Hi to all my readers. In one of the sitting groups I lead we have been reading Dogen Zenji's Mountains and Rivers Sutra. Some people in the group love reading Dogen others resist Dogen because he is so obscure. The Sutra talks about mountains walking, how can mountains walk? Dogen's writings are filled with images like this which seem to make no sense. Whether loving or hating Dogen few people understand him.
I have been thinking it would be fun to do a commentary on something of Dogen's. The Mountains and Rivers Sutra is too long for a blog commentary. I have chosen the Genjo Koan more properly titled Actualizing the Fundamental Point. not only because it is shorter but also because it is one of the most beautiful and profound pieces in all of Zen literature. The translation I am using is from the San Francisco Zen Center. This translation is from a collaboration of Kazuaki Tanahashi, Robert Aitkin and others
If you don't know Dogen, he was the man who brought Soto Zen from China to Japan, establishing the Soto Zen sect in Japan. This was in the 13th Century, a long tme ago, but his writings are timeless. His thought still has tremendous influence in Soto Zen.
In this blog I am just going to present the Genjo Koan without commentary. Soak it up.
As all things are buddha-dharma, there is delusion and realization, practice, birth and
death, and there are buddhas and sentient beings. As the myriad things are without an
abiding self, there is no delusion, no realization, no buddha, no sentient being, no birth
and death. The buddha way is, basically, leaping clear of the many and the one; thus
there are birth and death, delusion and realization, sentient beings and buddhas. Yet,
in attachment blossoms fall, and in aversion weeds spread.
To carry yourself forward and experience myriad things is delusion. That
myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening. Those who have
great realization of delusion are buddhas; those who are greatly deluded about
realization are sentient beings. Further, there are those who continue realizing beyond
realization, who are in delusion throughout delusion. When buddhas are truly buddhas
they do not necessarily notice that they are buddhas. However, they are actualized
buddhas, who go on actualizing buddhas.
When you see forms or hear sounds fully engaging body-and-mind, you grasp
things directly. Unlike things and their reflections in the mirror, and unlike the moon
and its reflection in the water, when one side is illuminated the other side is dark.
To study the buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the
self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by
myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop
away. No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.
When you first seek dharma, you imagine you are far away from its environs.
But dharma is already correctly transmitted; you are immediately your original self.
When you ride in a boat and watch the shore, you might assume that the shore
is moving. But when you keep your eyes closely on the boat, you can see that the boat
moves. Similarly, if you examine myriad things with a confused body and mind you
might suppose that your mind and nature are permanent. When you practice
intimately and return to where you are, it will be clear that nothing at all has
Firewood becomes ash, and it does not become firewood again. Yet, do not
suppose that the ash is future and the firewood past. You should understand that
firewood abides in the phenomenal expression of firewood which fully includes past
and future, and is independent of past and future.
Ash abides in the phenomenal expression of ash which fully includes future and
past. Just as firewood does not become firewood again after it is ash, you do not return
to birth after death. This being so, it is an established way in buddha-dharma to deny
that birth turns into death. Accordingly, birth is understood as no-birth. It is an
unshakable teaching in Buddha's discourse that death does not turn into birth.
Accordingly, death is understood as no-death. Birth is an expression complete this
moment. Death is an expression complete this moment. They are like winter and
spring. You do not call winter the beginning of spring, nor summer the end of spring.
Enlightenment is like the moon reflected in the water. The moon does not get
wet, nor is the water broken. Although its light is wide and great, the moon is
reflected even in a puddle an inch wide. The whole moon and the entire sky are
reflected in dewdrops on the grass, or even in one drop of water. Enlightenment does
not divide you, just as the moon does not break the water. You cannot hinder
enlightenment, just as a drop of water does not hinder the moon in the sky. The depth
of the drop is the height of the moon. Each reflection, however long or short its
duration, manifests the vastness of the dewdrop, and realizes the limitlessness of the
moonlight in the sky.
When dharma does not fill your whole body and mind, you think it is already
sufficient. When dharma fills your body and mind, you understand that something is
missing. For example, when you sail out in a boat to the midst of ·an ocean where no
land is in sight, and view the four directions, the ocean looks circular, and does not
look any other way. But the ocean is neither round nor square; its features are infinite
in variety. It is like a palace. It is like a jewel. It only looks circular as far as you can
see at that time. All things are like this. Though there are many features in the dusty
world and the world beyond conditions, you see and understand only what your eye of
practice can reach. In order to learn the nature of the myriad things, you must know
that although they may look round or square, the other features of oceans and
mountains are infinite in variety; whole worlds are there. It is so not only around you,
but also directly beneath your feet, or in a drop of water.
A fish swims in the ocean, and no matter how far it swims there is no end to the
water. A bird flies in the sky, and no matter how far it flies, there is no end to the air.
However, the fish and the bird have never left their elements. When their activity is
large their field is large. When their need is small their field is small. Thus, each of
them totally covers its full range, and each of them totally experiences its· realm. If
the bird leaves the air it will die at once. If the fish leaves the water it will die at once.
Know that water is life and air is life. The bird is life and the fish is life. Life must be
the bird and life must be the fish. It is possible to illustrate this with more analogies.
Practice, enlightenment, and people are like this.
Now if a bird or a fish tries to reach the end of its element before moving in it,
this bird or this fish will not find its way or its place. When you find your place where
you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point. When you find your way
at this moment, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point; for the place, the
way, is neither large nor small, neither yours nor others'. The place, the way, has not
carried over from the past, and it is not merely arising now. Accordingly, in the
practice-enlightenment of the buddha way, meeting one thing is mastering it; doing
one practice is practicing completely.
Here is the place; here the way unfolds. The boundary of realization is not
distinct, for the realization comes forth simultaneously with the mastery of buddhadharma. Do not suppose that what you realize becomes your knowledge and is
grasped by your consciousness. Although actualized immediately, the inconceivable
may not be distinctly apparent. Its appearance is beyond your knowledge.
Zen master Baoche of Mount Mayu was fanning himself. A monk approached
and said, "Master, the nature of wind is permanent and there is no place it does not
reach. Why, then do you fan yourself?" "Although you understand that the nature of
wind is permanent;" Baoche replied, "you do not understand the meaning of its
reaching everywhere." "What is the meaning of its reaching everywhere?" asked the
monk again. The master just kept fanning himself. The monk bowed deeply. The
actualization of the buddha-dharma, the vital path of its correct transmission, is like
this. If you say that you do not need to fan yourself because the nature of wind is
permanent and you can have wind without fanning, you will understand neither
permanence nor the nature of wind. The nature of wind is permanent; because of that,
the wind of the Buddha's house brings forth the gold of the earth and makes fragrant
the cream of the long river.
