from a talk given by Roshi Eve on December 2, 2022, in Rohatsu Sesshin
“A monk asked Chao Chou, ‘The Ultimate Path has no difficulties—just avoid picking and choosing—isn’t this a cliché for people of these times?’
Chou said, “Once someone asked me, and I really couldn’t explain for five years.’”
The monk is referring to one of the best-known poems in Zen literature, Faith in Mind, by Seng Ts’an, the Third Chinese Patriarch, which begins with the famous words: “The ultimate path has no difficulties, just avoid picking and choosing.” It was famous in those days, too, and the monk asks: “Hasn’t it become a cliché?”
We are constantly advised to practice deeply, but what does that exactly mean? How do I practice deeply?
One way of looking at it is that we practice with whatever arises. Practice with each single dharma, and the whole universe is there. It has to be because, in essence, nothing is divided. That’s what we mean when we say that reality is One. When you fully meet the moment, you’re fully meeting the entirety of life.
When do things become a cliché? If I let the moment go without attending to it. If I just write words without attending to them. I dislike cliches in writing because the message I seem to be getting from the writer is: I’m aware that every moment is new and unique, but right now I can’t be bothered to capture the uniqueness of the moment I’m describing so I rely on words used to describe past events.
Just because I don’t pay attention doesn’t mean things go away, how can they if everything is one? But delusion of some kind comes in due to that inattention. I decided, consciously or not, that some things are worth my attention, and some are not. In my mind I created division and fragmentation.
Sometimes we just want to get away from our lives. We want to leave, like people who leave sesshin in the middle. Many years ago, I did a year’s-end sesshin with Roshi Daien Bennage in Pennsylvania. One of the things I loved about Daien is that she returned to the US from Japan to take care of her mother, who lived next door. You didn’t see that modeled too often in Wester Zen at that time. But in the middle of that sesshin something happened to Daien’s mother, and she had to go to the hospital. Daien told us that she had to take care of her mother, so while she intended to continue the sesshin she wouldn’t be there much, and she asked us to stay and continue to sit.
I left. Why? I don’t know. I told myself that it made no sense to be there without Daien, got into my car and returned home, resolved to sit the rest of the sesshin at home. Perhaps I did, I can’t remember now. But why did I leave? What there didn’t feel comfortable, what there did I want to skip out on, escape from? That was my life I was leaving behind. I was picking and choosing, getting tangled and deluded.
To avoid picking and choosing, live in an undivided way. See your life as one undivided thing and live like that.
The verse to the koan reads:
“The Elephant King trumpets
The Lion roars.
Blocks off people’s mouths.
South, north, east, west--
The raven flies, the rabbit runs.”
Why don’t we live this undivided life with complete attention, not as some cliché but as something rich and original? Perhaps because of karma, our conditioning.
The koan above is from the Blue Cliff Record. The Transmission of the Lamp, which chronicles the transmissions of Buddhist teachers, often describes prophecies given about someone in the future who was going to become a great Buddha, or else of how one’s previous lives contributed towards enlightenment. I call that good karma. The Buddha’s Jataka Tales describe such good karma in which the Buddha offers his body to a hungry tigress or steps into flames to feed a beggar. His past lives result in good karma.
I used to read these stories and would envy those people who seem to have such little confusion in their lives, as if they knew almost from babyhood what their lives would be about. Of course, every life includes areas of confusion (the most fortunate of karma doesn’t obviate that). And karma is not something that happened in the past; every moment of our life, every decision we make, every single moment, is folded right into our never-ending karma.
The Transmission of the Lamp includes the story of Buddhamitra receiving his transmission from his teacher, Buddhanandi, as follows:
“Buddhanandi was going around teaching and came to a Vaisya house in the city in Daigya. Seeing a white light rising above the house, he said to his followers, ‘There must be a holy man in this house. No word escapes his mouth, so he must be a vessel of the Mahayana. His feet never tread the ground because he knows that touching it will only soil them. So he will be my successor.’ When he had finished speaking, an elder appeared, saluted him, and said, ‘What do you want?’ The Venerable replied, ‘I am seeking an attendant.’ The elder said, ‘I have only one son. He is now 50 years old and he has never spoken or walked.’ The Venerable said, ‘If it is as you say, truly, he will be my disciple.’”
Why choose someone who doesn’t speak or walk? Because so much of our speech and walk is focused on external things. We walk to get things we want. Our speech often includes comparing, gossiping, and judging, elevating ourselves at the expense of others. So much of what I say or do bolsters myself. How many times do you catch yourself recounting an event and adding a little extra something that lets people know how unselfish you were, how noble, how hard-working, those little somethings out of which we build a persona. So many of our steps and words are about that.Buddhamitra was aware of how so many of our words and actions come out of that self-centered place, and his solution was to shut up and stay in place.
I sympathize with him because at times I’ve watched myself act that way. So how does an enlightened being walk? How does an enlightened being talk? So many choose silence, but silence isn’t the answer. Paralysis or staying home isn’t the answer, not if you want to stay engaged in the world. And yet, it has sometimes felt in my life as if what I did and said came from smallness, from a contracted universe.
We say in our Renewal of Vows ceremony:
“May I always be free from the taints of ignorance and delusion;
I repent for all my thoughts, words, and deeds committed in ignorance or under delusion;
may they be extinguished at once and may they never rise again.”
At every moment we can let go of ignorance and delusion. In the midst of karma, in the midst of self-clinging arising from ignorance and delusion, there’s that instant of choosing to give complete attention to whatever arises or choosing to ignore it or push it away. How often do we choose to compare, judge, and comment on life, generating so much unnecessary mind activity that creates more divisions in an undivided world.
Picking and choosing junks up the mind, like a cluttered basement or attic. The practice of cleaning all that up is what we mean by emptying the mind. It’s what we mean by not-knowing. We sit in this sesshin because it’s easier to see how cluttering and decluttering happens while sitting still and living as simply as possible. When we do that, we experience each moment as new and different, unique and without precedence.
