PZI Teacher Archives

Dongshan’s Five Ranks: Poem 5


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:


Hi. 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:

Not deciding it is or it isn’t, do you have the courage to be at peace with this? Everyone wants to leave the endless changes, but when we’re finished bending and fitting our lives, we come back to sit by the fire. Not deciding it is or it isn’t, do you have the courage to be at peace with this? Everyone wants to leave the endless changes, but when we’re finished bending and fitting our lives, we come back to sit by the fire.

So in a way it starts out with a kind of method: not deciding it is or it isn’t. Most of the mind’s activity is taken up with deciding it is or it isn’t, most of the bandwidth of awareness anyway, is about ranking and judging, critiquing, assessing. Will this help or not? Am I doing it right? Are you doing it right? Did I have the right past? Am I the right person? And all this stuff that we know is painful like disliking people, not forgiving people. Disliking ourselves, not forgiving ourselves, which is really what it’s about. That’s all about deciding it is or it isn’t. And you know that – yesterday we were on the kind of position, the fourth of the situation, scenario stages. It’s really about those times when you have a kind of problem that’s insoluble and you just have to in a certain sense go into it and live inside it without deciding it is or it isn’t, and if you decide either it is or it isn’t, it’s always the wrong decision. But somehow something flowers in you when you turn into it, and so this poem just starts out with well, that’s still true. 

One of the teachers was saying that he noticed that there’s usually a conversation going on in the mind, even if it’s only: is that a plane, that sound? That sort of thing. And so when the conversation’s going on we tend to privilege it and give it a lot of our attention – it takes up a lot of our attention. But actually there’s all sorts of other stuff going on too that’s not that, and when we don’t look at, when we’re not under the hypnotic spell of the conversation in the mind, then it’s pretty cool. We’re free. It’s like everything you look at has that sort of sparkle and glow to it, including even the conversation in your mind, because you’re not so much agreeing with it as realizing it’s just another thing like a leaf or a plane, or  a can of spaghetti, and it’s not something to give your life to. So there’s that.

Everyone wants to leave the continual flow, the continual changes, the flux, the ebb and flow of things. Oh, do you have the courage to be at peace without doing it is or it isn’t? In a way that’s kind of interesting to say courage there, because we do love to put the bumper sticker on, put the label on and say what our experience is. And it’s a great way of removing ourselves from life, from the situation. This is just x. It’s time to go now so I’ll say you’re great and then I can get out of here. Or it’s time to go now so I’ll say I can’t stand you and then I can get out of here. That’s all it is or isn’t… And those kind of it is or it isn’t is never true, and so we use these things as kind of provisional strategies for life, because we’d like something to be true even though it isn’t. And that’s that whole thing about the person who we hired to be our body-double, what we call ourselves, the person we hired to walk around and pretend to be us, it likes to be true and so on, but in my case he… I suppose in my case it could be she too. But it’s just not rich and it’s not full and it’s not right, because it doesn’t have joy and that genuine taste of the real, which might have sorrow in it, or it might have excitement in it, but you can tell it’s alive. And deciding it is or it isn’t doesn’t feel alive.

So everyone wants to leave the endless changes. One of the main ways in the meditation tradition you try to leave the endless changes is by cultivating meditation states and doing things properly. This is one of those interesting things, you can get fairly reliable, consistent meditation states if you just sit still and use certain techniques. Sitting still is one of them. And there’s a whole huge catalog of ways to manage your mind, and you’ll have all sorts of great, really cool things happen, and you’ll feel very peaceful or very spacious or very loving, and then when you stop meditation you’ll feel very depressed, usually.

I spent a little time hanging out with a guy who had a temple up on the Thai-Burma border, and needed a translator to talk to him… and he was in California. I was talking to him about what we do and asking what he does and stuff, and he said mainly he teaches people not to have meditation states. Because his tradition’s really rich in that tradition. He said I have people who have amazing powers through the meditation states, amazing concentration, they can read your mind and do all this stuff, and I say why don’t you get enlightened instead, then you won’t be so unhappy? [laughter] So I tell you that sort of folktale for what it’s worth. But you kind of know that in a way. 