If we listen even once with open heart to this truth, then praise it
and gladly embrace it, how much more so then, if on reflecting within
ourselves we directly realize Self-nature, giving proof to the truth
that Self-nature is no nature. We will have gone far beyond idle
Hakuin is famous for setting the modern Rinzi Zen training curriculum which consists of a series of Koans that the monk in training must pass. This was in the 18th Century, not so long ago. Before this time koans were inconsistently used even in the Rinzi schools.
Koans on first glance seem to stress cognitive understanding over quietistic meditation. Many people seem to think that any issue that they struggle with is a koan, and koans can become an excuse for lots of thinking.
A koan is very specifically a question ( Koans are not usually presented as questions but as stories, but the question in this case is always how do you understand the story.)
which is designed to open one to Zen experience and or Zen insight. Koans cannot be answered through thought alone but can be answered from experience in zazen. Here Hakuin is pointing to one and maybe the most important insight to be gained from Zen experience, and this insight is the subject of many Koans,
Though I might seem to be contradicting what I wrote earlier in this commentary there is one insight that seems to be the demarcation between one who is good at zazen and one who is enlightened. In Zen terms this is the difference between samadhi and kensho. But is there really a difference? The Sixth Patriarch thought there was no difference, they work together as the natural out growth of each other. But practically speaking sometimes someone needs a kick in the pants for insight to arise from zazen and this is the function of koans. This insight which is so important is the insight into our true self nature. There are many koans which point to our self nature. One of the most famous is, "Thinking neither good nor bad what is your true nature?" Even the Koan "MU!" points to our true nature. Most people think they are what they think and feel but what are you when you stop thought and emotion? What are you when you are in truly deep zazen? You might be asking, How can I have any insight if I have stopped thought? Well, actually thought does not begin with our inner or outer verbal dialogue nor our emotions. How could it? Any psychologist will tell you that there is a subconscious element to thought, and experience in zazen will tell you this. Some people call it intuition but if zazen is truly deep and clear then it is just seeing clearly with that inner sense of understanding. It is seeing clearly that the person in front of you is suffering or happy. It is seeing clearly that someone needs or doesn't need help. And if one is playing tennis it is knowing that a down the line shot is better or worse then a cross court shot. There is no need to verbalize. Now, clearly see who you are.
The Buddha, 2500 years ago, after his enlightenment talked mostly about happiness, why we are unhappy and how we can become happy, but somewhere in there he verbalized the Non-Atman Doctrine. Usually non-atman is translated as no soul, and so the Non Atman Doctrine states that we as individuals have no permanent or indestructible essence like a soul, that we are in effect an ever changing and temporary like everything else in the Universe. Wow, this is unusual to come out of the mouth of a religious leader. It makes perfect sense but our attachment to our own specialness also makes it difficult to believe. Only a deep experience like the experience of deep zazen can, like Hakuin states, "giving proof to the truth that Self-nature is no nature."
I had been practicing meditation for ten or eleven days in retreat. Early in the morning I was sitting practicing listening, hearing the morning sounds with an unusual intensity. My mind was quiet and as sounds arose in my internal soundscape I would hear them appear and disappear like flashes of light adding no extra thoughts to the experience such as identifying the sources of the sounds. Then with one very large explosion of sound I disappeared. Even that small bit of self-awareness that functioned in the meditation was gone. This only lasted a few moments but when awareness returned I clearly understood that if through the practice of meditation all the aspects of self definition, the inner voice, emotions and consciousness could be turned off then there was nothing left which could be called "I". With this simple insight an understanding of Buddhism and Zen opened. The reverberations of this insight have completely changed my way of thinking and my relationship with the rest of the world.
Many people who practice Zen and other forms of Buddhism think that there is no real need to stop verbal thought and emotions, that the insight we call enlightenment will just appear after many years of practice. But there is a logic to this insight. It will not just appear with out, as the Shakyamuni Buddha would say, the proper causes and conditions. To truly give proof to this understanding the personal experience must be deep, and this can only happen if everything that attaches us to our normal way of thinking is turned off. This is sometimes called the Great Death. It need only last a few seconds and it needs to be reflected upon shortly after the experience for it's transformative power to be truly great.
This is why we have koans.
For the next few blogs I am going to give a commentary on Hakuin Zenji's Song of Zazen. This is a popular text in Rinzi Zen and is chanted in Rinzi Temples throughout Japan. In the two sitting groups that I lead we chant the Song of Zazen regularly. The translation I will use is from the One Drop Sanga.
Hakuin Zenji’s Song of Zazen
All sentient beings are essentially Buddhas. As with water and ice,
there is no ice without water; apart from sentient beings, there are no
Buddhas. Not knowing how close the truth is we seek it far away – what a pity!
We are like one who in the midst of water cries out desperately in
thirst. We are like the son of a rich man who wandered away among the
The reason we transmigrate through the Six Realms is because
we are lost in the darkness of ignorance.
Going further and further astray in the darkness, how can we ever be
free from birth-and-death?
As for the Mahayana practice of zazen, there are no words to praise it fully. The Six Paramitas, such as giving, maintaining the precepts, and various other good deeds like
invoking the Buddha’s name, repentance, and spiritual training,
all finally return to the practice of zazen. Even those who have sat zazen
only once will see all karma erased. Nowhere will they find evil
paths, and the Pure Land will not be far away.
If we listen even once with open heart to this truth, then praise it
and gladly embrace it, how much more so then, if on reflecting within
ourselves we directly realize Self-nature, giving proof to the truth
that Self-nature is no nature. We will have gone far beyond idle
The gate of the oneness of cause and effect is thereby opened, and
not-two, not-three, straight ahead runs the Way.
Realizing the form of no-form as form, whether going or returning
we cannot be any place else.
Realizing the thought of no-thought as thought, whether
singing or dancing, we are the voice of the Dharma.
How vast and wide the unobstructed sky of samadhi!
How bright and clear the perfect moonlight of the Four-fold Wisdom!
At this moment what more need we seek?
As the eternal tranquility of Truth reveals itself to us, this very place is
the Land of Lotuses and this very body is the body of the Buddha.
I like the Song Of Zazen because it makes sense. So much in Zen - Koans, the Heart Sutra, etc. - seem obscure to the beginner and even people who have been practicing for years. But here is a text we can understand. The language is clear and direct even if we are not exactly sure what he is talking about.