We say the Buddha’s enlightenment experience was so strong that it wiped away all divisions. He clung to nothing, and therefore could see everything. How do I experience this great undivided world? Be intimate with every single manifestation, every single dharma.
Nan Shepherd, writing her classic book on Scotland’s Cairngorms, looked down at a loch that was barely accessible and wrote:
“We are one. We belong to each other.
Choose to walk in your own footsteps.
Living as though the truth is true.”
[excerpted from a talk given by Dharma Holder Suzanne Shunryo Webber for Spring Sesshin, April 21, 2022.]
The word Sesshin is made of two idiograms, setsu, and shin. Sestu means to join, or to fix together. Shin means, mind. So we are sitting to fix the mind and body together. But what is mind? And what is body? We can think of these as our individual minds and bodies, and we can also get macro, and think of these on a universe scale. For some of us, that may take too much imagination, and for some of us that may seem obvious. Either way, both ways, are very good.
Setsu in Sesshin also means, to touch, connect, receive and transmit. How can something both transmit, and receive? Think of our friend Ari Pliskin. He goes by Ariel now. Bernie gave him the Dharma name, Setsudo. Setsu, to join or fix together, transmit and receive, touch, connect. And Do, the Way, the Path. You think of how Bernie and Setsudo were working together in those days, and you see what came of Setsudo’s dharma, the Stone Soup Cafe as it was established in Greenfield. A cafe where the boundaries of who is serving and who is being served disappear. Who is transmitting, who is receiving, we don’t say. There is just transmitting and receiving.
Sesshin is like this. We connect and fix body and mind in both the sense of our individual lives, our self, as we think of it, and in a slightly larger sense of connection to each other, and in a vast sense of open awareness with the whole world. We become one body and “harmonize” together, as Maezumi Roshi said, over the next few days. We transmit and receive and renew the bonds of our life. Maybe we come because we need to receive. We need solace, to feel stable, to have space to feel, connect to ourselves. This is a sanctuary. But what transmission is happening? Roshi Joan Sutherland says we can let the metaphysics take care of itself, and enter a world where everything can be medicine. If we don’t take ourselves too seriously, give of ourselves completely, and both miniaturize our individual ego and maximize our scope of intention, we can reach into the smallest atom and the largest space.
The functioning of this universe is surprising to our ordinary mind, but not to the enlightened mind of a Boddhisattva such as the layman Vimalakirti. For Vimalakirti, there are countless universes functioning at once, overlapping and co-arising. There is nothing obstructing anything, In fact. 32,000 great beings can easily fit into his 10 by 10 room and he can provide them all with large, comfortable chairs. He can shrink one whole enormous universe into a little ball and transfer it between fingertips to the palm of his other hand. Of what use can we, WE, make of these possibilities? There is no answer to that except the answer you make in your own life.
One of the ancestors I am studying now is Dongshan Liangjie (807-869, Jpn.: Tôzan Ryôkai). He studied with several teachers over many years. He explored and probed the co-arising of enlightenment, and he had a very soft sense of his own importance. Much later, after leaving his primary teachers, he became a prominent teacher in his own right. He wrote the 5 Ranks, which some of us studied last year, and also wrote the Song of the Jewel Mirror Awareness which we will chant on Saturday. He is considered the founder of the Caodong lineage of Chan, or Chinese Zen, which is what Dogen encountered and transmitted to Japan in the 13th century. We chanted his name this morning as one of our Soto ancestors.
Roshi has presented his koan that dealt with his questions about whether inanimate objects can expound the dharma. Can mountains and rivers expound the Dharma? Dongshan’s teacher Yunyan says, yes, but we cannot hear them. If we were in a mind awareness that could hear them, we would not be able to hear each other. Dogen takes this up again in his fascicle, Bendowa, which I often cite. I love it because it proclaims the whole world to be responding, reciprocating, alive and active, with our zazen awaking the mountains and streams, and their zazen awakening us. Collective awakening…..
Dongshan, before taking leave, asks his teacher, “Later on, if I am asked to describe your reality, how should I respond?” After a pause, Yunyan said, “Just this is it.” Then Yunyan cautions Donshan to investigate this carefully and throroughly. Dongshan becomes Dongshan when he sees his face reflected in a river. We become ourselves as we sit in sesshin. Our unique self which no one else will ever be, alive for a few years in this boundless universe of open awareness.
[From a talk given by Roshi Eve on November 9, 2021]
To study the way of enlightenment is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.
-From Genjo Koan by Eihei Dogen
I have been thinking about studying the self and forgetting the self most recently since reading Lewis Hyde’s Treatise on Forgetting. Hyde wrote that it’s hard to forget what you don’t remember. We may think that not paying attention to something will cause us to forget it. It won’t, because the natural process of forgetting takes place when something is so intimate, so organic, so a part of us, that we don’t pay attention to it anymore. It’s become part of our body, a little like driving. We start off being clumsy and worrying about every little turn, when’s the right moment to turn back the wheel, when to brake and when not, how to drive on snow and ice. But over time, that slowly stops and we do all those things without thinking about them, without remembering them.
So studying the self is important. Dogen could have skipped that step and said: To study the way of enlightenment is to forget the self, but he didn’t. We investigate who we are from the day we’re born and maybe till the day we die. This pinched nerve I have right now is a reminder to investigate the self: How do I sit? How do I walk? What happens when I slow down? When does the pain get better or worse? What can I learn about this to help the body? Each of these is an opportunity to study the self with openness and curiosity.
A few of you may remember when Byron Katie taught at the Montague Farm. She wasn’t well at the time and reported that she’d gotten up in the middle of the night and vomited badly into the toilet. It wasn’t fun, she said, but then she started paying attention to the phenomenon of food coming up her esophagus rather than down, up and out of her throat and mouth rather than the other way around, and found it interesting.
