PZI Teacher Archives

Soaking in the Bath, Releases the Light


This is one of those “in the old days, once upon a time” stories. There are a couple of interesting things about this. The first thing is about the idea of just getting in the bath, that maybe one of the metaphors for spiritual tradition is you get in a bath, and not only that, you do it together. We do it with each other. You could say we do it with the crows who call, we do it with the frogs, with the trees, with the birds. And then something happens in the bath. What happens in the bath, I suppose, is really most of what happens on the spiritual journey.


Mayumi Oda – Goddess print

Welcome, hi, greetings, g’day. Okay, that’s my talk. [laughter] Thank you very much. I have no complaints. I want to talk about a koan that runs a slightly different direction tonight. It goes like this: In the old days there were sixteen bodhisattvas. (Sixteen people who were dedicated to walking the old way.) In the old days there were sixteen bodhisattvas. When the time came, they all got into the bath together and realized the cause of water. They cried out, exclaimed: This subtle touch releases the light that is in everything. We have reached the place where the sons and daughters of the Buddha live.

Okay, there we are. This is one of those “in the old days, once upon a time” stories. There are a couple of interesting things about this. The first thing is about the idea of just getting in the bath, that maybe one of the metaphors for spiritual tradition is you get in a bath, and not only that, you do it together. We do it with each other. You could say we do it with the crows who call, we do it with the frogs, with the trees, with the birds. And then something happens in the bath. What happens in the bath, I suppose, is really most of what happens on the spiritual journey. In some way we’re heated up, we’re transformed together. There’s an old Irish fairy tale about a cauldron and if you put dead people in it, that would be your return to life. That would be the notion about the power of a cauldron, the power of being cooked together in some way.

Then the other thing is this notion of: they realize the cause of water, which is a great and clearly deliberately confusing way of saying they woke up to something. What is the cause of water? That’s a kind of Zen joke. And they said the subtle touch, ah the subtle touch, it reveals or releases the light in things. We’ve reached the place where the sons and daughters of the Buddha live. In other words, we’ve become the children of the Buddha. We’ve become the children of enlightenment.

There are a few things, to go through the bits of the koan… I want to start with… the most interesting thing I think is the cooking process, or the heating, the bathing or purification process that goes on in meditation. And also the notion that it happens together, whether we want it to or not. So I think the notion of being in a vessel is a very old one. The Alchemists had it, and it’s an old Greek notion. It’s been around in a lot of traditions. If you put yourself in a vessel, in a way that’s all you have to do, and then you have to be able to… it’s a process, it’s a little bit like the notion that an egg is hatching. There’s an organic process that happens, some sort of cooking or heating or purification or cleansing process, and it just happens because  you’re there, because you put yourself in the cauldron.

Alchemist’s Alembic

And a retreat can feel a lot like that, and it can feel the water’s too hot, the water’s too cold, it’s scalding, there’s too much water, I’m drowning, there’s not enough water. And there’s that thing of whatever you go through while you’re in the bath, that’s it. You don’t really need a five-point plan for what you go through. You’re just going to go through what’s given to you, and it’s life itself is happening. You’ll notice there’s various phases of being in the container, the vessel, together. There’ll be a phase when your mind is really busy and you’re caught up with a thousand things. You’ll have opinions about that, and then you’ll realize your opinions about it are part of the business. Then you’ll stop having opinions and your mind will still be busy and you’ll think that was supposed to stop my mind being busy when I stopped having opinions about it, but no.

So one of the points about being in a container, a vessel, is that there’s… I might say a purity of motive, that you’re not in the vessel in order to achieve the usual goals. You’re in the vessel to find out what happens being in the vessel. When you’re exploring, meditation’s more like research than buying and selling, because you’re exploring to find out what’s there. You’re in the vessel to find out what happens when you put yourself there, and any motive you put on it will be part of the obstacle to the process rather than part of the process, even the motive… even though you know, you want to, whatever it is, be a nicer person – that would be a good idea, yes – but really you have to explore, you just have to like being there experiencing what comes up. And the nicer person stuff, the bodhisattva stuff, that appears through that process, not because you had an idea of how to be a nicer person and you took steps to bring that about.

