Sunday, April 12, 2009

Asses, Horses, Bridges

“Progress is not a matter of far or near,
but if you are confused, mountains and rivers block your way.
I respectfully urge you who study the mystery:
do not pass your days and nights in vain.”

[closing lines of The Sandokai, ca. 8th century]

Progress is not a matter of far or near

When we chant the Sandokai we say, "Progress is not a matter of far or near, but if you are confused mountains and rivers block your way." The phrase "mountains and rivers" refers to the mundane everyday activity that is the very substance of living. When we are confused we mistakenly think of this everyday activity as something that gets in our way. We imagine a better life that could be ours, if only we could somehow escape from the life we are living right now. A famous and important example of this kind of confusion is the case of Prince Siddhartha, who named his son "Rahula", a Sanskrit word often translated as "hindrance". This is very much like when a husband refers to his wife as "the old ball and chain", for the literal meaning of "rahula" is "fetter", referring to the shackles that bind the limbs of slaves and prisoners to prevent them from escaping to freedom.

Siddhartha did not stop at simply naming his son "fetter". One night, having literally passed out during a fun-filled evening of partying with his friends, Prince Siddhartha suddenly awoke. It was now midnight and the full moon was directly overhead. All of his friends had, like him, collapsed one by one to the ground, physically spent by the exertion of singing, dancing and otherwise enjoying themselves a great deal. In the moonlight the sight of his friends sleeping peacefully in each other's arms was turned into a horrific scene. It seemed as if he was surrounded by piles of dead, rotting corpses! It was at this moment that the Prince decided he must escape - from his own life.

It's probably a good thing that the Prince had never read books like Jack Kornfield's "After the Ecstasy, the Laundry" or Joko Beck's "Everyday Zen". If he had, he might have piled one delusion on top of another. He might have been satisfied with a mere intellectual understanding (an understanding that would have been deeply dishonest) that he didn't need to flee from the palace, cut his hair, dress in rags, and devote himself to mastering one spiritual discipline after another. Why, he could just stay right where was because, after all, isn't it is possible to "live awakened in our daily life"? [from Kornfield's back cover blurb on Beck's book]

But instead of comforting himself with words that he didn't believe, words that could have provided him with an ersatz "everyday sprituality" while continuing to yearn for something else, Siddhartha acted on the very real, deep and painful dissatisfaction that he felt (which he would later call "dukkha") - and so he ran from the palace and kept running. Since his own life appeared to be an obstacle he gave up absolutely everything: his wife, his son, his parents, his friends - not to mention his home, his money, his clothes, even the hair on his head.

We are afraid to follow the example set by the Buddha. Even though we share the dissatisfaction he felt, we continue to cling to our miserable, plodding lives. Basically we are cowards. And when I say "we" - who do I mean? Do I mean white middle-class western Buddhist wannabes? Well, yes, but not just them. I mean all of us - humanity. This dissatisfaction and this fear of facing up to it are both essential parts of the human condition. The Buddha's teachings aren't just for people of one culture, or for people with a certain amount of education or who are in a certain tax-bracket. Illiterate peasants wake up every day grumbling about their miserable, boring lives - that's why they flock to dirty crowded cities the first chance they get. And then in the next generation their malnourished children grow up in disease-ridden slums, breathing in choking polluted air, and they are doomed to live out their short, desperate lives dreaming of the simple life in the countryside.

The Buddha's teaching on “dukkha” is not some philosophical abstraction. The meaning of dukkha is not something known only to those who have studied Pali and Sanskrit. The first noble truth, the truth of dukkha, is a challenge to all of us to look at our own lives. Everything we need to know about dukkha is right in front of us. Right now.

Watch your step

One time I was doing a very long and difficult retreat in Korea, led by my teacher, Zen Master Dae Gak of Furnace Mountain. The schedule was grueling – every day the lights went on at 3:15 am, and went off at 9:15 pm. All day, every day was spent mostly in zazen. Everyone's knees, backs, shoulders, etc, were in pain. And then, after many weeks of this, it got even worse. Right in the middle of the retreat was “Rohatsu”, which is it's more familiar Japanese name – in Korean it is called “Yong Maeng Jong Jin”. We just called it “intensive week”.