Situations where you’re uncomfortable are excellent for studying the self. I get emails criticizing what I say or do, accusing me of not following through on things. I have voices in my head saying I’m not so hot or I don’t know what I’m doing. See these as opportunities for studying the self. Investigate thoroughly what is this thing that I call failing, a headache, pinched nerve, getting wet.
But studying the self is forgetting the self. How do you forget? By being intimate. Not keeping it on the outside. The closer I get, the more it’s claimed and owned, the more naturally it will be forgotten. I was asked recently what I do with things that bring up dislike and antipathy. I replied that some I can just slough off, but those that stick I choose to see as my voices having an interesting conversation or argument among themselves. Different viewpoints that are all me.
We have so many layers of self-consciousness, defensiveness, and disparate voices. How do we forget all these?
One way is the sudden way, when they drop in one heap. Sometimes we refer to that as an enlightenment experience. But there’s also the slow sloughing off of layer after layer of self-attachment, and maybe that’s the approach of Soto Zen, with the example of going through the mist and ending up wet at the end. Regardless, when we shed one thin layer after another, we feel a difference. We’re lighter on our feet in meeting life challenges, we don’t freak out as often, don’t feel the need to react, escape, manipulate, or control. Anyone practicing for a while experiences this.
Each approach has a danger. Bernie at times voiced disappointment in the sudden way, saying that people who had those experiences often didn’t work to actualize them in their day-to-day life. But there’s a danger in the slow kind too, and that is that we fall in love with the process of how we’re doing: Look at what I learned today, look at what I saw from this interaction, look at how my consciousness has expanded. This is especially relevant in the context of our self-centered culture and how it has co-opted Buddhist practices.
In 1987 I was in the ICU of a Yonkers hospital and my teacher visited me. The steroids injected into my body brought on hallucinations of great joy and clarity and I proudly babbled on and on about them. He smiled and said nothing. Now when people tell me their stories of what they understand and see, I also smile. I want to tell them that it’s not about improving and expanding their self, it’s about dropping it. We need to study the self, and we need to forget it. We have our tales of spiritual warriorship, and we have to let those go.
I wrote about my early experiences bearing witness at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and heard others talk of their experiences. After some five years of this I asked a fellow staff member why he kept coming back and he said: “I never had any experiences here. I just come to support the retreat.”
Much of the time we don’t want to forget the self; we don’t want to let go of a certain sense of accomplishment. I feel we’re called to live a transparent, simple life, responding so spontaneously and naturally to what arises that we’re not even aware of any state of enlightenment.
Living this way, we reflect the light of Buddha nature that is already here and now; we’re not creating anything. We don’t have to be the light, we don’t have to be anything at all. When we do what needs to get done without embellishment and self-consciousness, the functioning of the universe shines through. That’s non-doing. That’s non-action. We take care of things simply and naturally, subtly reflecting the light of Buddhadharma.
[From a talk given by Roshi Eve in summer sesshin, August 21, 2021]
I love the dharma. I’ve watched lots of folks in dharma centers over the years. Almost all of us start our practice because we feel something lacking in ourselves or our lives. At first, we are choosy and skeptical: I like this but I don’t like that. You mean it’s like a religion with robes and service! You mean there’s hierarchy! And eventually, some of us just love it.
The dharma is my life, not because I teach it but because that’s the field I live in. And it’s always there for me. When I’m in trouble, the dharma’s there. When I’m uptight, the dharma’s there. When I feel ill at ease, the dharma’s there. My life changes, the dharma changes.
I met a man who told me that many years ago he decided that he didn’t want to do everything other people did, he was from the 60s, so he got into his car and traveled everywhere, met lots of people, did lots of things. I told him that I also didn’t want to do everything other folks did, so I sat. It cured my restlessness. It fits whatever age I am, whatever size I am right now, like clothes that change as my body changes. If my stomach protrudes, the dharma protrudes there. If something else gets smaller, the dharma gets more compact.
The Genjo Koan says that far better than I can: “Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water … Although its light is wide and great, the moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch wide.” Or in a lake, or in the mighty ocean. It doesn’t matter how big or small the life is, it “realizes the limitlessness of the moonlight in the sky.”
The dharma has been there for me in grief, in joy, in all the situations in my life, including now as I’m older. Vast is the robe of liberation, indeed.
Shunryo spoke about the preciousness of each other and what a difference it is when we practice together. The littlest thing—the way someone walks, the way s/he puts the plate with food on the table—affects us. We evoke conversation, faces, and intellect, but actually it’s those small things that are more meaningful to me than what our mind grabs on to.
In her talk, Sensei mentioned the successors to the Buddha and said: “Someone saw that they saw.” Mahakasyapa saw in that flower what I see when I’m in the zendo—how this person moves, how someone holds their head, how someone sits, how they lurch forward. Shakyamuni saw that he saw. The shine of the Buddhas is always there.
We often think that that shine of Buddhahood is the shine of perfection. I don’t see it that way. When I say that this is my dharma, I’m not referring to perfection but rather a flavoring. Everybody has their dharma—it’s your way of being in the world, your energy, your teaching. This includes many things. It includes trauma, abandonment, abuse, loss. It includes impatience, fear, and arrogance.
The Buddha left his family. Many people prefer to skip that part or make it nice, but it’s not nice. It’s not nice for a woman to be abandoned or a child to be left fatherless, it has ramifications. So our dharma comes out of everything, including the things that didn’t work out, not just those that did.
When people talk about Bernie, I have a hard time with the mythology-making because I know about some of the hard things he went through. I knew his shortcomings, which is a funny word. He came up short—but of what? Expectations? The way we think people should be? Regardless, things came through him, as they come through us. A man who had a hard time bearing witness to his own feelings, fears, and losses brought the words bearing witness to the big Buddhist world. The person who at times couldn’t bear witness to family encouraged people to go out and bear witness at Auschwitz and the Black Hills.
