PZI Teacher Archives

Dongshan’s Five Ranks: Poem 4


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. 


Hi. [laughter] Being a human is kind of funny, just intrinsically. Here we are, and the universe produces us, all of us, and we talk to each other as if we were not the universe. Then the universe takes us back. It’s like that’s how it is. Thank you very much good night. Any questions? [laughter]

But meanwhile we sort of have fun doing things, and so we’ve been talking about this old series of poems that are also koans, that are a sort of provisional map of the journey. And it’s a non-sequential map in that you can sort of enter at any stage at any time, and also it’s the kind of map that you try it on and see what, you hang out with any place in the map and see what rises in you to meet it. So that’s as good as you get it for a map in Zen. So this is the fourth of the five ranks or positions of Donghsan. It goes:

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 the stage before this is the one about you find yourself in the middle of nothing, where there’s a road that’s free of dust. And so that’s a very spacious kind of place and in a certain way perhaps as serene. But this one doesn’t feel serene. So it’s one of those wonderful Zen things where we always think that oh, you’re in turmoil and then you have this wonderful – this is marketing for enlightenment, right? Wonderful, big enlightenment experience and now I’ll be serene. Au contraire [laughter]. So that’s an interesting thing, that there is a kind of purity and clarity that comes in meditation, innocence. And it’s really pretty much available when we sit, when we meditate, particularly sitting maybe for some people, and it feels like everything’s calmed down and it’s quieter and nicer. And then the big version of that is everything’s disappeared, I’ve forgotten my problems and I’ve forgotten lots of other things, possibly even myself, mislaid myself like forgetting a wallet or something. 

But then the next thing is in a certain sense there are things to do. That’s not a place you can rest. One image that comes to me is that it’s as if there’s winter when things do fall off you, you get a lot freer or life becomes in some way easier and smoother, but then you end up taking on the things that you’d always dodged, and having to deal with stuff that you’d always kept nicely out of sight, things like that. Another way to put it might be that the self in Buddhism tends to get a bad rap, you know, but in another way it’s a powerful work of the imagination. You are your best art form… And we are, it’s like hey that was a pretty good representation of you. And so the art form keeps being re-imagined. A good artist can’t do the same thing over and over again, and so there’s a way in which the being you’ve assembled that you’ve been, or you’ve at least been convinced that you are, suddenly starts to feel like it was made out of spare parts and starts to – as the spaciousness invades, then in a way the deal you’d made with life falls apart and you fall apart, which you know, has a lot to be said for it really, but it can be more exciting than your planning.

There’s a couple of things to say about it. One is, if it’s happening to you, then you’ve got to just trust that, because what else are you going to do? You’ve done all the spiritual practices, so whatever you’ve done, arts, you know, and you’ve gotten to a certain place and you’ve really noticed some things and really seen some things. Some things you’ve seen how to make work that you couldn’t make work. Some things are actually you’ve gotten okay at, pretty decent at. And then some kind of unforeseen issues arise. So we have to trust that actually they’re for us. So really the thing is, are you really in it, the question asked at a really personal kind of intimate level is, if it is for you, then it’s for you. And if you’re going to have your life, you have to have it with all this, whatever’s going on. The divorce, the loss, the death, the fact that your absolute worst rival won the Nobel Prize and you’re not even a candidate, whatever it is. Or the thing you thought that you would never have to deal with suddenly in yourself you have to deal with, the thing you thought you had safely locked up about yourself, and nobody knew about, well you know about it, and here it is. 

And in a way you can tell that’s in some way going to be a positive thing, but it may not feel like it initially, because it’s full of shame or embarrassment, or something like that. And the interesting thing is that we’re not really expecting that. We’re thinking I should be beyond all that now. Here I am fifty years old and still worried about my mother or whatever it is. And we just have to trust that whatever the issue, whatever you’re terrible at, will now come up. And there’s no use saying you should be good at it because your friend does it effortlessly. They’re terrible at something else, which is coming up for them, and this is yours. And in a certain sense it is your path, but it doesn’t feel like there’s no dust on this path. The old Chinese saying was the world of red dust contaminates you, and everybody wants to leave the world of red dust. It’s like the burning house, the image of leaving the burning house, but here you’ve got to sort of plunge into the world of dust.