Right from the beginning we learn that we are essentially all Buddhas. What is a Buddha? This in itself is a very difficult question. Most of us imagine what a Buddha is and our imagination is invariably wrong. We might believe the propaganda and think that Buddhas are magical beings with magical powers and a magical wisdom. What ever we think about being a Buddha is probably wrong until we actually experience being Buddha. One of my early teachers, Sazaki Roshi asked a lot about Buddha. As Koans he would ask questions like "How old is the Buddha?" and "How do you experience Buddha while cooking?" The very first step in practicing with him was to clarify this word Buddha and learn how to experience our selves as Buddha and then manifest our selves as Buddha in daily life. Most Zen teachers don't use the word Buddha so much but instead may use other phrases such as "Original Nature" or "True Self which can be interchanged with the word Buddha in this context.
True practice starts with a faith in being essentially a Buddha, that being a Buddha is our Original Nature, our True Self. We may not know exactly what being a Buddha is accept that it is a worthy goal. Keeping the openness of not knowing is important but also this faith in our potential is important
In the Lotus Sutra Shakyamuni one after another predicts that each member of his audience will become a Buddha. This goes on for many pages. He even gives a specific name for the Buddha that each person will become. Why? Because the faith in our potential is deeply important. It is why we practice. Many of us think that we are fixed beings. We identify our likes and dislikes, our personality our talents and where we lack talent and think, "This is who I am." But that is not who you are. That is just ignorant thinking. Spiritual practice begins with the faith that we can be better. In Buddhism we not only have a faith that we can be better but that we are each endowed with a deep potential to be better. Hakuin says, "We are like the son of a rich man who wandered away among the poor." This is a reference again to a story in the Lotus Sutra. It is not really about material wealth but spiritual wealth and that this spiritual wealth is our natural endowment We Mahayana practitioners say that when the Buddha had his Enlightenment he said, "All beings without exception have this same wisdom which I have just awoken to."
Hi everyone I am back from sesshin. This is - I think- my 28th sesshin with Harada Roshi. And then I put in many years of practice before I started doing sesshins with Harada, The hours I have sat in meditation is mind boggling. I don't regret a minute of practice. I am engaged in a dynamic ever deepening phenomena that has changed and molded my life.
It has been a while since I have actually worked on anything with Harada. Much of the time in the one on one meetings with the teacher (sanzen) he just asks me, "How is your state of mind?" He often presses me to be more involved as a teacher. I am just a small town teacher of meditation. I have never led a retreat. When I go to sesshin I go to push the boundaries of my meditation and deepen the "Dharma Eye." A sesshin is an all out affair. It is a week long mountaineering expedition of the mind, a constant push except for a few rest stops and sometimes a little comic relief. So this blog will be about how I approach a sesshin and some of what I went through in this last sesshin. I would not say that my experiences are indicative of a beginner at sesshin so you might or might not find this interesting.
Much of my practice is to cut thoughts and remain fully and clearly conscious. What I aim for when I meditate is to stop thinking. Many Zen practitioners would quickly say this is a wrong approach and they might even point to passages in Zen texts like the Platform Sutra that seem to also say that stopping thought is the wrong approach. But if they think this, it is only because they have never had a truly deep meditation experience, have never experienced Kensho. They also don't understand what these Zen texts mean by stopping thought. Zen is different from many of the other meditation systems which asks the practitioner to withdraw from the sensory input of the external world. In Zen we sit with our eyes and ears open. So stopping thought to a Zen practitioner is different from stopping thoughts in these other systems which ask the meditator to turn everything off. It was against these other systems that the Zen masters argued In Zen we want to stop our interior verbal dialog, any imaginings, anything extra added on to awareness but we don't stop awareness. In fact we discover that verbal thought and imagination impinge on awareness. Then when we do stop our thinking we find ourselves in the realm of deep awareness and another type of thought.
The first day of sesshin I am already sitting well. Nothing hurts. My mind is already generally quiet from all my many years of sitting. But not totally quiet, interrupted every minute or two by a short stream of thought or dream like images. I cut them off with focus on my breath and by keeping my eyes open and focused on a spot on floor or the person sitting across from me. I have many meditation techniques which I use throughout the sesshin but I always start each block of meditation by counting breaths. During the sesshin there are four sitting blocks which run from 1.5 hours to 3 hours and these are generally divided up into half hour periods. We also do 40 min. of chanting and there is a talk which we sit through that is not cut into periods. During the first period of each block I count my breaths, sit tall, keep my eyes wide open and focused, and hold a mudra (hand position) high, not on my lap. This is not a relaxed in any way. I am pushing my concentration, I am putting energy into my physical posture. You might say that I am driving out my thoughts. Isn't meditation suppose to be relaxing? Not this type. But then near the end of this first period there are long periods between thoughts and I have started to build up a type of energy called Chi or Ki. I feel this energy as making me wide awake. Now for the second period I generally take another approach. I just let go. My hands are siting in my lap. I sit tall but am not concentrating. I just relax my mind which is now quiet and all the sensations of sound and sight just wash across my consciousness. My mind become like a clear mirror. The longer this period of thoughtlessness lasts the more Chi energy seems to build up but this is just the beginning of sesshin and after maybe 5-10 minutes my eyes close and I momentarily loose consciousness and I start dreaming and thinking. As soon as I notice this I open my eyes and let go of the thinking and go back into thoughtlessness until after a few minutes again my eyes close and I go through the same cycle. I go through this cycle of completely awake thoughtlessness, loosing consciousness, closing eyes, dreamlike thoughts, noticing the thoughts, opening the eyes wide and returning to thoughtlessness, several times during the period. Some times these periods of thoughtlessness get shorter and shorter and I start counting breaths again. Other times after a few cycles I settle into thoughtlessness till the end of the period. This pattern of practice, going from concentrated practice to relaxed practice, is called holding fast and letting go.
Many people think that they can just let go and relax their minds into good thoughtless meditation without any effort in developing concentration, but my experience is that when most people try to meditate this way they are never able to completely drop their thinking.
And then there is letting go and completely letting go. I am reminded of the Indian Sage Ramana Maharshi who as a young kid wanted to know what it was like to die so he laid down and completely let go of everything in his mind. He ended up in deep samadhi and had the enlightenment experience that set the course for his life. In meditation, with some effort, it takes concentration, you can experience this complete letting go. I do this at the very bottom of the breath when I have let all the air out. I completely still both mind and body and then completely relax all the focus of the senses and conscious awareness Then for a few moments it is as if I am completely absorbed into the undifferentiated but I also seem to become a vessel with the energy of the Universe just poring in. Energy seems to poor in so quickly that this letting go becomes so intense that I can no longer hold this meditation.