That’s not phony, that’s the mystery of life. We can transform our own losses, our own private griefs, and make them gifts to the world. That’s what creativity means to me. We take something that life gave us and we create something else with it, something that is a gift to others.
The Buddha chose the Middle Way. Other teachers encouraged him to transcend everything through tough ascetic practices. When he accepted milk and rice from Sujata it’s as if he accepted his own humanness. There’s a reality that is not-me, which was what he pursued all those years, but I am also me, an individual, a separate thing of my own. He finally rested in both; both became his dharma. His being an orphan was that dharma, his leaving his family (which is what his mother did to him with her death) was his dharma. Our choosing not to leave our families is our dharma.
The ceremony of precepts—both to acknowledge a lay preceptor and a new Buddha—capture what it is to stand in both realms. There is my day-to-day world, the one I usually inhabit in which I’m the center and everything serves me. This reality is born and destroyed out of my personal needs and projections, and I believe that’s true for all of us no matter how idealistic or unselfish we think we are.
And there’s another reality, one that has nothing to do with me. That’s the world of not-Eve, everything that’s other than Eve. Who or what is that? Now we enter the world of not-knowing. The Middle Way tells us to stand in both. We take refuge and we receive the precepts. We need precepts to negotiate my way through the reality of Eve. At the same time, I take refuge in not-Eve.
When I receive the precepts, I am following the Buddha Way, which is the Middle Way that honors who and what I am as Eve, as this being known to me and others in a particular way, by consensus reality. I inhabit a world I created with my needs, my self-centeredness and conditioning. There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s simply what it is to be human. But I also know that I am something else, not-Eve, a reality that is not born and not destroyed. In receiving precepts I acknowledge that I’m ready to engage in the life of exploration and changing consciousness all the time. It’s an acceptance of who we are as beings, and also an acceptance of who we are as non-beings, as not-Shunryo, not-Athena. Maybe that’s why we also get new names.
Transmission of precepts reflects that readiness to dance. We don’t get it by looking and examining, by reading and analyzing, but by being. Suchness bridges these realms. It means we have to relinquish ever coming to the one great final answer that puts an end to doubts and skepticism. Even if we’ve had a great experience of awakening, then starts the journey of actualizing that day by day, minute by minute.
An infinite journey.
[From a Talk by Roshi Eve Myonen Marko, March 9, 2021]
We’re in the middle of our study of vows. We’ve done two workshops on the process of taking personal vows, but in these talks we are looking into the taking of Buddhist vows, among which are the Four Bodhisattva Vows. This evening we’ll look into the last vow, The enlightened way is unsurpassable; I vow to embody it.
What is the enlightened way, or the Buddha way? Bernie constantly asked that question after his big stroke. I remember talking to him about this at the rehab hospital where I’d visit him day by day for 6 weeks, and he recounted to me that a long-time Zen practitioner had been with him that day. She had asked him a question, he’d given her answer, and her reply was: “What has this got to do with the Buddha way?”
His response to her was: “Was is the Buddha way?”
I remember the look in his eyes. He was so surprised that she could put it in this way, as if the Buddha way was clear to her and now she just needed to connect it with something else. “I had to ask her what she meant by Buddha way,” he told me. “And what did she say?” I asked. “She didn’t know,” he said.
That was the first of a series of basic questions that he started asking once he got home. What is the Buddha way? What is Buddha? What is practice? What is Zen? In all the years I knew him, if there was one thing he disliked it was when people talked about things—including Zen—as if they knew, as if they had it all figured out. But after his stroke this questioning became more basic, almost as if someone had wiped out his memory of all he’d learned, practiced, and done, and he was starting from scratch.
In our public schmoozes on Thursday nights, he’d ask these questions again and again. Now that things had gotten slower for him, he could learn them anew just like he learned to walk again (with a cane), lift his right hand just a little, eat on his own. Nothing was automatic anymore, everything was new and fresh, and this was the Buddha way for him. He genuinely wondered at those for whom it wasn’t new and fresh. He never answered his own questions, he just repeated them aloud almost every day, as if he was rediscovering this Buddha way today, and was going to rediscover it again the next day, and the next.
I vow to embody it. Some sanghas say: I vow to attain it. Both have their own place and function.
There’s the long arc of our life story. The chapter Life Span of the Thus Come One in the Lotus Sutra begins with the words: “Since I attained Buddhahood many eons have passed.” Many Buddhists believe that Shakyamuni lived and practiced for many lifetimes before his enlightenment experience, and he says that eons passed between that experience and his expounding of the Lotus Sutra. China’s Sixth Patriarch, Ta-chien Hui-Neng, milled rice for eight months before his teacher, Ta-man Hung-jen, came to check him out and asked if the rice was white yet. Hui-Neng answered, “It’s white, but it hasn’t been sifted yet.”
Practice as a function of time is implied here, including progress and attainment. We practice till awakening and we practice afterwards. The process of integration takes lifetimes.
In the chapter in the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha says that his death is illusory, and when people are really suffering and they pray to him and ask for guidance, he is always back teaching in Vulture Peak with his monks. This passage had a deep impact on me even as I couldn’t make sense of it.
It started making sense after Maezumi Roshi died, and certainly after Bernie died. The two may have shifted form, but the energy that was released with that passage was explosive. I continue to be astonished, in Bernie’s case, by how many people evoke him and his story who never knew him, never met him. I realize that when he lost his form as a living human being, he became an icon for dharma-based social action, radical inclusiveness, and deep compassion. And I think to myself that the Buddha was right, that right there in Vulture Peak—or in Yonkers, or in Montague—the Buddha is still giving teachings.
What do we do when we’re in trouble, when we’re suffering? We reach for the Buddha. We reach out to a book, to a person, maybe to a teaching given on Zoom or a podcast, workshop or retreat. We look to people who’ve attained for guidance and inspiration. All of that is very important.
