As the officer Luu Hsuan was talking with Nan Ch’uan, he said, “Master of the Teachings Chao
said, ‘Heaven, earth, and I have the same root; myriad things and I are one body.’ This is quite
Nan Ch’uan pointed to a flower in the garden. He called to the officer and said, “People these days
see this flower as a dream.”
My first sense of Rohatsu Sesshin came from reading Philip Kapleau’s Seven Pillars of Zen. He described doing sesshin in a freezing zendo, some people even sitting outside, doing zazen for many hours through the night in order to awaken. I was looking forward to doing such sesshins when I joined the Zen Community of New York, only we couldn’t do them once the Greyston Bakery started because December is the most important income-producing month for bakeries and we couldn’t afford to close and sit. What did that say about our practice of awakening?
If you are lucky enough to sit over a period of many years, you see how much has changed in your practice and the practice of your sangha. Here we are now, two days before Buddha’s Enlightenment Day. What are we awakening to? What did the Buddha awaken to?
Luu Hsuan, quoting Chao, gave an answer: “Heaven, earth, and I have the same root; myriad things and I are one body.” Often, we say that it’s awakening to the oneness of life. But Nan Ch’uan pointed to a flower and said in response, “People these days see this flower as a dream.”
The Pointer to the koan begins: “Cease and desist; then an iron tree blooms with flowers.” Our habitual thought patterns and ideas won’t come up with an iron tree that blooms with flowers. Where will such a tree come from? What will give it life? Cease and desist!
When we don’t cease and desist, when we are trapped in the same old dogma, the same old words—oneness of life, no separation, the realm of emptiness--then we might be seeing a flower as a dream. The notes to Luu Hsuan’s quote of Chao say: ”He’s making a living in a ghost cave. A picture of a cake cannot satisfy hunger. This is also haggling in the weeds.” Another adds: “The scriptures have teachers of scriptures, the treatises have teachers of treatises; it’s no business of a patchrobed monk.” Or a householder practitioner, for that matter. Another says: “Don’t talk in your sleep.”
But Shakyamuni pointed at a flower. The very first transmission happened in this way. He held up a flower at Mount Grdhrakuta and Mahakasho smiled, at which point Shakyamuni announced that he is handing the true Dharma, which does not rely on letters or scriptures, to Mahakasho. Was that, too, a dream? Was it the dream of Chan masters who retroactively dreamed all this about transmission to justify their Confucian sense of lineage?
What is our dream concerning transmission? Concerning enlightenment?
The New York Zen teacher Barry Magid wrote: “Awakening is the progressive-or sudden-loss of one fantasy after another (including) of ‘awakening’-until one is left with one’s ordinary mind, just as it is, with no self-centered project of becoming more or other than who one is in the moment.” And my friend, Zen teacher Myotai Treace, added to those words: “The next fantasy will always arrive, it’s how the mind works, and we meet it, acknowledge it, and let it go. That’s the aspect of ceaseless practice.”
What is our fantasy about awakening? One day I will have an experience and I will never see myself as separate again from anything. Then I will finally and forevermore be free.
In old Indian culture the way to do that was to leave family relationships and roles, leave the clan. Our culture is quite different. It tells you to go and live your life. It tells you to build your life brick by brick, travel far and wide, realize your gifts and ambitions. It emphasizes individuality and personal destiny.
It takes a while to see the insidious influence of that on practice: the desire to shine, to be the best, become the leader, come to some insight and have an experience that no one else has. It’s what the writer Robert MacFarlane refers to as “jewels of personal epiphany.”
In dharma transmission there is nothing to receive. As Shibayama says in his notes, “the experience of the teacher and that of his disciple are in complete accord with each other.” You live your life, you have insights, you present them over many years to your teacher, who may just nod, shake her head, ring you out of the room, join you for tea or a walk, or point to a flower.
How do these experiences or insights arise? Usually not in the zendo, but in our day-to-day life. In working with our householder koans. Each situation invites you to a journey, cautioning you to leave your castle of story, sentiment, and nostalgia and plunge into your life as it is. Give up that fantasy of the once-in-a-lifetime experience that takes care of everything.
I have had my own householder koan for the past month. When I think of this person or situation, I feel a hardness in my heart and body. So, I plunge into hardness. Sometimes there is suffering; often we need lots of patience. But each such experience becomes a portal to our own innate wisdom.
In order to work with our daily koans, we have to sit. We have to rest in not-knowing and express unbounded mind. Otherwise, as Myotai Treace writes, our life song becomes abstract. When I have asthma, life seems to fade around me and everything becomes muted and distant, like it’s coming from two valleys away. That’s what life starts feeling like when we don’t sit.
Please, let’s continue to practice together. Have confidence, plunge into your journey with an unbounded mind. Don’t talk in your sleep.