When I sit sesshin I am trying to do two things, one is quiet the mind but the other is to accumulate Chi energy. They work together. Completely letting go is not easy. It takes quite a bit of Chi to let go but once you are able to completely let go for even a short time the Chi just pores in and fills you up from the abdomen to the crown of the head. Because I have been doing this for many years in just a couple days of sesshin I am almost completely filled with Chi and had several prolonged periods of deep thoughtless samadhi. Also I have generally stopped thinking to myself as I walk around.
On day 3 things get tougher. I am experiencing more pain and I am just plain tired. I face this challenge every sesshin. It comes with such negative thoughts as, "Why am I doing this to my self?" "I am just too old for this." and "Will I ever sit deeply again during this sesshin?" I may try to sleep through a period or two to regain some strength and avoid the pain but I know the real answer is to sit even more deeply and so I put even more effort in deepening concentration. When in pain usually I count breaths. I can always put up with the pain for another ten breaths. And then another It is the nagging thoughts that really make the pain difficult. If I can cut my thoughts and really concentrate then the pain will recede into the background and not bother me. Also the pain keeps me awake and focused and even if the pain sits like a big rock in my consciousness I am not thinking much, deepening the meditation and accumulating Chi. Eventually the pain often seems to disappear as meditation deepens and I have accumulated enough Chi. I remember thinking to myself that as a soccer player when I was younger I often played in pain but that never stopped me from putting out all out effort and I loved it and so I do the same with meditation.
There is a few other meditation techniques that I want to discuss. I call this purifying the channels. Sometimes I do these during the second and third periods of a sitting block. The first channel I focus on is that of sound. The idea is to become absorbed in the sounds around without being attached to any one sound. I do this by moving my concentration to my ears and feeling the sound on both ears. Eventually it becomes like an ocean of sound washing across an empty consciousness. The next technique I use is to purify the visual channel.. In this technique I open my eyes wide and move my attention to the whole visual field without attaching focus to any one thing. Done correctly the edges of the peripheral vision become clear and the visual field becomes a single round mandala. I find this technique so difficult that not only does it cut off all thoughts but I just cannot hold it for very long. I once did this technique for a whole sesshin and actually lost vision in one eye. I guess my eyeball went dry and would no longer properly transmit light. But I also attained a very deep samadhi. Once I have successfully purified both channels then again I let go and just let everything in.
I don't know exactly what Chi is. I don't know any scientific studies that have tried to pinpoint a cause to the phenomena. I tend to think of it as nervious system energy but its importance in meditation cannot be over emphasized It accumulates through deep meditation but it helps to continue to deepen meditation. It definately can be felt in various ways such as a strong sensation at one of the Chakra points. When you are filled with Chi the Crown Chakra on the top of the head is activated. Also when you are filled with Chi there is a certain "pressure" that you feel when meditating. Harada Roshi calls this a "taught balloon."
So what is the outcome of all this effort in meditation. Each sesshin is a little different. Sometimes I experience strong feelings of love and joy And certainly all that meditation intensifies sensations. And my mind is quiet. But most important is that I look out at the world and don't see it as just divided up into individual beings and things but the whole world, the whole Universe as a single body that contains us all. And the joy and love I feel is not only my joy and love as an individual but the Universe's own joy and love. And this insight is not only my insight but the Universes own self realization.
Hi everyone. Just a note, I seem to have plenty of readers of this blog but nobody is leaving any comments. Please feel free to leave a comment.
I have been thinking lately about the words Mahayana and Hinayana. I was doing some research for one of my blogs when I read that many people object to the term Hinayana and don't feel it is appropriate to apply it to the Theravada school. They think it is a demeaning term and not just a historical demarcation between schools, a very understandable point of view.
As a historical demarcation we only have the Theravada school existing today as an example of a Hinayana school though I understand that until the fall of Buddhism in India there were many different Hinayana schools. There are significant differences between Theravada Buddhism and the Mahayana schools of Buddhism but there are also significant differences between the many schools of the Mahayana. Theravada Buddhism is undeniably closer to the Buddhism that the historic Buddha, Shakyamuni, taught then any of the Mahayana schools. Their primary literature is the Palli Cannon written in the language that the Buddha spoke and probably very close to the very words the he spoke. This purity is undeniably one of the attractions of the Theravada school and the Western derivative, the Vipassina school. I know, many Western Vipassina practitioners would call themselves Theravada Buddhists but there are enough differences, mostly cultural, between the way it is practiced in the Asia and the way it is practiced in the West that they really are different schools. One example is the large number of lay practitioners in the West, many who are woman including many woman teachers. And then much of the religious formality has been stripped out of the Western Vipassina practice. The same could be said about Western Zen.
One of the most interesting aspects of the American Vipassina School is that many of the teachers are also psychologists and there is now a movement in psychology based around Mindfulness Meditation. I also know of many psychologists practicing Zen and it is probably also true of the other schools of Buddhism in the West. It is only natural seeing that Buddha emphasized happiness and pointed a way towards happiness and therapeutic psychology is also about making people happy. The early teachings of the Buddha, the Four Fold Truths and the Eight Fold Path emphasize the personal search for happiness and individual salvation. This is why it is called the small or individual vehicle, Hinayana. One may think that the term Hinayana is disparaging but it is an accurate descriptor. This emphasis on the individual runs throughout the so called Hinayana schools. The great thinkers of these schools focused on individual psychology and the psychology of meditation and produced a great body of literature called the Abhidhamma, which is worth some study. Even the large number of vows that a Theravada monk takes points to this individual emphasis. To disparage this approach would be to disparage the teachings of Shakyamuni. The so called Hinayana approach is an important leg upon which the Dharma stands.
At some point some people thought that this individual emphasis had some problems, that this individual approach was not enough. They viewed Buddhism from a more philosophic (maybe ontological is a better word) and a more cosmic perspective. From their concerns grew a whole new body of Buddhist literature the Mahayana Sutras. Though it is most likely that Shakyamuni Buddha did not speak the Mahayana Sutras we can see the roots of the Mahayana in his original teachings. These are: One, the Non-Atman doctrine that we humans have no soul which transmigrates from body to body, or gives us special status as a special creation. Two, that all things, including humans, result from causes and conditions ( an early idea of causation). Three, that everything is in a process of constant change. One can see the whole Mahayana as an elaboration of these three original teachings. And because these are part of the original teachings they also are part of Theravada Buddhism, just not emphasized like in the Mahayana, And of course the Mahayana does not ignore the original teachings of the Four Fold Truths and the Eight Fold Path so really the Mahayana and Hinayana result from differing emphasis but contain each other.