Embody points to something else, to down-to-earth, daily life. It points to the fact that it doesn’t really matter where you are in the arc of attaining Buddhahood. Whether you’ve attained big or small kenshos, there will continue to be blind spots for all of us, places of confusion and deep attachment. But boundless reality is here and right now. Every moment invites me to come out of my head and embody life fully.
Over the long haul we have a long view. We make up a story about whether we attained Buddhahood or not—how we didn’t or why. But moment by moment, we don’t have a clue about that; we can even surprise ourselves. Think of people who jumped on train tracks in the path of an oncoming train to help a stranger who’d fallen. They didn’t plan to do this, they just did it. The moments of our life don’t have to fit a long narrative, they’re diamonds all by themselves.
So what is the enlightened way, Bernie used to ask again and again. What is it? Is it a story of the greatness of a few people, or does it point to something more mundane, something all of us can embody all the time? It’s unsurpassable. It can’t be exceeded or transcended, it has nothing to do with life and death. It causes ripples and ripples and ripples with no end.
These vows are infinite. Human beings, our delusions and our embodiment of everyday life—all are infinite. Made of stars, we have elements in us that go back to the Big Bang. We are infinity itself; that is why we take these vows.
[From a talk given by Roshi Eve Myonen Marko on December 5, 2020]
Good morning, everyone. At this time of year we usually do an enlightenment retreat for several days. I was told by my teacher that during a Rohatsu retreat we copy Shakyamuni Buddha as much as possible, which means no talks, no face-to-face or liturgy, just zazen. But here I am, talking anyway. Tuesday is the 8th, and it’s customary to sit the entire night of the 7th. I never did that, because I’m such a sleepy-head, but I recently talked to another teacher who did this often and told me he’d done some thirty Rohatsu retreats over a lifetime.
This year we’re doing just one day, with a talk on the 8th by Sensei. But even this one day on Zoom is a great privilege. It often implies that you don’t have small children around or that you have a supportive partner who takes care of them if you do, that you have some leisure time, and that you have a big enough house that you can close off a room for an entire day. Which in turn means that you’re probably older and a little prosperous, not squeezed in with lots of folks in a small and noisy apartment.
There are two somewhat countervailing energies here: There’s a wish for practice to be realized smack in the middle of our lives, present and conscious every moment. But there’s also the need, every once in a while, to step away from that hustle and bustle and re-member the essence of the practice, which isn’t just seated zazen but also reconnecting every aspect of life, every aspect of me, bringing it together into 30 minutes of evenness, of an equanimous attitude that no matter what--Oh, it’s snowing! Oh, the birds are out! Oh, the dishwasher is leaking again! Oh, there wasn’t hot water for a shower this morning!--we sit with everything. The most direct way of maintaining such evenness is through zazen.
In honor of the Buddha’s enlightenment I’ve chosen to talk on a koan from the Denkoroku, The Record of Transmitting the Light, koans related to transmission:
“The third patriarch was Sanavasa. He asked Ananda, ‘What kind of thing is the original unborn nature of all things?’ Ananda pointed to a corner of Sanavasa’s robe. Again, he asked, ‘What kind of thing is the original nature of the Buddhas’ awakening?’ Ananda then grasped a corner of Sanavasa’s robe and pulled it. At that time, Sanavasa was greatly awakened. “
Zen Master Keizan relates some of Sanavasa’s circumstances: “The master was a man of Mathura. In India, he was called Sanaka [-vasa], which here [In Japan] means ‘natural clothing.’ Sanavasa was born wearing clothes and, later, the clothes became cool in summer and warm in winter … When he was a merchant long ago [in previous lifetimes] he presented 100 lengths of woolen cloth to 100 Buddhas. Since then, [as a result of his acts,] he wore this natural clothing over many lifetimes.”
What is your natural clothing? Is it just Buddhist clothing? Next spring Myokan, Eika, and Soko will change their lay clothing for priest clothing. Many of us lay people wear rakusus. There are some Buddhists even here in the US who wear their Buddhist clothing wherever they go, not just in zendos or Zen centers. By the same token, there are some who never wear them at all.
Each of us has a sense of what is natural to us. For me in New England during winter, it’s jeans and a sweater. A friend in California always wears a jalabiya. When I go to Jerusalem I find myself too casually dressed for that city and when people look at me askance, I have to explain that this is my natural clothing.
Sanavasa was born with his natural clothing; all of us are. But we forget how to feel comfortable in our individual skin. We get pushed and pulled, told what’s fashionable and what’s not, we try on lots of things, read magazines, see what others wear, look at shop windows and buy things, some of which we keep and some of which we don’t. We lose the sense of our natural clothing.
A long time ago I got it into my head that I should always wear Ferragamo shoes. I don’t remember how or why, only that if I wanted to be well-dressed I should always wear Italian shoes and they should be Ferragamos. Of course, since I didn’t make a lot of money I had to look out for Ferragamo shoes on sale, so that became a project by itself.
Why did I need to do that? Who was I trying to impress? Why did I need to add things to what I already had?
He asks his teacher: “What kind of thing is the original unborn nature of all things?” Like our natural clothing, we are born with that nature, too; we are that nature. So Ananda pointed to Sanavasa’s robe, which is of the same color as mountains and rivers, the color of water and air, the color of everything.
Sanavasa’s next question was: “What kind of thing is the original nature of the Buddhas’ awakening?” If we all have our natural clothing, who needs a robe? In fact, why do we need Buddhas? Why do we need to awaken? We say that something is here that everyone already has or is, so why start a new religion? Why start an order or a lineage, with texts and koans and liturgy and rules? Why bother sewing a robe?
“Ananda then grasped a corner of Sanavasa’s robe and pulled it.” He tugged it. We are being tugged right now, that’s why we’re here: Come on! Come on!