When you’re trying to manipulate the world and how good we get at it – there’s two of us. There’s it is and it isn’t. And there’s a me and there’s the world, and I’m always going to be in a certain way outside of mystery. There’s no part in it. I’m not going to feel like I’m being carried and supported by the world, because I’m really not being supported by myself. I’m giving myself over to this heroic fantasy of leaving the eternal changes. The problem with a heroic fantasy is it always implies that I’m in the wrong place, because I’m always trying to get somewhere that isn’t here. Nothing wrong with that, but if we’re doing that, we’ll suffer, and we’ll whine about it too. [laughter]

But when we’re finished bending and fitting our lives. I like that, that’s kind of good isn’t it? It’s like here’s the tradition. Let me squash myself into it…

When we’re finished bending and fitting our lives… we get tired of that, and we get tired of fitting ourselves into those shelves and boxes and things like we’re prisoners of war – then we come back to sit by the fire. Sort of like roasting chestnuts in winter, hot chocolate.

S: S’mores.

John: S’mores, there we go. And so you can tell that it doesn’t mean you sit down and don’t do anything, but there’s something about having peace in the activity of things, where you’re not… You know how you can do the same thing two different ways, and in one you’re really anxious and you’re pushing through and you’re not here and you’re trying to get to the outcome, and in the other you’re just walking through, and pretty much you get to the same place, although you get through a little quicker if you’re more relaxed. And so it’s like that and then you’re at peace in the changes. And so we get stillness not by making the mind still, not by controlling our circumstances, so it’s not really a monastic model in that way. you can control your mind quite a lot if you do shut down the universe around you and somebody’s prepared to give you food and cook for you and things like that and you live alone and guard your mind and don’t look at anything distracting and things like that, but then the first time something distracting comes along you sort of get stuck with it. It gets obsessional. And we know that in a way. We know that if we have something good and we hold onto it, what we have is the holding on.

And in the midst of activity in retreat, amazing, wonderful things happen. You don’t have to hold your mouth right in order to have freedom. Kind of fun things happen and we forget who we are in a retreat. The timekeeper told me she started ringing the bell an hour before the afternoon session, and – for which I praised her naturally – I thought it was a great thing – I remember once being woken up by the timekeeper at 2am [laughter], going in and getting dressed and having a shower, because there was the thing of don’t wear watches, let the timekeeper take care of that. So we were sitting and it was so dark… [laughter] And I love that stuff. 

Someone else today told me this great story about she woke up and goes in the shower and comes out and she can’t find her room. It didn’t occur to her that this is the fifth day, she probably knows where she’s sleeping. And she doesn’t know that. She walks into her room but it’s not her room. And she tries to walk into another one and it’s not her room. She runs into someone else who tells her where her room is. I thought that was incredibly – I recognize that, that happens to me. And in a certain sense we don’t know who we are in a positive way. She said this other great thing like she went down to find her cup to have coffee and it had a name written on it in handwriting but she didn’t recognize it. I love that. 

So we’re back then to the very first of the five things where you meet an old, familiar face but you don’t recognize it. So you can see how fundamentally you can enter at any step. And I love the way we lose things in meditation. Because we’re so good at accumulating worry and suffering and being right and anxieties about things, and if we feel close to someone then we worry is it going to continue or not, and if we feel distant from someone then we worry that it’s distant, so all that stuff just disappears because we don’t know who we are. We don’t know who’s worrying. And it’s kind of – everybody’s naturally beautiful then. Everything we look at, it’s okay, you know. It’s pretty cool. 

So there’s a few principles about – what does sitting by the fire mean, in terms of to me, to you… I mean sometimes it is just that peaceful quality. Our dog, my dog likes to watch the moon at night and sits in the bedroom next to my meditation cushion watching through the glass door. And sometimes she’ll just sit there and it’s like she’s meditating, and so I get up and sit with her. For me. That’s sitting by the fire. We watch the moon fall. Other times she’ll get up and pay attention, but when she’s meditating she doesn’t. She just sits there and watches. So she’s pretty good at stage 5. You can tell the difference in just the way she looks at me when I come and sit with her.

But what else? I don’t know, it could be updating a website and you’re at peace. You’re just there and you’re not having opinions about I spend too much time online, I’m always talking to a device, why are people always looking at their iphone? Or I love looking at my iphone! More people should look at my iphone! That’s it is or it isn’t, right? It can be anything you’re doing. It can be gardening, which is a more physical thing. The body likes that, the inner animal creature likes that, likes going for walks and things, but it could be studying, it could be… I do a lot of reading, and you can be free when you read, or you can be all caught and trying to get through to the next page. And being free tastes, feels a lot better. 