In my reading I came upon a teaching from a Tibetan teacher that we should not classify different schools of Buddhism as necessarily Hinayana or Mahayana but should understand that it is the individual's approach to Buddhist practice that is either Hinayana or Mahayana. Within a Mahayana school one can practice with a Hinayana attitude and within Theravada Buddhism one can also practice with a Mahayana attitude. Now I am getting close to the point I want to make but first let me tell one of the classic Zen stories.
The 5th Patriarch of the Zen school in China wanted to appoint a successor. He asked his students to submit poems showing their understanding so that he could choose one of his students. Shen Xui the head monk submitted this:
The body is the Bodhi Tree
The mind a mirror bright
Diligently polish the mirror
Don't let the dust alight
Hiu Neng the future sixth patriarch submitted this:
There is no Bodhi Tree
Nor is their a mirror bright
Not a thing exists
Where can dust alight?
The understanding reflected in these two poems is vastly different. Shen Shui's poem is about the individual practice of meditation and mindfulness. As the fifth Patriarch noted, if you successfully practice this way you will ward off suffering. But Shen Sui did not become the sixth Patriarch because he had not gone beyond a Hinayana point of view. He still only saw things from his own individual perspective. Hui Neng did receive the robe and bowl as the Sixth Patriarch because he had a deeper understanding which transcended the individual perspective. In his poem he expresses a perspective in which not a thing exists. In the Mahayana we say this is the perspective of emptiness which is nothing other then the perspective expressed by the Buddha's three teachings of non-Atman, causation, and impermanence. And with the last line of this poem "where can the dust alight? ", he is saying that this perspective is where suffering ends, that in some sense it never existed, and if we understand this we can't be touched by suffering. Hui Neng's perspective was from the other side of the river, enlightenment This is the Mahayana perspective.
Now it may seem that that I am touting the superiority of the Mahayana but what I am trying to say is that whether you practice in the Theravada tradition or one of the Mahayana traditions it is important that you don't get caught in an individual perspective, a Hinayana perspective, but rather see beyond our individual perspective with at least a little bit of a Mahayana perspective. What I mean by a little bit of Mahayana perspective is to take seriously those three teachings of the Buddha, non-Atman, causation, impermanence, and try to understand their implications. Ask the questions: What do these three teachings mean for my understanding of my self? What do these three teachings mean for my understanding of reincarnation? What do these three teachings mean for my understanding of free-will? What do these three teachings mean for my place as an individual in the greater Universe? What do these three teachings mean for the Dharma's place in the Universe? What perspective do these three teachings give us on the nature of the Universe? How does this understanding effect practice? With a careful examination of these questions maybe we can take ourselves a bit out of the individual Hinayana perspective and give ourselves something of a cosmic perspective.
The motivation for writing this blog is my experience that many people come to Buddhism with a personal obsession over their own suffering. This is perfectly understandable for those who experience deep psychological suffering and many of us do. They think practicing Buddhism will relieve their suffering and it does to some extent but then after years of practice most people discover that for them Buddhism is not a miracle cure When I ask myself how they can be more successful in their practice I think they some how need to have more of a Mahayana perspective. Somehow they need to step over the seemingly impenetrable barrier of self.
Many people think that the Mahayana is all about the Bodhisattva Ideal of the individual who dedicates him/her self to helping others overcome suffering. The Bodhisattva Ideal is important. It helps us overcome the self through dedication to others but if one does not see beyond the individual perspective it can also create deep suffering as the suffering of others, through compassion and empathy becomes our own suffering. We are still caught in an individual perspective. More important then the individual version of the Bodhisattva Ideal is the cosmic perspective of the Mahayana. This cosmic perspective can take many forms which depends on the insight and experience of the individual but has to begin with a certain faith. What is this faith? It is a faith in the teachings and more then a faith in the teachings it is a faith in the Universe. It is a faith that the Universe is manifesting in a way it must with a certain perfection. It is the faith that though we humans are just small ephemeral beings we are part of and take part in this great perfect Universe.
It is difficult for us humans to see this perfection of which I write. We see only a small slice of time and our concerns are based around human wants and desires. We see lots of things that seem very bad. This is how our small human perspective sees the world. There is a larger perspective. In the Pure Land sects of Buddhism there is a faith in the vow of the cosmic Bodhisattva Amitaba to save all sentient beings. This is a personification of the the type of faith I am writing about. Amitaba represents the Universe and a recognizable compassion that exists within the Universe. This compassion manifests through friend and family, strangers, the society, and the events that teach us the lessons we need to learn. It manifests through our own individual Bodhisattva practice. It manifests through the very nature of life. It manifests through the very nature of the Universe. Like a growing child this perfection is an evolving ever changing perfection. Now I am going to say something that is very out there. Human suffering is part of this perfection. We might say it is the price of our human consciousness, the price of our potential to manifest as Bodhisattvas and Buddhas.
In our secular society many of us have faith only in our selves in our own intelligence in our own desires. Many of us come to Buddhist practice with only this faith because Buddhism seems like the one truly rational religion. But we human beings are not perfect, not fully rational, certainly not smart enough to figure it all out A long time ago it was recognized that faith in just ourselves was not enough and the various religious traditions filled this gap. Religion gave us a sort of cosmic perspective which soothed our suffering and fears especially our fear of death, But, in today's world with the explosion of science based knowledge it becomes more and more difficult to have faith in these old religious traditions and so Buddhism presents itself on a rational foundation, without a faith in any Gods, with the personal psychological discipline of meditation, and is very attractive. Buddhism appears as a sort of secular religion but still it asks for faith because in the cosmic perspective of the Mahayana it is trans-rational, and trans-individual. Initially only faith has the power to help us let go of our individual perspective, our individual worries and concerns and especially our fear of death. Eventually this faith may become something more, through experience transformed into wisdom.
Poetic Liberation II
This is a continuation of the previous blog on an idea I am calling Poetic Realization. If you have not read the previous blog maybe you should begin there.
Having tea after the Sunday morning sit the question came up, what were the Three Turnings of the Dharma and is their a forth? This idea of turnings is something the Tibetan Buddhists talk about. It is rarely talked about in other schools of Buddhism. The story of the three turnings goes something like this.
When the the Buddha began teaching he recognized that he needed to mold his teachings for the existing mentality of the people he was teaching. This first formulation of the teachings can be found in the Palli Cannon and is today practiced by the Theravada Buddhists. It is known as the "small vehicle" because it's focus is on the individual and the individual's desire to relieve themselves from suffering.