Instead of practice ending at 8:50 pm and then putting the lights out at 9:15, during intensive week we had a break at 8:50, and then resumed mediation practice at 9:15. We would then continue to practice until 11:50 pm, and the lights would go out at 12:15 am (and come back on at 3:15 as usual). After six nights of this we then meditated all night long on the final night of Rohatsu – in commemoration of the night of the Buddha's Great Awakening (on the morning of the 8th day of the 12th lunar month).

Once we finished this sado-masochistic “tradition”, we got a few hours off the following day – but then had to return to our regular schedule that very evening. A few days after we were back to the “normal” schedule, Zen Master Dae Gak announced that the intensive week had been such an profound and important experience that we would do it all over again during the final week of the retreat. When I heard this I was so angry I nearly fainted. I had never felt anything like this rage before. Master Dae Gak invited questions and discussion and I said some very undiplomatic things – something along the lines that I had never heard a more stupid, evil idea in my entire life.

Master Dae Gak didn't get angry. He just assured me and the other retreatants that this was a wonderful idea and that it was the best way to end our long retreat together. That evening I was still beside myself with anger and I truly could not think straight – or even see straight. While walking down the stone steps outside the temple, during the short break after the evening meal, I misstepped, and wrenched my foot badly and fell, but fortunately I landed on grass instead of pavement.

I had known Zen Master Dae Gak for a number of years at that time, and I was completely devoted to him. I was very proud to have such a great Zen Master as my teacher, and I was equally proud of the intensity of my feelings for him. I thought that this was how a Zen student should feel about his teacher – none of this half-assed shit. None of this discomfort with authority that I saw as just a thinly disguised diffidence and egotism on the part of “typical” western Zen students. I thought my teacher was like those old Masters from the Golden Age of Zen – and I was like those old students who bowed down to their Masters without giving it a thought.

But now I was having a major identity crisis. I thought my teacher was acting like a crazy person, and he was demanding something that I was unwilling to give. My bluff had been called – and my hand turned out to be pretty weak. I was more mad at myself than I was at him – but I was plenty mad at him!

The next day I had dokuson (one-on-one interview) with Master Dae Gak, and I told him I would be boycotting the second intensive week. He just laughed and said “a boycott it is, then!” Even though I was a little peeved at the way he so easily deflected my anger, I couldn't help but feel much better afterwards. At least for a while.

But I still couldn't stop thinking about what a stupid idea it was. The “intensive week” was an ancient tradition that was always part of a three-month long “Kyol Che” retreat in Korean Buddhism. And once it was over that was supposed to be it, until the next Kyol Che. We all knew that when we signed on for this retreat – and the idea of announcing, more than half-way through the retreat, an “extra” intensive week just seemed so arbitrary, and crazy and evil.

And so thinking like this, it didn't take long before I had worked myself up into a rage again – pretty much just as mad as I had been before my interview. Then eventually it was time for the evening meal, which, like all the meals during the 90 day retreat, was done following a very strict set of rules that turned the entire meal into an elaborate ritual.

The first part of the ritual was the serving of the food itself. At the beginning all of the food was arranged in pots and pans and serving trays in the center of the room – then we took turns going up and taking the food around to serve each other. It was actually kind of cool – like an intricately choreographed dance. Everything had to be just right – including the order in which the food was served, the precise arrangement of all the pots, etc, in the middle of the room – even down to the way each ladle and spoon and spatula was placed. After I had taken my turn serving some soup from a big pot, I carefully put the pot back in its proper place and walked back to my meditation cushion, holding my hands in front of me in the required way.

But before I had taken more that three or four steps I heard Master Dae Gak say, very quietly, “Curt”. The retreat was conducted in total silence except during interviews, chanting, and Dharma talks (which sometimes also included questions and discussion). Therefore the room was almost completely silent, except for the very quiet sounds of food being served and the very faint sound from the cold winter wind outside. Master Dae Gak had spoken so quietly that I just chose to convince myself I hadn't really heard anything, and I kept on walking. Then he said it again, just a little bit louder: “Curt”. This time I definitely heard him, but I decided that since he was talking so softly I could justify pretending not to hear him, and I kept walking. That was the kind of mood I was in.