That process can work some, but there’s a deeper and more organic, I might say more voluptuous process that goes on through being in the vessel, and the key feature in that process is that you do not completely control it yourself, because if you’re doing an experiment, you’re not controlling your findings, you’re finding your findings. And so you don’t inquire into the reality of the universe because it will make you calmer or happier. That’s an effect of the discovery process, but it’s not the goal. The goal is discovery. So the goal is really to answer the great questions in that sense. Though the impetus for getting in the bath might be desperation, which is fair enough and honestly come by if it’s the case, but not being desperate is not in itself a goal, it’s an impetus. If there is a goal it’s going to be to discover what happens when you do this, okay?

Then the features of being in the bath are that what a bath does, what water is, is the universal solvent, it dissolves things, it heals things, it consoles, it cleanses things. That metaphor’s going on, and meditation does that. And you’ll find that then whatever happens while you’re meditating, you have to accept as the gift of being in the vessel. It’s not a flaw or a mistake, whatever happens. And so if you’re weeping, you have to think well, this is it for me at the moment. Or if you have an inner screaming and despair, well this is it. Fortunately I have an inner screaming and despair. And then you’ll notice that anything – there’s a radical sense of being willing to discover what’s there rather than what you wanted to be there.

Then you’ll find that whatever you discover, whatever appears, it’s here until it’s not. If you have a sense of – and it will pass, whatever it is. It can’t stay. If you have a sense of grace and peace and ease, it will pass, too. Although you probably want it to stay, as opposed to the screaming and sense of fracturedness that can attend us sometimes. And with the whole sense that – the thing about the vessel is you can put all these things in, and then there’s a sense of a bigger thing happening than any one of these things. So fearlessness is not about not being afraid. It’s about when fear comes, you’re not afraid of that. When sorrow comes, you’re not afraid of that. When awakening comes, you’re not afraid of that. So we might say that’s the confidence or the trust.

Trust is a hard thing to get, the way we conceive of it. It’s not a matter of belief, it’s… you trust, the way you trust that there will be ground when you step forward, or you trust when you breathe, there’s oxygen. But in this case that sense that being in the bath itself is going to have to be enough, because it’s what you’ve got, it’s what you’ve done. You’re here, you can say I hate baths, I always did when I was a child. My dog hates baths. I rebel. But you’re still in the bath, and it’s okay. Or you can say, I love baths; they’re really special. I’m going to practice lap swimming while I’m in the bath, and that will be no better or no worse. But then you notice after awhile that there’s extra things you do, like: now I’m in the bath I’ve got to do it a special way, are really in the way of the true discovery process.

The true discovery process is really showing up. It’s a more radical thing. It’s not saying I’ll show up and then I’ll manipulate my circumstances. It’s saying I’ll show up and find out what it is really like to be human in this situation. And then you find out all this amazing stuff, like I thought I was sad and I’m not. Well I was, actually, but then when I allowed the sadness to rise, I wasn’t. I had grief. And there’s nothing really wrong with that. It opens something, a warmth in me that I never thought would be there. Or I have anger and it started to turn into clarity. Things like that. So that’s the transformational process that happens.

And one of the other things, I think one of the key things is about loneliness, that being in the bath, it stops that loneliness that we have when we’re trying to preserve our idea of ourselves in a world that’s not very friendly to our ideas of ourselves. And that the loneliness of being separate from everything, being in a certain sense outside the restaurant window with our nose pressed against the glass. Mixing my metaphors, in a bath in a restaurant.  But you know that sense of separation. When you’re in the bath, you’re not separate. In some sense things are starting to dissolve, and so that’s why you’ll notice that if you hear a sound you might hear it with your heart or your belly or your toes. When the crows call, you’ll call. And you get interested in the crows.

