Practice. The notion of practice, as something you embody, and you walk through, and you are—rather than something you add, like something added to gasoline. There’s also a sense of moving in the dark, in some way that’s positive. So that in a practice, “not knowing” is on your side.
Summer Sesshin (Retreat) 2016: “The Nature of Practice”
Link to Video of this talk – https://www.pacificzen.org/library/the-nature-of-practice-4/
Link to Audio of this talk – https://www.pacificzen.org/library/the-nature-of-practice-2/
So, practice. There’s something about a practice as something you do. The other way to think of a practice is that you’re on a path of some kind. You’re on a journey, you’re moving, you’re traveling. And the other way I think of a practice is that a practice is different from a plan. You know what a plan is, you’ve probably made a few of them. A practice has more love in it because a practice is something you’re doing without being sure of the outcome—whereas a plan is something you’re only doing because you’re sure of an outcome. Which probably won’t actually be exactly what you get!
But it’s more that inner quality of a practice that—in a practice, there’s definitely more of a sense of moving in the dark, in some way that’s positive. So that in a practice, “not-knowing” is on your side, rather than—normally, not knowing something is a problem. Actually that’s not true. But often, we think not knowing something is a problem. And I remember as a young child, I certainly felt that—it seemed very important to know stuff, even when I didn’t. So to have the answer—so there’s a lot of that.
Almost everybody has some of that “A-student” in them—who wants to be right and wants to get a good grade, and look good to their inner parent, or whoever it is—and practice isn’t like that, really. Practice is this other thing—where you step into a mystery, but you have “unlooked-for” help. And the unlooked-for help appears when you do the practice. It doesn’t appear because you’re trying to manipulate unlooked-for help to appear. So it’s the thing about “the little bit of light in the dungeon.” Emptiness is the unlooked-for help! It might be as simple as not thinking you’re stuck in some way. I mean, being quite sure you’re stuck—but not believing it. We’re back in Linji’s territory, right?
And the other thing about practice—there’s a certain sort of discipline about practice, but it’s the kind of discipline that allows you to be free. So, where in some sense I think of a practice—really, I’m talking about koan practice—and a koan practice is something where you’re in a relationship with a koan. Which doesn’t mean you’re trying to throw it to the ground, and trying to torture it, until it tells you what it means. [laughter] It doesn’t mean you’re trying to manipulate it, or force it to cry “Uncle” or something. You’re not in a war with it, you’re in a relationship. So the model of—maybe the koan is like the Collie dog that follows you around, and offers you a ball when you really want to do something much more serious, but the koan actually isn’t interested in your serious plans—because we know that your serious plans will not take you in the right direction. So there’s a certain discipline to not knowing, being willing to be open to the gifts that might come. So that would be one thing.
And that sense, that with a koan you’re actually in a relationship. Then, you know—koans were first marketed as puzzles, or dilemmas, or contrivances in the West, because of—I don’t know—the intellectual climate of the time; they came in [that way], and things like that. And also, it’s hard to explain what they are—the way other things are not a “thing,” any more than an electron is a thing. So at first, they were marketed as gadgets. You put your practice—enlightenment—in here, press the button, and when it’s toasted, enlightenment will pop out [laughter]—and you can get, like, a nice sort of futuristic Japanese sort of design. And in a way, I think I couldn’t conceive of things not being a gadget for my mind when I first started koans. So I definitely used a koan as a sword to cut off my thoughts, or a hammer to break things up, or something like that. And you’ll find texts that tell you to use a koan that way.
But it seems like—if your relationship to something that’s a crucial part of your psyche, is [that you’re] trying to cut its head off—some sort of counseling is needed, you’re having serious relationship difficulties! So I discovered—and what I think everybody discovered, but what I noticed for myself—was that I needed to try and force it. Because I was that sort of person. I thought if I know everything about it, and really work it out, and concentrate really well—then it’ll reveal itself to you. So, some sort of brute force determination-and-sincerity combination—ruthlessness. So a kind of martial approach, like Kung Fu or something. And in a way, I think that was good—because I found out that there’s nothing wrong with that approach. It doesn’t have anything to do with koan study or meditation! But, [laughs] I felt sincere.
And in a way, I learned some things. I learned about the limits—I learned I couldn’t really—you know when you’ve got a problem, and you really work at it and worry about it, and you make lists and “this side” and “that side,” and you’ve absolutely got it. God—and you take a shower, and then it comes in the shower when you stop thinking about it. Koans are more—or you know, when you’re trying to remember something, and there’s no way to remember something. You have to forget that you want to remember it, and at the same time want to remember it—and it appears. So koans are more in that territory, of voluptuous gifts of the universe that are outside your plans.