Then he called my name a third time – this time just loud enough that I had to acknowledge it. I turned around and looked at him to see what he wanted. He made a slight gesture with his head that I honestly couldn't interpret. When he saw the blank look on my face he made the gesture again, this time more emphatically – and now I saw he was gesturing to the pot I had just been serving from. So I walked back to pot and stared at it – trying to figure out what was wrong. The pot was right where it was supposed to be, even the pot handles were at the correct angle, according to the rules of the ritual.

Everything looked to be just like it was supposed to be – and so I looked at him blankly again and shrugged my shoulders. Then he silently mimed the movement of taking the lid off the pot. I took the lid off and then looked at him again – and now he held his hand out and made a back and forth motion – which I recognized as meaning that the ladle was supposed to be lined up in a certain way. I already knew that – but I had decided that it didn't really matter since the ladle fit all the way inside the pot and couldn't be seen when the lid was on.

So I lined the ladle up the way it was supposed to be, and put the lid back on the pot, and then I bowed to the pot (which is part of the ritual). And then Master Dae Gak said just loud enough for everyone to hear, “meticulous outside, meticulous inside.” I bowed deeply to my teacher and returned to my meditation cushion.

How Zazen Works

What do we “do” when we do zazen? We hold ourselves upright and we don't move. When we do this we are like Odysseus lashed to the mast of his ship as the Sirens sing their song of murderous seduction all along the fatal rocky shore. Most people have heard that story – but I'll recount it here briefly. During his long journey back home following the Trojan war, Odysseus had to pass by the island of the Sirens. These were creatures who lured sailors to their deaths with the beauty of their singing. No one who heard their song could resist – and sailors either eagerly steered their ships to their doom on the rocks, or simply threw themselves into the water – either way they were killed and eaten by the Sirens. Odysseus (with a little help from the Goddess Circe) devised a way to not only get past the Sirens – but to also allow him to hear their song for himself. He commanded all of his crew to stop up their ears with beeswax – and to then tie him tightly to the mast of the ship as they approached the dreaded island. In this way Odysseus was able to hear what no one alive had ever heard before – by remaining upright and unmoving.

Wait a minute - isn't that a bit melodramatic? Not at all. Every time you do zazen you must endure the Siren's song: from the urge to scratch your nose, to the idea that you have attained enlightenment, to the idea that you will never attain enlightenment, to the urge to stretch your legs out, etc. When you do this you are just like the Buddha on the very night of his Great Awakening. After years of searching he finally sat down under a tree and vowed to not rise again until he had found what he was looking for. He was assaulted by the God Mara and all the demon armies at Mara's command. But no matter what Mara threw at him, the Buddha remained upright and unmoving.

But the main content of our meditation, that is, the bulk of what happens in our minds during meditation, really isn't those urges to scratch or move, or the delusions and doubts about our spiritual progress or lack thereof – much less the grandiose temptations of Mara and his demon armies. The main thing that comes up in the mind during meditation is precisely those “mountains and rivers” that seem to block our way. During meditation we are confronted with our relationships, our worries, our hopes, our fears, our aches and pains, as well as highlights from our past, speculations about our future, what we had for breakfast and what we plan to cook tonight for dinner. This is sometimes called the meat of the sandwich of meditation.

Boredom, dissatisfaction and disappointment are the inevitable companions to meditation practice. If you are lucky the Meditation Gods, so to speak, might help you out at first and make your practice enjoyable, even entertaining. But that is just “Dharma candy” - like a reward given to a child as encouragement. Eventually the child has to learn to do the right thing even when there is no reward – or even, especially, when doing the right thing requires sacrifice. And just so we have to learn to continue with our mediation practice when it is boring, unsatisfying and disappointing.

When we sit in zazen – what is going on? Externally nothing, or at least very little, is going on. You continue to breath, and you blink your eyes (if they are open). You might occasionally correct your posture. But that's about it. Internally, though, your mind races. It often appears as if mediation causes the mind to become more jumbled and erratic – but that's just because you no longer have anything to distract you from the jumbledness and the erraticness already present in your mind.