Crows are very interesting. Crows have a whole rich life of their own, and you realize the whole universe has a rich life of its own, including me. Crows do, many things. They work stuff out. I’ve seen crows cracking chestnuts under car wheels. They put them on the road where the car runs and… hop back with the walnut or the chestnut or whatever it is. Thank you very much. From their point of view, a car is a nutcracker. It’s one of those creativity tests. How many uses do you have for a car? And so we have that sense of that rather lovely participation. The haiku poets have that, Issa particularly has that, that even among frogs some can sing and some can’t. That kind of intimate appreciation of all we have, of what it is to be alive. There’s an appreciation for the frogs who can’t sing in that understanding.

And then I find an appreciation for each other, for people. Usually trees are easier to start with. You can move on to crows, and then eventually you might make it to yourself and people. The rather fun thing that happens as part of being in the bath is that one notices a teaching – it’s not unique to me – is that people will come with the same kind of thing. We think it’s ours – oh my god this thing’s going on with me. Then the next person comes and says oh my god, exactly the same thing’s going on with me. And you get five out of seven people come in with the same issue, suddenly deeply concerned with this thing that happened in my life.

And we start to realize… there’s a kind of appreciation, I think – one is what we’ve got is what we’ve got. And the other is what we’ve got is maybe not as personal to us as we thought it was. I think it’s very important that I work out what my problem is and my feelings, and express them and make sure you understand them – or not. Maybe it’s not so important, because maybe they’re not even my feelings. That’s what you have if you’re in the bath at this moment. Everybody’s sad about their childhood, or everybody’s happy about – they remember their childhood and they’re happy about that magical quality you had on a childhood afternoon, or whatever it is. And that’s a wonderful thing.

So then you start noticing that if you’re feeling something, you don’t have to take it so seriously because you don’t know who’s feeling it. It might be you; maybe it’s the crows. They’re having a hard day. That sort of permeable quality of if you’re all of life you’re having it. And so it makes us generous with people, and perhaps generous with ourselves. We might say that’s a very fundamental activity about being in the bath is not to find fault with our own nakedness or other people’s nakedness, for that matter, which is kind of the same thing. And that there’s some fun, permeability, things happen.
I remember, there’s a kind of thing that happens if you’re teaching in the Hakuin tradition… a big koan like this would just start to open you up. You have the feeling of being in the bath. Your mind starts to get clear and you get perhaps a sense of the vastness of things and a sense of the brightness of things and in some order, not necessarily that order, those experiences come. And the spaciousness and dreamlike quality and the preciousness of life will come to you.

And then in the Hakuin tradition there’s a sense that well that’s all very nice, to feel so enlightened and everything, but how are you going to very particularly show it. How are you going to show the cause of water? If they realize the cause of water, how are you going to show that, what they realized? It probably doesn’t involve lightning and oxygen and hydrogen molecules; it probably involves something else. They’re talking about another discovery, so how are you going to show it? Then we realize well it’s our eating and our drinking and our washing that’s the illustration of enlightenment. What we already have, what is at hand is what it is. So there’s that.

Then whatever we’re doing, the most simple things we do become sacred, and that’s kind of fun. It’s like you lift our hand, the whole universe lifts its hand. So lift your hand. Wow, lots of universes lift their hands. The entire Milky Way. It’s touching, isn’t it? You can feel that, the magnificence of being in the bath together. I remember having a conversation with Robert Aiken, who really was very much focused on the Hakuin tradition as a koan teacher, and saying that – he noticed that he really wanted people to do well, and he would imagine the answer into their head. [laughter] It was very funny. He’d started that at some stage. He hadn’t always done that but he’d started at some stage, putting the answer in, he would do a movement like that. I said well what if you don’t do that? People might get it anyway.

But it was a touching kind of thing, and that sense of well we are in the bath, and maybe we can put the answer in some things sometimes. Maybe sometimes that’s good and maybe sometimes it’s better to hold it back, not do that. You know how sometimes you really can tell what somebody’s thinking about. So that’s one of those phenomena in the bath. And the other thing about being in the bath together is you know that fundamentally – people don’t always know this, but – everybody at bottom has a kind of interest in the ultimate things. What are we really doing here? What are the great questions? A lot of people might not be aware of that, but everybody has a wonder about it, and some people it’s given to wonder more, and they end up stepping in the bath together like this. And that’s just what we do; where the crows crack walnuts, we step in the bath together.