So they’re a kind of a gift. But what practice is, is something that puts us in the way of the gift, rather than [us] getting in the way of the gift. So, not to be too gothic about trying too hard! Trying is a fine thing, and it has its limits. And concentration is a fine thing, because you’ll discover—if you try to concentrate—how ditzy your mind is. Your mind doesn’t want to concentrate, it’s doing this or that, it’s improving itself all the time. “I can’t meditate—I’m too busy fixing myself and my situation.” So you find that out, just by trying to do basic meditation—which is why certain traditions start you out like, “Just follow your breath for five minutes.” It’s sort of like that. I had a friend who went to Japan to learn an art system, and they had him sweep the studio for three years. That sort of moral.
So in a way, that was not practice yet, but it was the beginning of practice—the possibility of practice. So we have that. And so, I think that possibility is made, if you make a time to practice. If you practice every day—whatever practice is to you—but if you meditate, sitting meditation—can’t be that bad, probably won’t cause your blood pressure to rise, probably will be helpful—then do it every day. And if you’re working with a koan, then keep company with it every day. Sort of touch it, as if you’ve got a friend. You take your dog for a walk, you call your friend, you touch your friend, you hug—in some way, if you love the life of your practice, it’s a way of loving your own life—and it’ll appear. And so, we have to turn ourselves towards opening our hearts in some way. And it’s mysterious how that happens, because we can’t force it.
But nonetheless, if we ask—hold ourselves up against a koan—then something opens in our hearts. And then we realize it wasn’t really about the koan, it was about that opening in our hearts. And that when our heart opens, then a lot of things are clearer. And so I actually didn’t want my heart to open—that was not an interest of mine, I wanted clarity. I wanted to understand “what is it all about.” And I didn’t mind being kinder, I would have had some degree of empathy—but I didn’t realize that [it] was tangled up with clarity, at all! That [empathy] was the beginning of clarity. I thought clarity was its own project, and I knew I was pretty confused. And as soon as I started to watch—really be there for a sunset—pretty soon, I’d be telling my friend in my head about it, instead of being there with the sunset. Pretty elementary stuff like that. But you’ll notice your mind still does that, right? “I’m having such a good time—I wonder, will it be over soon?”
So the notion of practice—there’s a fidelity about it, an open-heartedness about it—and that fidelity and open-heartedness has to apply to you. It’s for you, the practice. It’s not a virtuous project to improve the world. You’re not trying to influence the people you would like to influence. And you’re not even trying to improve you—because from inside the prison, your fantasies about improved life are jailhouse fantasies. So you’re taking a “you” with you too much—and you can’t break out of prison with your—I can’t break out of prison with my “me.” So then, you get into, the deep secret of practice is—there’s no one practicing! There’s not a “me” practicing. And so, I don’t need to have an identity as a meditator. I don’t need to look good as a meditator, I don’t need to look bad as a meditator—it’s before good or bad, meditating. I don’t need to judge meditating, because I have no criterion with which to judge it. It’s kind of interesting if you think about it—you’re doing something that has no criteria with which to judge it! And nonetheless you can feel the path. There’s something, that Irish blessing, “The road rises to met your feet.” And you can feel it—like, your heart opens. Things like that.
But it’s not a purchase. And sometimes what happens, as soon as you get some sort of clarity or opening, or your heart opens in an unforced way, you realize—”Oh, the person I couldn’t stand is wonderful, and that person I couldn’t stand, fundamentally was because I couldn’t stand me—and I’m not that bad either.” But it’s not a purchase. It’s not something I own, therefore there’s no inflation in it. I’m not therefore a “something” or a person, I’m just—there’s this flowing along [that] happens, and I don’t have to know who I am when I step forward—and the doors keep opening, or the path in the forest keeps—as soon as you take a step, you can see where the next step goes. But if you can’t see further than the next step, that’s fine. You don’t need to. In a way, that’s honest.
And the other thing is, that it really helps in a practice, it helps to touch it every day. It helps to have an attitude toward your own practice that’s loving, rather than brutal and forcing, even if you’re accustomed [to it.] If you think you’re not accustomed to brutality with your own mind, or judging your own mind—that’s a sign you’re judging your own mind. If anybody is noticing, we’re always assessing and critiquing and things. And so how you start working with that, is don’t judge that. Don’t judge your own—if you’re being unkind to yourself, don’t be unkind about that. And then you realize—then it becomes funny. So, you start to find that harshness in the mind is just amusing. It’s kind of a cool thing. When you can laugh at it, it’s like not really a problem. And then all the problems of the psyche and so on in that category, they’re apparent problems—and they’re amusing. Which is the “nothing I dislike” thing appearing again.