So one of the corollaries of you can be at peace in the middle of things is maybe there’s not a problem. And if you really, really look, there might not be. And regardless of if you were convinced there was a terrible, terrible problem two seconds ago, if you really look there might not be. Whatever it is. I’m too fat, I drink too much, whatever I do. In some way you are too fat and you do indulge too much in some drug, whatever your drug is, we’re always too something. It’s the human condition. I’m too old. All of that is really: I’m going to die. Yes, probably, very likely, conceivably. Even if Ray Kurzweil thinks maybe we won’t, for the moment we’re going to. And it’s all right. It’s like when you’re not looking at oh it’s a terrible problem and you’re really looking at the universe, it’s like it’s looking at itself, and you’re looking at yourself. And it’s all right, we’re a flower of the universe, and flowers bloom and then they go back and then they come back and bloom again and all this stuff. So probably it’s all right, it’s not yet a problem, it’s not yet the wrong thing. Whatever’s happening with you is not yet the wrong thing. People aren’t doing the wrong life. So that would be a corollary of sitting by the fire. 

And not only do you not have the wrong life, you’re not doing it wrong. Even if you think you’re doing it wrong, that’s not wrong either, it’s like that. So you can see there’s a sort of generosity of the universe when you’re just looking out through the eyes of the universe. It’s not fussy like that. Life isn’t fussy. Intimacy and wholeness are more valued than perfection and purity. Or we could say there’s a purity that’s a sort of innocence, that’s just here, whatever’s just here is just here and it’s innocent. Your history, whatever the dopey things you did, whatever awful sufferings you had, they weren’t your fault. The universe did that and now it’s doing you now here. And you can forgive yourself for the life you’ve had. You’re not really doing it wrong. So in that sense we can relax. In general we do everything including meditation better when we’re relaxed. Even if you’re determined to suffer, relax about it, suffer, be sad in a relaxed way. 

And then I suppose the universe comes to us. Hear the sound of the plane, the sound of the bird, the sound of the bell. Whatever the sounds are, the sound of the music, the music you can’t stand coming from the sports field. Enjoy it. What’s wrong with that? People would think that’s magical in some cultures, this vast, amplified sound. Imagine that in the middle ages. Wow, the gods have arrived. And I suppose another thing to say about it is one way of sitting by the fire, for me there’s a kind of surrender to the way things are. It’s like I’ll accept what’s real rather than being in this endless negotiation with it, trying to take it to a higher court all the time, and defending myself and arguing with life. That it’s here, and what we have had a beauty and an ability to it, and so we can have it. And the things that we’re not very good at, our continuous difficulties or the things we don’t really like much about ourselves, you know, maybe it’s fine. The things that we always do that are dopey. Next time you do it, really feel it. Think about it – it you’re ashamed you ought to be more ashamed. If you’re spacey, space out more. Lose your wallet as well as your keys! [laughter] Whatever it is that you don’t like about yourself, do it up. 

And so that’s what refuge fundamentally is. Tomorrow night we won’t be having a talk, we’ll be having a very interesting refuge ceremony, and it might be slightly different from some other refuge ceremonies, but we’ll be having a refuge ceremony. And I’m thinking about what is refuge for me, and it starts out refuge in the Buddha, refuge in awakening, refuge in the way, refuge in our companions, like that. Fundamentally it’s this: the refuge is in reality, that we’re here and it’s bigger than our opinions of things. We can’t control it, or we don’t have to manage it, or it manages itself better than I can manage it, you know. And whatever the things we do – I’m in the wrong relationship, I’m in the wrong job… yes, probably, but you don’t know. And really you are or you’re not, that’s still that it is, it isn’t stuff. It’s just endless. If you haven’t solved it by now, even if you’re three months old, you’re just going to let the universe solve it, because whenever it comes up as a question like that, it can’t be solved. But it will solve itself but you may not. You yourself probably won’t. So it’s a matter of sort of living with an open heart through things, and then it’s sort of more interesting to really have our issues. Sometimes – I remember being, I guess the last real job I had I got fired, about thirty years ago, a long time ago, and I was fine – at the time I was slightly miffed because I was fired because I was running a program in a corporation that my program was one that was successful and the other ones were having trouble, and when I was away they had to fire one of the program heads so they fired me. But then I realized they were right. It was like I didn’t belong there. I wasn’t that thrilled and I was probably a jerk to work with. But anyway even if I wasn’t, the universe was right, it told me you better do something else now, and it was great. I was smart enough to thank them. That was good. Thank you very much. 

