PZI Teacher Archives



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. 


Tonight I want to talk about another aspect of the koan Who’s hearing—Who am I, What am I. There’s a spectrum that I’ve been talking about in a previous talk. And I wanted to get at it slightly at an angle, by going in through dreams and the idea that there is a difference between what we’re doing and dreams, which is certainly relevant to who we think we are. 

In the Diamond Sutra, which is one of the old Zen descriptions of reality, it says all of life is a dream. It’s like a bubble, a flash of lightning, a bubble on the surface … soap bubbles, that kind of thing. There’s a fleeting quality about it, but it’s also something that appears and disappears, the way a dream does. And there’s a nice koan that plays with this theme, about a great old Chinese teacher who, when he was a student, had a dream. 

He dreamed he went to Maitreya’s place.

Maitreya is the Buddha of the future, the Buddha yet to be born, so he’s going to the Buddha whose inner karma is sort of the Jesus of the Buddhist universe. He went to the Messiah’s place. He went to Maitreya’s place, and people immediately showed him to one of the seats up at the altar—the third seat. In that universe, probably the first two seats were Maitreya and Buddha. So he’s shown to the third seat, and then somebody hits a gavel and says,

Today the one in the third seat will give the talk.

This is in his dream. So, immediately he stands up in his dream and says, “The truth of the great vehicle is beyond any explanations.” He says it in a very technical way. He says “beyond the four propositions.” You can make up your own propositions, because it’s a dream. But the four propositions are: It is, It isn’t, It neither is nor isn’t, and It both is and isn’t. So that’s them, and then, “Not only is it beyond the four propositions, it’s beyond the one hundred negations.” Which are: It neither is nor isn’t … it stacks up to about a hundred. You can tell philosophers have been at work. But that’s the sort of complicated stuff the mind does, right? Explaining things. So he says, “The truth of it, it’s beyond that.”

And he hits the gavel twice and says, “Listen! Listen!”

It’s the hearing thing again. Listen. Listen. And that’s his dream.

He’s interesting; as we’re building a culture I think about him. One reason is that he noticed his dreams, and I think that’s an interesting thing to do. It’s like noticing your art. Our walls here are full of dreams, actually. And also because he and his teacher didn’t have the usual Confucian relationship, though it was very respectful, but they had a sort of collaborative relationship, and so they sort of cooperated in exploring the Dharma together. And I think that’s sort of the model for us, what we do, why we have conversations and inquiry together and things. 

So his teacher said, wow, you’re becoming wise aren’t you. Not just enlightened, but somehow it’s saturating you, it’s in your dreams. It’s a nice thing, that it goes through in your heart in a way. So there’s a way in which we start to move, I think, without that usual apparatus about who we are. So this is the dream idea. Usually we have to know who we are and what we’re doing to make a move. But in Zen that’s not very interesting, that leads to us making the same moves we made yesterday and the day before. It also leads us to be very concerned with how we look. The idea of who we are is tremendously interested in persona and comparing mind. Is the other person more interesting in interview than me because I can hear more laughter coming out of the room, that sort of thing. Yes, they are actually. [laughs] 

So there’s that. So as soon as you get this who thing going, you’ve got a world of pain and comparison and suffering of various kinds, and you think you’re better than, or you think you don’t fit, or nobody loves you, and it’s kind of true because you don’t love you because you’re obsessed with how you look and comparing yourself all the time. 

So the practice in a certain sense doesn’t have to fight that directly and say don’t think like that, it just sort of moves into a place that was before that kind of thinking happened, or beneath that kind of thinking. And that’s what dream is like. The nice thing about dreams is they have a relatively involuntary quality, and if you really notice it, your thoughts are involuntary too. You don’t really know where they come from. And even your demons are involuntary. But whether you feed them or not, is voluntary. 

If you think of, you’re meditating along, or you’re just walking along, you don’t have to be in the meditation hall or anything, you can be at work or with your family or anything – and suddenly the world is wrong. It was fine two minutes ago but suddenly now it’s not. You really need to improve somebody, or explain to them how they don’t understand you, or whatever it is. Make them happier so they understand how wonderful you are, or make them understand how they really let you down on that deal. And that’s the demon, the mind of the prison, the mind that’s imprisoned. 

It’s interesting; it’s its own kind of dream, really. I’m dreaming of demons, I’m dreaming somebody doesn’t understand me, I’m dreaming – it too is given involuntarily like a dream. It’s no more real than a dream, but it’s sort of interesting. Then it’s like, oh that’s the place that I let my meditation method into. It’s good that this came up. In terms of method, it’s good that I’m all messed up right now, because I know I get messed up. So why not now? Why wait to get messed up? Be direct. 

