity. But isn’t Buddha activity everything? Shakyamuni Buddha said, upon his enlightenment, that the entire earth and all beings have simultaneously achieved the Way. Why? Because we’re all Buddha nature, it’s all one thing. So all activity, without exception, is Buddha activity, the functioning of the one thing.
Another way of seeing it is that Buddha activity is the activity of everything that we experience as Buddha, as the one thing. That, usually, is a much smaller world. In other words, what we experience as Buddha activity is a very small subset of actual Buddha activity.
How we experience ourselves and all beings, sentient and non-sentient, determines how we experience Buddha activity. For example, I usually take for granted that this body-mind, this system called Eve, is one thing. If my mind wants an apple, my arm reaches for it, my hand grabs a hold of it and brings it to my mouth, which takes it in, my teeth chew it, the tongue tastes it, and finally the apple’s remains go down my throat to my stomach, where the work continues. Any biologist can tell you that eating an apple demands the most sophisticated and complex labor, communication, and coordination of millions of cells. Our bodies comprise gazillions of cells working out such operations moment by moment, operations of such complexity that scientists are still far from understanding them, yet we pretty casually assume that this amazing body-mind, which we can’t fully grasp, is one thing and operates as one thing. I don’t even think about the activity of reaching, picking up and eating an apple, I just do it. So Buddha activity, for me, is an activity that is so unified, so integrated, so me, that I don’t even think about it.
Now let’s open things up. Are a parent and child one thing? In the early years, do parents wonder whether to get up in the morning and make breakfast for their children? They do it regardless of fatigue or distraction because they and their young children are one thing, they can’t imagine them as separate. The separation grows as children grow. By the time your child is in a teen-ager or even an adult, you might wake up one morning and say, I’m too tired to make breakfast, he is old enough to do this for himself. You could still choose to make breakfast, but it doesn’t feel the same anymore, some separation has come up.
What about a couple? When Bernie and I have dinner, one person cooks and the other washes. We don’t think about it or discuss it, it’s just what happens. I call it Buddha activity. The minute we have any feelings around it at all—even good ones—it’s a sign that separation has come in. Or if someone asks me if I would come to a party, I check what Bernie’s doing, not because his activities determine what I will do, but just naturally, as a way of seeing how it works for both of us. I do that without thinking about it. When I start wondering if this is the right or wrong thing to do, when I recall how free I was when I was single, those all reflect some kind of separation.
If you do nothing, that is Buddha activity. Nothing? Eating an apple requires enormous activity. Taking care of a child, of a lover, is a lot of activity. Taking care of a family, a community, the world, is inconceivable activity. But if it’s done out of the understanding and experience that it’s the one thing taking care of itself, then it’s really nothing, and then it’s Buddha activity.