In the midst of the mind's ongoing activity you count your breaths, or label your thoughts, or repeat your mantra, etc. If the body is held still and upright, and some genuine effort is put into your practice, then there will be some calming and steadying of the mind. The mind relaxes somewhat, in some sense. Shunryu Suzuki compared this to letting a cow into a big open field. If the cow is cooped up in a small pen it might be very restless – and if it is then released into an open field at first it might run around quite a bit. But eventually it settles down and starts to just eat the grass. A cow is naturally inclined to be free and out in nature. Any kind of confinement or other human intervention leads to unnatural behavior on the part of the cow. But when it is allowed to be free and out in it's natural surroundings, the cow acts in a way that is more truly “cow-like”.

During zazen the mind begins to act like the cow in a big, open field. At first it might run around quite a bit, but eventually it starts to act in a way that is increasingly natural, genuine and spontaneous. Freed from external, artificial demands placed on it, the mind begins to reveal itself more clearly. So far this cow analogy sounds very pleasant and inviting – but the truth is that our minds are pretty messed up. The human mind is full of residue from past activity. Some of this residue might be very pleasant – but a lot of it is very painful. You can call this residue “karma” if you like, or you can call it “the unprocessed contents of the unconscious mind”, or the “alaya vijnana” or “the depths of the soul” or anything else. Many people just refer to it as “my stuff”. Whatever you call it, this is what the mind has to offer when external stimuli are diminished or removed. The mind encounters the mind.

Which brings us back to dissatisfaction, boredom, and disappointment – which are just three different ways of saying “dukkha”. You can take your pick whether you'd like to think of yourself as Odysseus lashed to mast of his own ship, or as a cow grazing in an open field. Either way you find yourself confronted with your own “stuff”. Most people never get this far in meditation practice, and most who do go no further. It's like physical exercise. It's one thing to buy the book, or the DVD, or even the equipment, or to sign up for the gym membership. It's another thing to follow through until you actually work up a sweat – and that's when you find out whether you are really up for this or not.

It's not just a matter of machismo – but a little machismo doesn't necessarily hurt. The most macho person I've ever known is a Buddhist nun who is now a Zen Master. But just being macho alone only produces obnoxious egomaniac zen practitioners, and the world already has more than enough of those (fortunately Zen Master/nun I mentioned has a lot more going for her than just her machismo).

Lifetime after lifetime we have experienced dukkha. Every once in a great while we are born into a situation where we finally have the chance to take a step down the path of some kind of spiritual practice – but in most of those lifetimes we only get to the point where the going starts to get tough, and once we work up a little sweat we say “hey, forget this!” In a very few lifetimes we manage to push through and get beyond that point, but then after many years we throw up our arms in despair and give up. My grand-teacher, Zen Master Seung Sahn, used to say that it is necessary to “try, try, try for ten thousand years.” One day while I was sitting in zazen that phrase came to my mind and before I knew it those words completely filled my consciousness. I found myself actually shouting inside my own mind, “but what if I try for ten thousand years and I am STILL not enlightened!?!?!?” And then for just a moment my mind went silent and became clear like space. At that point I had a very small, but very important insight, and my whole being relaxed and opened just a little. I was both Odysseus lashed to the mast and the cow grazing in the field. And then a moment later I started thinking about what I would cook for dinner that night.

Ancient Stone Bridges and Simple Log Bridges

Master Hakuin wrote this about zazen: “As for the Mahayana practice of zazen, there are no words to praise it fully.” He also wrote that “Even those who have sat zazen only once will see all karma erased.” Master Dogen wrote “in this world and in that, the patriarchs in India and China equally preserved the Buddha seal and spread the true style of Zen. All actions and things are penetrated with pure zazen.” When the first Zen Master came to China from India, Buddhism had already been flourishing there for hundreds of years. But Bodhidharma saw “no merit whatsoever” in all the Temples that had been built, and all the monks and nuns who had been ordained, and all the Sutras that had been translated. In fact, after meeting with the Emperor himself, who was a devout Buddhist and an ardent supporter and patron of Buddhism, Bodhidharma literally turned his back on Chinese Buddhism and for nine years just sat in zazen, facing the back of a cave. In this way he clearly demonstrated the immeasurable superiority of zazen to all other practices.

