There is another point of view here; it goes something like this: when you really step into the now, when you really meet today, all the ideas about should have, could have, would have, disappear, and we‘re all participating in this universe.
Here we are. One way to describe Zen is by what the mind does. And so really it just goes: moonlight, trees, path, moonlight, trees, building, talk, people… then path, moonlight, trees. And the simplicity of that is what happens in the mind. There’s just the flow of things in the mind, and there’s not a lot of other arrangement around them happening. I suppose the moonlight is beautiful, but it’s not even beautiful moonlight, although there might be an Ah! quality.
I’ve been talking about the way in meditation, it’s like blinking and your sight changes, your view changes, so you’re not thinking the same things you were thinking, although even that’s not crucial. If you are thinking the same things you were thinking, you’re not thinking the same things about what you were thinking. So the mind is not sort of tangled.
There’s something really luxurious and delicious about having a mind that’s not so tangled. It’s as if – we speak about coming home, but it’s really as if the floor of the mind has disappeared, and things just appear from out of nowhere, really. They just appear, and we don’t have a blueprint and a whole lot of design plans about where they appeared from, which is what the mind is usually doing, giving reasons why things appeared, how it means I’ve got to change my attitude toward somebody, or… It’s just oh, it’s here, moonlight, leaves, people.
And one of the paradoxes is when I stop thinking that my thoughts are important, and I stop thinking what I used to think is important and things drop away a great deal, then instead of feeling diminished, I actually feel like I’m richer. So the more I lose, the more joyful I am. And also the more we lose the more warm we are, the more we appreciate and enjoy each other.
So along those lines, tonight I wanted to talk about: moonlight, path, trees, people, silence, emptiness, moonlight, path, trees, people. Along those lines, I think the whole idea of the vows of Zen – I want to return tonight to that theme – the vows of Zen are in some way about opening up that territory. In some way they’re about, in a simple way, in terms of method (I don’t think this is the deepest way) they’re about noticing when we’re building the house of pain and difficulty.
I’ve been talking very generally about vows, but I’ll just more or less randomly – pick a vow, any vow – let’s pick lying. I vow not to lie. There’s a kind of simple thing there I suppose about well, lying is bad in certain ways. I don’t know whether lying’s bad or good, really. It might depend. In the classic, traditional idea about vows, there are different levels of holding a vow. There’s the literal level where a gentleman, a haggard-looking, frenetic gentleman comes up with an ax and says: Where did Sally go? And you say Sally went that way, because you don’t lie. And he says: Right! and takes off that way. That would be considered excessively literal by many of us. It’s also viewed philosophically. It’s a standard philosophic view in ethics, about what’s good for people and what’s good for society.
The next level of view in the tradition would be what’s called the view of the great vehicle. The view in which you actually consider things like kindness and benefit to people. In which case if Sally went that way, you say – Sally went that way. Which may not actually be good, because then he might run into a bunch of schoolchildren that way and do harm there. But anyway you get the point. In that understanding of how we act and live in the world, there’s the consequences taken into account. Smart philosophers have always pointed out that we actually don’t have a clue what the consequences of our actions will be; they always escape from us. Which is why occasionally we’ll get an intelligent person who takes the literal view about things. But I think that’s sort of natural for us – to guess which movie am I in, and try and play the most interesting, the most generous role in the movie, according to our criteria.
And then in the Zen tradition there’s a third view, which is considered the world of the koans, and in the Tibetan view it’s the world of the – they have different names for these too, there’s a third view there, too – it’s a little similar –in which if you fix on one criteria you kind of do things that, there’s no particular criteria comes up, there’s no ground to your decision. So until somebody comes along in a particular situation with an ax or whatever, you don’t know whether you’re going to tell them a lie. They could just be looking haggard because they’re tired and Sally asked for help with firewood. There’s a lot of different scenarios there. So that would be the philosophical background.
The koan world definitely leans toward that third thing of: well, what if we live without false certainty? So that would immediately begin to be relevant to the idea of lying or not. Lying is mainly what we do with ourselves. We sell ourselves on something; we sell ourselves on the used car and then we drive around in it. And in that case you’ll notice what your mind does. It’s not so much that you’re a bad person and you’ll go to hell if you lie, it’s that you start suffering. If you’re selling yourself on something that’s not real, the gap between what’s not real and what’s here starts to become painful.
