I teach 8-10 new people to “do” Zen meditation every month. At times I feel kind of radical, but more and more I just want to tell them to sit still and do nothing at all. After 20 years of Zen practice, 14 years as Zen monk, and 5 years as a Zen teacher, I’m becoming deeply convinced that meditation is not something you do. Basically, just deliberately put yourself in the position of not doing anything, and the transformative and healing power of meditation takes care of itself.
“Meditating” is like resting or gardening. These “activities” may require a fair amount of care, planning, and effort in order to create a certain set of conducive circumstances, but ultimately the body rests or plants grow without “you” doing anything at all.
In the case of meditation, you create conducive circumstances by setting aside a period of time for not doing anything productive, entertaining, or pleasurable. You settle the body into stillness or into a very simple, repetitive physical movement. You gently set your intention to set aside all of your usually thinking and activity for however long you’re going to meditate. “Okay, I’ll think about my grocery list/ problems/ upcoming trip/ projects/ the book I’m reading/ etc. after meditation. There’s no reason for me to think about it all right now.”
As you sit, your mind will continue to try to be productive, entertained, or satisfied even though you aren’t acting on any of your thoughts, but this is generally much less agitating than actually doing things.
In these conducive circumstances, your whole being has a chance to realign itself. Your body inevitably gets included in your awareness more than it usually is. Your perspective increases. You remember what matters most to you. You realize you’re okay right now, despite all the things going on in your life and the world. The ephemeral and somewhat arbitrary nature of thoughts and emotions becomes more apparent. Your nervous and endocrine systems reset (I know from experience, not from scientific experiments, although those are supporting the anecdotal observations of meditators). A more sane aspect of yourself settles into the navigator’s seat – a seat which may have been empty, or occupied by various imps, much of the time since you last meditated. Generally speaking, the longer you go without meditating, the more the imps are in control.
The trick is, none of these results are something special. They are just a normal part of healthy functioning as a human being. It’s not that you sit in meditation and consciously try to experience grand realizations about What Is Most Important in Your Life, or who your authentic self really is, or how to achieve great inner peace (although you might gain a few insights). Meditation is an unconscious or semi-conscious reset that the conscious “you” has very little to do with. Which is a great thing, except…
We want to be responsible for the positive results of meditation. We want our meditation to be good because we’re doing something. We just can’t stand to be doing nothing at all productive, entertaining, or pleasurable, so we make our meditation into something productive, entertaining, or pleasurable. If we like our meditation experience or its results, we feel proud, successful, and satisfied. If we dislike our meditation experience or its results, we beat ourselves up, give up in frustration, or try harder.
We just can’t believe we’re just supposed to sit there. That’s unfathomable. How do you even do that? (See how natural that question sounds?)
I can imagine readers protesting, “What about following the breath, or concentrating on an object, or letting go of thoughts? What about the meditation techniques we’ve been taught, and that seem to help?”
My answer is this: As least as concerns Zen meditation, techniques are ways to counteract the strong habitual tendency of our minds to try to be productive, entertained, or satisfied even when we’ve decided not to act on any of our thoughts. You might say the techniques decrease your “doing” level (because a simple technique like following your breath involves much less mental activity than brainstorming a new project for work). In this sense techniques can make the circumstances more conducive to doing nothing.
But mostly I think we give meditation techniques because people need to feel like they’re doing something. Anything. Heck – make me do something as boring and unproductive as counting my breath, but at least I can imagine it’s good for me and try to do a really good job of it! Anything but nothing.
How do the benefits of meditation happen if you don’t do anything?! Surely you can’t just sit there and let your mind do anything it wants to! Surely you need to make an effort! (Because if you don’t do something, nothing will happen!)
Isn’t it amazing that plants grow all on their own? That our bodies rest and heal, moisture ends up in the sky and comes down as rain, and species evolve, without any direct, conscious effort on our part? We can affect these processes by what we do, but ultimately they are out of our hands and part of the larger functioning of our universe.