So if you walk the Way like that, you’ll have various experiences. And you’ll probably read books, and they’ll tell you to have various experiences, and then you’ll compare your experiences with the books, and you’ll say, “It’s not the same, there must be something wrong with me.” And so I think that’s sort of like when kids see something happening in a movie—they think they should be living that way. Something happening in a movie or a novel or something, or a video game. If it’s a movie that’s sort of helpful, or a novel or something, then it somehow gives you some experience of your own inner life and how to live—but it’s not telling you who you should be, or “You should be like this.” Or, you can really enjoy a novel where the character is really screwed up. You don’t really want to be that way, but it lets you work out those parts of yourself that are in pain. It’s the same if you read meditation experiences. I can’t tell you how much people come to me and say, “Well, I read this in this book, and this person had this enlightenment experience, and this isn’t what I think I’m having, and therefore it’s all screwed.” This is when, you know—I used to have a bell, and I would just ring my bell and the interview would be over. There was a point to this discipline, if you can’t get through that one. That’s a sort of one you can get through on your own. What I’m saying, is you can get through that. If you’re comparing yourself to other people, it’s your job to get through that, because you know it’s horseshit. If you forget, remember I said it’s horseshit—don’t believe yourself, believe me! [laughter] And it’s sort of fun. You think, “Oh, there’s that horseshit again, I’m comparing myself to the experience of…”
One of the teachers in our tradition, Koun Yamada, was the posterboy for a big enlightenment experience, and Philip Kapleau wrote—or he wrote it and Philip Kapleau published it in his book, and that’s fine—but that was his. People have different experiences, and it doesn’t really matter if… One of my close friends had a massive awakening experience, like for no good reason. He wasn’t living particularly well or anything. He was meditating a lot. But he had this massive awakening, “Oh my god, it’s so clear!” And you can tell he can see something when you talk to him. But I had known him for about fifteen years before he told me about his experience. And it’s my trade, working with people’s meditation experiences, so I thought it was interesting that he hadn’t bothered to tell me about it. He mentioned it some time, and I said, “Oh, what happened?” and he told me. I said, “Oh…” And he said, “Well, I didn’t have any capacity to use it, and I sort of didn’t know what to do with it, so I put it on a shelf for about twenty years.”
And so the question of how we integrate our spiritual depth is always a real one, right? And it’s not a matter of assessing “his experience was bigger than your experience,” or somebody else’s experience, because we know that’s not—can’t be true. None of that “ranking mind” is ever true. It never is, because you don’t know.
I really remember noticing this with this guy I sort of liked, had some sort of funny connection. He was an abbot of a Thai monastery up near the Burmese border. When we were talking, he told me, “Get out of the teaching business, it just makes you suffer.” [laughter] It was kind of funny, but he was the real thing, and he said to me, “Well, it’s about five years since I had a disturbing thought.” And if you think about it, that might be true of you, because it depends what you call a disturbing thought. [laughter] I saw him get angry and things like that, but he did have a clarity. People would walk in, and they’d sort of understand emptiness around him, they’d walk out of the dharma hall—and they couldn’t understand it again. So there’s a kind of wonderful, intense field around him.
But the thing is, that he wasn’t flat. He just meant, when I lose it, I don’t lose it about losing it. And that’s good, because the compassion’s there. So even if he gets angry, the compassion’s there, and you can feel that. So he wasn’t afraid to go into territory where something bad might happen, and he wouldn’t know what to do, and get pissed off or frustrated or sad or whatever. Fine—that’s called living. And it’s also called the bodhisattva path. Because on the bodhisattva path, you’re intrinsically contaminated by the field of your empathy for other beings. And that’s called love. That’s what love is, dudes, dudettes.
John: “Intrinsically contaminated by the field of your empathy for other beings.” In other words, we’re all tangled up. When you walk across the hall, my hip hurts—I’m intrinsically contaminated by your hip. It’s wonderful—I like that, I’m for that. Yeah, you get it!
And sometimes of course, there’s a lot—you can feel something. There’s nothing really wrong with having an aching body, or something like that. It hurts, but that’s all it is—it’s not really suffering yet. But some people are really suffering. Sometimes it’ll get in you, and sometimes you’ll act weird. That’s called the bodhisattva path! But then try not to act weird about acting weird. And if you do act weird about acting weird, try to not act weird, try not to judge that, and so on it goes down. Because you can’t live in the world without being in the world.
So you can tell the [inaudible] I’m doing here, is you will have experiences of discovery and insight, and you don’t have to put a value on them. You don’t have to say, “Wow, that was great,” or “Oh, that wasn’t as big as da-da.” And when you do that, if you claim it was great—you can go on people’s websites and they say, “Oh, I had this great enlightenment experience, blah blah…” One guy I kind of like who does that—you just know it’s horseshit, right? Not because you didn’t have some big experience on that date, but because a big experience and two-dollars-fifty will get you a pretty decent cup of coffee. It’s like it doesn’t yet—it’s not yet in the world, it’s not yet in the path, it’s not in the practice. So that’s what counts.
So we have this. We’re walking this path, we’re fundamentally walking it in the dark, because nobody has walked it before us, ever. So we don’t know what kind of enlightenment experience you’re “supposed to” have, because nobody knows—and you don’t know yet either. And even after you’ve had an enlightenment experience, you don’t know what the next thing is either, because you’re feeling it and discovering it. That’s on our side.
