“A monk asked Chao Chou, ‘The Ultimate Path has no difficulties—just avoid picking and choosing—isn’t this a cliché for people of these times?’
Chou said, “Once someone asked me, and I really couldn’t explain for five years.’”
The monk is referring to one of the best-known poems in Zen literature, Faith in Mind, by Seng Ts’an, the Third Chinese Patriarch, which begins with the famous words: “The ultimate path has no difficulties, just avoid picking and choosing.” It was famous in those days, too, and the monk asks: “Hasn’t it become a cliché?”
We are constantly advised to practice deeply, but what does that exactly mean? How do I practice deeply?
One way of looking at it is that we practice with whatever arises. Practice with each single dharma, and the whole universe is there. It has to be because, in essence, nothing is divided. That’s what we mean when we say that reality is One. When you fully meet the moment, you’re fully meeting the entirety of life.
When do things become a cliché? If I let the moment go without attending to it. If I just write words without attending to them. I dislike cliches in writing because the message I seem to be getting from the writer is: I’m aware that every moment is new and unique, but right now I can’t be bothered to capture the uniqueness of the moment I’m describing so I rely on words used to describe past events.
Just because I don’t pay attention doesn’t mean things go away, how can they if everything is one? But delusion of some kind comes in due to that inattention. I decided, consciously or not, that some things are worth my attention, and some are not. In my mind I created division and fragmentation.
Sometimes we just want to get away from our lives. We want to leave, like people who leave sesshin in the middle. Many years ago, I did a year’s-end sesshin with Roshi Daien Bennage in Pennsylvania. One of the things I loved about Daien is that she returned to the US from Japan to take care of her mother, who lived next door. You didn’t see that modeled too often in Wester Zen at that time. But in the middle of that sesshin something happened to Daien’s mother, and she had to go to the hospital. Daien told us that she had to take care of her mother, so while she intended to continue the sesshin she wouldn’t be there much, and she asked us to stay and continue to sit.
I left. Why? I don’t know. I told myself that it made no sense to be there without Daien, got into my car and returned home, resolved to sit the rest of the sesshin at home. Perhaps I did, I can’t remember now. But why did I leave? What there didn’t feel comfortable, what there did I want to skip out on, escape from? That was my life I was leaving behind. I was picking and choosing, getting tangled and deluded.
To avoid picking and choosing, live in an undivided way. See your life as one undivided thing and live like that.
The verse to the koan reads:
“The Elephant King trumpets
The Lion roars.
Blocks off people’s mouths.
South, north, east, west--
The raven flies, the rabbit runs.”
Why don’t we live this undivided life with complete attention, not as some cliché but as something rich and original? Perhaps because of karma, our conditioning.
The koan above is from the Blue Cliff Record. The Transmission of the Lamp, which chronicles the transmissions of Buddhist teachers, often describes prophecies given about someone in the future who was going to become a great Buddha, or else of how one’s previous lives contributed towards enlightenment. I call that good karma. The Buddha’s Jataka Tales describe such good karma in which the Buddha offers his body to a hungry tigress or steps into flames to feed a beggar. His past lives result in good karma.
I used to read these stories and would envy those people who seem to have such little confusion in their lives, as if they knew almost from babyhood what their lives would be about. Of course, every life includes areas of confusion (the most fortunate of karma doesn’t obviate that). And karma is not something that happened in the past; every moment of our life, every decision we make, every single moment, is folded right into our never-ending karma.
The Transmission of the Lamp includes the story of Buddhamitra receiving his transmission from his teacher, Buddhanandi, as follows:
“Buddhanandi was going around teaching and came to a Vaisya house in the city in Daigya. Seeing a white light rising above the house, he said to his followers, ‘There must be a holy man in this house. No word escapes his mouth, so he must be a vessel of the Mahayana. His feet never tread the ground because he knows that touching it will only soil them. So he will be my successor.’ When he had finished speaking, an elder appeared, saluted him, and said, ‘What do you want?’ The Venerable replied, ‘I am seeking an attendant.’ The elder said, ‘I have only one son. He is now 50 years old and he has never spoken or walked.’ The Venerable said, ‘If it is as you say, truly, he will be my disciple.’”
Why choose someone who doesn’t speak or walk? Because so much of our speech and walk is focused on external things. We walk to get things we want. Our speech often includes comparing, gossiping, and judging, elevating ourselves at the expense of others. So much of what I say or do bolsters myself. How many times do you catch yourself recounting an event and adding a little extra something that lets people know how unselfish you were, how noble, how hard-working, those little somethings out of which we build a persona. So many of our steps and words are about that.Buddhamitra was aware of how so many of our words and actions come out of that self-centered place, and his solution was to shut up and stay in place.
I sympathize with him because at times I’ve watched myself act that way. So how does an enlightened being walk? How does an enlightened being talk? So many choose silence, but silence isn’t the answer. Paralysis or staying home isn’t the answer, not if you want to stay engaged in the world. And yet, it has sometimes felt in my life as if what I did and said came from smallness, from a contracted universe.
We say in our Renewal of Vows ceremony:
“May I always be free from the taints of ignorance and delusion;
I repent for all my thoughts, words, and deeds committed in ignorance or under delusion;
may they be extinguished at once and may they never rise again.”
At every moment we can let go of ignorance and delusion. In the midst of karma, in the midst of self-clinging arising from ignorance and delusion, there’s that instant of choosing to give complete attention to whatever arises or choosing to ignore it or push it away. How often do we choose to compare, judge, and comment on life, generating so much unnecessary mind activity that creates more divisions in an undivided world.
Picking and choosing junks up the mind, like a cluttered basement or attic. The practice of cleaning all that up is what we mean by emptying the mind. It’s what we mean by not-knowing. We sit in this sesshin because it’s easier to see how cluttering and decluttering happens while sitting still and living as simply as possible. When we do that, we experience each moment as new and different, unique and without precedence.
We say the Buddha’s enlightenment experience was so strong that it wiped away all divisions. He clung to nothing, and therefore could see everything. How do I experience this great undivided world? Be intimate with every single manifestation, every single dharma.
Nan Shepherd, writing her classic book on Scotland’s Cairngorms, looked down at a loch that was barely accessible and wrote:
“We are one. We belong to each other.
Choose to walk in your own footsteps.
Living as though the truth is true.”