Our being – our body-and-mind, which are actually not two – has a way of reorienting itself to reality, if we only let it. Isn’t that great? You don’t have to do anything.
Except, that is, to spend some time not doing.
Zen master Dogen wrote in 1242, in his essay called Zazenshin:
“Nanyue said, ‘If you are identified with the sitting form, you have not reached the heart of the matter.’
“To be identified with the sitting form, spoken of here, is to let go of and to touch the sitting form. The reason is that when one is sitting buddha, it is impossible not to be one with the sitting form. However clear the sitting form is, the heart of the matter cannot be reached, because it is impossible not to be one with the sitting form. To penetrate this is called letting go of body and mind.” (Translation by Kaz Tanahashi & Michael Wenger)
We already have everything we need. When we sit, we are sitting buddha – no matter how admirable or insufficient our meditative concentration. Buddha does not depend on this. By our sitting, by our not doing, we place ourselves in alignment with this truth. Naturally we want to consciously realize it, and this is the passion behind our effort, but the irony is that we consciously realize it when we become completely immersed in nondoing.
Last Sunday we read chapter one, “Zazen as Inquiry,” from Taigen Dan Leighton’s Zen Questions: Zazen, Dogen and the Spirit of Creative Inquiry. Leighton writes:
“What are we doing in zazen? Each of us have some question that somewhere back there was behind our wanting to engage in this Buddhist meditation. What question has led you to face the wall in zazen, what is this? There is a question that we each have to explore.
“The point of this practice of questioning, however, is not to discover an answer. We sit upright, centered, with ease and restfulness. And yet there is some problem, some question, something we are looking into. How do we practice with question? There is not just one way to do this, because each have our own version of this question. But we must recognize that there is a question. How do we live this life? How do we take care of this world, face the problems that we each have in our life, the problems that we share together?”
I talked about how most of our heart-felt questions – the ones we don’t just wonder about intellectually, but those we really care about – are related to one another. We may discriminate between “superficial” and “deep” questions, but usually even our superficial, specific, personal questions are related to our version of a very deep, universal question. For example, I may struggle on a daily basis with how to focus my effort efficiently without getting too caught up in striving, but that relates to a very deep question I carry about the nature of effort and action. Who does, if there is no inherent self-nature? How do we exercise choice in guiding the activity of our life?
I asked the other people present on Sunday to write down at least one real question they were holding, and said I would post them. Here they are, the raw and precious material people in our sangha are practicing and sitting with. It is important to hold these kinds of questions with reverence. They cannot be answered simply, or no one would be holding them. We may be inspired or influenced in our work with questions by things we hear, read, or see, but ultimately our answer is something we manifest within our being and it cannot be given to us by anyone else.
Please feel free to add your own question(s) by leaving a comment! (I think it would have been very helpful and encouraging to me as a child to read this kind of list of questions from adults, so I would understand that adults were still trying to figure things out and the world they were presenting to me was not the best they could come up with.)
Why do some people suffer so much?
How do I push beyond my limits?
When should I stop?
Why do I become anxious when asked to write down my question?
What is anxiety?
How do I respond to climate change?
How do I stay awake to my life?
What is the relationship between inner work and working for social change?
What should my practice look like?
Am I engaged enough? What if I get this question wrong?
What do I do now?
How can I best live my life? How will I know if I’ve succeeded in the best living of my life?
What will give the most meaning to my life?
How can I best serve?
Why am I here?
Would Shakyamuni Buddha have been sad if he were to die before being able to teach?
When one has no attachments, on what does one act?
How do we maintain the will to move forward with optimism and creative energy in the face of the pointless suffering that humanity must endure? Is this why “enlightenment” is so important?
Is compassion (love) real? Can everybody feel it? Does one have to work on accessing it? Why does it not arise spontaneously? Were we born just to realize it?
How should I be living my life?
If the answers have no certainty, why the need for question? Is faith embracing uncertainty? Can I embrace uncertainty?