Part of the unlooked-for help is the not-knowing, because as soon as we make a certainty, then there’s no light in the prison. You can feel how it closes down. I mean, just do the exercise, “I need to be more enlightened.” Just feel that. Say that to yourself. How’s it feel?
John: Familiar, sort of comforting in a way. [laughter] “Perhaps this teacher will help me.” Or how about, “I had a bigger enlightenment experience than anybody I know.” Feel that one out—try it out. Feel it, claim it. Because you don’t know what other people’s experiences were really like, so yours might have been bigger! Feel it. What’s that like?
Student: Kind of nauseating.
John: Yes—it’s a different kind of prison. It’s not the same prison—it might be—but I don’t think it’s the same. It’s a different kind of prison, and it keeps the world off [of] you, but so does claiming, “I am not enlightened, I do not have that light inside me already”—does the same thing. Notice how that, when I think, “Oh, I don’t have it, and she does or he does,” notice how that’s a strategy for having a “me.” It’s got nothing to do with your actual experience, or your bodhisattva capacities, or whether you have a light inside you. It just means you’re full of shit. [laughter]
Where did that come from? But it just means that sometimes—so the big, diagnostic thing in Buddhism, is that we will commit to our identity before we’ll commit to our joy and love. And then waking up is—we stop doing that. That’s all. Because the light and the empathy, and the understanding that “I am that”—those flowers, and your face. I am—not to pick on my friend—I am your hair, you know. And that’s grand, but that’s not a claim I can make that gives me a rank.
And so if we forget about—so, over and over again, when you get scared—you’re walking along the path, there’s nothing wrong, everything’s unfolding, you’re feeling love—and then suddenly, you think you’re not doing it right, then the whole art of practice—you could call it integration, but I don’t know why I’m a bit leery of calling it that now, I used to call it that—because it’s—there’s not a thing that happens, and then you integrate it. It’s like it’s all at once—everything.
So you’re walking along, and suddenly you have a doubt. Well, it’s like a disturbing thought. Don’t have doubts about your doubts! And you’ll see that something happened—you got scared, or something seemed a big task, or there’s someone you really care about, and you’re going to a meeting with them, so you start feeling inadequate to sort of pre-disappoint yourself. We do that all that time. That’s the identity racket. And every time you say the name of a famous teacher—”Dalai Lama!”—you’re doing that to yourself. I used to be able to say I knew the Dalai Lama, so it’s not a criticism of him, but I noticed how much it oppresses him. [laughter] But it’s not about someone else, it’s for you. And so we can’t outsource our kindness, our love, the gritty quality of the path—the fact that we always make the same stupid mistake every time, all that sort of thing. You know what I mean, “But I married a different kind of alcoholic this time—the last one drank champagne.” So, the notion of “practice.”
And then the Japanese, who are kind of great about—I wanted to buy a car, and don’t know anything about cars, and I said, “What kind of car should I buy?” And a person who knows a lot about cars said, “You should buy a Japanese car.” He looked at me and thought, “You’re not going to be fixing these cars.” He said, “You can buy a very interesting German car, but if I were you, I would buy a Japanese car.” Because it’s me, it’s not somebody else! Many of my friends have other cars, or Priuses, or Japanese cars. But there’s a way in which—one of the beauties of, strengths of, Japanese culture is—it really pays attention to the details of process, incredibly elegantly. We saw a bit of that in the dance this afternoon, the elegance of that.
So the Japanese did that to the koan tradition. They took this shonky, [of dubious quality] shaggy-dog Chinese thing, and turned it in to a Lexus. [laughter] Or one of those temples that’s got numbered beams—was built in the ninth century, and you can take it apart every hundred years and put it back together again. So they did that with koan study. So there’s a curriculum for koan study—and if you want to do that, we can do that together. And that, you know—you do a very interesting thing, which is you get over your envy, and your ranking of yourself—by failing at a task.
And that’s that thing of—it sort of sounds weird, and doesn’t work for a lot of people, so I don’t put a lot of people through that—but I did that, and some people want to go through that, and so we offer that for them. Because they come in and say—it doesn’t matter what your koan is, the “solitary brightness”—so, prove it! And the person says, “da-da-da,” and you can kind of tell whether they’re in it or not, and you say, “No!” and then they leave. Then they come back the next time. Then gradually—I’m not actually giving a verdict on them, I’m just holding the tradition when I’m doing that.
For me, when I went through that, I felt there was something honorable for me about that path, because I wanted to be so helpless that I couldn’t help but learn. I couldn’t get in the way of my own learning, and I managed to—I wanted to be so in not-knowing, that anything I got, I really earned. Because I was so quick at faking it, like I hacked my exams and things like that, always guessed the right chapter of the book to read. It’s like, “How come you were at the movies last night before the exam?” So, I didn’t want to do that—this was something I didn’t want to do that with. And I ran into that in martial arts too. Sometimes the best person in Kung Fu or Aikido dojo was a twelve-year-old girl who didn’t even try to use strength, because she couldn’t. That sort of thing. So I wanted to be that twelve-year-old girl.
