The theme of this winter intensive is not-knowing, and the way we’ve practiced it is sharing personal koans from our lives. To what goal? What have we been doing here?
I’m reminded of the first bearing witness retreat at Auschwitz in 1996. Every evening 150 of us would get together in a big group. One evening Claude Anshin Thomas stood up to speak. Claude is a Vietnam veteran who killed many people during that war. After coming home and going through a period of drugs, instability and homelessness, he started meditating with Thich Nhat Hanh, ordained as a Zen Peacemaker Priest, and has been out working in the world, especially with war veterans. That evening Claude said that while most people seemed to identify with the suffering of the victims, he was trying to bear witness to the guards, looking up at the guard towers where they stood aiming their big guns at the people at the Selection Site. He added that while we may feel very different from them, we’re not, and that if the circumstances and situation warrant it, any of us could be a guard at Auschwitz doing those things.
At the end of the evening a friend of ours, a German man and a social activist, approached, very upset. He didn’t think that such general statements weren’t right or fair; more to the point, he felt that no matter what happened, how things evolved, he could never do what those guards did in that camp.
What this exchange highlights for me is how hard it is for us to grasp what is meant by the words we are everything or we are empty. In my opinion, we are everything because we are empty. There is no I or me to which things happen and which make me change. There are no external experiences that are gained or lost, everything is one thing. Animals seem to feel more at ease with that, while we have a mind that postulates an artificial I that is separate from everything else, especially from a life that we can’t control, so what inevitably follows are feelings of wrongness, insecurity, and lack.
Tara Brach has pointed out that this is probably what Shakyamuni meant when he said that life is suffering. That separate I contemplates life as something external to it and a force it can’t control, so feelings of alienation and isolation are inevitable and we react with anger, depression, frustration, and envy. I would also add that since our brain is a machine that thinks dualistically, that means there is no A without B, nothing without its opposite. A strong arm inevitably comes with a weak arm, health comes with illness, cleanliness with dirt, life with death. There is no up without down. Do you realize what anxiety that could provoke?
Barry Magid said of the Mu Koan that Mu is a negation of opposites. In some way that’s what koan study is about, for koan study dissolves boundaries and collapses everything into this, now. It’s never about commenting or discussing, but becoming this, now.
That is why when we work with all the different situations in our lives, we try to become every single voice in that situation, including voices that we experience as angry, threatening and very painful, such as: You’re no good, your art (or writing or music) is terrible, what a loser you are, you made bad choices in the past and your life is a dead end, etc. There is no me that is separate from that voice, but neither does that voice characterize me. I am many voices--I could have been a guard at Auschwitz, I’d never have been a guard at Auschwitz—that come up in different circumstances. While our brain may say that one voice conflicts with another, our practice is to experience that no voice is right or wrong, no voice comes at the expense of the other, they all co-exist simultaneously as me.
Can I listen to all these voices without trying to escape? Can I find ease as each comes up and then glides away without identifying with one or the other?