The word Sesshin is made of two idiograms, setsu, and shin. Sestu means to join, or to fix together. Shin means, mind. So we are sitting to fix the mind and body together. But what is mind? And what is body? We can think of these as our individual minds and bodies, and we can also get macro, and think of these on a universe scale. For some of us, that may take too much imagination, and for some of us that may seem obvious. Either way, both ways, are very good.
Setsu in Sesshin also means, to touch, connect, receive and transmit. How can something both transmit, and receive? Think of our friend Ari Pliskin. He goes by Ariel now. Bernie gave him the Dharma name, Setsudo. Setsu, to join or fix together, transmit and receive, touch, connect. And Do, the Way, the Path. You think of how Bernie and Setsudo were working together in those days, and you see what came of Setsudo’s dharma, the Stone Soup Cafe as it was established in Greenfield. A cafe where the boundaries of who is serving and who is being served disappear. Who is transmitting, who is receiving, we don’t say. There is just transmitting and receiving.
Sesshin is like this. We connect and fix body and mind in both the sense of our individual lives, our self, as we think of it, and in a slightly larger sense of connection to each other, and in a vast sense of open awareness with the whole world. We become one body and “harmonize” together, as Maezumi Roshi said, over the next few days. We transmit and receive and renew the bonds of our life. Maybe we come because we need to receive. We need solace, to feel stable, to have space to feel, connect to ourselves. This is a sanctuary. But what transmission is happening? Roshi Joan Sutherland says we can let the metaphysics take care of itself, and enter a world where everything can be medicine. If we don’t take ourselves too seriously, give of ourselves completely, and both miniaturize our individual ego and maximize our scope of intention, we can reach into the smallest atom and the largest space.
The functioning of this universe is surprising to our ordinary mind, but not to the enlightened mind of a Boddhisattva such as the layman Vimalakirti. For Vimalakirti, there are countless universes functioning at once, overlapping and co-arising. There is nothing obstructing anything, In fact. 32,000 great beings can easily fit into his 10 by 10 room and he can provide them all with large, comfortable chairs. He can shrink one whole enormous universe into a little ball and transfer it between fingertips to the palm of his other hand. Of what use can we, WE, make of these possibilities? There is no answer to that except the answer you make in your own life.
One of the ancestors I am studying now is Dongshan Liangjie (807-869, Jpn.: Tôzan Ryôkai). He studied with several teachers over many years. He explored and probed the co-arising of enlightenment, and he had a very soft sense of his own importance. Much later, after leaving his primary teachers, he became a prominent teacher in his own right. He wrote the 5 Ranks, which some of us studied last year, and also wrote the Song of the Jewel Mirror Awareness which we will chant on Saturday. He is considered the founder of the Caodong lineage of Chan, or Chinese Zen, which is what Dogen encountered and transmitted to Japan in the 13th century. We chanted his name this morning as one of our Soto ancestors.
Roshi has presented his koan that dealt with his questions about whether inanimate objects can expound the dharma. Can mountains and rivers expound the Dharma? Dongshan’s teacher Yunyan says, yes, but we cannot hear them. If we were in a mind awareness that could hear them, we would not be able to hear each other. Dogen takes this up again in his fascicle, Bendowa, which I often cite. I love it because it proclaims the whole world to be responding, reciprocating, alive and active, with our zazen awaking the mountains and streams, and their zazen awakening us. Collective awakening…..
Dongshan, before taking leave, asks his teacher, “Later on, if I am asked to describe your reality, how should I respond?” After a pause, Yunyan said, “Just this is it.” Then Yunyan cautions Donshan to investigate this carefully and throroughly. Dongshan becomes Dongshan when he sees his face reflected in a river. We become ourselves as we sit in sesshin. Our unique self which no one else will ever be, alive for a few years in this boundless universe of open awareness.