So that’s a possibility, and it’s kind of fun. And if you go through a curriculum, it’s also an empathy test. You test, well—I’ll be fire, I’ll be war, I’ll be a young girl, I’ll be a dolphin. So you get to be all these things. I’ll be killed, I’ll die. So, your empathy. But if you just walk through the koans, the way we’re holding them in groups—you’ll start having the same experiences anyway. So there’s that.
And the problem with the Japanese system, is that in the Japanese cultural context it worked fairly well, because people kind of trusted it. We don’t trust anything. So people said, “Well, you said, ‘No!’ That must mean you suck, or I suck!”—and they’re both wrong. It’s not about that. So for me, that tradition—I’m holding that tradition. Anybody who’s a teacher in our community holds that tradition, is a true holder of that tradition. But we’ve also noticed that some people just don’t go through the tradition that way, and start hanging around with koans, and hanging around in “koan-ville,” and after a while that’s grand. And they don’t have to, like, go through that kind of—it’s a gentler way of dealing with taking away your “me.”
I didn’t want to say that, because it comes up that we have more than one path here. What am I trying to say? “John, what are you trying to say?” I’m trying to say that there are different ways to approach a koan. And a right vs. wrong answer is not actually ever an ultimate way of approaching a koan—because a koan is a path, and a doorway, and a terrain. And sometimes, if you ever want to play with the Japanese system, it can be incredibly exhilarating—because you realize, “Oh shit! I thought I wouldn’t be able to do this, but I already knew it.” Because who has the light? Quick! Who has the light?
Student: I have the light.
John: What’s that?
Student: I have the light.
John: Talk to [other student] then. [laughter] Yeah, so we do. And it’s interesting. So, who has the light?
Everyone: I have the light!
John: So what does that feel like? Doesn’t feel grandiose to me, feels like, “Oh yeah, I knew that.” It’s kind of touching, to me that’s moving. If I look around, everybody in this room has Buddha-nature. And nobody doesn’t have Buddha-nature. Nobody’s outside. Nobody does not have a part in the mystery and the light. So I’ll take it!
And the notion of practice is, I don’t think we forget so much, but as we deepen and go deeper into things, you’ll find that when you meditate, you start taking on things that you wouldn’t take on before, and you would duck. And that’ll get you really screwed up, because you’ll think, “I don’t know how to do this”—and you’re right. And so in other words, the koans will allow you to go into territory that’s alien and where you feel incompetent, and that can be a beautiful thing—because you realize that you get the unlooked-for help. And emptiness appears, and the light of emptiness appears, and you stop taking it all so seriously, and it’s all right. So you’re less afraid, and then you can accompany beings in areas that you might not have been able to. You’re not afraid of death. Not because you’re brave, but because you just notice that it’s got a light in it—because everybody’s got a light in them. Dying people have a light too, they’re not less “Buddha.” So you’re not all, “Oh, I can’t deal with this.” And you’re not thinking, “Well, it’s all right for them to die, but I’m not going to do that,” because you realize you’re part of it all. Nobody dies in a sense, nobody’s ever born, nobody dies.
So, I don’t know. I mean, I had planned to give a more coherent talk than this, but I haven’t, so here we are. So what do you think? How are you doing? Practice. The notion of practice, as something you embody, and you walk through, and you are—rather than something you add, like something added to gasoline.
Student: Over the years, meditation has become different—and you know I’m not [inaudible] with that. So what is the place then, for sitting meditation versus enlightened meditation?
John: Well, did you hear the question? “Where’s the place for sitting meditation versus…” Essentially the koan, “What is not meditation?” It’s like the Medicine koan, “Bring me something that is not medicine.” I think I just like to sit sometimes. I just do, and sometimes I think it’s sort of sweet. My mind gets kind of ragged, because I’ve been taking on a lot or something, or my heart gets ragged might be a better way to put it. And I like to just “be”—and sitting does that for me. And really, I can just be while I’m talking on the telephone, and doing stuff and running around— but it’s sort of nice to just be by just being, and sitting, for me, is that, I suppose. Sitting is showing up for my life really. I can show up for my life in all these other ways, and I get a bit thin sometimes. I mean, I think everybody does, but maybe not… And if I can’t just be, because I’ve set my life up with my schedule and I’m on a plane all the time or something, it’s all right—and I’ll find the resources, the emptiness inside that—but it’s a bit—the cortisol levels are higher and things. And I think that’s a unique question that everybody takes on. I can tell if I’m forming an opinion about my meditation, “I’m wrong.” So then it’s just a matter of, “Oh!” An opinion might be, “I’m impatient now because I didn’t meditate long enough this morning.” That can’t be true! But it might still be good for me to meditate longer the next morning, and so…
Student: A phrase that stuck with me was, “practice is perfect.”