So the universe sometimes does things to us or with us and we can’t say it was wrong. The universe isn’t wrong if we have cancer. The universe wasn’t wrong to give us cancer, or a friend of ours just had a stroke. So her form, she’s appearing in a slightly different form because of the stroke. She has mild aphasia now and can’t drive at the moment, but she’ll probably be able to drive but she’ll always have mild aphasia, but that doesn’t make her or the event wrong or her wrong or her life wrong, if you see what I mean. Like you’re not having a wrong life. Then if you turn toward what’s really happening, you’re at peace. If you make it wrong you’re just at war all the time and there’s no end to that war, as it said here – you have the courage to not make it is where it isn’t. And that includes the thing you can’t stand about your childhood or the family you grew up in or what was done to you when, but it’s your life and in a certain sense if you really look, if you really look, then the looking itself has a beauty in it, a luminosity to it and a glow to it that’s irreplaceable and once you’ve seen it you can’t ever quite forget it, once you’ve experienced it. So that’s sitting by the fire. So how are you doing? That’s me rambling on and why don’t you ramble on for a bit? Comments, what are you noticing, what are you discovering, explorations?

S: I’ll go. So I was sitting on my cushion tonight and just like living this koan completely, and I had a thing that happened between a colleague and I and I was unhappy about what had transpired, and so I had sent a communication letting my colleague know I was unhappy with something that had transpired, and knowing full well that it probably wouldn’t be received well. And I think I got a ten-page response. Just blah blah blah blah blah. So I was sitting on my cushion and I was just hooked.

John: You were doing your twenty-page response. [laughter] Always good to write longer emails really quickly.

S: Yeah and so I’m like responding and then going, Shh! I’m meditating! Stop it! Oh but I could say this! That’s not true! It would just keep rising up to the  surface and grabbing me, and I’d be writing the frigging email again. Then I would come back to my breath and then slowly but surely I’d be writing email again. Then at some point I spoke to my friend in my head and just said just calm down, what’s here right now, really? What do you hear? How’s the cushion feel underneath you?

John: Like a horse or a dog or something.

S: Yeah, whoa! And really coming into this moment in this place right here inside of myself, what I noticed was my heart completely opened to this person. And what my response was aww, that was really hard to hear. And that was like sitting by the fire.

John: That’s kind of true. That’s reality. 

S: Yeah it was like awww…

John: Nice.

S: Well it’s not a very big thing maybe but when I went for a walk I was just looking on the side of the road, I just got into looking at this really nice, gray tree with all its bark and everything, and around it was just a sea of thick, a thick sea of leaves all dry and curled, different browns, shapes, so there was a great gray tree and the brown leaves all around. It was a very captivating image, and then I thought whoa, the leaves are for the tree. And then I saw something about how it rose new, it drops its leaves and then they go into the ground and become the nourishment for it. It was just this nice thing where its old stuff was the food for its new stuff. 

John: I sense a metaphor. [laughter]

S: So maybe it was sitting by the fire the way trees can do.

John: Thank you.

S: John I’m wondering about the two fires, the fire that the lotus is in and the fire in the fireplace that I’m sitting by, and I have a sense that the fire in the fireplace is the same fire, and the image of it’s such a relaxing, complacent feeling to sit by a fire, I may think, but actually what happens to me is sitting by the fire after awhile it’s a little too warm and I move away a little bit. Then it’s a little too cold, and I move closer, and sometimes sparks fly out of the fire and I have to be careful the whole room doesn’t catch on fire, and it’s – 

John: Lots of things to worry about.

S: Lots of things to worry about, but what I’m saying I also note that can all be sitting by the fire. None of it is – it’s all sitting by the fire. So I don’t want to like devalue or try to put some romantic cover over that fire that the lotus is in, that I’m in a lot of the time, but still.

John: Go ahead and devalue it.

S: The fire in the fireplace too, you know.

John: Well we have a natural – if you get an image the mind immediately something attaches to it and then something else, and then we get skeptical about it and then we love it and fall in love with it and we overvalue it and all that stuff. And yes that’s sitting by the fire and it’s fine, it’s just the mind doing its thing. And one of the great things is we can trust that, we can let the mind do its thing. Like the other day the lotus in the fire – you find yourself in the middle of nothing and there is a road that has no dust – 

S: No that’s the other one.

