This Rohatsu Sesshin points at two things: the enlightenment of the Buddha, which we celebrate on December 8, and transmission of the dharma, at which time we will recognize two new teachers. Some teachers talk of “authorizing” new teachers, but Bernie Glassman said that basically we are recognizing two people who are already teaching with their lives, so he used the verb to recognize. We are recognizing new teachers.
What criterion did he use when he gave dharma transmission? He said: “The question to ask is whether this person embodies the oneness of life. That’s at the basis of dharma transmission.”
Today, December 8, is about Gotama’s enlightenment, the enlightenment of the Buddha. Our enlightenment. Before I do that, I’d like to say a few words about lineage, specifically the names of the Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and American ancestors that we chant and bow to during sesshin. It’s a lineage of ancestors who’ve done their training face-to-face, a living awareness transmitted by ancestor to successor, and to successor again.
All these ancestors, men and women, mostly Asians, struggled as we do. All had doubts and setbacks, some were ill or otherwise disabled, some persecuted and a few eventually killed, and all of them, with determination, awakened and taught the path to awakening. The older I get in this practice, the more alive these patriarchs and matriarchs loom in my consciousness. They’re my relatives in this two-and-a-half millennia old family.
If reciting their names as we bow feels odd, let me give you a tip. Instead of worrying about who these people were that we bow to, let that go and bow as fully as possible. Bernie, in his book Infinite Circle, suggested in the first pages on the Heart Sutra that when we chant the first words, Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva doing deep prajna paramita, rather than parsing out what the words mean—and there is an enormous number of commentaries on the Heart Sutra—just plunge into the sounds, plunge into Avalokitesvara, or just into A. Don’t worry about whether and how you understand it, let the lips frame A, let the sound emerge from your innermost core. Let mind and meaning go.
Similarly, when you bow upon chanting the names of the lineage, the world is bowing. That’s not a metaphor for anything, that’s things as they are. The world bows as you bow, so do it with full awareness. Feel the mat under your knees, the palms rising up from the floor before coming down again, the body getting up and standing up straight. Everything is there, nothing is excluded.
When Gotama awakened and became the Buddha, the enlightened one, he is said to have announced: “I and the great earth and all beings have simultaneously attained the Way.”
We say that Shakyamuni’s enlightenment was the greatest of all. How can we know? I’ve met a few people who’ve had powerful openings and insights; who’s to say that Gotama’s was the biggest? But they didn’t teach. They went their way and lived their lives, but didn’t necessarily go down the mountain and work with other practitioners, as the Buddha did when he left his seat, found his former friends, and preached the Four Noble Truths to them. So, from the beginning, enlightenment and lineage is deeply connected.
When I grew up in the dharma—as still growing up in the dharma— it was the great people with big enlightenment that I admired and looked at, the ones who were known to have big kensho. But a friend of mine pointed out that enlightenment can also come through the back door. It comes from my back yard through the dog doors to the garage with its cold, muddy floor and into the kitchen, where I prepare food, and into my office and bedroom. it’s everywhere.
When I bow with no sense of separation, it’s bowing with no legs or hands or elbows; sometimes we refer to that as not-bowing, or non-bowing. When I sweep with no sense of separation, it’s no-hands sweeping, no-finger typing on the keyboard, no-arms stretching as I stretch or exercise. Enlightenment is there as long as you drop off body and mind.
That’s the I of “I and the great earth and all beings simultaneously attain the way.” Not the personal I, Gotama’s I, the I of identity and separation, but the great I of nonduality, the I of not-knowing.
In The Book of Householder Koans, there’s the story of Louise who collects eggs. Louise talks lovingly to her chickens while she collects their eggs. One day she notices that a workman working on her house watches her and wipes tears from his eyes. She offers him a drink and, somewhat reluctantly, the eggs she just gathered. Going to the kitchen to get these for the workman, she sees her son wiping tears from his eyes.
“Why are you crying?” she asks him.
He tells her that he heard the workman say that the way Louise talks to her chickens reminds him of his mother who died.
Look at how that moment includes not just Louise, but also her chickens, their eggs, a workman, his mother, and Louise’s son, all caught in that moment of collecting eggs. The tears washing the boy’s face—where do they come from? I can understand the workman crying as he’s reminded of his mother, but why does Loise’s son cry?
We have names for this: empathy, caring, humanity, love. Those are powerful words, and still, they’re words. Something else is at work here, what is it? For me, that's Shakyamuni’s I of “I and the great earth and all beings have simultaneously attained the Way.”
That same I appears in the transmission between Kasyapa and Ananda, when Ananda wonders what else is there, that he lacks, to awakening. That’s almost like saying: I have a bucket list with one thing there, and that’s awakening. So, what’s missing? Where must I go and what must I do to finish my bucket list? Kasyapa calls him by name, Ananda answers, and there it is. The names are there—Kasyapa and Ananda—but what they really are, are Shakyamuni’s great I.
I turned 74 a few days ago, and someone asked me what I wanted to do for this birthday. What do I still yearn for? And I replied: “Myself.” I yearn for me, that includes the Eve of 74 years but also the Buddha’s I. I yearn for myself—this moment, this place, this same body and mind, this now. There’s no bucket list here, no things to do and places to visit. Everything is available when all sense of the separate self is gone.
So many koans point to this. They start in the same way. Teacher asks: “Where are you from?” Student answers: “New Jersey.” Teacher asks: “What did you do in New Jersey?” Student answers: “I studied music and I play in nightclubs.” Teacher yells, rings him out of the room, tells him he’s completely off. Why? Because that’s just the student’s story of his self, but it’s not who he really is. Where is the great I?
C.S. Lewis wrote: “The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them … These things — the beauty, the memory of our own past — are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself.”
“We are the thing itself,” Virginia Woolf wrote. Nothing is external, nothing is separate. We are that great I, excluding nothing.