I had a really interesting experience quite a long time ago not when a woman who was an instructor in a non-Buddhist tradition, but really deep meditator and had done a lot of intensive training in her tradition and came to me because she’d just lost herself. She woke up one day without knowing who she was in a really extreme way. And she just couldn’t, didn’t really feel like she had an identity. And she’d come to me not because she was disturbed… I don’t know why she came to me, actually. Anyway, I didn’t help her, and she was very much in love with her idea that she wasn’t a someone, and she became a spiritual teacher and had a lot of students and then she died, actually. But there was some way in which she couldn’t step into the pains of having a form or a shape, or her experience of not having one was so compelling and she was so in love with it, that she was impossible to deal with or talk to in a way. 

So the problem with, not to bad-mouth her because she’s us, we’re all each other, but the problem with trying to hold onto the purity and the spaciousness is that a. you can’t, and b. then you start dealing with life in kind of off-the-shelf, ready-made kind of ways. You have these kind of prejudices about yourself and your history, and this is shameful but you never really looked, maybe it’s not at all, or this stops me from doing X, when it doesn’t, things like that, and then we disapprove of other people doing the things we’d like to do but don’t have the courage to do, and things like that. So you can see there’s a certain stage in any kind of inner work where things just have to move, and no matter how wonderful they were they just have to move. It really doesn’t matter what your opinion of it is, because your opinion – you know what the world thinks of your opinion. So that’s a kind of cool thing in a way, because that’s the – you don’t even have a choice about your need to move on, your need to go higher. The literal translation is you want to go up to heaven, further, higher more, and that’s an interesting thing at this stage, you realize oh I could see more, I could discover more, and it is a kind of place of rest in a funny kind of way, of deepening, of it’s endlessly fascinating, and deepening. 

Maybe that’s in a way part of what, as you hang around a spiritual tradition you might start teaching some or leading people or ringing bells or something like that, and in a way that’s what that’s about, or taking vows of various kinds of – that’s what it’s about, oh I want to go deeper, I’m going deeper into life. Maybe in a certain sense we go beyond what we set out for. In a certain sense we could say if you get some sort of peace and sense of freedom, that’s what you set out for, so why not fold your tents and stop there, leave the path then, whatever it is, drink beer and watch football.

S: Nothing wrong with that. [laughter]

John: Nothing wrong with that. Speak up for beer and football, put in a word for that. But there’s a whole thing about this notion of incompleteness is really interesting and how our incompleteness is actually on our side here, and our incompleteness is that everything that exists has a shape and the shape is very specific, it’s not vague. So you’re really specific, and you’re probably really good at stuff. You may know what you’re good at. It might even be what you’re telling people you’re good at; probably not, but it might be. Then you also know what you’re trying to pretend you’re good at when you’re not good at it. In a certain sense there’s a part of ourselves we’re trying to keep not just from our friends but from ourselves, and that’s the part you always defend. If you notice yourself defending yourself then that’s the part that’s incomplete but in another way as I said that’s on your side, because – has anybody ever been in couple’s counseling? Put up both hands. [laughter]

It’s a funny thing, isn’t it, how you spend a lot of time explaining why you’re not wrong, and it’s horseshit. Of course you’re wrong. [laughter] And it’s one of those impasses of the two swords. It’s not even the swords are you and another person, they’re you and you. Right? That’s the great dilemmas of life are irreducible in some way. The old Western terminology for that, very ancient, is that it’s the problem of the opposites. They’re always around, and if you choose one, you’re wrong. If you choose the other, you’re wrong, and life doesn’t seem to give you a way of not choosing, so if you don’t choose you’re wrong. And Buddhism does this in amusing  philosophical ways: it’s not two and it’s not not two and it’s not not not two, and there’s like a hundred and eight permutations of that and – what’s that?

S: Is that a paradox?

John: Well it can be a paradox, but it’s really just the opposites, you know how you’ve absolutely got to make a decision and you know that where you’re sitting you can’t make the decision. Whatever whether you decide yes or no you’ll be wrong. That’s the problem of the two swords, right? And we all know those things. And the only solution is a bigger, a discovery of a bigger point of view, and then oddly enough that sense of the spaciousness and the emptiness that went with an earlier stage actually isn’t big enough. It’s not including enough things, and so we realize that we saw something true about freedom and my opinions don’t count, and my idea of myself isn’t as interesting and compelling as I thought and I don’t have to defend it as much, but then things actually do have a shape and I’ve got to deal with them, and I don’t know how to deal with that from a position of freedom, so I’ve got to discover how do I deal with stuff and the world from a  position of freedom, or from a non-position of freedom. Is that making sense? It’s a bit theoretical, but it’s not really, because if you think of any problem you have, that’s it, that’s the thing. 