Then as his students became more advanced in the path he changed his teachings and started talking about the Bodhisattva who practices so that all people can be liberated from suffering. And there was a new philosophic focus with concepts like "emptiness." and the non-dual perspective. This produced a whole new body of teachings found in the Mahayana Sutras. It was called the "large vehicle" - Mahayana in Sanskrit- because no longer was the emphasis on the individual's personal practice to relieve personal suffering, but rather the very need to drop the personal perspective and see the Dharma as transcending the individual. This is the second turning of the Dharma. The Mahayana has many schools and is found throughout Northern Asia. Zen is a Mahayana School.
Keeping to the theme of this story, the Buddha never completely shared his full understanding in public discourse but saved his deepest teachings for one on one teaching to his best students. This body of teachings was for many many years privately passed from teacher to student until it emerged in a body of literature called the Tantra's. I have to say that I am no expert on the Tantra's but my understanding is that these esoteric teachings are about the use of certain "powers" in initiations and meditation. These teachings have become very important in the Vajrayana Schools of Buddhism in Tibet and other parts of Asia. These schools are also a subset of the larger Mahayana community.
I think there is another way to view the Three Turnings of the Dharma which is probably historically more accurate. Each of the three turnings was a formulation and then reformulation of the teachings in response to a particular time and place, and also the growing experience of the many practitioners.. This ability and willingness to reformulate itself is one of Buddhism's great assets. As Buddhism moves into the Western World there is an other reformulation of Buddhism that is happening. Why am I writing about this? True deep Buddhism never fix's the meaning of words and doctrines. Words and doctrines are temporary skillful means attempts to express the inexpressible. Only deep experience can reveal a true understanding of Buddhism. Words can direct us on a path towards that experience and maybe they can point out that experience and understanding that comes from that experience but not literally only metaphorically, only poetically. This is what I call poetic liberation.
When Zen entered China it was entering a land with a deep love of poetry. In adapting Zen to China and later Japan a new formulation of Buddhism emerged using words poetically as metaphors for enlightened understanding and experience. And a new powerful tool combining metaphor and meditation emerged called the Koan. I think we can justifiably call this a fourth turning.
Now I have caught up to the previous blog. Typically the first Koan given a student is Mu. Mu is a word meaning no. The story goes that a student asked the Zen master Joshu, "Does a dog have Buddha nature?" The response was Mu. Right away we understand that this Mu is not a littoral no because Buddhist doctrine tells us that all beings have Buddha Nature. Of course Buddha Nature is another big question. All of this swirls in our head as we try to understand Joshu's response. Again and again we bring our teacher an intellectual answer and it is always rejected. Maybe we have heard that if we give a good shout MU we will pass but again the answer is rejected. We have to bring something else to the teacher. Eventually if we drop any fixed dualistic meaning for MU, and our dualistic understanding, all of a sudden Mu will make perfect sense.
This whole process of Koan Zen pushes the student, never letting him or her sit on their lorals, never settling on a comfortable understanding of Zen and meditation. This process works on the student to break down their dualistic thinking, and pushes their meditation to go deeper and deeper eventually setting up the conditions which allow the student to see through their dualistic thinking to the non-dual. What are these conditions?
One condition is a temporary suspension of dualistic thinking, verbal and emotional. There must also be a deep detachment from dualistic thought based on the fixed meanings of words. Lastly there is still the inner search for deeper meaning and a sort of directed energy that has built up in this search These last two conditions are where the koan is important It is not quite enough to just temporarily stop verbal thought in meditation because without a deeper detachment from dualistic thinking, when the meditation is over the dualistic thinking will start up again.
"The Master took the high seat in the Hall. He said: 'on your lump of red flesh
is a true man without rank who is always going in and out of the face of every one of you.
Those who have not yet proved him, look, look!"
This is a statement taken from the teachings of Rinzi and often given as a Koan. Rinzi, noted for his unusual teaching methods used language very freely and here seems to have presented us with a perplexing statement. In doing a little research on the internet I read a few commentaries on this koan and none of them seemed to go to the full depth of this koan. In Zen we often talk about the "true self", understanding our true self, finding our true self etc. This seems in contradiction to the Buddhist teaching of no self but we shouldn't be surprised with this seeming contradiction. Some how this delema resolves with a whole new way of viewing the self which is what this koan is all about.
One may start with the phrase true man of no rank and think: "We are always ranking ourselves, sometimes superior, sometimes inferior to those we interact with. Sometimes this ranking is conscious, often it is subconscious, but either way it effects our emotions and responses. On the other hand the enlightened don't think this way and see others as well as themselves as equals without rank. Instead the enlightened clearly see each situation and respond accordingly."
These thoughts may be a good beginning but they don't see the full depth of the Koan. What about this True Man going in and out of the face? Sensations and food come in through the face and what goes out through the face, words, spittle, disgorged food? What is Rinzi talking about? And also why is he bringing in the lump of red flesh?
We read "on your lump of red flesh is a true man" and we may immediately think that there is a separation between the lump of red flesh, our body, and the true man, our true selves. Beware of falling into the trap of mind body dualism. Buddhism is not a dualistic philosophy. We are not our body but we are also not not our body. This reminds me of many years ago when I was at a retreat with Baba Muctinanda the Hindu Guru. In his talk he tells us that we are all just bags of piss and shit. Many years later Harada Roshi in a talk tells us that we are bags of bile and puke. Why would they speak this way? Maybe they as well as Rinzi wanted to break down the idea that we are just this body. Be careful, if we alternatively think that we are just our minds then we are truly in trouble. If we think, "I am what I think," then we become attached to our greed anger and confusion, and then what hope do we have. We are also not not our mind.
Now we return to the "true man without rank who is always going in and out of the face of every one of you." Who is this true man, is it us, is it separate from us? Every which way we turn we fall into dualism. Rinzi says look look prove it to yourself. The inscrutable nature of the koan, the process of confronting the teacher again and again keeps pushing us. Boundaries have to be dropped. Fixed ideas have to be dropped. There we sit in meditation experiencing things like we always experience things but some how it is different because now we experience without boundaries. From the sounds that go in our ears, the sights that go in our eyes, the smells that go in our noses, and the breath that goes in and out of our body, we cannot separate ourselves.
Truly deep meditation is often described as a state of equanimity where all sensations. all things, are seen as equal. In this state of mind we simply observe without adding thoughts to our observation. We may also say this is a state of mind where everything is without rank. This state of mind which we call samadhi is not quite enough, somehow a profound change in understanding needs to take place and the koan points directly at this new understanding. Here is where the unique and poetic use of language in Zen has it's power. The phrase true man without rank references this completely different understanding but it all hinges on our understanding of the word man. This dualistic word must somehow be understood with a non-dualistic understanding.