John: No that’s the other one! That’s the two swords crossed. See, I’m spacey. I lost my wallet and my keys. Well I was doing the one about you find yourself in the middle of nothing and I just felt so spacey the whole time I was doing the talk, because I was in the middle of nothing, like it did that to me, and you just trust that stuff, that’s what life is, it does that. And you go out and your car’s got a flat tire. So you won’t be making that meeting and you’re going to have a more interesting morning than you thought, and it’s fine. And you didn’t get that job that you were going to the interview for. Well you’re going to have to get another job. So there’s a trust in, it’s really a trust in you’re not having the wrong mind, and you’re not having the wrong thoughts, and when you start to trust that things come to rest internally too, because we’re not fighting and defending ourselves and pretending to know things we don’t know. Mainly whatever we know isn’t true. 

I have a friend, David Chadwick, who loves conspiracy theories. He’s really into them. He seriously investigated what’s the evidence for and against that there wasn’t ever a moon landing and it was faked in studio? Or like actually the Pentagon blew up the Twin Towers, and it’s sort of great, amazing the hallucinatory states the mind can move in. I rather enjoyed his appreciation of the lunacy, whereas I just wouldn’t give it a second thought. But for him it was a high art form. That’s what our minds are doing, so our minds are doing this stuff, but they come to peace if we don’t interfere with them so much. You see mainly we judge our thought as wrong. This is too romantic or too skeptical or probably both those things and is that too anything really? Everybody’s mind does that.

S: As you were speaking I’m realizing that the universe really does give the perfect thing. I had a really spacious, wonderful day and very deep, and then three minutes before I was to ring the densho bell I got a text from my twenty-year-old son saying that he thinks he has a concussion, can I email him his most recent lab reports so that they can compare? And I just have my medical alarm go right up because he has illness and so I’m right back into this big, murky confusion thing that just seems to scoop way deeper than necessary, and yeah so it helps to speak it, to say to somebody.

John: Yeah, that’s a good thing isn’t it? We just narrate it and suddenly it’s different. 

S: What did I do? I rang the densho. Actually I called him within those three minutes, and he was in a meeting, so clearly it wasn’t that urgent. But he said he can’t concentrate, and he did get hit. But there is the story – if it’s an emergency he would be going through the steps, but I’m sitting here in an emergency that it’s not really… there’s something about being so open and then something comes along, it’s almost like I don’t have the normal defense and strategies up.

John: It’s great. Some monster walks in, goblin walks in the door – we have a koan in the miscellaneous koans, one of my few contributions to the great tradition of koan study, which is does the Loch Ness monster really exist? Because it does walk in the door a lot. I think that’s it, isn’t it? There’s a deepening and an enriching, well okay there’s this. You love him in that condition too, when he interrupts you three minutes before and you call him back urgently and he’s in a meeting, you know. Then you think he can’t concentrate, what does that mean? The mind does that, that’s it’s job. Thank you, it’s beautiful. There’s something tender about all that too.

S: Yeah there’s a perfectness about the universe just showing up. It’s like the best day and then oopsies. [laughter]

John: Yeah.

S: Yeah it’s interesting hearing what you said Alanna and what you just said Jennie, because I found during the sesshin I’m calling people and responding to emails and it’s kind of interesting especially as sesshin goes on and I was just watching Rachel take off her socks and I was just like what is that? Whoa! [laughter] I notice a lot of the comments we really sound like stoners…

John: Have you ever really looked at your thumb? [laughter]

S: Is that a foot? But I had this experience today where I’d been waiting – a friend of mine and I had applied for something together and we’d gotten it and it had fallen apart and we were waiting on some news and we got it today. And I was in sesshin and wrote my friend this email and didn’t really explain to her what – I just didn’t really come off right, I wasn’t thinking straight, and she wrote me a thorough response to this detailing my offenses. And then I also had this phone call and things came up at work, less than pleasant. And then I came here and I was sitting and it was just like I just sat down and was like oh, I’m happy. That’s weird. Shouldn’t I be really enraged right now? And I was also, like I was pissed off about it and kind of going through my head about how I should have responded to this email or corrected or something. It was interesting.

John: Yeah it’s like oh, I’m happy; underneath it all there’s this irreducible quality in the universe that one metaphor for it is there’s a light under everything.

S: It’s unexpected.