Oh here’s one. Somebody gave me a great example today. She said she was really busy and that she was sitting down in the meditation hall and she spent her time thinking: I should sit more [laughter]. That’s it, right? Because here she is sitting, thinking I should sit more. And she had this great image, you know that couple who’s been pestering each other about spending more time together and they go to a restaurant and they argue about whose fault it is that they’re not spending enough time together. And there’s a part of the psyche does that, it’s really funny. 

So the problems in a way start to solve themselves when we – the only solution for this stage I suppose is love and generosity of spirit, because you just have to love what your issues are, because they’re yours. The notion of freedom gives the idea of liberty, I’ll get away from the problem but actually that’s where we start tuning into the extreme specificity of what the problem is. It could be a medical condition, it could be a relationship problem, it could be money, it could be whatever the thing is that you’re not very good at, it will be there. It could be that you disapprove of yourself and you can’t get off your own back. It could be that you’re too tight with yourself. A lot of people in the meditation tradition come because you know, the meditation tradition seems like it’ll make you more respectable and more uptight, and that would be good, and then meditation doesn’t do that really. It opens us up, and as I said, the deal we made with life, life rewrites it without consulting us. Life says I’m getting a divorce. What? But I was so good, I did my meditation every day! [laughter] I spent a lot of time disapproving of myself, wasn’t that enough?

The other thing about the inward life. You’ve got to love, not just manage[?] your life. Koans, that’s the deep secret of true koan work is it’s not just to manage and be an athlete of the inner life. It’s that if you love it, it keeps revealing things that you hadn’t seen. And what it reveals is, it reveals who you are in a deeper way, and also it reveals capacities that you hadn’t trusted, or you wanted but hadn’t trusted, and so you know how we defend ourselves. If we’ve got a problem with a person we’re always defending ourselves and thinking I can’t bear that person, but then we realize that’s not really the problem, that actually that’s fine. That’s not the problem. The problem is my pain and I’m defending my pain but I haven’t really looked at it, and when I really turn towards it and I’m generous toward my own pain, then it’s not so bad, it’s just my life. So I have a problem with this person and they’ve done me wrong, but I’m alive, it rained today, it’s a good day. And also then there’re these other people I love so I could spend time with them, and like that.

And so the inner life then becomes this incredibly rich thing, that everything comes form you’re turning into rather than trying to arbitrarily solve the problem of the crossed swords and you know, then you just turn into whatever’s appearing before you and then it feels, then it’s fine. If you have an issue and you turn into it. If you’re full of grief and you run around looking for a solution to your grief, you won’t find one. It’s like that tremendously poignant story where the Buddha said to the person whose, I guess whose child had died: bring me a mustard seed from a house where no one has died. But you can do that in a positive way too. Every house has joy. Find me something that’s not medicine. So you’ll find that coming into the world of form, you don’t have to be afraid. You don’t have to cling to if I really sit still and spend a lot of time and become a monk or a nun or whatever it’s called these days, then – in other words if I really restrict my life I’ll be okay… well, you’ll be okay anyway. Yes, actually you will, and you’ll be okay if you don’t restrict your life. Which would you rather? And you’ll be much more helpful and compassionate with people if you’re not holding yourself in a box and you’ll be generous and helpful to people.

Someone asked a great old teacher, Gui-shan: does someone who’s attained enlightenment need to continue with the practice? And he said: well through meditation you may attain thoughtless thought, become suddenly enlightened. Such a person may realize her original nature, but there are still delusions that have accumulated over numberless eons –

which might be five minutes, you know – and cannot be purified instantly. Therefore she should learn how to eliminate these sort of pains and delusions and mental habits. Sort of explode them. Really there isn’t any other way to do it. But it doesn’t have to be hard work. It’s a sort of joy, really, because you start steering by oh what’s alive, what has more joy and less constriction? And then you’ll find oh, what’s true for me has more joy and less constriction. like trying to hide myself from myself doesn’t really have a lot of joy or power, and finding out what I really love, finding out if that thing that I can’t bear, if it’s really true that I can’t bear it or it’s really true that I need to bear it, all those things unfold.