But if you do zazen, does it feel as if you have suddenly attained to the greatest of all spiritual practices? Does it feel as if all your karma is erased? Does it feel as if all actions and all things are penetrated? Not so much. There is a famous story about this phenomenon. Zen Master Joshu was often referred to as “the old stone bridge”. In the village where Joshu lived (which was itself called “Joshu” - in fact that is where his name came from) there was an ancient stone bridge that was famous both for it's great age and its great strength.

One day a Zen student came to visit Joshu. This student had traveled a long way to meet “Old Master Stone Bridge”. But when the student finally had his interview he said, “I was told to expect a stone bridge but I just see a simple log bridge.” This was more than just a casual put-down in response to the disparity between Joshu's reputation and what the student saw before him (a little old man of very unimpressive appearance). It is traditional for Zen practitioners to test each other – and this is especially true between student and teacher. So it was really not completely unexpected that instead of deferring to the great Master, the student wanted to show that he knew how the game was played. The student was presenting the teacher with a challenge in order to gauge his response.

Once the matador and the bull are alone in the ring it is not clear, until the end, who is the hunted and who the hunter. Having been challenged, what does Joshu do? Does he call for his attendants to throw out the unruly student? Doe he come up with a clever response to put the student in his place? Does he lecture the student in proper manners? Does he congratulate the student on his spirited challenge, and maybe offer him some sake while they have a good laugh over it? These would all be very reasonable, ordinary responses. What Joshu does instead is extraordinary and unreasonable. He perfectly reflects the student's question back to him and says, “You only see the log bridge, but you don't see the stone bridge.”

This is one of the most crucial aspects of the practice of zazen. When boredom and dissatisfaction arise in the mind – how does the mind respond to it's own disappointment with itself? We can respond with anger and demand that the mind change, somehow, into something more impressive. Or we can hide behind cleverness and intellectual sophistication. Or we can shrug it off and have a good nihilistic laugh at our own expense. But there is another way. We can remain upright and unmoving, and allow the mind to simply reflect it's own disappointment. Without trying to fix it or make it go away. Just that. I see the log bridge but I don't see the stone bridge.

Joshu was famous for his mastery of language. But not all teachers are like that. Back in Joshu's day there were many great Zen Masters – in fact one often hears about “The Golden Age of Zen”. Some of these teachers would respond to all questions with violent shouting, or hitting the questioner with a stick. There was one famous teacher who always held up one finger no matter what was asked of him. Another teacher would simply turn around and present his back to anyone who came and asked for instruction. Once there were two teachers who lived close by each other. One of them always gave a martial arts style belly shout whenever he was asked a question – while the other always raised up his stick and hit the questioner on the head. One day a student came for an interview with the first teacher (the one who always shouted), but this time the teacher asked the student a question, instead of the other way around: “One always shouts, the other always hits. Which is correct?” At this the student shouted, and then the teacher struck him on the head with his stick.

This shouting and hitting and other forms of strange behavior are not unique to Zen, though. Back in the 4th century BC in Athens there was a famous philosopher named Antisthenes who had been one of Socrates' students. After the execution of Socrates, Antisthenes developed the habit of chasing away anyone who came to him for instruction in philosophy. Maybe he had just decided to get out of the philosophy business because didn't want to suffer the same fate as his teacher! A young Greek named Diogenes was determined to study with Antisthenes – but every time he approached the old man he received a rain of blows from Antisthenes' staff. Then finally one day Diogenes walked right up to Antisthenes, and as Antisthenes raised his staff, Diogenes lowered his head and said, “there is no wood hard enough to keep me from you as long as I think you have something to teach me.” From that day on Diogenes was Antisthenes' student.

But Joshu was, at least by Zen standards, not so outrageous in his teaching style. People asked him questions and he gave them answers. Sometimes it is said that the teachers who shout and hit and do other strange things are “hiding the ordinary inside the extra-ordinary”. But of Joshu it is said, with his simple, direct answers in plain language, that he was able to “hide the extraordinary inside the ordinary”. There is no more powerful example of that than Joshu's “Mu”.