The last koan in the Book of Equanimity reads: “Attention! A monk asked Kaku Osho of Roya, ‘If the original state is clean and pure, then why suddenly do rivers, mountains, and the great earth arise?’”
We’re being tugged, we feel the beckoning. There are many who feel no such thing, or feel beckoned to other things. They don’t put aside a day or days for sitting. They don’t make vows. They’re fine; they’re in their natural clothing. They may or may not feel comfortable in their skin, that’s an entirely different question.
Some of us are pulled to sit, to find our original home, the unborn nature of all things, the person of no rank. We have our karma. In some cases it may be past generational suffering that pulls at us, or else just a stubborn streak. Events work on us, as if someone pulls on our clothes and says: Come on. And we come. We want to fully realize and embody what is already here.
The circumstances are different from Sanavasa’s and Ananda’s, the pull may be different, but in a basic sense we are no different from them. “Do not get blocked by feelings about past and present, and do not get attached to sounds and forms. Do not spend your days and nights in vain.”
Different karmas cause this tugging, but what we’re realizing is no different from what Indian sages living long ago realized and embodied. In the middle of a time that seems unrecognizable from the time of the Buddha, in the time of covid, in the time of havoc and loss, we do what they did and ask the same questions: What is the nature of this? And since it’s this, what is the nature of this awakening?
We did a Renewal of Vows ceremony last Tuesday. During that ceremony, the officiant, Sensei Sonen, asked people to share situations from their lives in which they had not conducted themselves in the spirit of the precepts. This parallels what the ancient Buddhist sanghas did in their semimonthly gatherings on nights of the Full Moon and New Moon. I discovered that it was easier to share in this way when we did the ceremony in the zendo than on Zoom.
I shared a reaction I had to a man who wanted to meet me as a friend, but just in case I had other plans he emailed to say he was not up for anything else. I hadn’t thought in that direction and reacted quickly. Reflecting deeply about it later on, I realized how his words grated on me in a very raw and vulnerable place, arousing fears of dependency and isolation.
The philosopher Martha Nussbaum, commenting on the human condition of the ethical life, wrote: “[I]t is based on a trust in the uncertain and on a willingness to be exposed; it’s based on being more like a plant than like a jewel, something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from its fragility.”
Basically, what all precepts are about is how not to feel separate. When we talk about how we’ve misbehaved, we are highlighting those ways in which we have felt separate and behaved accordingly. Sometimes it’s simple, sometimes it’s subtle. Precepts practice shows me how often I define myself in relation to others or to external life. Defining myself in that way comes out of a sense of separation. Even getting up in the morning with the devout wish: I want to do good for others is itself a way of defining myself as separate, because there’s the I and the others. No matter how idealistic or generous that is, it’s the expression of a small mind.
Kosho Uchiyama Roshi wrote: “People think of their I as something that is determined from the outside, something which is balanced against other people and things.” He quotes Rousseau: “Any man, whether he’s a king, or a noble, or a millionaire, is born naked and poor, and when he dies, he must die naked and poor.” Then he adds that throughout our lives we are wearing certain clothes that function as our identifications: a smart woman, a man who provides for his family, devoted, childlike, giving myself to others. These identifications are like clothes that we put on and create an I from. They weren’t there in the beginning, and they won’t be there at the end. “To rely on others is to be uneasy. The abode of the self is only the self.”
Each time we look deeply into a precept it’s like a doorway, an invite to take off clothes of separation and be unclothed and exposed. It’s not just reflecting on what I did or unraveling my motivations, it goes way deeper than that.
Some people, in talking about a failure to align their behavior with a particular precept, often end their sharing with words like these: “Now I see that . . .” and add what they have learned. I’m suspicious of conclusions. An inquiry into who am I, which is the practice of precepts, is an everlasting question: What does it feel like with fewer and fewer clothes, resting only in the self and nowhere else?
Zazen helps us realize the reality of our life unrelated to what else happens in the world. Sometimes when I sit, I’m tempted to reflect on the latest headlines, think about the day, or strategize about the future. I’m still clinging to those outside relationships. Zazen says no, that’s not what I should fill my consciousness with, that’s not zazen.
One morning I sat as I usually do. At the end I got up and blew out the candle, and suddenly realized that this whole world is blowing out the candle and the candle is this whole world. That feeling continued for a while, not forever, but at that time there was just the whole world and everything was worth doing. Thinking about this later on, I realized how much I usually put myself in a separate dynamic from the world: Should I write more, maybe not, should I call this friend, what do I do with my hair, what do I do with my dog Harry, with the house, what’s the next step with Zen Peacemaker Order? When I do those actions as the whole world, everything is fine. Often, however, they serve to separate me from the world, enmeshing me in the world of I. I think we all experience the difference.
It reminds me of my outing with my dog, Aussie, in the Montague Conservancy. She met a pit bull and they played, flowed, and had a good time, till suddenly the pit bull seemed to remember who he was and tried to dominate her. There was a dog fight and the pit bull’s owner said regretfully, “That’s his nature.” That may be true, I thought, but is that our nature? Is it inevitably our nature to define ourselves solely as some subject or object in this world?
What are my hidden agendas for practice? Sometimes we want to get rid of bad qualities such as greed or fear. If we harm others, we should apologize. But often we apologize when we didn’t harm anyone; we seem to apologize just for being who we are. At that time the person we damage is ourselves. It’s as if there’s an ideal enlightened practitioner out there who never feels fear, never feels rejected, never feels lonely or isolated, never feels scared, and I’m not that person. Therefore, I’m not it.
We all have karma, we all have fear of things that affected us, so there’s a good reason for why I feel rejected or unacknowledged. Part of integration for me is: This is who I am at this moment. I respect that process. I respect that a chain of events brought me to this moment, and I am enlightened as I am—like Hyakujo’s fox.