Thanks everyone! – Domyo
Photo by Marco Bellucci
Originally posted on My Journey of Conscience
I hope that everyone who reads this will embrace the concept of a “bodhisattva” and share it widely, regardless of your interest in Buddhism, because I think it’s what the world really needs.
I’ve tried long and hard to come up with some way to translate the Buddhist term “bodhisattva” into something familiar, secular, and English, but I haven’t had any luck. It takes whole sentences to describe what a bodhisattva is: A being who is devoted to the welfare of all living things. Someone who sets her sights impossibly high but then does not make her subsequent effort contingent on measurable success. A person who recognizes the need to cultivate wisdom, compassion, and loving action throughout the course of his life and beyond, never surrendering to complacency or consoling himself with conclusion, “Good enough.” Someone motivated by boundless love who is willing to perceive the cries of the world and respond accordingly without concern for self. But, at the same time, a being who understands that her “self” is merely a convenient conceptual construct and is empty of any inherent, enduring self-nature, so therefore does not get caught up either in pride at her accomplishments or generosity, or in beating herself up because she isn’t perfect. The bodhisattva knows it’s the intention and effort that count.
A bodhisattva might remind you of a saint, but there’s are important differences between these concepts. Saints are often held up as super-human examples of perfection that few can emulate, while everyone is encouraged (exhorted, really) to become a bodhisattva. Some saints are revered for their moral restraint or spiritual insight more than for their loving concern for others, while bodhisattvas are defined by caring for all beings as a parent would care for their only child. Sainthood is a special status that is achieved only after long struggle (and documented miracles), while bodhisattvahood manifests in anyone as soon as the aspiration to be a bodhisattva arises in them. Of course, it is understood that bodhisattvas vary in the degree of their selflessness, skillfulness, and wisdom, but struggling with our human imperfections is all just part of the bodhisattva’s path so those imperfections don’t disqualify us.
I hope that our culture and language adopts the concept of the bodhisattva, because we’re facing problems that will require everyone to step up to the plate with everything they have to offer.
The best thing about adopting a bodhisattva aspiration is that it challenges me to dream big, and to avoid limiting my own potential by thinking only about what “little old me” can do. Instead of just doing what’s obvious and easy and waiting for the world to knock on my door and ask for more, I proclaim my willingness out loud and actively watch for any opportunities to serve. I can try to save the entire world without it being an arrogant ambition or a recipe for burnout because it’s not about what my little self achieves. It’s about loving the world, which is why the four traditional bodhisattva vows go like this:
Beings are numberless; I vow to save them
The Three Poisons (grasping, aversion, and ignorance) are inexhaustible; I vow to end them
Dharma Gates (opportunities to cultivate and enact wisdom, compassion, and loving action) are boundless; I vow to master them
The Buddha Way (the path of complete awakening and liberation) is unsurpassed; I vow to attain it
In his book Living by Vow, Shohaku Okumura explains how wonderful it is that these vows are impossible. They’re always there to guide our life. There is no way to measure how we are doing against the infinite. And yet, when we dream big, we may be surprised by what possibilities open up before us.
It’s important to know that this is not about what people should do. The concept of the bodhisattva is not a new way to measure whether someone is good or not. Instead, it’s about each of us aligning ourselves with a selfless love that does not distinguish self from other.
When I align myself thus, I feel so much better – alive, connected, meaningful. So the whole thing benefits me as much as it benefits anyone else. The fear that concern for others will jeopardize our own well-being is a sad delusion that sustains misery in the world.
What if the concept of the bodhisattva – or something like it, by another name – became our new cultural ideal? There would be no stopping us.
Photo: Jizo Bodhisattva by Greg Ashley, Flickr Creative Commons
Originally posted on My Journey of Conscience
In my experience, a misguided practice of mindfulness can lead to an unfortunate restriction in my engagement with life – to the detriment of myself and others, particularly when it comes to social responsibility. It invites me to create a manageable mindfulness bubble around myself – reaching no further than my immediate surroundings, existing only this moment, and centered on my body.