Here’s a good story about how you fall in love with the life you have, and you fall in love with the life you have and it unfolds and oh, I realized it was mine and my crazy footpaths led me here and it’s all right. So this was the same person, a story about the same guy, Gui-shan who was a cook, and a fortune-teller, a Taoist fortune-teller came and told the teacher at this place where this guy was the cook that oh, there’s this place where [?] you’ll be able to get permission to go and start a temple there, and go and send somebody there and it’ll just do really well, if the person goes there. So the teacher said why not. Who should I send? The fortune-teller said I don’t know, so he called in the head of the temple and the fortune-teller said: Cough. It’s like a diagnostic interview. So [coughs] and he said no, I don’t think it’s that one. The infallible method of selecting the head of the new temple. So but then the cook walked by on the way to the kitchen and the fortune-teller said oh, that’s the person. And there was a fuss about the temple really liked, thought the head of the temple should go, or they wanted to get rid of the head of the temple, and they thought the head of the temple should go and so there was a fuss and the famous story. The teacher put a wooden jug full of water in the thing and said don’t call this a wooden jug. What will you call it? Don’t call this a jug, what will you call it, and the head of the temple said well it’s not a wooden clog, it’s not a wooden shoe, and the cook kicked it over and went back to the kitchen, so they sent the cook to start the temple. 

But then nothing happened. Nobody came. He had a little field and he got some seeds from villages and the villages helped out a bit when he was in trouble, and he built a little hut. But years passed and nobody came. So he thought: well sometimes fortune-tellers are wrong. I didn’t realize. What was I thinking? So he goes on and it’s like eight years have gone by, and he thinks eight years is a long time, I’ve given it a good shot. I think I’ll just go off and work in a garden somewhere, do something else, be a barista in San Francisco. And he’s sort of just putting on his jacket and turning to leave, and his sleeve gets stuck in something and he pulls his sleeve and he can’t get it free and he turns around and there’s a tiger there holding his sleeve. He says oh, maybe I shouldn’t go. And the next day someone comes to sit with him and gradually the temple begins. That story is completely true. [laughter] And I just offer it to you as a possibility for your own life. It’s wonderful isn’t it? There is that… all the time you think you’re not doing anything, something might be deepening, and there’s a tiger interested in you who’s on your side and who’s been watching over you in some way. And maybe the tiger’s those things you thought were in your way or disruptive or dangerous could be related to that tiger. Sometimes you just have to wait.

And one of the final couple of things to say… at this stage also a sense of the perfection of the difficulty. Matsu said this great thing, he said: benefit what cannot be benefitted. Do what cannot be done. We might say love what cannot be loved. So this is a reverse of the usual fantasies we have where you get the openness and then you see what’s stopping you from being in the openness. Or it then gives you a task to fulfill, and the task is really to embody the great, beautiful shining discoveries you’ve made, which is to go into the things you thought weren’t shiny, like make breakfast for someone you love, or something like that, something really simple. And the final thing to say is you can’t fall in love with some other life than the one you’ve got. This is the life you have to love, no matter how, and when you think well I was disappointed or life let me down or something, you realize you’re just having a fit and it’s all right, that it’s sad when it’s sad and it’s happy when it’s happy and it’s enraging when it’s enraging, but there’s this great current running through it and there are tasks that we’re given, and it’s a beautiful thing to do those tasks. So that’s our lotus in the fire situation. Obviously that’s completely impossible and contradictory, right, the flower in the fire. It’s a very alchemical kind of image, and the two swords that – there’s not way to get out of it. You can’t go back. And we know that in a way, we can’t go back. Once you’ve started to really see something and get interested, even if you find the path very annoying, you’re on it. 

So how are you doing? How’s it going for you? We’re in the middle of this vast retreat and it feels very free, really, and so then probably tasks might come up for you. If they are, if you’re in the freedom just enjoy it, because it’ll end. And if the tasks are coming up them we bless that because that stops me from plunging into despair because oh, here’s my task. 

S: I’ve been in this dilemma for some time, both on the relationship front and also in terms of my work.

John: So you have to speak loud enough for people to hear you, because you’re not just talking to me, although you are just talking to me.

S: Talking to myself. Yeah I’ve been in this dilemma, two fronts, my work and my relationship, and all my ways of trying to solve it – and I’m pretty good at devising ways to solve things.

John: Scheming and plotting [laughter]

S: I’m a great schemer and plotter, and it no longer works. So I love hearing this discourse. It helps me to look at the possibility and the impossibility, or not look for it but just hang out with it and see what happens.

