The dharma, incomparably profound and infinitely subtle,
Is always encountered but rarely perceived.
Now we see it, hear it, receive and maintain it.
May we completely realize the Tathagata’s true meaning.
A few of you may remember that we used to chant this verse as it’s chanted in most Zen centers:
The dharma, incomparably profound and infinitely subtle,
Is rarely encountered even in millions of ages.
Bernie had joined us to give a talk at the end of the one-day. We chanted the verse as we usually did, and when we finished he looked at me and laughed. “No,” he said, “the dharma isn’t rarely encountered even in millions of ages. It’s there all the time, only we rarely perceive it.”
After that, we chanted it as we do now: The dharma is always encountered but rarely perceived. It’s not some hidden treasure that, once in a billion kalpas, is finally found; it’s life as it is, day in, day out, right in front of our faces. And probably for that reason, it’s rarely perceived.
That moment stays with me now. Bernie had been “doing Zen” for decades, always alert and curious, and one day it hits him that this verse that he’d been chanting since the late 60’s wasn’t his understanding of the dharma or of this practice. It happens to all of us. One day you find yourself saying something you’ve said a million times, and suddenly you stop in your tracks: Wait a minute! That’s not right. That’s not how I see it now.
That moment of insight is very important.
Huang Po, instructing the community, said, “All of you people are gobblers of dregs; if you go on travelling around this way, where will you have Today? Do you know that there are no teachers of Chan in all of China?”
At that time a monk came forward and said, “Then what about those in various places who order followers and lead communities?”
Huang Po said, “I do not say that there is no Chan; it’s just that there are no teachers.”
What do you mean when you say that there are no teachers? We’re sitting today in a one-day retreat. Fleet and I sit closest to the altar, we give talks, but what are we really doing?
Basically, there’s nothing to depend on. You can’t depend on a book, a teacher, the way things were once done. So what do you depend on? What do I depend on?
That’s a lifelong question because we usually depend on something to feel alive, to feel valuable and real. Is it work? Is it having a companion or relationship? Is it being paid a certain amount or living in a particular house or place? Is it other people’s approval?
A friend of mine wrote me about her life as a widow over the past 13 years, and particularly about what it is to belong, to use the pronoun we: “Our need to belong is so fundamental, basic and essential. The WE offers a false sense of protection and togetherness. It’s tribal and was essential to our survival from the beginning of time. To ‘belong’ to another person offers us respite from the agony of being alone as a way of life. The constructs of the mind tend to rush to create new connections, new ‘buildings’ for belonging, so vital for our search to finding a place, a position, in life. I envy the people that belong to a group, a country, a culture. I also do everything to escape it.”
As it did for me, as it did for my friend, life finally strips off these things, and you look at the mirror and say: What do I depend on now?
Sometimes, in search of a meaningful life, we read a lot of books and go in search of many teachers. The Chan monks did that as well. The commentary on the koan includes a terrific exchange between Huang Po and his teacher, Pai Chang. Pai Chang related an episode out of his own training with his teacher, the great Ma Tsu. Don’t we love to hear stories about our teachers and their teachers?
Sure enough, the commentary relates, “Huang Po unconsciously stuck out his tongue in awe. Pai Chang said, ‘After this, won’t you be a successor of the Great Master Ma?’ Huang Po said, ‘No. Today, because of the master’s recital, I’ve gotten to see the Great Master Ma’s great capacity and its great function, but if I were to succeed to Master Ma, in the future I would be bereft of descendants.’”
Huang Po searched for a great teacher like Ma Tsu, but that couldn’t define him. He would have to find his own path in practice and teaching instead of depending on Pai Chang or even Ma Tsu, both great Chan masters.
People tell stories about their teachers; I certainly have done that a lot about Bernie. But please, don’t depend on that. Bernie had a hard time with people who were awed by him. When that happens, a duality creeps into your practice. There’s a you watching your teacher and his/her life. Please pay attention to your life, not someone else’s.
In the early years of our retreats at Auschwitz/Birkenau, survivors of the camp would take part in the retreat. After a few times we stopped inviting them to come because other participants would sit at their feet, their tongues stuck out in awe just like Huang Po’s. As the verse commentary puts it: “How could you one-sidedly hold fast to a single corner? The more you abandon, the more you aren’t at rest; the more you seek, the more you don’t see; the more you take on, the more you sink down.”
A good Zen teacher takes down the peg you hang your hat on. Instead of giving you something, he or she takes things away, especially the beautiful ornaments you depend on for living a meaningful life. So there is such a thing, after all, as teachers and students, but it’s all a matter of conditions.
Zazen takes things away, too. It leaves you with nothing to hang your hat on, just you yourself at this moment. Stop chasing after thoughts and feelings, memories of the past and hope in a future; you’ll never catch up. There’s always more and more, it never ends. Instead, sit and face this changing moment. Not the moment of 60 seconds, but Dogen’s eternally changing moment. When you do that you are completely independent and connected to all beings.
Do this when you get up from zazen, too. Just make tea or coffee, walk, drive, talk to your spouse or child. Just be this moment. When you practice in this way, you will not back off from moments that challenge you. Nothing will be extra because you’re not depending on anything.