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.