More and more people in all walks of life recognize the benefits of mindfulness practice. It creates some space between “you” and your thoughts, emotions, and habits. It relieves stress and gives you more choice about what happens next. Mindfulness can be defined many ways, but basically it is paying attention to your present experience with a receptive attitude. You maintain an open awareness of what is going on this present moment, including any thoughts and feelings you may be experiencing. You let go of reactivity and commentary and just notice what’s going on.
You generally begin practicing mindfulness by learning to shift your attention from abstract thinking to direct sensation. Abstract thinking includes thoughts about the past or future, commentary, evaluation, planning, fantasizing, and justification. Simple sensations can be physical, such as awareness of your breathing, sounds, or posture. “Sensations” – that is, things you can sense – can also be internal, such as a thought or an emotion, which you “sense” with your mind. The point is to turn your awareness to things that are happening in your present, direct experience.
With mindfulness practice we come to appreciate how, ultimately, our life is only what’s happening here-and-now. We can use abstract thought as a tool to help us function in the world, but the abstractions are not inherently real. They are a gloss for reality, used to predict things, communicate, and plan effective actions. What’s real (for us) is what’s happening right in front of us – the beings, problems, projects, opportunities and experiences that we personally encounter as we go about our day. Responding to our reality with wisdom and compassion is the central matter of our lives, and mindfulness helps us do this.
For me, mindfulness practice has had many benefits but it has also given me justification for living in a mindfulness bubble. To be fair, I should call it “a bubble justified by a limited understanding of mindfulness,” because I think real mindfulness is much more than this. However, suffice to say that I have spent many years consoling myself with the thought that I am only responsible for responding to, or taking care of, what I personally encounter within my mindfulness bubble. This limited little sphere is what I define as “my” life.
After all, how am I supposed to wisely and compassionately respond to, or take care of, things that aren’t here-and-now, for me, at least at some point during my days, weeks, or months? I can say good morning to the homeless guy outside my apartment building and put my returnables where he can easily collect them on his daily rounds, but how do I respond mindfully to an abstraction like “homelessness?” It feels natural to do a favor for a sick friend because of our connection, but how to I allow a natural response to arise to a school shooting in another state? It’s hard enough to take care of “my life” (that which ends up passing through my bubble on a regular basis) by maintaining mindfulness and doing the next thing; How do I take care of global warming without shifting my awareness away from my reality toward abstractions and ideals?
Many of us take solace in the idea that taking care of our own lives, dealing with what we encounter with as much wisdom and compassion as we can, will have a positive ripple effects that spread outward. We figure a whole bunch of us carefully and mindfully taking care of our own lives will add up to the changes needed in the world.
I think there’s truth to the ripple-effect principle, but I feel I sell myself and the world short if I rely on it entirely. Such a principle can also allow me to become complacent, and give me justification for enjoying my pleasant life while elsewhere things are falling apart and beings are acutely suffering.
So I come to the question: How do I burst my mindfulness bubble without losing my mindfulness entirely? If I allow my attention and concern to be drawn outwards in space and time, won’t I lose touch with the reality that allows me to stay grounded and sane? If I expand too much my sense of what I’m responsible for, won’t I get caught up in abstractions and forget that I can only really function right here, right now?
Here’s a possible answer: don’t draw boundaries in space and time around what constitutes my life. In other words, don’t create the edges of the bubble. Stop defining as “my” life only those things relatively close to me in terms of space and time. Don’t limit my sense of reality to the three-dimensional physical world around me. Allow news about suffering far removed from me in time and space to be as much a part of my reality as the taste of my lunch. Let go of the conclusion that I am only responsible for things I can directly and obviously influence.
As I contemplate doing these things, fear arises that if I don’t draw boundaries around what’s mine to pay attention to and take care of, I’ll fail even at that and get sucked dry by the neediness of the universe. This may sound dramatic, but it’s a real fear. Fortunately, even though that seems like the logical outcome of bursting my mindfulness bubble, it’s not my actual experience of it (not that the bubble’s burst once-and-for all – it keeps reforming and needs moment-by-moment attention).