John: Well, in the realm where all the concepts fall away, everything is. With practice, I tend to like to emphasize the not-knowing and the defective nature of it actually—because it’s encouraging. I kind of like it when I—I like to do some things that I clearly don’t know how to do, and expertise and practice feels a bit fatal. I don’t think that’s the point you’re making. I think the point you’re making, it’s like that shining light that we trust that’s inside us.
Student: As opposed to “practice makes perfect.” There’s this incremental notion somehow.
John: Yeah, exactly. It’s already perfect or we’re doomed! But the light is already here, or you can’t get there from here. So, how are we doing with all this? A lot of words, eh?
Student: I liked the dance we did, or the movement we did. And I think that’s something that I really like about what I would call practice, is when we were doing this slow one that we were speeding up—and it wasn’t “something.” And you were speaking and talking about the threads, and “this thread and this thread and this thread.” And I mentioned to some friends that—oh, I’m going to start crying here—and it was unexpected! And seeing everyone moving around, that to me, is like, “Oh, yeah.” That to me, is what I would call practice—unexpected. It’s not really me doing it, I’m just like—I don’t even know. It’s like this vast movement, and everyone’s moving and yet connected. Unexpected. Like you said, unexpected.
John: And that’s nice. You see the discipline is not to try to make it expected. Like somebody said in the drawing exercise today of like, “Well, I really thought I can’t draw, and then my hand started drawing.” So that’s the movement. But you’ll notice sometimes your hand’s drawing, and you say, “I can’t draw,” and then you stop, right? Some of us do that. So it’s important not to give away your life, or pretend you don’t have it. Or if you’re doing that, it’s clearly because you’d rather, “Oh, my Irish ancestors were all romantic and depressed,” or whatever it is. All Scots are bad-tempered, you know! But it’s clearly a step back, and into the prison. So you can discover something, and then you reach for it, and it’s not there. So you think, “Oh, it wasn’t a purchase, it was a way of being, and I can’t find the gate now. But since I know there’s a gate, it’s more in me now, and I have to forget that I can’t find the gate—and I’ll be through it.” Those kinds of things, like a fairytale task. And you just have to befriend it. If you befriend your “not knowing where it is,” suddenly you’ll be there, because it’s all about that quality of friendliness with the practice.
I always like dopey questions, because they’re the ones I ask. There’s something nice about—there’s no question that’s wrong. So if you’re just waiting for a clever question, [name of student]—do you have a dopey question?
Student: Actually I don’t—I have a dopey observation.
John: Oh, well that’s not good enough. [laughter] That’s not dopey enough! Okay, give us your observation.
Student: It’s just, I think I’ve operated for so long with this sense that I am wounded, and I’m on this spiritual path to be healed.
John: Right—wrong! [laughter] Wrong on both counts, bad dog! But that’s great. It’s exciting to think, “Wait, what if none of those propositions has any truth to them?” That’s emptiness! Sorry, you’re telling me that, so… [laughter]
Student: It was like, Denise led us in this dance—and I know you’ve been struggling with your leg, and you called it [inaudbible] I think, and it was so inclusive in this way that was—it didn’t hammer anybody over the head. And the wounded, healed, politically correct—I do disability rights, and so it’s like, “inclusive” is very important. [laughter] And it was just like so cool, and it was like this light manifestation of everything that we talk about. [laughter]
John: Yeah, there’s something about “just being ourselves,” is what you’re saying—because there’s no flaw, and in a certain sense, it’s all right. And whatever we’ve been through that got us here, got us here—and it’s beautiful, and it’s luminous. And all the things we thought were betrayals, and the things we did to people, and things people did to us—there’s a blessing in life, and so here we are. And the Buddha-face stares back at us from everybody—even the trees and the birds. Thank you. “Disability rights kind-of-something”—yeah!
Student: Koans always terrified me, because they seemed so illogical and arcane, until I read the way you approached koans. And then I thought they might be approachable. But still, each koan is scary, because they seem impossible at the beginning. So the practice of koans, the koan practice, is for the practice of considering impossible and dangerous things—and I like that. [laughter]
John: We noticed that.
Student: I think it’s because I trained as a child as a gymnast, so every day we put ourselves into this situation where we were going to throw ourselves into the air backwards, and hope you survived it. And I think for girls it’s very—it’s wonderful to train to be brave, and girls don’t often get chances to train to be brave. But I got used to it, even though I am actually really a chicken about most things. But I got used to the feeling of being afraid, and so that’s familiar to me. And even though the koans scare me, I think it’s good practice—and thank you.
John: You know, we step into the inconceivable—but we’re doing that anyway—so the koans just draw attention to that, and I think the bravery comes from that courage.
Student: It’s practice for life.