By the time of the “Golden Age of Zen”, Buddhism was almost a thousand years old in China. One of the defining characteristics of Chinese Buddhism is its emphasis on the doctrine of “Buddha-nature”. Sometimes Indian Buddhism and Chinese Buddhism are contrasted by saying that Indian Buddhism is more negative because it sees “emptiness” everywhere, while Chinese Buddhism is more positive because it sees “Buddha-nature” everywhere. Without getting too involved in the intricacies of Buddhist philosophy, let's just say that a great many people have concluded over the centuries that “emptiness” and “Buddha-nature” are just two ways of looking at the same thing.

The important thing is that the idea of Buddha-nature is very deeply and firmly rooted in Chinese Buddhism. It is universally accepted that everything, everywhere, always has Buddha-nature. But one day a student asked Joshu, “does a dog have Buddha-nature?” Without hesitation Joshu said “Mu!” This answer is a little difficult to translate literally into English, but basically it just means “no!” Often there is a temptation to focus on Joshu's answer – but it is also very important to look at the student's question. He was questioning an unquestioned religious doctrine, like a Christian questioning whether or not Jesus rose on the third day.

And how does Joshu respond to the student's blasphemous question? Doe he scold the student? Does he have him locked up, or driven away? Or does he say “quiet, fool – someone might hear you!”? Or does he pat the student on the head and say, “don't you know that Lord Buddha taught that all beings, even dogs, have Buddha nature”? Or possibly he could congratulate the student on breaking through the constraints of religious doctrines and thinking for himself.

Once again Johu gave no ordinary, reasonable response, although his answer is as simple as possible. Joshu takes the student's question and magnifies it a billion times. The student has found a small amount of doubt – but Joshu shows the student Great Doubt: “MU!” Small doubt restricts the mind – but Great Doubt expands the Mind until it includes the entire universe. Small doubt is the doubt of hesitation and fear – Great Doubt has no hesitation and is the very substance of fearlessness.

Asses and Horses

The student who asked Joshu about the stone bridge (remember him?) wasn't quite finished yet. After Joshu answered “you only see the log bridge but you don't see the stone bridge”, the student replied, “then where is the stone bridge?” To which Joshu replied, “it let's asses cross, it let's horses cross.” The whole dialog goes like this:

Student: “Your stone bridge is very famous and I came to see it. But now I only see a simple log bridge.”
Joshu: “You only see the log bridge, but you do not see the stone bridge.”
Student: “Where is the stone bridge?”
Joshu: “It let's asses cross, it let's horses cross.”

What is Joshu saying in the last line? I think he is taking the discussion to a new level. He is saying, essentially, that's enough about me, now what about you. The student began by challenging Joshu, and now Joshu is returning the favor. Not only are there different bridges, ranging from very impressive ancient stone bridges to a simple log that has fallen across a stream – there are also differences in who crosses those bridges. Some are horses, some are asses.

There is an interesting story that includes a variation on this saying, “it let's asses cross, it let's horses cross.” Zen Master Ta-hui was born 200 years after Joshu died. He was famous for many reasons, but one of the many things that distinguished him was that his most senior student, whom he personally designated to take over his teaching position when he died, was a woman. As is often the case, there was a great deal of envy directed at the Master's favorite student, whose name was Miao-tao, and the fact that she was a woman made things even more complicated. There was even a vicious rumor circulated that the only reason that Ta-hui favored Miao-tao so much was because they were lovers!

One time a very senior monk, who felt that he had been passed over unfairly, came to talk to Miao-tao. In fact he intended to directly challenge her claim to be the Master's successor. But Miao-tao knew that he was coming to talk to her, and she knew why, so she prepared a little surprise for him. When the monk walked into her room she was completely naked!

The monk immediately realized that she was testing him. The monk had come to engage Mia-Tao in "dharma combat", but now he saw that he had walked into a "dharma ambush". The monk now had to find some way to prove that he could handle such a situation, otherwise he would be admitting that this woman had gotten the better of him. But this monk was no slouch when it came to dharma combat. He maintain an outward air of calmness, and nonchalantly pointed down at Miao-Tao's vagina and then the following exchange took place:

Monk: “Where does this lead to?”
Miao-tao: “The Buddhas of the three worlds, the great teachers of the six generations, and the most eminent monks have all come out of here.”
Monk: “Then am I allowed to enter?”
Miao-tao: “It does not let asses cross, but it let's horses cross.”