Instead, without the kind of boundaries I discuss above, life’s pretty much the same. It’s just more open. That’s because I may arbitrarily create a bubble but it’s not actually necessary. It doesn’t reflect reality, only my efforts to manage reality. If I maintain mindfulness without boundaries and actively participate in the process, responses flow. They’re just not always what I think of as real and personal responses (namely, actions taken within my personal sphere that have observable effects).
For example, my natural response to a friend will of course differ in nature from my natural response to something like a school shooting. My proximity to a person or event affects my relationship to it, and in many cases the most authentic and natural response may not be immediately obvious or simple. My primary role may be witnessing with compassion (see my post mentioning Kanzeon) – letting the facts and images enter my conscientiousness and heart. Simply because I don’t physically engage with the people involved with a school shooting doesn’t mean the event and its repercussions are not a real part of my life, or that my response is abstract. And if I don’t categorize such a thing as outside of my sphere of responsibility, a more directly engaged response may arise. Perhaps I will be moved to educate myself more about the problem of random violence in America. Perhaps I will be more patient and kind when I encounter a teenager who’s acting out in public because I am reminded of how difficult things can be for young people.
The important thing, for me, is to remember that the practice of mindfulness without boundaries is not about drawing a boundary around the known universe and taking everything on as my responsibility. Although my awareness is centered in my body, it isn’t necessary or helpful to define anything as mine or not-mine. Of course I can only perceive, understand, and do so much. I need to to care for my body-mind and the things I conventionally consider “mine.” But at no point do I get to conclude, “Ah, good enough! My life’s all taken care of, now I can relax.” I may need to relax, but there will always be something to take of in my life if there are no boundaries around it.
Photo "Big Bubble" by h.koppdelaney, Creative Commons
Photo "pop" by jenny downing (cropped), Creative Commons
Bodhisattva in the posture of “royal ease.”
Sometimes, when I find zazen challenging or dull, I engage it as a practice of trying to be completely joyful and at ease in this moment – just the way life is right now: in this body, with these aches, bad habits, and unfinished projects, in this moment’s confusing world that is so beautiful and terrible at the same time.
This approach contrasts with practicing zazen in order to achieve joy and ease. When I’m meditating in order to obtain a result (such as relief from stress, greater perspective on my life, a deeper sense of compassion, or spiritual insight), I keep making an effort to let go of discriminative thinking and return my attention to the present moment. I make this effort because it is a tried and true method of obtaining the results I want, even though I don’t really understand why it works. At times this effort is enough, but at other times zazen starts to feel kind of mechanical and boring.
That’s when I change things up. Fortunately, there are many different ways to approach zazen, because my body-mind finds ways to resist any particular one after a while. It seems to me all the different approaches – concentration, koans, metta – ultimately lead to the same place, which is something we can experience but not very accurately describe.
I think Zen master Dogen would approve of engaging zazen as practicing great ease and joy. In his Shobogenzo fascicle “Zazen-gi,” or “Rules for Zazen,” he states, “Zazen is not learning to do concentration. It is the dharma gate of great ease and joy.”
Note that Dogen says “the dharma gate OF great ease and joy,” not “the dharma gate TO great ease and joy.” Now, I realize that Dogen wrote in Japanese, and that language isn’t nearly as fussy about prepositional relationships as English is. Still, respected translators have chosen “of” instead of “to.”
I interpret this to mean the dharma gate IS great ease and joy, and this resonates with my personal experience. When I sit and practice feeling joy and ease in my life just as it is, my body-mind starts to settle. All my habitual thinking dies down because there is less compulsion to leap mentally out of the present moment. I access a sense of stability, patience, and peace.
Now, the key is that my ability to practice ease and joy is not dependent on conditions, the way I usually assume it is. When I sit ease-and-joy zazen, I notice where I am not completely joyful and at ease. I notice where I am worried, or anticipating things, or holding dissatisfaction. I notice a voice inside me that suggests I can’t be at ease “until…” I notice a resistance to taking joy in life just as it is “because…” Then I try to let those things go, just as I have learned to let go of discriminative thoughts. My myriad reasons to postpone sincere satisfaction and peace of mind have no inherent reality; if I stop giving them energy, they pass away.