In samadhi all our conceptual boundaries which divide perception into this and that are down. This is a state of Zero not a thing exists, because we are without even a single thought. But then if we look we can perceive everything is a single thing, One. This One includes not only what we sense out there but also our selves, this body and mind. We become everything but also everything becomes us. We have entered the non-dual. Rinzi's use of the word man is a personification of the non-dual It represents the identification of our true selves with everything. with the One. The One is our true self, it is the True Self, it is the true man without rank. Look look don't you see him? You just need to practice more.
If you truly see the man of no rank you shouldn't have a problem with this koan. You have undergone poetic liberation and the obscure language of the Zen Masters should start to be clear. I hope this essay has demonstrated reasonably well what I mean by poetic realization. Good luck in your practice.
” Confused by thoughts,
we experience duality in life.
Unencumbered by ideas,
the enlightened see the one Reality.”
- Hui Neng 6th Zen patriarch
Hi folks. I have been playing with a thought I call Poetic Liberation. Let me explain. The enlightenment experience has a deeply poetic quality in several ways. The intensity, joy and beauty of the experience cannot be captured by intellectual dissertation. Only poetry can somewhat successfully express this type of experience. We can see the huge volume of poetry that has come from many of the great mystics in all the great mystic traditions. I only need point to Rumi in the Sufi tradition, Milarepa in the Tibetan tradition, Tagore in the Hindu tradition and St Francis in the Christian tradition. There are whole web sites devoted to mystic poets if you want to read some of this wonderful poetry. Poetry has this wonderful quality of being able to evoke the deep feelings and understanding of the mystic experience.
The relationship between poetry and the enlightenment experience is even deeper then the ability of poetry to express feelings and thoughts. The enlightenment experience causes this amazing transformation in the way the individual thinks about things. This transformation is deeply poetic because it creates a deeply metaphorical way of thinking. With the experience of the non-dual we all of a sudden realize that the essential duality of language is a problem. We divide up our perception of the world with words. As long as we hold to the fixed meaning of words not only can we not express non-duality but our attachment to fixed meanings prevents our experience of the non-dual. Enlightenment liberates us from the fixed meanings of words. but in some way though, we must first liberate ourselves from the fixed meanings of words before we open ourselves to the enlightenment experience. How do we do this? Well just sitting for many many hours is a good way. We sit until in some sense we forget the meaning of words but actually we sit until our mind becomes quiet and we just stop using words. There is also another way which is used in Zen. It is called Koan practice. This is to confront the student with an enigmatic question which will only cause endless frustration if he sticks to the fixed meaning of words. Combine this with meditation and now we have a powerful tool which can cut through the impediment of fixed meanings and liberate our use of language. With this liberation words can now express the metaphoric quality of enlightened understanding.
What is the metaphoric quality of the enlightenment experience? It is to see unity when most people see just duality. It is to understand non-duality in the world of duality. In this understanding each individual thing is just a temporary manifestation of the non-dual and thereby becomes a metaphor for the non-dual. In this understanding as each individual thing becomes a metaphor for the non-dual it also becomes a metaphor for every other individual thing. Now seeing everything as a metaphor for everything just about makes verbal thought impossible. How can we verbally teach the non-dual Dharma? Now comes the innovation in teaching method that has made Zen Buddhism unique, the enigmatic use of language, the selective use of seemingly absurd metaphors.
The Zen master says, "Become one with the sound of the wind." How can I become one with the sound of the wind when we are two? The wind is one thing and I am something else. Some where there is an experience where the I and the wind become one. The experience is in front of us all the time but as long as we hold to a fixed meaning for "I" and "wind" never the two shall meet.
This web sight is named from a poetic couplet:
Sitting in the Moonwater Dojo
Tracing flowers in the sky
The Moon reflecting on still water is a common Zen metaphor. Still water represents a clear mind without the commotion of many thoughts like a polished mirror reflecting the reality around us. The Moon represents that reality around us but not as we normally see it with our active mind, but as a single whole the, undifferentiated oneness, the Absolute, Buddha. The Moomwater Dojo is a place of practice where we can sit and clearly experience the Oneness of reality. This might be thought of as a physical place but it also is a mental place that is free of any specific physical place. The Moonwater Dojo is our clear mind. The Moonwater Dojo is also the Absolute perspective where everything is Empty Then taking this metaphor even further the Moonwater Dojo is also the absolute, non-dual, Oneness The Moonwater Dojo is all of this and nothing, just a word, just a sound.
"Tracing flowers in the sky" another poetic image which has multiple metaphoric meanings. Flowers are sort of amazing. They are absolutely beautiful and very temporary. They open up, attract insects with their colors, and then in a day or a week or maybe a bit longer they wither and are gone. This is like our lives This is like the lives of all living things. And if we expand our time scale, all things are just temporary manifestations, mountains, rivers, civilizations. Everything is both a beneficiary and victim to the constant change we call reality. Everything is ephemeral. Everything is a flower in the Sky.
Sitting in the Moonwater Dojo, sitting with a clear mind, not attaching any dualistic thinking to any sensation, sensations reflect upon the clear consciousness like passing flowers. And a deeper understanding is present,, that of the non-dual and the flowers which cannot be separated from the non-dual. Sitting in the Moonwater Dojo, tracing flowers in the sky is the Absolute sitting in its own presence
The non-dual Absolute which contains everything, encompasses everything, is everything, including time and space, this Universe and all Universes, transcends everything, is beyond fixed definition, is beyond grasping, and yet, it's presence can be grasped with every flower in the sky.
This is enough for one blog so you will just have to wait as I continue this theme and write about the enigmatic and poetic use of language in Koans in the next blog
This short essay called The Embrace was given as a talk at one of our Zen retreats here in Port Townsend a few years ago. People liked it but it also created some controversy which made for a lively discussion. I have thought of Zen practice as a type of embrace since passing a Koan with Sasaki Roshi many years ago. You can read about this in my essay A Life of Practice found on this site. Enjoy.
The Heart of Buddhism is the embrace. At its Heart is the embrace, for in the embrace the individual disappears, merges with the embraced and the Heart is felt. In the embrace we become one with everything from the smallest creatures to the whole Universe. In the embrace we become time and space, past and future, truth and illusion. Yet the embrace is truth not illusion. In the embrace everything is clear. In the embrace we discover our true nature.
The embrace is all inclusive, nothing is rejected. In the embrace we become one with both the loved and the despised, the pure and the impure, and recognize ourselves as both the loved and the despised, the pure and the impure.