After that Miao-tao turned her back on the monk – who left ashamed, defeated.

This story helps to illustrate the nature of Joshu's response. Mia-tao is making a distinction between horses and asses, which is appropriate and absolutely necessary in an important position of responsibility (that of being the successor to the great Master Ta-hui). When a horse is needed, an ass won't do. But Joshu is talking not about titles and positions (however important they might be), but about the very path of Zen itself which transcends all such distinctions, including distinctions that are part of the institutions of Zen Buddhism. Even though it is necessary to make all kinds of decisions in our daily lives – amidst the “mountains and rivers” that block our way – every time we draw a breath we should be grateful that the air does not choose who is allowed to breath and who is not. Nor does the earth choose to let only some walk upon Her, nor do the Sun and Moon shine only on “horses” but not on “asses”.

I think it is very important not to minimize the insight that Miao-tao is sharing with us. Her words are far more than just a well deserved insult that serves to put the monk in his proper place. The “gate” by which we all enter this world is also the gate of the discriminating mind, the mind that creates distinctions and makes decisions. In this world, mountains and rivers need not block our way, in fact, we can even learn to enjoy the view. But ultimately mountains and rivers are neither obstacles nor mere scenery. They are real – they are the world we live in. As we navigate our way through this world, in these bodies, where there is so much pleasure and pain, ecstasy and despair, delusion and insight, we must ask why we do what we do? What, ultimately, are our lives about?

Even if it is true that all beings have Buddha-nature, if we do not ever find that Buddha-nature for ourselves, then what? If Buddha-nature is my own true nature, then to not know Buddha-nature means to never truly know who I am. The last line of the Sandokai is “I respectfully urge you who follow the mystery: do not pass your days and nights in vain.” What could this mean - to pass our days and nights in vain – other than to live without every waking up to who we really are? But why on earth would anyone choose to live one's entire life “in vain”? Why, indeed. The beauty of Joshu's teaching “it lets asses cross, it lets horses cross” is that he is saying it is up to each of us to decide this great matter. Moment to moment we make that choice. Do we see the simple log bridge, or the stone bridge? And who is it that sees the bridge? Is it an ass? A horse? And, regardless of how we see the bridge, or even who or what sees it, are we ready to take the next step? If so, please remember to watch your step.

["Watch your step" calligraphy from]

"separate, not separate"

do you remember the time we both got drunk
and we argued over James Brown's height?
and I shot your ass.
and I killed you.
why didn't you stop me?

and do you remember when we both fell in love with the same woman?
we went from loving each other
to hating each other
in the name of love.

and before that when we were both trees together in the same forest?
our roots touched.
we have been inseparable ever since.

and even before that when we were both part of the same bird?
you were the left wing and I was the right.
and that's when we decided it would be wonderful
to become Separate -
so we could be friends and touch each other.

and before that we were tongues of flame dancing together.
and before that we were waves on the ocean rolling over each other.
and before that we were particles of dust on opposite ends of the universe
hurtling away from each other.

and do you remember this morning, walking in the woods together?
you were even wearing my shoes.
and we listened to the birds sing and the wind sigh.
and we watched the springtime forest embrace and kiss
the mist covered lake?

[photo: "Two Trees of Whitefish Lake" by Jason F. Vick.]

"Everyone has a light"

"you crawled into my bed that night
like some sort of giant insect
and i found myself spellbound
at the sight of you there
beautiful and grotesque and all the rest of that bug stuff
bluffing your way into my mouth
behind my teeth, reaching for my scars
that night we got kicked out of two bars
and laughed our way home

that night you leaned over
and threw up into your hair
and i held you there thinking
i would offer you my pulse
if i thought it would be useful
i would give you my breath

the problem with death
is we have some hundred years and then they can build
buildings on our only bones.
a hundred years and then your
grave is not your own.
we lie in our beds and in our graves unable to save
ourselves from the quaint tragedies we invent,
and then undo from the stupid circumstances
we slalom through.

and I realized that night that the hall light which seemed so
bright when you turned it on
is nothing compared to the dawn,
which is nothing compared to the light which seeps from you
while you're sleeping cocooned in my room
beautiful and grotesque,
that night we got kicked out of two bars and laughed our way
home. And I held you there thinking, I thought
i would offer you my pulse.
i would give you my breath.
i would offer you my pulse.
i would give you my breath ..."
, Ani Difranco
[pic of Ani from here]

"What is this light?"