This is nothing other than the realization of Shakyamuni Buddha: our experience can be utterly transformed by changing our own minds. Conditions certainly affect and influence us, but the inevitable challenges of life do not preclude great ease and joy.
Another Buddhist teaching highlighted by ease-and-joy zazen, at least for me, is the teaching that enlightenment is essentially understanding or embracing impermanence. Subjectively, I experience this as never, ever reaching a point of rest or resolution. The vast majority of things going on in my life and in the world are either in process or inevitably fated to change. Without realizing it, much of the time I live in anticipation of elusive point of completion and perfection where I will have earned my ease and joy. When I sit zazen, I wake up to the fact that this point will never come, so I had better give up making my peace of mind contingent on achieving it.
I like ease-and-joy zazen for a couple of reasons. First, it’s direct. It’s simply practicing enlightenment without any methods or shortcuts. It may sound hard, but the methods and apparent shortcuts aren’t easy either. Second, it appeals to my heart by identifying the essence of my longing, rather than highlighting mind-states or insights along the way that will theoretically lead to ease and joy. Finally, in the moments when I feel greater ease and joy in my life right-here, right now – well, let’s just say those are moments of my life in which I am awake.
Of course, next week I might be using a different approach to zazen, but I still think this one’s pretty neat.
 Translated by Dan Welch and Kazuaki Tanahashi, from Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen, edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi, North Point Press, New York, 1985.
Photo by Wonderlane
A commentary on Zen Master Lin-chi's teaching.
Quotations are from Chapter 11 of The Zen Teachings of Master Lin-chi, translated by Burton Watson (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1993)
The Master instructed the group, saying: Those who study the Dharma of the buddhas these days should approach it with a true and proper understanding. If you approach it with a true and proper understanding, you won’t be affected by considerations of birth or death, you’ll be free to go or stay as you please. You don’t have to strive for benefits, benefits will come of themselves.
If you approach the study of the Truth with true and proper understanding, you will already be enlightened. Isn’t this a paradox? How do we get to that true and proper understanding in the first place? Trial and error – striving and striving until we finally find ourselves unaffected by considerations of birth or death, or free to go or stay as we please?
Let’s assume that being unaffected by considerations of birth or death, or free to go or stay as we please, are some of the benefits Lin-chi speaks of. He says don’t we have to strive for them, and therefore we do not even have to strive for true and proper understanding. He cannot be saying no effort is required, or that there is no truth, no Dharma, and no benefits. He paints us into a corner and doesn’t let us go about things our usual way, and he doesn’t let us rest. What can we do? This isn’t about giving us answers, but about awakening in us the vital question of how to engage our lives. Naturally this will not be simple.
Followers of the Way, the outstanding teachers from times past have all had ways of drawing people out. What I myself want to impress on you is that you mustn’t be led astray by others. If you want to use this thing, then use it and have no doubts or hesitations!
We are in need of being drawn out… but we mustn’t be led astray by others. Lin-chi is not talking about choosing the right teacher, or being skeptical about teachings. These things need to happen, but they are not the most important thing. Once we have been drawn out of our waking dream, whether it is by a teacher, a disaster, or a falling leaf, the rest is up to us. Anyone who encourages you to look for ultimate satisfaction outside of your own body-mind is leading you astray. So, in a sense, anyone leading you is leading you astray. You find your own way through your inner landscape, a path no one can find for you or walk with you.
Given that we’re on our own with this, how can we have no doubts or hesitations? It may help to consider what it is Lin-chi is referring to when he says “use this thing.” This translator Schloegel suggests it is “genuine insight.” Shimano Roshi translated this as, “If you want to act, just act.” Perhaps in the Chinese it is not so clear what “it” is, and this is not surprising. Something needs to be used without doubt or hesitation – what is it? We are left with another open question. What is ours to work with? Whatever it is, no doubts or hesitation means taking the risk of being wrong or making mistakes. No one cherishes the experience of disappointment, frustration, or looking stupid. But are we going to let these petty concerns keep us from exploring what we need to explore?
