John opens the first evening at summer retreat talking about the spirit of a koan. We were nestled in the lovely redwood mountains of Land of the Medicine Buddha in Soquel California. We were meditating, walking and diving into the great koan, Sickness and Medicine. It is based on a koan which goes like this, “Sickness and Medicine are in accord with each other. The whole world is medicine, what am I?” July 14, 2014.
So you are thinking about your loved ones, your ancestors and decide to take a trip out to the cemetery. You find your family vault and with a key open the stone door and step inside. You won’t stay long, you just want to pay your respects. But a gust of wind comes up and…
In practice you are traveling, you are on a path. It is different from a plan because you are on uncertain turf. Practice also has more love in it because you are moving in the dark in a positive way. The koan is like the dog that follows you around with a bowl – it foils your serious plans.
Two swords are crossed (like in the movies, which actually I don’t think happens in real life, but it’s very popular in the movies. It was popular in the movies like 1200 years ago.) Two swords are crossed. There’s no way to retreat. You’re a lotus in the fire. You can’t help it. You’re determined to go higher. Farther, higher, up , further, more. So two swords are crossed. There’s no way to retreat. You’re a lotus in the fire. You can’t help it. You’re determined to go higher.
So we’ve been talking about old poems that are also a map of the path, but they’re a map of the kind where you have to see what rises in your meditation to meet them to find out how useful they are to you. Today we’re on the fifth of the ranks, the fifth poem. Five ranks by an old Zen teacher, and this is the final one, so you now know conclusively that there are only five stages to the path. And it goes:
When something confronts you, don’t believe it. Whatever appears, shine your light on it. Have confidence in the light that’s always working inside you. When the heart rises, the 10,000 things arise too. When the heart is still, the many things cease. They come to rest. When the heart does not rise… when the heart is not anxious, as John put it last night… when the heart does not rise, the 10,000 things are without blame. So when something confronts you don’t believe it. Don’t believe it. That’s been such a kick to sit with. I just noticed that I start suffering, and when suffering comes it, it doesn’t even name itself. I’m not even aware of what I’m wrong for doing or not doing.
I want to describe the process that I went through over the last year, of making the painting, and I want to do that in the spirit of when something
arises, don’t believe it, and shine your light on it. So in a year, a lot of things can arise not to believe, and they did. But even, if you’re in the meditation hall, five minutes is
probably long enough for plenty to arrive not to believe in.
Tonight I want to talk about another aspect of the koan about who’s hearing, who am I, what am I. There’s a spectrum I’ve been talking about so far for all of one previous talk. And I wanted to get at it slightly at an angle by going in through dreams, and the idea of is there a difference between what we’re doing and dreams anyway, which is certainly relevant to who we think we are.
Hakuin would paint that as a demon. This is demon number three. Which number demon is that? And the other things is that thing about how the thing we thought was the problem can transform, there is that real sense of what’s wrong with being a demon? If I think there’s a demon obviously I’m it.
So there’s something about where we’re located, which is in the middle of nothing, good to know, and then how do you manage there? And also something about expression being eloquent. So what is eloquence when you’re in the middle of nothing? And also something about not reaching for approval, categories, emperors, sages, psychologies, ideas, history, anything that’s not nothing. Okay, so here we are.
A koan is a piece of old wisdom in a very concise form. I think of it as a vial of ancient light that has been passed down to us. It’s the same light that was in the heart of the teacher who invented the koan. So, if you can get the vial open, what will pour out is your inheritance. It won’t be the usual kind of inheritance with bank accounts, real estate, debts and family feuds. This inheritance will be a perspective—the way an old master saw and experienced the world.
The practice part of it is that it doesn’t matter if you think you lost the coin and start to be unhappy about life. That is another theory. And it doesn’t matter how many times that theory rises. Even that theory is the coin. A koan practice means that you go back to the river over and over again and you can trust that process.
This is from an old Chinese poet, and koans and poems were always, poems, koans, koans, poems, they’re always somewhat intertwined in their history. And so often poems were used as koans and vice versa. This is a series of five poems by an old Chinese teacher called Dongshan, who kind of did a map of the Way in five stages, because everybody knows there are five stages for the Way [laughter].
And so the certain categories of koans are designed to help us see the implications. We’ve been playing with a few this week, and the one I’d like to do today is “Stop the war.” It’s kind of succinct. Cut it out! Stop the war, or can you stop the war?
Everybody probably has a road that would come to mind. I remember getting a bus in Tasmania and driving through the west coast mountains to a mining town where I was going to work, get a job, and how the snow was coming down and the bus would just go around this really narrow road like that, and there are certain parts of the world that have truly alarming narrow mountain roads with truly alarming drivers and very ancient buses.
This is one of those “in the old days, once upon a time” stories. There are a couple of interesting things about this. The first thing is about the idea of just getting in the bath, that maybe one of the metaphors for spiritual tradition is you get in a bath, and not only that, you do it together. We do it with each other. You could say we do it with the crows who call, we do it with the frogs, with the trees, with the birds. And then something happens in the bath. What happens in the bath, I suppose, is really most of what happens on the spiritual journey.
So I would like to talk tonight a bit about what I’ve been noticing about the journey we’re on together in the ship of sesshin, and then to talk some about this koan the storehouse of treasures, and then we’ll see what happens then.
And so you go out to the cemetery and you find your family vault. It looks a little bit overgrown; you haven’t been there for a long time. But you’ve got a key and you put it in and you pull the big stone door and it opens, just like that. It’s great. So you walk in just to kind of pay your respects; you haven’t been here for ages. And a sudden gust of wind….
..a practice is different from a plan. You know what a plan is; you’ve probably made a few of them. A practice has more love in it, because a practice is something you’re doing without being sure of the outcome..
..one of the things we can be skeptical about is that division. This is meditation, this is not meditation, and the question is always, how do you know it’s not meditation? How do you know what’s happening now isn’t it?
I like having a roomful of things and a roomful of people. So my plan for this talk is to say a little bit of some of the things I’ve
been thinking about as I sit with this koan, and talk a little bit about retreat, and then to have some time for conversation and questions and observations.
June 2016 Retreat – You might have noticed that we started out with music and then saying a
koan. The koan is from the great old Chinese Master Lin-ji Yixuan and it’s
not so important what – When something confronts you, don’t believe it.
“We all have the urge to be better people, and behind all our self-improvement there is a profound impulse. Self-improvement is a gateway, the first step in a quest, a clue to a deeper life. The most beautiful form of the beautiful life is inner freedom, the awakening taught in the ancient spiritual traditions.” Published Shambhala Sun Magazine, September 2013.
“How to deal with difficult times is fundamental for a spiritual practice, and really, for any human life. There’s birth and death, to start with, and then there is all the conflict and uncertainty that happens in between.” January 2017.