More than a thousand years ago, the Chinese Zen Master Ummon used to ask his students, “Everyone has a light – but if you look for it, you don't see it. What is this light?” For twenty years he posed this challenge, but no one was ever able to give a reply that he would accept. Finally one day Ummon declared, “if you asked me, I would say, 'the front gate, the kitchen pantry.'”

As obtuse as Ummon's answer might first appear, it is not difficult to provide an intellectual explanation. There is an old Chinese proverb that states “the family treasure does not come in through the front gate.” This might refer, on a mundane level, to what is sometimes called “old money”: a truly noble, aristocratic family is one whose wealth has not just recently come in “through the front gate” (that is, by commerce), but rather it is one whose wealth has been in the family generation after generation - preferably for so long that no one can recall there ever having been a time when this family was not rich and powerful. But this ancient proverb can also be interpreted in a more spiritual way, to point out that each of us has a “family treasure” - exceedingly, immeasurably precious – and that this treasure has always been ours and is not something that has been acquired by us. Anything that has been gotten can be lost – only that which we have always had from the beginning is our true “family treasure.”

This concept of “family treasure” figures prominently in an old story about two friends, Ganto and Seppo, who were once traveling together on a religious pilgrimage. Ganto appeared somewhat lax in his spiritual practice, at least to the casual observer. Seppo, on the other hand, was far more fervent, and spent every spare moment seated in meditation – his face grim with determination, his entire body humming with spiritual aspiration. Once during their travels, the two friends found themselves snowed in, and they took shelter at an inn by the side of the road. During their forced lay-over Ganto spent most of his time napping (and snoring loudly), while Seppo was constantly doing meditation – bolt upright in the full-lotus posture.

At one point Ganto awoke from his napping, and, while rubbing his eyes, asked his friend, playfully: “Just what do you think you are accomplishing – sitting there unmoving all day long looking like a statue at some road-side shrine?” Seppo was used to his friend's teasing – and besides he was so completely sincere in his practice that it never occurred to him to be in the least bit embarrassed by it. So Seppo answered innocently and ardently, “My mind is not at rest! That is why I must practice constantly!!” Ganto then asked gently whether or not all of his practice had yet given his mind any rest at all. Seppo started to answer, recounting some of his own “enlightenment experiences” over many years of practice, and also citing famous examples of great teachers who had experienced liberation through long years of meditation. But Ganto cut his friend off in mid-sentence and shouted, “Don't you know the family treasure does not come in through the front gate, it comes out of your own heart and covers all of heaven and earth!” At these words Seppo became greatly enlightened. Seppo would go on to become a great Zen Master, and was one of Ummon's teachers.

So, referring to things that come in “through the front gate” means anything that can be gotten, obtained, bought, stolen, taken, received, worked for, earned, begged or bargained for, etc – from someone or something other than yourself. Anything that I obtain in that way is not truly mine - at best, it is mine only for a while. The “light” that Ummon is referring to, on the other hand, is something that each of us has intrinsically.

But what about “the kitchen pantry”? This simply refers to anything that can be consumed or “used up” in any way. It could also refer to something that we store up, hold onto, cling to, horde, guard jealously, etc – that is, anything to which we become “attached”.

But can "this light" that everyone has be obtained in any way, can it be used up or diminished even slightly, can it be the source and object of our attachment, clinging, craving, and desire?

The light that Ummon is talking about shines everywhere – so there is nowhere that it is not shining already, and there is nothing, anywhere, that does not already have this light emitting from it. In particular, Ummon says everyone has this light, therefore it is not some special possession that only enlightened people have. Therefore the light is that which comes in through the front gate – and it is also the front gate itself. It is also that which we cling to, and it is the very clinging itself – as well as the one who clings.

[continued here]