As you remember, in that koan a Zen master gave the wrong answer to a question about whether an enlightened person is subject to karma and is reborn as a fox—a terrible fate—for 500 lifetimes. He gets to ask the same question of Hyakujo, who gives a different answer, and that ends the old man’s ordeal.
The old man gave the wrong answer—and that’s not the point. The koan isn’t about what was the right answer, the koan is this: OK, so you gave a wrong answer to a question many years ago and you were punished out of all proportion for it—so how do you live? It’s like saying that something terrible happened to me long ago, I couldn’t possibly have deserved it, I was a child, what did I know when I upset my father, did he have to beat me up for that? Did he have to abuse me? What could I have done better? It’s never about better or worse. You answer the koan by being the fox, being the person with that karma, fully being what you are right now.
We weave big stories around our karma. They make for great literature but not necessarily great practice. See the difference between a lived and fully embodied life, and your story about it. Live that life unconditionally. We don’t have to apologize for our lives. Apologize if you hurt someone, but don’t apologize for your life.
[From a talk given by Roshi Eve Myonen Marko on March 28, 2020]
Zen is known for its practice of giving no fear. The Heart Sutra, which we recite often, says:
“No gain -- thus Bodhisattvas live this Prajna Paramita
With no hindrance of mind.
No hindrance, therefore no fear.
Far beyond all such delusion, Nirvana is already here.”
I also like the translation that Roshi Joan Halifax uses:
“Being free of attainment,
those who help all to awaken
abide in the realization of wisdom beyond wisdom
and live with an unhindered mind.
Without hindrance, the mind has no fear.
Free from confusion,
those who lead all to emancipation
embody complete serenity.”
An unhindered mind, or no hindrance of mind. What hindrance is that?
There’s a koan in our Book of Householder Koans entitled “Jimmie: Breakfast:
A homeless man asks his friend, ‘Do you think we will ever work our way out of this?
His friend replies, ‘Breakfast’s at First Church today.’”
The Reflection asks: “How do we cut through abstraction”? Zen is known for being very practical. Instead of getting into your head about whether things will change, how, and why, do something: Get breakfast at First Church today. Bernie especially loved to spring into action. His response to the koan of being human was usually to take action. If you realize the One Body, you’ll take care of that One Body as you take care of your own, you’ll do something.
Some years ago we visited with Robert Aitken Roshi in Big Island, Hawaii. Aitken Roshi talked about some disagreements he had with certain teachers concerning koan practice. At some point he said: “Here’s a koan: Say you’re sitting on the train and next to you is a young woman and a man is threatening her. What’s the answer?” He and Bernie continued talking and finally we left.
In the car Bernie asked me: “So what’s the answer to that koan? What’s the first thing that comes up?” “Her terror and fear,” I said. “I’d feel that right away.” He said: “I’d get up and bust him.”
He was my teacher, so I was sure his answer was right and mine was wrong. But years later I see things a little differently.
At a recent meeting of old-time members of the Zen Peacemaker Order, one teacher, Roshi Ken Byalin, reminded us of the importance of face-to-face teaching and transmission. What is this thing called face-to-face? Following Roshi Egyoku Nakao’s example, I call interviews with teachers face-to-face. But when we do face-to-face it’s not just with a teacher; the teacher’s role is to help you come fully face-to-face with your life.
Why do we need help being face-to-face with life and death? And what is abstraction? Is fear an abstraction? Vulnerability? We are so tempted, so conditioned, not to go there.
Dogen says: “The action of buddha takes place in unison with the whole earth and takes place together with all living beings. If it does not include all, it is never the action of buddha . . . Just understand that birth-and-death is itself nirvana. There is nothing such as birth-and-death to be avoided, there is nothing such as nirvana to be sought. Only when you realize this are you free from birth-and-death.”
We say again and again that our practice is birth-and-death, it’s something we know cognitively; it’s a whole other experience when it feels like a punch in the gut. And that’s what we’re facing now. Even those of us who don’t worry about getting sick worry about the ramifications for job, money, home, our family, our friends, the basic relationships and structures that we care about. What will happen?
We look over our finances and worry about income that won’t come in. We feel fragile, and in some way this fragility is a lot more real than how we felt before, when we lived in the delusion that we were masters of the universe, solid, smart, at the top of the evolutionary chain. In this age of coronavirus, we see that is not the case. We see how much we depend on others, how much they depend on us. This fragility that we feel, born out of our interdependence, is very real.
I think of every time a large black bear comes into our back yard to gulp down the birdseed and I’m reminded that I may not be on top of the food chain. I watch it run, I watch it climb up and over the fence, the next morning I see 10 yards of fencing that it bent down and reflect on its strength. And I feel vulnerable.
Enter a coronavirus that doesn’t meet scientists’ criteria for being a fully realized life form, and it devastates these same humans that consider themselves the highest form of evolution. For the first time I feel my humbler, true proportions, just one pearl in Indra’s infinite net of pearls. That is life and death, realizing how porous we really are, how porous the boundary is between life and death. How infinitely fragile.
Dogen’s practice of life and death is this very apprehension, this very vulnerability. When we say we’re interdependent, there’s no real self to protect here, things are constantly changing. Maezumi Roshi, quoting Dogen, wrote: “Dogen Zenji also said, ‘When the Budda is within birth and death, there is neither birth nor death.’” He went on. “This is a wonderful koan. If there is no birth, no death, then what exists? Answer me. What exists? Just buddha.”
Death is the existential basis for all our fear, realizing our lack of solid, independent self. Watch the resistance to experiencing that. We get busy, become addicted to the news, maybe eat or sleep a lot, we each have our patterns--just not to feel the tenuousness of self-based, individual existence.
These patterns of resistance is what I call abstraction, or confusion. Even the feeling--OMG, what’s happening in the world!—even that is an abstraction. It’s not saying: What do I fear? What do I worry about? Can I feel it in my body in my belly, in my mouth? Can I go beyond concepts? When we do, we are practicing with life and death.