John: Yeah when we can’t do anything, we can’t. And then sometimes we’ll get a gift form the universe. But really, that sense of pain, that’s like the tiger, but the tiger’s hidden there, but it might be on our side in some way. That tiger’s helping, I kind of like that tiger.

S: Lao-hu [sp?] Tiger in Chinese is Lao-hu [sp?].

John: Nice. It’s achchchch… [laughter]  That’s what it is in Tasmanian. [laughter] It’s beautiful, you know there is an old, great tradition of tigers in China and meditators meditating with a tiger and things like that. Thank you.

S: So the lotus in the fire is just facing whatever troubles…

John: No, it’s just the lotus in the fire.

S: Yeah. [laughter]

John: Well you see we can’t say, we can’t swap out the equation, it’s what it is for you. What’s the most difficult thing in your life that’s insoluble, then can you go into that…

S: Well, I expressed it as what troubles me, which is what it is for me.

John: Fair enough. But I think it’s not just, it’s everything when it’s there, right? That in a certain sense we have to let life have us. And the way we do is…

S: John? I was noticing today that one of the difficulties that I have with loss is that I noticed that it has to do with my relationship to death. Because when I think about death I realize that I have kind of this insidious little thing that thinks if I don’t do it right, I might be reborn and it could even be worse. And so I’m always trying to do everything right, so that it doesn’t get any worse than it actually is. [laughter]

John: You Catholic by any chance?

S: Yeah, I know. I was talking about Tibetan Buddhism and how the Tibetan Buddhism’s got this whole elaborate thing around death and dying and reincarnation and the bardo states and to really face into everything as deeply as you can in your life so when you get in the bardo state you don’t immediately manifest into those things that didn’t get resolved. It’s like so resolve this piece, you don’t want to get reincarnated into this, you know? And then I was realizing that – 

John: – this is a bardo state [laughter]. No need to wait for hell [laughter] you can have it now…

S: Yeah, well they were saying that… right. And I just realized that those experiences of loss and confusion and humiliation and all of that, sometimes it’s like I just don’t know how to make meaning of it. It’s like why is this happening? And especially if you feel like, another Catholic thing: I’ve been a good girl I’ve done everything that I can to do it right, why is the rug being pulled out from underneath me? Why am I in a relationship that I don’t want to be in, or why am I this or why that, and I can’t get out of it because it’s actually what’s making me grow, so it’s just weird. Those double binds, they’re double binds.

John: Yeah, they’re the swords, and it’s touching, isn’t it? Well you’ve said a couple of really beautiful things, but… I forgot one of them, but what I noticed as you’re talking is how much life there is in this, and that we want to get away from how much life there is by having a story about oh my god it’ll go to hell and we’ll get taken over by something… something bad will happen, and that’s sort of like, the mind does want a meaning because the vastness is so big. So we think oh well if I have this little vase I can put on a shelf and call the meaning like Aunt Mabel’s ashes or something, but then we don’t really believe in it, and it torments us. So, and also how beautiful it is. I liked your complaint about it, it’s wonderful, there’s so much energy: And I’m in a relationship that I’ve trapped myself in, it’s so great [laughter]. Not only that but – and another thing! And that’s what it’s like isn’t it, for all of us? That’s what it’s like when it’s like that, and so –

S: It’s like one thing after another on top of it, I’ve got all of the top five losses happening all at once.

John: Right, plus you moved. That sort of thing, yeah. It’s not that it’s not hard and heart-wrenching, but that’s for you too. And that also maybe you’re more, it teaches us how to be intimate with ourselves. We don’t have to live at that acute pitch of the crossed swords forever, but it does, we do have to accept the what we have, the who we are, because we don’t have a choice at that moment. I have to be the person who has done the things or put myself in the situation, or feels ashamed or humiliated about it, but you’re probably wrong to be ashamed and humiliated about it. The hell with that. It’s like yours. There’s a dignity in having our life, however bizarrely we’ve set it up. Look at me, I teach Zen. You think you have problems, I’m pretending I can get people enlightened.

S: Now that’s a problem.

John: Fortunately I don’t pretend, but anyway. People often think I can. So that’s that thing about being true. There’s something beautiful about saying what’s true.