So that would be what we might say is an idea of method. I think there’s something very practical about that idea. There’s something else too that I’ll say later, but there’s something practical about that, because you notice when you’re drifting to the land of the demons. You notice that – I’m starting to suffer because I’m starting to sell myself on something that’s not true.
And everybody thinks they never lie. If you really start looking at that attitude, when I sell myself on something that’s not true… I don’t know, how many times a day do you do that? Would it be more or less that 100,000? So then when you start talking about virtue it becomes – what’s that? Virtue becomes more about a sense of openness to discovery of what is true. That lying becomes: oh I thought I was angry about that because I thought I was right, but actually I was angry about that because I thought I was wrong. But I want to prove my point anyway, especially because I was wrong. So like that. So that’s the discovery process, that if you treat a precept as a koan you start noticing that stuff everywhere. It becomes sort of cute; you think: oh here I am lying again! Selling myself on that used car.
Then you’ll notice, the other thing is that one of the places I think this really appears for me that I find interesting is, if I take that koan view of there’s not really a ground for this, it’s all coming up out of the vastness, it appears like the moonlight, it’s just there. I didn’t make it appear. And we all do. I appear out of the vastness too, you appear out of the vastness. So when we have that idea that there are no – the measuring stick starts disappearing. So we don’t have to defend ourselves so much, so we just plain don’t have to lie to ourselves so much. We become much more interested in accuracy, because accuracy is delight and freedom. And then I’m not walking around with my imaginary world on my back, carting it around everywhere.
One of the things I really try to encourage in myself and leaders, teachers, is some sort of position of – I suppose positions’ not quite right – but the position of being a host, just take the position of the host, goes the koan, is about not being defensive. So that if you say: oh, you’re doing x, somebody says: you lied to me. Let’s take that one. Well, part of the mind has already got three attorneys on retainer explaining why you didn’t lie and what you said was true, and so forth. And my attorneys are smarter than your attorneys, and meaner too. The mind just does that. What do you mean!
But if you’re not defensive, well, in that person’s world, I lied. In their universe, I did. Do I lie? Have I ever lied? Well not more than nine hundred times today, and I just got up. So probably, if I didn’t lie when they think I did, I probably did some other time, so there’s nothing to defend, and there’s a tremendous delight in that.
And then when you are defending, it becomes sort of interesting in itself. Oh, well I have to embrace that too. I don’t lie to myself about that. Oh, I’m defending myself, because this person thinks I’m a jerk, and I do too if I’m saying I’m not. Whereas if it’s really irrelevant to me, I don’t mind if they think I did, they’re allowed to think I did. I don’t need to hire my attorneys and tell them how I didn’t and explain to them how I’m really a good fellow and they’ve just misunderstood me, which is what a lot of this whole vow is about, I think.
I suppose it’s about telling myself I’m really a good fellow instead of finding out who I am. And the koan tradition always gives precedence to the discovery process of finding out who I really am. And it thinks that’s a much kinder thing. The other thing we always discover is if you’re interested in who you really are, you’ll find you’re actually nicer than you thought you were. And it’s true you lie all the time, but mostly your intentions are good, in spite of the fact that you think they’re not. The lying then becomes, it’s more like we have these provisional movie scenarios we’re running all the time. I’m living in it, I’m in the scenario. I’m this character and I expect you to take that character, but you have a different delusion running, so you object to my delusion, and that might be helpful to me, because at least I’ll get rid of my delusion, and so I don’t have to defend it.
So there’s a kind of amusement then about oh, it’s funny, these sort of mistakes we make become empty. They lose their pain and the angst that goes with them, because we don’t have to defend them. So that would be the really helpful possibility.
I said there was another point of view here. It goes something like this: when you really step into the now, when you really meet today, all the ideas about should have, could have, would have, disappear, and we‘re all participating in this universe. We’re all – how can I say this? – It’s one of those things that’s clear, but the trick is to have language for it. Every time the mind starts to get clear, we’ll see – it’s easy to see if you’re in a forest, how the trees just appear. The trees are an expression of the universe. They just come, they just appear, they’re universe stuff becoming trees, and then we realize well, we are, too, and you can just see that.