When students today fail to make progress, where’s the fault? The fault lies in the fact that they don’t have faith in themselves! If you don’t have faith in yourself, then you’ll be forever in a hurry trying to keep up with everything around you, you’ll be twisted and turned by whatever environment you’re in and you can never move freely. But if you can just stop this mind that goes rushing around moment by moment looking for something, then you’ll be no different from the [ancestors] and buddhas. Do you want to get to know the [ancestors] and buddhas? They’re none other than you, the people standing in front of me listening to this lecture on the Dharma!
Students don’t have enough faith in themselves, and so they rush around looking for something outside themselves. But even if they get something, all it will be is words and phrases, pretty appearances. They’ll never get at the living thought of the [ancestors]!
The self we need to have faith in has nothing to do with our skill or knowledge. If we rely on any of the details of who we are, we will fall short at some time and our faith in ourselves will be compromised. Or we will conclude we do not have enough skill or knowledge to take the ultimate leap. Then we’ll keep looking around for the things that will complete us, so we can be up to the task of claiming our birthright. As Lin-chi says, we’ll be “twisted and turned by whatever environment” we’re in. We’ll go rushing around moment by moment looking for something.
The mind that has passed its koan, the mind that has claimed its birthright, the mind of enlightenment, goes nowhere when queried or tested. When it is asked, “Where is your true nature?” it does not waver for a moment. It does not think about teachings. It does not think about past insights. It does not think about theories or philosophy. It does not mine science or nature for analogies. It has utterly given up looking anywhere other than here. Actually, it does not even look here. It is just open and alive.
This being who does not look elsewhere is the same being as has manifested as each ancestor and each buddha. It is only our own doubt that keeps us dancing about, seeking for assurances outside of our own direct experience. Lin-chi may sound harsh when he warns that students who rush around looking outside of themselves will “never get at the living thought of the [ancestors]!” This may sound like a judgment passed on all of us who are guilty of rushing around looking outside of ourselves, but Lin-chi is just saying that we won’t find what we’re looking for that way.
Make no mistake, you followers of Chan. If you don't find it in this life, then for a thousand kalpas you'll be born again and again in the three-fold world, you'll be lured off by what you think are favorable environments and be born in the belly of a donkey or a cow!
Is this a Buddhist version of fire and brimstone? You might say so, in that it is supposed to be motivating. But we do not get condemned to the fire by someone or something outside of ourselves, we simply experience the results of our own choices. We keep getting lured off by what we think are favorable environments – situations that we think we make us happy and secure. We settle down into our nests and fall asleep again. But life keeps moving on… if we are born in the belly of a donkey or cow because of our negligence, we will end up being incapable of practice. Basically: you can practice now, but you may not be able to practice in the future.
Followers of the Way, as I look at it, we're no different from Shakyamuni. In all our various activities each day, is there anything we lack? The wonderful light of the six faculties has never for a moment ceased to shine. If you could just look at it this way, then you'd be the kind of person who has nothing to do for the rest of his life.
What does it mean to “be the kind of person who has nothing to do for the rest of her life?” If we try to think about it rationally or philosophically it may not make much sense, but in our gut we know what this means. To have nothing we have to do for the rest of our lives – to be free to do, or not do, and just to be. To be sufficient, without anything we have to achieve or prove in order to earn our place in this world. A person who has nothing to do for the rest of his life may be very busy, or he may live very simply, but in neither case is he compelled.
Fellow believers, 'There is no safety in the threefold world; it is like a burning house.’ This is no place for you to linger long! The deadly demon of impermanence will be on you in an instant, regardless of whether you're rich or poor, old or young.
