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.