But not only that, we’re the same as the trees in that way. So we identify with and can see that we are the everything, who appears sometimes as John, sometimes as Sally, sometimes the guy with the ax, sometimes as the trees. And in that case, everything starts to appear beautiful and clear and always has been. That’s the ultimate host position. You step out of all your categories and you just don’t have a category to put on things, and there’s a great sense of delight.
The reason the vows can be interesting, if you take them as koans rather than a sledge to hit yourself with, or… people usually use them as a sledge to hit other people with, actually. But if you really take them as part of a discovery process, then you’ll notice that sometimes we’re really completely free, and we’re identified with the vastness, and it’s really beautiful, and then gradually we started to make up a world that really wasn’t accurate and wasn’t true, and we didn’t notice. Then we start stumbling around in that.
How we experience that we’re drifting to the land of demons and living in an inaccurate world is we start experiencing pain. That’s what suffering is, if you believe in suffering, that’s what it is. So at that moment, this might help give the pattern to: oh, what do I usually do? That’s right, I get irritable and lose my temper because I think somebody’s saying something true. It kind of helps to have that little: oh! That’s my dance move that takes me deeper into the house of pain rather than out of the house of pain.
And so that’s called self-knowledge, by the philosophers. It’s not the deep, vast understanding of eternity, when you’re resting in eternity, but we also have to walk around and chew gum at the same time and raise the kids, and a lot of the time we’re not aware of how eternity lifts our hands and we don’t Eternity unlocks the door and walks in, says hi. When we’re not aware of that, sometimes it helps to have some arts and some methods. The koan is the fundamental method, and using a precept as a koan, because they’re all about how we act, can be quite interesting, and can really open discoveries that we weren’t necessarily aware of. I think they’re not necessarily the things you would think you’ll find. People often think: oh my god, that means I’ve got to give up – whatever it is. What is it you have to give up to get enlightened? That’s a good question. Think. Does a word come up? What do you have to give up to get enlightened?
S: Eating meat.
John: Okay. Anything else?
S: Believing your thoughts.
John: Anything more unacceptable?
John: Anything you won’t say? People’s yardsticks are so different about what’s acceptable. But it might not be those things. The thing you think is most unacceptable about yourself your friends probably know all about you anyway really. And they really don’t care, because they’re worried about what’s unacceptable about them, which is completely different. You’re worried about the fact that you’ve slept with too many people, you have a drug habit or whatever it is, and they’re worried about something completely different. They don’t really care that you smoke dope occasionally or whatever it is, how many people you’ve slept with or whatever.
The things we find are really much more simple. I noticed the other day when I did this exercise, the way of inaccuracy of lying to ourselves. Every now and again I get various physical things, conditions going on, and I noticed oh, being tired sometimes gets in the way for me. And then I really looked at that and I thought: no, it doesn’t. And I was walking around believing it. And there we are. Or thinking: I need to prepare better. Which might well be true, but often it’s not. So often the things you’ll find that are causing your move into the land of demons are really simple ideas that you never even examined or noticed you had, and that’s the thing about believing your thoughts.
It would be something often quite simple. It won’t be that: oh my god, I used to cut myself when I was a teenager. This means these awful things about me. Or not. You’re here now, you’re alive. Let’s have that. So the koan universe tends to explode our ideas and we realize: I’m ready. It doesn’t matter what I did as a teenager, my childhood is much important than my mythology about my childhood. My mythology about my childhood is my mythology about my childhood, not my life now. And so on.
So the whole apparatus starts to explode, and it’s kind of nice, and it’s funny. It’s funny that you thought that was your problem, because you can’t find a problem. So that would be the koan idea about – idea is not right – dance move about how to approach the vows. So let me stop there for a minute and take comments, questions, fierce objections, mild, wimpy objections.
S: I’ve got one John.
John: Is it mild and wimpy or fierce? [laughter]
S: It’s kind of all of them actually. I always had this idea that to get thorough sesshins I needed lots of breaks and I had to sort of plan my strategy, and if I didn’t get breaks I would…
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2011 Hunter’s Moon Sesshin