So that’s what we do, but other people are doing it their way, which is fine and good. And that in some sense one of the things about doing a process of discovery is, the nice thing about being human is if you discover something, it spreads to other people. Same with crows, actually, they teach each other, but it spreads to other people, because in some sense we are all in that bath together so we can all  discover how to meditate or how to wake up. So there’s that.

The final thing I think I want to say is that it’s always good to have a method, and the method of being in the bath is pretty simple if you want a method. It’s just come back to your koan, and then you realize that that’s kind of complicated, so then we say things like: well, have a relationship with your koan, and that’s complicated too. Any relationship… but maybe after awhile you start thinking maybe I don’t come back to the koan, maybe the koan comes back to, remembers me, that sort of thing. So the foreground, background exchanges.

And then what happens is you’ll find something very interesting, particularly deep in a retreat. You’re working with a koan and things start to get either peaceful or bright or clear and it’s really interesting. You think wow and then you sort of follow off… much more interesting trains of thought happen. You follow them, but really they’re just more thought, and even if you have discovered of whatever your field is: finally I know whether quantum mechanics is right or Einstein was right. That’ll still be waiting for you after the meditation, and actually the thing is, if you notice you’re thinking, that’s called thinking, and have your koan. In some way find your koan, and then you’ll go deeper into the discovery process, deeper into the waking up. There’s no doubt about that. You don’t suspend your meditation because you’ve gotten somewhere. When you’ve gotten somewhere, you just keep looking and keep walking through the forest.

Then sometimes it will happen that there’s no one to keep walking. That Basho haiku that was quoted the other night: No one walks this road/Autumn evening. With Basho there’s often that sense of melancholy about it, but there’s also that sense of the eternal there, that I’m walking, but there’s just the sky is walking, the road is walking. The trees are walking. So sometimes it may come that there is nobody to meditate. That that’s not what’s happening, there’s not enough of you there to be doing anything, and there’s just the sound of the crows, the sound of footsteps, the sound of people’s feet walking, the feeling of your own breathing, and then that’s what the koan is at that moment. So you don’t have to make the koan into this external big apparatus, but fundamentally the koan is what is. The koan is that which is, and the kindness of that which is, is that it opens us up and frees us.

I would say that the koan path is one of the very few I know that both brings you into awakening and then gives you some way to tow you through. Because many things will come up as you start to awaken, and we might say that they’re just different discoveries, and sometimes you might even get afraid, because you feel like you’re losing something. If life suddenly seems dreamlike, you think well maybe I lost the life I had. What about all the things that were great about my life? I just wanted to lose the toothache, things like that, and the thing I did that I don’t like that I did, and my regret and my sorrow and my guilt and being ditched by a girl in high school or whatever it was. But I didn’t want to lose these other things, that I learned through going through all those things. But the truth is that all other things do fall away about our idea about who we are, and the koan keeps towing us through. And I do think because it replaces opinions about life with life, that it’s a more generous process and more appreciative and more empathic, so the things you love I think you’ll probably love more, but you won’t have so many opinions about them, because you won’t love your opinions, because they’re just opinions.

Okay so let me stop there and take any comments about what’s it like being in the bath…

S: Uh John, you said that it’s not going to stay? I don’t know if you were talking about when you come to a realization and stuff like that, you said it’s not going to stay. Then later on you say that you keep coming back to the koan, and so I feel like I really got someplace this time, and I’d like that to stay.

John: Yeah, it’s nice work if you can get it. I think the thing is that what happens is if we really do discover something and it really does change us – and at the same time we keep living and we keep discovering new things and so we learn, sometimes we learn by tripping and falling over and things like that, and so it doesn’t, you don’t need to stop that process. But if you really learn something, there is an irrevocability about the process that goes on, for me, but that’s not to say that you won’t be sad again or you won’t feel grief again or something like that. And when you feel grief, maybe you’ll appreciate it more. I mean, it’s life. If you love life, then you love what appears. So it’s like that. What doesn’t stay is states of mind. What the transformation is about, it’s a way of experiencing, it’s not the content you put in that way of experiencing.