S: I Just want to address that last comment about loss. Jane Hirshfield have that beautiful line that kind of helps me with it, grief, and it is about a gentleman who had Alzheimer’s. She was listing his issues, and one of them was he still believes that grief was his fault. I found it very powerful, because grief is such a universal. It’s a personal experience, but – so we share…

John: Yeah, poetry gets that. I don’t know if I’ve told this in sesshin, this story, but Taizan Maezumi, the Roshi in Los Angeles, died during a – I was running a teacher’s meeting and it was not a very bright idea as it turned out, of having teachers from all sort of lineages coming together and having a meeting, I think it was at Mountain Madonna maybe, somewhere, and Maezumi died in the middle of it. I think it was a Saturday night and I’d arranged for Jane Hirshfield to come and read poetry to us to lighten people up and stop making us such uptight Buddhists – unmake us from being uptight Buddhists. You know, people have to be touched and have our hearts open. And then this – I told Jane that and she brought all this love poetry to read. And then people are ringing bells for Maezumi Roshi, and it was great. She wasn’t the sort of person who was going to change her reading. She was just going to launch into a love poem, and it just sort of sailed the ship through. It was beautiful. So you can see that it’s not a bumper sticker about the virtues of poetry, it’s about the beauty of what is, the beauty of what’s here, the beauty of even the grief or the insolubility of the dilemma that’s ours, that’s our life. And you know if you just look at it and think my god, I’ve been pretending I’m not an idiot, and I’m an idiot, and it’s fine. Because everybody’s an idiot about what they’re an idiot about.

I haven’t been to those parties for awhile, but remember those – everybody’s talking about the movie or the book and you haven’t seen it but you’ve kind of heard of it so you pretend you have, and then you realize you’re in over your depth and you can’t… and then it’s much more fun to say you know, I was lying, I haven’t seen that at all. Actually I never finished Proust. And it’s kind of fun, and then it’s sort of exhilarating.  It sort of undoes the dilemma of the crossed swords. I thought I could get away with it but I couldn’t.

S: I’m not sure why but my day to day leaves me with this sense of the two crossed swords and the fire in the lotus – they’re the same thing somehow.

John: Yeah I have that experience too, that’s how the images come at me. The Chinese doesn’t really help, because the Chinese can be translated five different ways in English because it’s such a capacious… English is extremely specific and in a way Chinese opens up meanings, images. Chinese just stacks up the images and you do your best with them. That’s why it’s such a great language for painting, the painting of Chinese is so beautiful, calligraphy and things. Yeah so I have that feeling the lotus in the fire. It’s like they’re both impossible situations.

S: And the fire in the rose.

John: Yeah, they’re definitely analogs with the Western traditions.

S: It feels like the swords have some conflict elements with it, where the lotus is just like delicate and beautiful and it’s just going to get fried.

John: Or not.

S: Or not I guess.

John: Because it’s not, it still lives, the lotus in the fire. And the idea of patterns, in a way that’s what we are is lotuses in a fire. Think of what the sun is in a galaxy and stuff like that, and then we’re these sort of fragile beings made of carbon and water and things and here we are.

S: I was seeing the lotus in the fire as the old woman in the mirror. That’s the image I was trading off, and the non-dusty road, which I don’t think I’ve ever experienced.

S: I was just going to mention some scientists just discovered, or analyzed, there actually are parts of stars in our bodies… I mean it’s not the chemical, but…

John: Yeah, we’re bits of star. It’s a known thing like Gui-shan mentions it. [laughter] It is true. So is the gold in your teeth. You know, it’s come to this, [laughter] sit around and giggle, talk about suffering and then you giggle. 

S: So I have a question, I think. It’s something to do with going back to your book when you talk about the soul and the spirit, and I’m just sort of trying to weave that notion into what you’ve just said. And I can’t, so I’m wondering if you can.

John: Sure.

S: Thank you.

John: One of the notions I explored in a book called “The Light Inside the Dark” was that you go down before you come up, which is that walking through the dark thing of the first rank here, but when you come up there’ll be a second descent, and I think this would be that. Because you’ve kind of got it worked out, but then it’s not yet embodied really. You’ve got all this clarity and gifts and the muse is talking to you, and then the poem suddenly runs out. And in some way – I mean it’s really the imagination at work. The universe is imagining us in a richer way, so that we’re more intimate with the universe than we were, that we’re more, we can feel it interpenetrating us more. I mean, that’s my experience. It’s like when you hang out in the garden the birds start to change their calls and you start to feel the connection with the animals and things, and it’s like that’s a little sample of actually what it is with the universe. We’re hanging out with it more and putting these conditions on it and saying: I disapprove of you, universe, because you gave me this grief… Yeah, but I don’t disapprove of my disapproval, and the universe gets that and it’s fine. Does that answer your question?