My basic form of escape is being busy, so I have to remind myself: Settle down. We’re told this is the time to go inwards, but we’re afraid, because what will we find if we go there? For now, facing your fear, your pain, your vulnerability is the practice. Watching the forms of resistance that come up—that’s all practice.
I see this Time of the Virus as a gap. Our routine life patterns reinforce our beliefs and usual ways of thinking, but when a gap occurs we can’t take anything for granted, things aren’t normal anymore. These gaps are wonderful. It’s like stretching out the instant between the end of exhalation and the beginning of inhalation: What now? Will I inhale again? Will I die? What happens now?
I mentioned this to a friend of mine on the phone yesterday, and he emailed me a short while later: Good gappin’ with you. Please practice in this gap. This so-called gap is our real life. It’s raw, it’s terrifying, and it’s exciting; we’re confronting something we can no longer run away from or resist, this practice of life and death.
[From a talk given by Roshi Eve in Rohatsu Sesshin, December 6, 2019]
As the officer Luu Hsuan was talking with Nan Ch’uan, he said, “Master of the Teachings Chao
said, ‘Heaven, earth, and I have the same root; myriad things and I are one body.’ This is quite
Nan Ch’uan pointed to a flower in the garden. He called to the officer and said, “People these days
see this flower as a dream.”
My first sense of Rohatsu Sesshin came from reading Philip Kapleau’s Seven Pillars of Zen. He described doing sesshin in a freezing zendo, some people even sitting outside, doing zazen for many hours through the night in order to awaken. I was looking forward to doing such sesshins when I joined the Zen Community of New York, only we couldn’t do them once the Greyston Bakery started because December is the most important income-producing month for bakeries and we couldn’t afford to close and sit. What did that say about our practice of awakening?
If you are lucky enough to sit over a period of many years, you see how much has changed in your practice and the practice of your sangha. Here we are now, two days before Buddha’s Enlightenment Day. What are we awakening to? What did the Buddha awaken to?
Luu Hsuan, quoting Chao, gave an answer: “Heaven, earth, and I have the same root; myriad things and I are one body.” Often, we say that it’s awakening to the oneness of life. But Nan Ch’uan pointed to a flower and said in response, “People these days see this flower as a dream.”
The Pointer to the koan begins: “Cease and desist; then an iron tree blooms with flowers.” Our habitual thought patterns and ideas won’t come up with an iron tree that blooms with flowers. Where will such a tree come from? What will give it life? Cease and desist!
When we don’t cease and desist, when we are trapped in the same old dogma, the same old words—oneness of life, no separation, the realm of emptiness--then we might be seeing a flower as a dream. The notes to Luu Hsuan’s quote of Chao say: ”He’s making a living in a ghost cave. A picture of a cake cannot satisfy hunger. This is also haggling in the weeds.” Another adds: “The scriptures have teachers of scriptures, the treatises have teachers of treatises; it’s no business of a patchrobed monk.” Or a householder practitioner, for that matter. Another says: “Don’t talk in your sleep.”
But Shakyamuni pointed at a flower. The very first transmission happened in this way. He held up a flower at Mount Grdhrakuta and Mahakasho smiled, at which point Shakyamuni announced that he is handing the true Dharma, which does not rely on letters or scriptures, to Mahakasho. Was that, too, a dream? Was it the dream of Chan masters who retroactively dreamed all this about transmission to justify their Confucian sense of lineage?
What is our dream concerning transmission? Concerning enlightenment?
The New York Zen teacher Barry Magid wrote: “Awakening is the progressive-or sudden-loss of one fantasy after another (including) of ‘awakening’-until one is left with one’s ordinary mind, just as it is, with no self-centered project of becoming more or other than who one is in the moment.” And my friend, Zen teacher Myotai Treace, added to those words: “The next fantasy will always arrive, it’s how the mind works, and we meet it, acknowledge it, and let it go. That’s the aspect of ceaseless practice.”
What is our fantasy about awakening? One day I will have an experience and I will never see myself as separate again from anything. Then I will finally and forevermore be free.
In old Indian culture the way to do that was to leave family relationships and roles, leave the clan. Our culture is quite different. It tells you to go and live your life. It tells you to build your life brick by brick, travel far and wide, realize your gifts and ambitions. It emphasizes individuality and personal destiny.
It takes a while to see the insidious influence of that on practice: the desire to shine, to be the best, become the leader, come to some insight and have an experience that no one else has. It’s what the writer Robert MacFarlane refers to as “jewels of personal epiphany.”
In dharma transmission there is nothing to receive. As Shibayama says in his notes, “the experience of the teacher and that of his disciple are in complete accord with each other.” You live your life, you have insights, you present them over many years to your teacher, who may just nod, shake her head, ring you out of the room, join you for tea or a walk, or point to a flower.
How do these experiences or insights arise? Usually not in the zendo, but in our day-to-day life. In working with our householder koans. Each situation invites you to a journey, cautioning you to leave your castle of story, sentiment, and nostalgia and plunge into your life as it is. Give up that fantasy of the once-in-a-lifetime experience that takes care of everything.
I have had my own householder koan for the past month. When I think of this person or situation, I feel a hardness in my heart and body. So, I plunge into hardness. Sometimes there is suffering; often we need lots of patience. But each such experience becomes a portal to our own innate wisdom.
In order to work with our daily koans, we have to sit. We have to rest in not-knowing and express unbounded mind. Otherwise, as Myotai Treace writes, our life song becomes abstract. When I have asthma, life seems to fade around me and everything becomes muted and distant, like it’s coming from two valleys away. That’s what life starts feeling like when we don’t sit.
Please, let’s continue to practice together. Have confidence, plunge into your journey with an unbounded mind. Don’t talk in your sleep.
Roshi Eve Myonen Marko is a Founding Teacher of the Zen Peacemaker Order and the Green River Zen Center.