So you get messed up now, and then if you let your questioning or your koan into that moment, something powerful and interesting starts to happen. If you let your koan into the moment where you’re completely calm and concentrated, that’s kind of nice and looks good on your resume, but it doesn’t have that sort of gritty, genuine quality so much. There’s nothing wrong with it – nice work when you have it. But if you can have that strange thing where you’re really caught and you start to let the koan into that place. Instead of trying to fix that place, you let the koan into it. Because trying to fix your torment and kill demons, it’s like the Nazi zombies, there’s always more of them where they came from. There’s always more to shoot and they’re shooting at you too. They’re coming at you even though their heads are falling off or whatever. There’s always more demons. But if you let your koan in, something happens where they become part of the dream and you start to get free of them.

I brought these things in because I had a dream. This is an old folk Ganesh from India, and this is a genuine American artifact that I happen to have. I had this great dream where we’re in sesshin together, all of us, every one of you, and me. We’re sitting meditating and then we go out to eat to the dining hall. We eat and then we clean up and come back and we meditate, and everything’s going on great. And one of us is an elephant. [laughter] Which I thought, it’s not bad if you can have elephants in your dojo. 

And the elephant is just meditating, then goes off to the dining room to eat, very concentrated, intense and deep meditation all the time, even when he’s moving. He goes in and he eats, helps clean up, then back in to the meditation hall. Meditate, meditate, meditate, elephant meditation. And somebody naturally says: Why have we got an elephant meditating with us? And somebody else in the meditation hall said, If you really listen to him, you can understand the noises he’s making. He’s actually talking. 

So I decided, oh I’ll really listen to him. Hakuin says you turn the light and you start to regard things. You turn the light into the issue. And so I start listening to the elephant and actually he’s really smart. He’s saying these great dharma things, but his voice is hard to understand because it’s full of elephant noises. But if you really understand, you can tell he’s got a lot of accuracy about his understanding of the dharma. Then somebody says: But why is an elephant sitting meditating with us? So I say, if you really tune into him he has totality of being. I told this dream to a friend who said: Well that’s really a koan, isn’t it? What is totality of being? So I thought I would answer that koan for you. [laughter] There you are. See? It’s beyond the truth of the Mahayana. It’s beyond the four propositions and the one hundred negations. The enlightened elephant. So that wasn’t too hard was it? 

The interesting thing about dreams is that they tell us things we don’t know that we know, or they touch into a realm that we think was excluded to us. That’s what art does, too, and poetry. That’s what beauty does, really. We thought it was beyond us when we were in prison. Long ago when I came to meditation, I came to meditation because I was burning, really, and I just knew I needed to work with my mind. And I also knew I needed to answer questions that I had about who am I, what’s it all about, that sort of thing. And besides that I was kind of nuts, so that was a good reason. By which I mean I didn’t quite fit for myself. I just wasn’t seated in a place that I felt happy, and I knew all the adjustments I made were just adjustments. There was some core thing that I could change; I could feel must be possible. It must be possible to be at home in the universe, but I didn’t know how to do it. I guess I was about 28, 29 by the time I finally sort of surrendered to this.

So I was meditating, and I was not that good. I didn’t think I was that good at meditation. My mind was very busy. And a really good meditation would be: Oh, there’s the koan. Hello. And then, whoops… An hour would pass and, oh there’s the koan again. And that was a good day. Otherwise a whole week might pass and I saw the koan twice. That was all right. I just decided what else am I going to do. One of the nice things was to be patient. I think when you’re patient, you sink down into a world that’s like a dream that way. If you somehow be patient with yourself and stop criticizing and assessing your performance, everything becomes a lot easier. You don’t have to influence other people, and you lose your agenda in a way.

But anyway, I had this great dream, and so I’m meditating along and having the various ups and downs one has when one is trying to get enlightened. It’s a desperate quest. And then I had this great dream where my mind, I seemed somehow steadier and more spacious, but I hadn’t resolved the questions I came with. But I had this great dream that I was driving in a car with a friend, that broke down. We got out. It was dusk and we went down through water. There had been a flood that had exposed the graves of the ancestors, the graves of the saints, and we went down through. I ran into some people who were senior Zen students, and they told me that there was this hidden mountain that nobody knew about. It was huge, like ten thousand feet high. Fairly big, anyway. Biggish. And it was something to do with the temple there. The temple there was where… down through the graves of the ancestors was about this mountain. 

So the next morning in my dream, the night passed and I spent the night in the temple and I went up the mountain. Children were coming down from the mountain, they were just running into life and I was going the other way to where children came from. How I was getting there was, I had an ice cream cone and I’d lick it. The children would come and I’d play games with them and hide it behind me and laugh, and they’d just laugh and run by. This took me all the way up the mountain to the temple at the top of the mountain. My meditation technique was the ice cream cone. So then after that I woke up from the dream and the koans became clear to me. It was this odd thing. 