And you can feel that in yourself, you can feel how we’re more patient with even our impatience, and that it’s kind of fun. Even a problem can be fun if we turn into it. The thing we never wanted to talk about isn’t a big deal…

S: I just realized when I read your book, when I read “The Light Inside the Dark,” I read it after my daughter had just died, and I got to the sections on the second descent and the mortification I was like I’m just going to skip this. So I just speed-readed through, and it was because I wasn’t there.

John: Yeah, you were still in the first descent.

S: I was still in the first descent. So I got to that part of the book and was like, this doesn’t make any sense, I’m just going to skip ahead to the end.

John: Yeah well that’s another notion of a map that may or may not be useful at a particular time. And you have to trust what you skip, too as well as what you… it’s kind of a nice thing to do.

S: The last chapter was great, though.

John: Yeah that everything’s always happening at once, and our peace is actually inside the everything happening at once. And our skipping of chapters and pretending we read the whole book, all that stuff. My favorite book, I read five pages. One of my friends said, she’s actually pretty literate, but it just wasn’t her thing; she said well it’s really good for sending me to sleep. 

S: Well speaking of sleep, just this morning I realized this. You know how when you have periods of change, even any time in your life and you can’t sleep. You wake up in the night and your mind is just really, really active. There’s no chance of getting a sort of soft and easy, its’ going to take awhile, the mind is going through it’s stuff. So this has been happening lately, and I thought I kind of knew how to do this. I thought it was kind of oh I know, because when I wake up in the morning all this stuff isn’t a big deal, it doesn’t bother me. That’s just the crazy mind at night. And that’s just what I would do, wake up and feel great, and feel kind of smug that I had figured this out, that I didn’t have to pay attention to those things that came up and night, because in the morning, in the brightness and the activity, it was gone more or less, or just like a shadow. But this morning I realized I am not being kind to me crazy mind by just disregarding it, by just saying it’s the crazy mind of the four in the morning wake-up. And how different to turn into that and take it seriously. I kind of didn’t want to come here because I thought oh, I’ll do that.

John: You’ll probably contaminate us. [laughter]

S: No, no I want to turn into it.

John: Yeah that’s beautiful isn’t it, and everything then becomes glowing a little bit and the images become…

S: Yeah, it just feels like a real shift. I really did think – I’ve told people this so many times, having insomnia in the hospital and working with patients and stuff, you know, in the morning it’ll be different, go to sleep, and here’s a this and that… as though that mind isn’t accurate, it doesn’t have something to tell us or something to bring us.

John: I think that’s great and thank you. You know the early stages of meditation are all about disregarding the content and getting out of the torment of my thoughts and all this stuff, but your thoughts are just the world, too, and your images my – images have the it’s for you quality, the numinosity of your own path, the glow of your own path, the illumination of your own path comes from in a certain sense the relationships to those images. They start – that great thing you said yesterday about emptiness is full of things I didn’t put in it. [laughter] It’s so great, that’s it it’s like it’s doing me. But then you don’t pretend they’re not there. Think that’s a problem, they’re there.

S: That really speaks to what my experience has been thus far during the sesshin which is kind of this really interesting thing about like oh my thoughts, I’m not doing that either, at all, so if I just turn into them, turn right towards them, there’s this really interesting thing that just opens and the next thing happens, and I don’t get stuck to them but also I don’t need to modify their content at all. And Mark you really brought this up for me because about a month ago – I live in New York City, and I was working really hard on a project and I wasn’t sleeping that much and I kept having this really bad insomnia. Like I would go to sleep at 11 and I’d wake up at 2am and I’d just be wide awake. And for a week I was like I hate this, it’s really awful, and I tried all this different stuff. I was like I’m going to go eat, maybe I’m hungry, maybe I need to have a drink… finally I was like what if I just go right into this? And I just realized – it was this weird thing where what I thought was torture I actually was having all these ideas about the work I was doing and it became this really sort of productive thing where I was up all night working, and you could just call it manic, but [laughter] – it was actually really productive. And as soon as I did that I fell right asleep.  But I don’t think there’s always a hidden productivity. That would be really scary. There’s something just about not assuming that you know something is delusional. It’s like I’m having this experience, well what is that. It’s much more interesting than oh no it’s a delusion.