John: And it’s unavoidable really. We only avoid it by really obsessing. And I think the whole thing about a retreat is we start to see through the obsessing so we can’t help but see what else is there. And the obsessing is the light too, but it’s well disguised.

S: Some of it is habit, right? The habit of the mind.

John: Well it’s all habit I suppose. The universe is a habit. It’s having a habit. Producing stars and destroying them, galaxies eating galaxies, it just can’t stop. I’m powerless over destroying my galaxies.

S: I felt dopey today and I kind of enjoyed it. I didn’t think much. I couldn’t. And I slept a lot. And it felt good.

John: Congratulations. [laughter] Isn’t Ryokan one of your heroes?

S: Ryokan? Yeah.

John: The artist who used to go and play with children because he just couldn’t get to do the important appointment he was going to do and he goes and plays with the children. It’s that kind of mind. And I think the thing is to have the mind we have. All these stories are about that and in a certain way there’s a blessing on the day then, and then something different will happen tomorrow. But if it doesn’t, the universe will just do me differently tomorrow.

S: Sometimes, like today was kind of a down day, my body was down, everything was just kind of ah. I wanted to, I felt like something was coming up. I really wanted to write. I went up to the hillside to sit and nothing was coming and I was frustrated about it and then I took a deep breath and all of a sudden “crawk!” The way that nature –

John: Are you saying a crow – 

S: Yeah, a frog startled me. Sorry. And after that I was sitting there and I was whistling a tune and I don’t know what kind of bird it is, it’s white and black wings, really beautiful, but it whistled the same tune. It was so strange, and I love that about the reality that we’re sitting in that we forget about the most.

John: Thank you. 

S: One of the themes I’ve had going on in this retreat is letting stuff go. I think unconsciously or consciously I come to these things with the idea that I’m coming for a tune-up of some sort, coming to get in shape or get more superpowers, got my cape, and I’m going to go back and attack life, take it on, whatever, and I’m reasonably happy with that, it seems like a fun thing to do, but it does seem like a lot of work. Over these last few days it’s like things are just being removed. I don’t have to do that. I don’t have to be the most disciplined person in the world. I don’t have to work a certain number of hours in a day. I don’t have to really do any of these tasks. I’m a big task maker, and it’s kind of a relief, you know? I just have to have the courage to just be in whatever the universe is, not decide that it is or it isn’t. And it’s not that it’s easy, but it seems like a lot less work in some way. I don’t know if that makes sense, but it’s like there’s less to do. There’s less to do than I always make it out to be if that makes sense. 

John: Completely. Thank you.

S: Yesterday I discovered that my tire was pretty close to flat and so I filled it with some air and figured I don’t know when I’m going to deal with that. That was kind of interesting actually. I do not have time to deal with that. I said that to Jan this morning and she said, “Now you do.” [laughter] Amazing how time just clears like that. So I was at the tire place and the young guy had gone out to look at all the tires, and then he was making conversation as we went back inside to try to figure out what to do, and he said so how’s your day going, I mean besides this. And I was like oh that wasn’t a problem at all, really, and then I started thinking oh, was that supposed to be a problem? That’s interesting. I couldn’t quite. Oh, I was supposed to…

John: Have you ever really looked at a screw in a tire? [laughter] It’s great isn’t it?

S: What’s not to like about hanging out at Discount Tire Center with you?

John: Those guys are great. Yeah it’s just moving in the world and it’s beautiful.

S: Well I’d just like to say that I was thinking about taking a walk down to Willie’s Wine Bar and watching the Giants game rather than come in here this evening. [laughter] Well they won. But I didn’t go. I think I just, everything, I’m sitting here thinking am I going to say this or am I going to wait and in the morning go in your dokusan room and scream a yell and throw things. So I thought well probably somebody else might be feeling this, so maybe I’ll just share it here. I just – it came on me this afternoon when I came in to sit between taking a nice walk with Jan and going grocery shopping. I’m totally bored with my practice. And to be kind I would say that I feel like it’s pretty fucked right now. [laughter] I’m like wow look at the last six months, you haven’t really sat that much, inconsistently. Last three months you’ve hardly talked to your teacher. You’d rather go to Willie’s Wine Bar and… [laughter] And talking to Roxanne the cook or Bruce on the couch. 