So I think one of the things to say is that you don’t have to in a certain way know, you don’t have to explain yourself to yourself. Explaining who you are to yourself is really unnecessary. If dreams can know something’s going on with us that’s as big as setting your doubts to rest, but I didn’t have a clue, my dream did, then it’s not necessary to know yourself in those conventional ways. That’s why Bodhidharma, there’s this famous story where the Emperor asked Bodhidharma: well who are you, dude? Came from India. Barbarian with your red beard and your blue eyes. Who are you? And Bodhidharma said: I don’t know. Because all that kind of knowledge is not much use, right? The who are you stuff. 

I think I’ve told this story recently about the Korean teacher, Seung Sahn. He’d ask you: who are you, and you’d say John, and he’d say: yes but who are you? And he’d have his stick raised, and you didn’t want to give him John twice. He wasn’t going to accept that as an excuse for your existence. Because who cares, right? That’s something you have to protect. You have a reverse and John looks bad or does something stupid, which he’s going to do, then somehow you’re ashamed and you have to work with that all the time. So there’s a world of difficulty comes with all the stories about who you are, and if you step into the mystery of who you are, you’re free, and you can operate incredibly more freely and elegantly. 

So the koans play with this stuff a lot. There’s another koan that does that. The guy who had the dream, he became a famous teacher and was off on his own. Maybe his teacher had died or… He’d become a teacher and another guy who was teaching visited him – he didn’t know the guy – his name was Yangshan, but I’ll say his name was Jan. So Yangshan said: My name’s John. We’ll do it as Jan and John, because it’s going to be easier for you. 

I said, “Well who are you?” and she says, “John!” I said “John? That’s my name!” and she said, “Oh in that case my name is Jan.” So there’s that way of playing where not only do I not have to be me, I can be you. I can be an elephant. I can sit in the meditation hall with the other people and be an elephant. I can be a tree. I can be a galaxy. There’s a capacity of participation with the universe that I can start to have that’s very elegant. In the story, Yangshan is like, what? I’m Yangshan. And then he said his name and Yangshan just fell over laughing, it was so funny. Oh, you’re me, and you’re also you.

So a lot of the images in Zen of being able to move in the dark are valuable in that way. There’s a lot of images of passing on light, and that’s a good metaphor in a way. And also in Zen as soon as you set up something, somebody else will offer you the opposite possibility. A lot of those images of you put out your foot, and when you put out your foot… so you have a certain courage and non-hesitation, that responsive not hesitating can be really important in Zen, rather than obsessing about what’s the right move. It’s a dance, and you have to do the step. 

So you can move in the dark, and there’s a lot of images of that. The moon sets at midnight. I walk alone through the town. That’s a beautiful koan that’s really about the joy of that. That’s a happy koan. That’s what it’s like for me; I’m walking in the darkness through the town. The voluptuous, fortunate dark. Or: Step by step in the dark. If my foot’s not wet, I’ve found the stone. And you notice there’s a part of the mind that’s always wanting to have explanations and justifications for its method and assessing how it’s doing compared to the elephant. He’s only an elephant, and he’s doing better than me in koans! All that stuff. And in the dark, that’s all drivel. It just doesn’t matter, and you don’t have to do it. So you can start to be at peace that way, when you get down below all your obsession about your identity and who you are and how you look and whether you’re influencing people. Whether you’re important and all that stuff.

So here we are, see. Yes. This is a Ganesh. Ganesh is the person who cuts away obstacles, and Ganesh has an elephant’s head on a human body, but this is sort of a human in elephant shape riding a little scooter, being a circus act. So I thought they were both kind of forms of Ganesh. The Bodhisattavas.

Let me stop there. The last thing to say before I stop is there are meditation arts of dreaming and things like that, but mainly the thing to do at night is to let your koan be with you as you fall asleep. And in your normal consciousness knowing who you are, it’s impossible to meditate while you’re asleep, but your koan doesn’t care about that. It’s impossible to answer things, it’s impossible to understand things, but you don’t have to, because the koan can understand them. You don’t have to remember your koan, because your koan can be there for you, and then you’ll find things become possible that you thought were not possible, because you’re not explaining them. As soon as you explain them, they become impossible and you can’t do them. But you can have your meditation in your sleep. You wake up and there’s the koan. It didn’t come from anywhere; I didn’t remember it. Maybe I didn’t even wake up. And so if you find you’re dreaming, you’ll find that you have your koan in your dream. So there we are. You and the elephant have totality of being. 

Summer Sesshin 2011
062011 John T