John: Yeah, yeah. And the universe is becoming visible, bits of the universe are becoming visible that were invisible. It’s the same with any of our torment actually, there’s a kindness in that, a glow. I like that, I experience that as a glow. Everybody who’s done creative work knows that that happens, right? You actually got to bed on time for a change and now you’re awake two hours later. And there’s also the waking-sleeping thing, it gets … there’s less of a difference than we think. You’re asleep when you’re awake anyway, everybody knows and we’re walking around in these sleep states we’re calling clarity or something. That’s what delusion is, it’s a bardo that you call your life.

[laughter] Having a good time there?

S: It’s so grim, this bardo that you call your life.

John: Bardos are kind of fun, a bardo’s like flashing lights come and demons and elephants and beautiful maidens rescuing you from flames and stuff like – the lotus in the fire’s got nothing on that.

S: But sometimes people can’t tolerate it. Like they just drown in it. They get sucked into a vortex that they can’t come out of.

John: You mean sometimes I can’t tolerate it and I get sucked into a vortex. But that’s for me too, if that’s happening to me it may not be necessary to bear it or tolerate it. If that’s my life, then that’s my life. I’ve fallen into the river and it just carries me away it does. Because life carries us until it doesn’t; we’re all going to die sometime. But I also think we spend a lot of time resisting and fighting the current when we don’t always need to. So there may be, all those images – everybody who grew up in – even if you grew up in California, people are pretty affected by the Christian imagery and the cross and things like that. The positive side of that would be that it shows us there’s something, that inside your suffering, inside the pain of the body, or the pain of the psyche, there’s some transformation. But you don’t get it by not looking at it or trying to blast it away with your superpowers. The athletic model actually doesn’t work, because it’s not for you then. 

And I don’t know… sometimes you get gifts. The universe will give you a gift, like I stopped having nightmares at some stage in meditation, something opened in my heart and I stopped persecuting myself. But then other times I still have really dark dreams. Sometimes it’s just empathy, and sometimes it’s complaining about the thing I did to myself, the situation I put myself in. But the experiences of – I guess what I’m saying is the experience of suffering is a kind of dream, like a dream is, and you can treat it the same way you treat a dream, that it too has an elegance and beauty to it, and so it’s not always an awful thing. And it’s mine. Like if somebody died and I’m sad, then that’s mine, that sadness, and I might as well have it and not think I’m supposed to get rid of it or not have it. Or if I’m anguished about a decision, feel helpless or frightened, then I might as well have it. If we turn into it and have it then there’s an intimacy, and also we can connect with other people, because other people will recognize we’re capable of doing that and they’ll do that around us. Just that, like if you tell the truth, if you allow the truth of you into you, then other people will notice that, and you’re more fun to be with, more disturbing and dangerous and exciting. They don’t have to be not themselves to be with you. People give permission and that’s a nice thing. That’s a kind of touching thing. So then that sense of coming apart, people realize it’s just a cardboard cutout that’s coming apart. Yes?

S: Well I don’t know, something’s coming up for me when you’re talking. It’s as if things aren’t just happening to us, it’s as if we’re a partner in it, and we’re there seeing it, we’re allowing it to come. It couldn’t come if we weren’t there partnering or interbeing, something like that…

John: In a way I feel that’s true, although it doesn’t mean you caused your cancer because… your bad thoughts caused your cancer, we’re not doing that, but…

S: … whole world, but there’s just something…

John: No, but I think there is a – well I’ve had cancer and there was something there for me. It wasn’t not me. I didn’t do anything wrong but the universe didn’t do anything wrong either.

S: Yeah, I don’t mean at all to say I am summoning something, but just by being seen, it can be, and therefore there’s got to be – I mean it’s part of the whole thing, it’s a piece of everything…

John: Yeah, you dance and the universe does that and then you twirl around and you are the universe too, so there you go.

S: I guess what I was looking for was something about not having to fear the stuff, it just happens…

John: Oh, yeah, good. Yeah. Well because even if worst-case scenarios, whatever, you’ve got five minutes to live, it’s not just happening to you, that five minutes is yours. So you can give it away by objecting to it, trying to negotiate for six minutes, or you can have your five minutes and do something on your bucket list.

S: Even if you were negotiating through the whole five minutes, that would be all right.

John: Yeah, exactly. Then you’re a super negotiator and you should have gone to Wall Street. [laughter] Exactly. That’s that thing about I want more and I want to go higher and I want to go deeper into the wisdom tradition and I’m going to negotiate with death next. What do you think? I think we might have done it. Thank you very much.