So I finally grab Alanna and she goes, “I think you’re in a spiritual crisis.” [laughter] Have you talked to John about it? No I slipped in to talk to Guy about it this evening and kind of helpful but maybe you should go talk to John about this. Maybe I should. But I just realized this. And I realized also this sesshin seven years ago or something is when I took refuge. So I was telling Guy that it’s kind of like – I’m a coach, and you work with an athlete and the athlete gets to a certain point where they can plateau, and if you’re not careful with them, they think they’re in a slump. Because really they’re just on a plateau but I was telling him, the plateau for me is I’m just fucking bored. I’d like to find a koan that – there’s going to be a punch line here. I’d like to find a koan that just grabs me, because he was calling it this grabbed him and it lived inside him and exploded, and [laughter]… wow I’m trying to think of the last time when I felt like that about a koan! So then while you were talking I was like oh I’m in that last koan. I’m like the lotus that’s on the fire, but truly I don’t even know if I fucking care if I’m in the fire. [laughter] So just to say… [laughter]

John: Thank you for sharing. The other thing I have to say to you: have you ever really looked at boredom? [laughter] Boredom’s a great thing. There should be more of it, and there’s some way in which it’s that sort of bare taste of reality. Boredom always requires some kind of surrender to me, like not thinking I shouldn’t be waiting in line at the DMV. Like the moment you’re waiting in line at the DMV and you’re not that happy about how long the line is. So it’s sort of interesting like how am I holding my life back of something that I’m bored. It may not be like that for you. You may be right, you should have gone to the Giants game. 

S: I shall investigate my boredom.

John: That’s pretty funny. It’s like being dopey or something here – I had a dopey day. Part of boredom is thinking something different should be happening and then we don’t look at what is happening. But if I’m flat or dry, it might be interesting… But you’ve already been diagnosed with a spiritual crisis. [laughter]

S: I just want to defend myself here. That was not my response.

John: We don’t care. It’s great. We thought it was really funny and we appreciate.

S: I don’t know who said it and they should get credit for it.

S: It was Tim.

S: I had a couple experiences. One is that koan about the old woman looking in the mirror. I have a client who’s 89 years old, and I really love her a lot and my mom is close to that age and I had a conversation with both of them in the last 24 hours about being an old woman. And I said we have these images of being an old woman. I said to my client you know, you’re pretty old, 89 is considered pretty old. But you don’t seem like you’re old at all to me. And she said yeah, I don’t feel old. And we talked about it a little bit and my mom said the same thing and I said I don’t know if I’ve ever really seen an old person the way that we think about an old person, and I said I think I’ve seen old people in nursing homes. They seem old to me. And we just talked about the spirit, that there’s something about claiming our spirit, that when we claim it we don’t feel old, but somehow when we lose our spirits, there’s something very old about that. And I started to just feel into my own practice, and I always think about my death in terms of it coming up, like I will die, I will die, but I was practicing today and I was thinking I am dying. I’m dying, and part of this dying that I’m having is really scary to me. But then I started to feel as I was really feeling it, I started to feel infused with just this gratitude that I’m dying and I’m living simultaneously, that somehow… and that was how I interpreted the koan about the swords. That we’re in the middle of form and formlessness. We’ve got this predicament. We’re not actually form, but we’re not formlessness either. And so we’re right smack in the middle of it all the time, and I guess the last thing about it is thinking about suffering, like for myself when I sit and meditate, I’m in pain, and that pain cuts through things for me. And it’s not like oh I get into these blissful states now and I’m transcendent. It’s more like there’s something that just keeps waking up over and over again from it, and it’s that waking up that I crave.

John: Are you saying you need the pain to wake up?

S: Well I’m curious about that, I’m curious about the role of suffering in waking up.

John: I don’t know, I mean everybody’s different.

S: I mean it seems like when we suffer, whether it’s emotional or physical or whatever, we’re right up against an edge that we have to reconcile with. If we don’t reconcile with it, we’re at risk of despair, and if we do then it can transform into wisdom and compassion, but it’s that edge of suffering to me that’s…

John: Well despair is deciding it is or it isn’t. Despair is a conclusion reached after suffering. Despair is the form with the signature on it saying I’m suffering and it’s going to keep going. Despair is a sort of confidence in one’s powers to predict the future really. Which I actually lack. But it comes with – I think despair is a way of putting – the mind loves meaning, a story, and if we’re sad about something we sometimes feel we’re to blame, and if we’re in suffering we sometimes feel like it’s going to go on and that’s despair. It’s the extra storytelling function – it’s not really story – there’s some narrative thing goes on there.