The embrace is active not passive yet includes both activity and passivity. The embrace is the Buddha way but includes all forms of Religion. The embrace is joy but also include suffering. It is Nirvana but also includes Samsara. The embrace is life but also includes death.
In the embrace we discover that the other is in embrace with us and that there never was a two only a one, and this one includes the whole Universe.
In the embrace of one thing, the self is forgotten and we become all things.
From where does the embrace arise? The embrace is not an embrace of the intellect nor is it an embrace of the emotions and yet it does not necessarily exclude intellect and emotions. It comes before intellect and emotions and yet it frees intellect and emotions from the bondage of a small self view. The embrace is the primal embrace. It is the embrace of the eyes for what is to be seen, the ears for what is to be heard, the nose for what is to be smelled, the tongue for what is to be tasted, body for what is to be felt, and the mind for what is to be understood. The embrace naturally arises when head and heart join with clarity.
The fullness of the embrace precludes all thoughts of the individual self. The fullness of the embrace is the embrace of the universal self for the universal self. It is an expression of the Universe's self love.
The other day at the the weekly meditation we read a short essay by Harada Roshi on Rinzai's teaching of the Host and Guest. Both Harada and I teach within the Rinzai lineage. Rinzai lived in 9th century China. His name in Chinese is Linji. There is no "L" sound in the Japanese language, and language changes a lot in 1000 years, so some how the names Linji and Rinzai represent the same person.
Rinzai was noted for his many unusual teachings. He would hit and shout at his students in an effort to break their conceptual thinking. Amazingly it worked. Sometimes I hear Harada use a shout while he is giving private interviews. He doesn't shout anything at them, he just lets go with a bellow. It just might be enough to shake the student from their last bit of thinking and thereby enter deep samadhi. The same is true of being hit. In a Zen meditation hall there is often a person walking the isles of meditators carrying a stick. Most people think this stick is just to help them stay awake during the long hours of meditation but every once in a while I will ask to be hit ( You get hit on the shoulder muscles and it is more of a shock then painful.) when I want that last bit of thinking knocked out of my head. Sometimes it works and some times it doesn't work.
One of the more unusual teachings Rinzai came up with was that of the Guest and Host. I had thought that this was an esoteric teaching about the relationship between the Absolute and the Individual, the Absolute being the Host and the Individual being the Guest, or maybe the other way around depending on the situation. Take tennis for example, when I gather all my concentration and then let go with a serve and rush the net for the next shot, all my years of practice take over and that internal I has no power over the unfolding event. In some sense we might say the Universe, the Absolute, is in charge and the "I" is along for the ride and is the Guest in this situation, and the Absolute is the Host. On the other hand when "I" make decisions at work about how things may be done then we might say that "I" am the host and yet I understand that the Absolute is always present functioning through everything, it takes the role of guest in my inner world. And yet, (there is always that yet because whenever we enter the realm of duality and language there is always another side to look at) the Absolute is always in charge, the individual is an illusion. Thus the Absolute is always the Host. From the perspective of individual psychology in this practice, as realization deepens more and more the "I" becomes identified with the Absolute. Even individual choice becomes the Absolute's choice.
Harada's essay had a completely different interpretation in which the teaching of Guest and Host is about social interaction. Rinzai in his teaching of Guest and Host asks us to recognize when we are the Host and when we are the Guest and to understand that this is constantly changing according to the situation.
Here in the USA we want to see ourselves as equals in our social interactions, but in the class structured society of ancient China and Japan there was this understanding that none of us are quite equals in our social interactions. In most interactions there is someone in charge and who we might call the Host and the other or others who are following who we might call the Guest or Guests. Or if someone enters our house we are the Host and if we enter someone else's house we are the Guest. Using the words Host and Guest tells us that these two roles are not about who is more important. They are both are of equal importance but that the roles have behavioral expectations. In Zen terms this is about acting appropriately.
For most of us we are usually acting according to our concept of self identity our ego. Some people are always trying to take power in all situations, others cede power because it makes them feel secure. And then we have all sorts of ideas about how things are suppose to be. I was at sesshin and we were all sitting waiting for the Harada Roshi to come and give a teshio (formal talk). We sit in these nice neat rows and I was sitting next to an ordained nun. It was a hot day and I chose to not ware my robes because they are hot being made from wool, instead I was neatly dressed in a black shirt and pants which I thought was appropriate,. The nun did not think it was appropriate. She told me I should put on my robes. When I told her my robes were wool and that I would be very hot and uncomfortable warring them she told me "that is just the point" as though the practice of Zen was about learning to put up with being uncomfortable. I didn't want to argue so I got up ran back to where my robes were hanging, put them on and ran back to my seat, just before Harada arrived. I was dripping sweat by the time I arrived back in the zendo.
I tell this story not only because I think the nun acted from an idea she had of what was appropriate and the idea that she understood Zen better then this layman who was sitting next to her, but also because I didn't know how to respond and sat for a while debating with myself over what should I do. I think both of us were caught by our egos in this exchange.
The teaching of Guest and Host is about how you act without ego no matter whether the situation seems to give you power or not give you power. As a Host you should honor and respect your guests and the Guest should honor and respect the host. These are different roles created by the situation. Society may place one above the other, knowledge, our jobs, personal power, may place one above the other but in essence we are all equal. It is exactly this recognition which we Zen Buddhists like to believe Shakyamuni announced upon his enlightenment, "All Beings have this same wisdom which I have just been awakened to."
There is this image that is often used in Zen training. As we proceed
in life most of us humans have lots of sharp points which stick out, get caught on things, and painfully slash and poke others. These sharp points are all those ideas we have of desires and attachments, anger and confusion. Zen practice slowly grinds away at all these sharp points until we become like a smooth round ball which roles through life not getting caught or painfully impaling anyone.
The ideal Zen practitioner proceeds through life without all those thoughts of desires, attachments, anger, and confusion. Not that the ideal Zen practitioner is completely without thought but that he/she lives in the present and acts without the intermediary of a whole lot of thought. This does not mean that he/she acts stupidly but rather lets their deeper intelligence and compassion, which we all have, react to the situation. I go back to the tennis analogy. You just can't hit a tennis ball very well if you are constantly thinking about how and where to hit the ball. You play much better if you trust your skills honed through time and practice and drop all the extra thought and just concentrate on being completely present as you move and hit the ball. Some people say that Zen practice hones our intuition and allows us to act spontaneously but I think it is better described as allowing us to see clearly and act through that clarity.
Hi I am Ed Shozen Haber an authorized teacher of Zen in the lineage of Shodo Harada Roshi of the One Drop Sangha. By the way I look a bit older now.