In the Lotus Sutra, the world is compared to a burning house, and we are compared to children playing in the house, so wrapped up in their toys and play that they are oblivious to the flames. This may seem like a grim, pessimistic view of the world, but it points to the delusion all human beings share – that somehow our life will just keep going on. Things are not going to crumble down around us. Maybe they’ll change a little, we figure, but we cannot get our minds around the reality that we will lose absolutely everything. Outside the burning house is a whole world, and the opportunity to practice, so we are not doomed. But we have to be careful not to get so wrapped up in our toys that we forget what is really happening.
If you want to be no different from the patriarchs and buddhas, then never look for something outside yourselves. The clean pure light in a moment of your mind – that is the Essence-body of the Buddha lodged in you. The undifferentiated light in a moment of your mind – that is the Bliss-body of the Buddha lodged in you. The undiscriminating light in a moment of your mind – that is the Transformation-body of the Buddha lodged in you. These three types of bodies are you, the person who stands before me now listening to this lecture on the Dharma! And simply because you do not rush around seeking anything outside yourselves, you can command these fine faculties.
The Buddhist teaching on the three bodies of buddha is generally considered very profound and advanced. It is an attempt to describe different aspects or layers of reality – how the absolute becomes manifest in form. It is too complex to describe here. Suffice to say that such a teaching can pull you very far aware from yourself, while Lin-chi says the three types of bodies are you, right now. Teachings provoke us out of our complacency – they are ways to draw us out, as Lin-chi mentioned at the beginning. But then they can lead us astray if we start to look for their meaning outside, or even inside. Their meaning is found in your listening to the Dharma right now – they are nothing abstract, they cannot be grasped or located. They can only be manifested in this moment, a constantly moving target.
…But never at any time let go of this even for a moment. Everything that meets your eyes is this. But ‘when feelings arise, wisdom is blocked; when thoughts waver, reality departs,’ therefore you keep being reborn again and again in the threefold world and undergoing all kinds of misery. But as I see it, there are none of you incapable of profound understanding, none of you are incapable of emancipation.
Lin-chi actually said this to his assembled students, who were sitting and listening to the Dharma just as we are today. Just like his students, our thoughts waver. This is not a reason to feel inadequate, it is a reason to arouse the courage to stop looking anywhere else.
…The way I see it, we should cut off the heads of the Bliss-body and Transformation-body buddhas. Those who have fulfilled the ten stages of bodhisattva practice are no better than hired field hands; those who have attained the enlightenment of the fifty-first and fifty-second stages are prisoners shackled and bound; arhats and pratyekabuddhas are so much filth in the latrine, bodhi and nirvana are hitching posts for donkeys. Why do I speak of them like this? Because you followers of the Way fail to realize that this journey to enlightenment that takes three asamkhya kalpas to accomplish is meaningless. So these things become obstacles in your way. If you were truly proper [persons] of the Way, you would never let that happen.
Zen sacrilege! Committed out of compassion for us. Anything that causes us to look outside of ourselves gets in the way. And yet, what if there were no teachings at all? We would still be asleep. So we use teachings and practices like medicine, applying them as necessary, and giving them up when they become poisonous to us.
…Fellow believers, time is precious! You rush off frantically on side roads, studying Chan, studying the Way, clinging to words, clinging to phrases, seeking Buddha, seeking the patriarchs, seeking a good friend, scheming, planning. But make no mistake. Followers of the Way, you have one set of parents – what more are you looking for?’ You should stop and take a good look at yourselves. A man of old tells us that Yajnadatta thought he had lost his head and went looking for it, but once he had put a stop to his seeking mind, he found he was perfectly all right…’
Yajnadatta looked in the mirror one day and thought he had lost his head. He temporarily lost touch with reality, and when he came back to clarity and saw he had his head, it was not that he had found his head. It had, of course, always been there. As Zen practitioners, we try to avoid running around looking for our heads, even though we are experiencing the discomfort and worry resulting from having lost track of them. We take the counsel of people we trust who assure us our heads are still there, and we sit as still as we can. The delusion of being headless eventually wears off if we do not keep getting agitated by running about searching. This is hard practice. We really, really want to find our heads. And we should want to find them.