S: Yeah, someone said last night about grief, my grief is my fault. That’s what despair feels like to me.

John: Yeah. My grief is my fault means I’m making sense of the universe by being to blame, and despair is somewhat along those lines. Maybe the universe is to blame, but either way somebody is to blame. For me when I’m in that – not to condemn anybody’s despair, which is its own thing – but those conclusions don’t seem true to me. Like it’s not your fault somebody you loved died, or even if you’re in despair it’s not your fault you’re in despair, and there’s this amazing – if you taste it or feel it or something, oh. What is this? It’s not what I thought it was. Even boredom’s not what we think it is. Boredom’s usually holding something back, but maybe not. So for me the universe it endlessly dreaming itself, and in a way when I suffer I’m trying to stop the process and stop the changes and stop the flow of the… And if I just go think well it’s flowing and I was really wise today and now I don’t have a clue what I’m going to talk about and I’m supposed to be a Zen teacher, then I’m going to suffer. But if I’m with that, yeah I don’t have a clue what I’m going to talk about, whatever it is, my heart’s acting up, whatever it is, then it’s fine. 

There’s a megalomaniacal quality about my own finding it’s wrong, this is the wrong place, wrong time, I’m the wrong person, like I would know. Who am I to know that. So there’s a modesty about the sitting by the fire thing. Like I don’t have to come to conclusions. And the conclusions for me, they push away the participation in life. I think we know that, most people who have paid attention notice that. I like participating. I like that feeling like it really does look like the universe is looking out through us and the universe is watching itself, which is us, through us. And it’s having a good time doing it. Today I’ll throw this person into despair and I’ll eat a galaxy. That’s what I’ll do. [laughter] And maybe I’ll have an enlightenment experience over there in Santa Rosa, and I’m just having such a good time being the universe. Like the horse in Douglas Adams that decides today I’ll just eat a bale of hay and I’ll go over to that corner of the paddock, and like that. The horse actually doesn’t get to do that. It gets to do other things, but. Yeah?


S: I just wanted to know where that bar is? [laughter]

John: Go north young man. Walk north along the road. It’s very short.

S: I was a little bored myself today, but I kind of enjoyed it, and I’m thinking because I’ve been sitting next to Jan, my whole perception of her is that she’s so together and she’s got a great practice, and she’s a renaissance woman… and it doesn’t make any difference to her because she’s in a spiritual crisis. I was just amazed to hear that and I guess everyone’s practice is so different and it is perceptual. And I think you do go through these stages. I actually kind of like boredom, because I was just up in my room and I realized I can do two, maybe three sittings per day but not all of them, because I just get too tired. So I just lay down and looking at the ceiling and see lots of little, good little sparkly things…[laughter]

John: This is the theme for the day, boredom and have you ever really looked at…?

S: And then I thought you know it’s not such a bad little room and it’s peaceful and it’s nice to be peaceful. I think boredom can actually move very easily to peaceful or dopeyness. They kind of all can get you into a place that makes you more comfortable, made me comfortable, so then I felt really good when I came down here to sit for only an hour.

John: Well here’s what I’d say. I think we need to stop in a minute so I’m just going to say this: no matter what the content of your mind, whether you think you can sit, or you’re tired or you’re bored or you’re in despair or you don’t know who you are and you think that’s probably great but maybe it’s alarming and how will you deal with your kids when you get home. It doesn’t really matter, just to say. There’s a deeper thing that’s holding us, and at this stage in a retreat that deeper thing is very strong, and the thing is, the thing about coming to conclusions, I’m this, or I’m feeling that, is we settle for that. And I don’t think we need to settle for that. You can enter any gate, knock on any door and freedom will be there. And it’s completely optional. Nobody minds if you don’t want to do it.

S: That’s wonderful, because then you don’t have to have the guilt.

John: Well guilt is another unnecessary, annoying thing. If you want guilt, there’s plenty of it around.  But just to say that I think people – we work hard and there’s a little bit of heroic achievement and then the rubber band snaps back a little sometimes, and the other side of the hero is the martyr or the victim or something like that, and so it is a time to unload your achievement stuff, and my two cents is try to notice, try to notice when you’re really caught up with those stories in your mind, because they’re enormously – even if you think they’re very fascinating and compelling and you’re inclined to believe them, they’re enormously reduced right now while you’re in retreat, and you’re very close to that seeing inside anything there’s the light and the freedom, just to say.

Thank you very much.