I think most people notice, maybe other people can say – you’re probably more patient than you were after you’ve meditated, and probably more generous. Things like that. But you’re going to have your ups and downs. It can be pretty fierce, still, because sometimes you’ll go back in the bath, and you’ll experience all those things.  As you start to get free, then your idea about who you are falls away, but then you can get caught by something else, so then there’s a process of opening that’s not linear. You’re kind of free and then suddenly you feel oh my god I’m not free. So the koan’s very useful then. The un-freedom is always a thought. You’ve started to believe a thought-world that you’ve stepped into, and what you do when you wake up is you start to notice you don’t have to believe that stuff. The koan undoes it for you.

But when you’re believing something you’re probably believing it, until you notice it’s painful and then you think wait, this hurts, I wonder what’s going on. Whereas before you might have thought: this hurts, it’s your fault, or you might have thought. This hurts, I’m doomed. Now you think: this hurts, I wonder what I’m doing to make it hurt so much. Then it’s oh shit, right, I’ll get back in the bath and see what happens. Like that. So you’re not as helpless, or you’re more free with the condition of being human in that way.

S: You seem to talk saying not to go in with the goal of being a better person, and that seems to be taking tension into your meditation. If so, then why do we take the four boundless vows?

John: Well they’re part of the container of the bath we might say. I vow to wake all the beings of the world. I don’t know if that’s vowing to be a better person. It’s like how do you do that? How do you wake the crows? Arrrrr….. You’re a better crow that way; you’re not a better person. I think the thing is that that’s the context and we like that stuff. We like ritual; there’s a magic to ritual that’s very consoling to the part of us that like candles or whatever it is. There’s a kind of poetry to the soul that way that we like. I think we work with that, but what it gets away from is the idea I’m meditating and I should be feeling this and I’m not and that’s bad. Whereas I think it gets more to the attitude of I’m meditating and this is going on. Oh. Let me see. Let me explore, rather than: this isn’t what I paid good money for. I was supposed to be getting a different kind of experience. It’s like I’m in a relationship with you and now you’re angry with me. That’s not what I got in a relationship for; how dare you? And we’ll do that with our own meditation, which is really just a narrow little point of view.

So I think we get a lot more from our discovery process than insisting: who’s right, me or the world? Obviously me. Well sometimes that’s okay, because in a certain sense when we turn inwards, we turn to a deeper thing than most of the world is interested in. And that’s beautiful really, but we know when we’re being narrow and fighting with things for narrow reasons. We can sort of tell I think. It’s not a matter of blaming ourselves. It’s just a matter of saying, being generous and saying: oh I’m doing that again.

And you’ll notice – I had a friend who in the crash lost a lot of money to Bernie Madoff, like his entire retirement. He hadn’t just given it all to Madoff, he had an investment advisor and he told him to invest it in a whole lot of different accounts, and this investment advisor invested it in a whole lot of different Madoff accounts. Which tells you something about the way of the world. I went out to dinner with him afterwards and we went to a reasonably expensive place and he insisted on buying dinner. I say well you know, I don’t have any money, but you don’t either, now. He said, no I feel a lot happier when I buy you dinner, and there’s a truth about when we’re generous, the vow’s about that in a way – when we’re generous there’s a joy in that. It wasn’t going to make any difference to whether he sank or swam whether he bought me dinner. So there’s a joy in that.

And we notice that, if we’re kinder somehow it’s kind of fun, and when we’re holding things tight and thinking well there’s not much of it and I better not share my sandwich with you, that’s not the person in the fairy tale who maries the princess or the prince.

S: Some of the things I notice about water, which may relate – well, the tactile senses. You’re sort of immersed in it and you can feel it all over your body. You’re supported by it, a lot of your weight. If you’re in a bath with a lot of other people, there’s a sort of connectedness, because as they move around you can feel them, they can feel you. So there’s a sort of connectedness, too.