John: Courage—to have heart in your life, courage. So because we can’t really conceive of anything—think of someone you love, is loving them really conceivable? It’s just like it’s there before conceivability, or it’s not even possible! It’s there before things became possible or impossible. It’s just this powerful—it’s a feature of the universe, it’s before we started putting reasons on things. And so I think koans just “like” the way we try to make things line up and then make ourselves unhappy because our life doesn’t match that. The move into the inconceivable was what I suppose I found most interesting about koans. The disturbing quality was what I sought, because the way I made sense of things was a prison. So I knew it wasn’t true, but it was plausible. The other thing, is that things that are inconceivable actually take less time, because time is in the dimension of the conceivable.
Student: Can you say that a different way?
John: No. [laughter]
Student: Thanks. [laughter]
Student: Can you say it again? [laughter]
John: Uh, things that are in the dimensional terrain of the inconceivable take less time, because time is in the dimension of the conceivable. Things that are in the dimension of the inconceivable take less time—[loud clap]—there you are, everyone’s enlightened!
You know how it’s true? We plot and scheme, that’s the human thing. [Name of student], there you are—you moved—the universe does that! [laughter] There’s a great koan where the student says to the teacher, “What is the everlasting, immovable body of eternity?” And the teacher says, “It moved.” [laughter]
So that thing about—in a way I think our delusions are on our side, too. We think, “I messed up, and I need to do this, and I need to get to here from here.” And in a way, it just puts us into the path of paying attention to our lives and getting free. And it makes us able to bear how strong and tasty and rich and strange it is. How the losses are so profound, and also the errors I make are so profound, and beauty is so profound—and they don’t make any sense, they’re all jammed together, you know—and so, the light. Yes?
Student: My experience of practice is really one of sweetness, and I think in large part because as a family we’ve chosen to practice every morning together. And to me, it just feels like [inaudible] loving ourselves so that we have this love available for each other. And as a family, it’s this beautiful touchstone that we have—because you can’t get too far off track, because you know that in twenty-four hours or less you’re all going to be on the cushion again together. So it just gives that quality of sweetness.
John: Well, and life does provide obstacles. Sickness, or who we love dies, and then if there is a light that holds all that, then a practice helps. So. And it’s nice to have a practice together. It’s a nice thing.
Student: So we did a writing exercise about—a drawing exercise, draw about a time when you got help or something like that—
John: Undeserved help.
Student: So what came up for me, is a time when I had a terrible task to do, because it was for somebody else. And I hated doing it, and I thought it was a bunch of bullshit, but I had to do it or the cost would have been too high not to do it. So in order to finish the task, I had to stay up all night. And I was tired and I was pissed off, and I was fighting against it, “Oh, I have to stay up all night.” And then this voice comes along, “Yeah, it’s a drag, but it’s okay. I’ll sit here with you, and keep you company”—and it was me. So, I wish it would have stuck around forever, but it didn’t. But I’m thinking of that in the koan, having the koan keep me company.
John: Yeah, it’s like that isn’t it? And you realize, “I’m just having a fit, but I won’t [not] do this, so why not get over it and do it?” It’s not like I’m going to do it quicker if I’m sullen.
Student: Well, and I have this meditation practice, and I come here and meditate for a whole week, and the same bullshit comes up in my meditation. [laughter] And I’ve got this crap to do—resistant to [it] as I’ve always felt—but the difference is, there’s something keeping me company.
John: Well, koans are good for that. And also, there’s a little bit of—one of the recurring kinds of styles of thought and styles of delusion—everybody’s got their own pet style of delusion, right? Carefully nurtured—but the thing about it is, you’ll notice those recurrent themes, but you also notice that it just gets harder to believe it. “When something confronts you, don’t believe it.” It’s not like an instruction, “Don’t believe it.” It’s [that] when something confronts you, it’s hard to believe. And I notice that, “Yeah, ahh—I don’t believe that.” Guess I won’t hold a grudge after all, or whatever it was. “They did this terrible thing.” Yeah. Have I ever done terrible things? Yeah, next! Or the drama doesn’t last as long, or something.
But the thing is, that because—do not give away—any piece of the light is all of the light, any piece of hell is all of hell, any piece of fighting with what’s here is all of hell. And so when you have that piece of resistance and fighting and delusion, we’ll think, “This isn’t it, this is not what I signed up for.” And then you might bite your foot, like the animal in the trap. “The trapped animal in the iron cage”—break your teeth. But you don’t need to do that. In terms of wisdom and loving the path, if you love the obstacles that come up, they’re not obstacles. And if you think, “Well, this is my path, so why am I calling it an obstacle? All I’ve got to do is stay up all night, and if I were partying that wouldn’t be a problem at all.” Anyway, you get it.
So, a really deep thing is, “Oh, my practice doesn’t work” or, “I’m pathetic, because I’m now seeing this as suffering,” but if you turn into it—Lin-ji and the great much later Japanese master would both say, “Turn the light inward, turn the light back.” Rather than “out there”—”Oh, this is a terrible problem!”—hm, he thinks he has a terrible problem. Obviously his “me” is hard at work. And we start to see, “Oh, it opens my heart and my empathy, and my obstacles are good.” And we’ve had a lot of stories like that this retreat.