John: Nice. Does meditation sometimes feel like that too? It’s weird, isn’t it, that you go — and other people lift their hands. See? Look, watch. [laughter] It’s kind of fun…. So that is a description of – oh, reality’s more interesting and we’re more part of it than we thought. It’s a less desperate undertaking kind of than I thought.

S: It’s true, it feels that way here, but then we go away and there aren’t that many bathhouses out there.

John: Well this is why I teach. There’s always a bathhouse nearby if you teach. Yeah, but love is a kind of bathhouse. If you love someone, you know. People talk about what they get from being loved, but actually you get a lot from loving. If you’re worried about yourself, perhaps you could give somebody something. And there’s that sense of not as a manipulation of reality but as a discovery process, like my friend buying me dinner.  What I gave him was not arguing with him, saying okay, thank you, I’ll have the lobster. [laughter] Which he would appreciate. There is that sense of we’re playing, there’s a dance going on and it’s fun.
I think sometimes if we feel all lonely and tight, we feel like there’s no bathhouses nearby, but I think there are people who’ve been emailing me and sitting with us while we’re sitting here. They get in their Zendo at five in the morning, whatever it is, their back porch or their kitchen or something. And there’s something precious about it. So there are other ways to be in the bathhouse. And that’s not to say, that’s the point of it here – it’s not to say that sometimes we won’t forget and feel lonely and important. But that’s the thing about meditation. It stops us being important and it stops us being lonely, it stops us taking ourselves so seriously.

But I think the final thing to say about the obstacles is, that’s exactly where it can become interesting. In the Hakuin tradition, one of the advantages is you kind of have to surrender, you know. Hakuin classified koans into this kind, and there’s kinds that are about subtle conversations about reality, and there are kinds that are about opening the gates of reality and awakening, and there are kinds that are difficult to pass through, and some other teacher said – somebody asked: well what’s this thing about the ones that are difficult to pass through? And he said: oh those are just the ones that were difficult for Hakuin. Which is clearly going to be true. So the ones that are difficult for you, it’s not even that Hakuin’s responses are important or that he’s right or his successors who cultivated those best practices answers. It’s more that, oh, this catches me, so that’s the gift.

So if something catches you, instead of thinking oh god, this is an obstacle to my shining brilliance, you can think oh, this is my gift, here at this moment. It’s sort of nice to think oh, if I think there’s a problem, there’s something could open up more in my heart. That’s something I think the spirit of being in the bath. That makes it very interesting. Everybody’s had that experience to some degree. You were planning on doing something and a friend is really in trouble so you end up taking them to the emergency room.

We had this party going on and – I can’t remember which one it was – anyway a friend of mine was staying at my house from Tucson. Maybe it was David’s transmission ceremony, I can’t remember, and then he got really sick. I was inclined to think, no you’re not sick. This is really inconvenient for you to be sick. So we take him into the emergency room. I had this idea I was going to stay with my friends and celebrate this wonderful occasion and sit around and have this lovely bath in that way, but instead I’m in the emergency room. We get him a wheelchair, which usually gets you more attention in the emergency room, so that’s kind of a good thing. Then I’m pushing him in and he starts projectile vomiting, and he’s vomiting all over me, and so that’s how I spent my time. But the thing about doing what – there’s something freeing about this is what I’m doing. I’m not in the party I was planning to be in. There’s something great about that. It’s great being…(?) Can I take a shower before I go home? And it’s sort of all right. It’s sort of sweet. He got through and we took him home and tried to have a party after that but the spirit was gone. And that was fine too.

We all know that thing about sitting up with a sick child – you’re lucky. The child’s alive and you’re sitting there and you care about something enough to be sitting up and getting not sleep and worrying about whether you’ll be able to make it to work in the morning, and that’s all right. Lucky to have that. That’s what we came here for. Yeah, maybe we came here for our problems. We think we came here for whatever it is, to get A’s in school or something. That cuts me out. Whatever it is. Anybody. Getting thrown out of things is good. Failing at things is great. Samuel Beckett used to say to his actors: Fail better! More thoroughly… So you open up toward, you investigate what’s real, what truly you care about. Thank you very much… Awakening is failing at delusion.