I think I’d like to end with a poem or two or one-and-a-half or something. The idea of feeling your way is very deep in Zen, and so there’s a koan, “Not knowing is most intimate.” Over and over again, we hear this, and we say it to ourselves and then we say, “Oh, that’s right.” Not knowing is most intimate, because you’re not pushing the world off—and there’s this open space. When I’m teaching, not knowing was most intimate at a medical residence, and people started weeping, because—obvious reasons.
So there’s that, and then there’s this thing about moving in the dark. There’s this koan, “Step by step in the dark, if my foot is not wet, I’ve found the stone.” It’s so simple isn’t it? That’s how we move along—you put out your foot, there’s something there or not. If there’s not something there, you try putting it somewhere else, and then you find “somewhere”, and then you transfer your weight in that very butoh way, and then you put out your other foot. Or if you want, you can put out your elbow or your head, and they’re fine. So you move that way. There’s a rather amusing one.
Then there’s the notion of poverty, meaning you’re not enriching yourself with delusions, which is the technical thing for poverty. [reads]
We can’t light a lamp.
In this house I have no oil
and you don’t need a light.
But I have a way to bless your poverty.
I’ll let you feel your way along the wall.
Japanese poem, it’s kind of sweet. So you can tell that there’s a—I’ll stay with the poems. I had something very tempting to talk about, but I’m going to—this is Anna Swir again, the great Polish poet— [reads]
I swam away from myself.
Do not call me.
Swim away from yourself too.
We will swim away,
leaving ourselves on the shore
like a pair of beached sandals.
She’s great, because you can tell she didn’t get it from the Bhagavad Gita or the Blue Cliff Record or anything. She just got it from her—from life, so you can tell, “Oh, it’s intrinsic,” this stuff.
John: Okay. The same poet— [reads]
Whether in daytime or in nighttime
I always carry inside a light.
In the middle of noise and turmoil
I carry silence.
light and silence.
Amichai, a great twentieth century poet, Yehuda Amichai— [reads]
From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the spring.
The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.
But doubts and love
dig up the world
like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.
This is something I wrote when I was living in a temple, and I was really into this sort of “feel your way along the wall” consciousness. [reads]
Poverty seizes me in the middle of things and my life will never be the same.
I’ll face outward to the trees and animals and not look back.
Silent, furred creatures and the tall eucalyptus gather slowly about me.
They have given me this new life, walking alone in the moonlight
not knowing who I am.
This is Milosz. Some Polish poets did a pretty good job in the twentieth century, partly because Poland suffered so much, but… they were forced into poetry. [reads]
Forget the suffering
you caused others.
Forget the suffering
others caused you.
The waters run and run,
Springs sparkle and are done,
You walk the earth you are forgetting.
Sometimes you hear a distant refrain.
What does it mean, you ask, who is singing?
A childlike sun grows warm.
A grandson and a great-grandson are born.
You are led by the hand once again.
The names of the rivers remain with you,
how endless those rivers seem.
Your fields lie fallow.
The city towers are not as they were.
You stand at the threshold, mute.
This is Jimenez: [reads]
I am not I.
I am this one
walking beside me whom I do not see.
In this one, the “I” is the self. [reads]
I am not I.
I am this one
walking beside me whom I do not see,
whom at times I manage to visit,
and whom at other times I forget;
the one who remains silent while I talk,
the one who forgives, sweet, when I hate,
the one who takes a walk where I am not,
the one who will remain standing when I die.
Emily Dickinson— [reads]
I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us.
Don’t tell! They’d banish us – you know.
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a frog –
To tell your name – the livelong day
To an admiring bog!
That’s Emily’s verdict on the self. “I don’t know” is there. I’ll read you one more koan, poem—koan-poem—one of those things, “On Prayer.” Milosz, Czeslaw Milosz, who was a great Polish poet—he went through all the horrors of the twentieth century. After the war, because he was a notable poet, he became the Polish ambassador in Washington. Poland got crushed under the Soviet Union—he defected, became a great poet here, won the Nobel and stuff, but he was always a kind of heretical mystic underneath all that, all the politics and everything. So he always felt an identification with the kind of people who got burned by the Church, but he felt that he was in some way related to the great sacred traditions anyway. [reads]
You ask me how to pray to someone who is not.
I don’t believe or not believe, he says, but for the moment, “who-is-not.” [reads]
You ask me how to pray to someone who is not.
All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge
And walking on it we are aloft, as on a springboard,
Above landscapes the color of ripe gold
Transformed by a magic stopping of the sun.
“Magic stopping of the sun.” [reads]
That bridge leads to the shore of Reversal
Where everything is just the opposite and the word “is”
Unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned.
Notice I say: we; there, every one, separately,
Feels compassion for others entangled in the flesh
And knows that if there is no other shore
We will walk that aerial bridge all the same.
That’s Milosz for you, translated by Robert Hass.
I think we did it tonight. Thank you very much.
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