Allison, Tess and Jesse lead us into the heart of PZI practice—what it means to take refuge, how to work with vows as koans, and how, at its root, our life in itself before we’ve improved it is an expression of the Bodhisattva Way.
April 25, 2021
Sunday Dharma Talk
Allison Atwill, Tess Beasley & Jesse Cardin
Welcome! Welcome, Tess and Jesse. The three of us will be your hosts and guides for the great matter of refuge and precepts this morning. Let me see how I want to go in … I’ll start with how I’ve been thinking about refuge and the precepts:
It Is for You
One way to say it is that the precepts appear to us as direct encounter. Another way to describe it is that it’s like Lingyun’s encounter with the peach blossoms. Last week, John was speaking about Lingyun rounding the bend and encountering peach blossoms. The precepts are very much in that spirit and that domain where they come to us individually—just for you. They appear in a particular form, like that. That tree full of peach blossoms—it only occurred for Lingyun. They met each other in that moment and it was his own awakening.
The precepts are just like that: they come to us in as many forms as there are galaxies and stars. Every one of you that I see now before me in your little side chapels—in any moment of your life, if a precept appears, it appears in this particular form only for you and only in this way. It’s for you and it has to do with your awakening. If one of the precepts has appeared, it’s not an impediment or obstacle to awakening. It is your awakening appearing in the moment you’re encountering it, just like the peach blossoms.
And in Chan, in Zen, we take up the precepts and refuge not in the spirit of a set of rules of behavior for right and wrong or good and bad, or to set up exemplars for what awakened behavior looks like. We take them up in the spirit of koans, which means they have something to do with your awakening. It’s a living experience and expression of your own awakened mind, of the awakened mind.
A Sense of Separation
Every one of the precepts, fundamentally, are one precept—they’re all speaking to the same thing but in a certain flavor or form of it. And they all come and speak directly to the experience of separation. When we feel separate from our lives, in whatever ways that we do, we might find ourselves feeling more virtuous than other people.
Let’s say you’ve finally given up smoking—and you’re sitting in meditation, and you feel that all the buddhas and bodhisattvas are around you and they are smiling down on you and applauding your virtuous behavior. Right there, you are not following the precept of “not misusing intoxicants.” Right there, you are in the precept of “elevating yourself over others.” You are completely in the realm of the precepts.
When you are feeling a sense of separation, whether as elevation or condemnation, then you know a precept has appeared and more of your awakening is possible. At a certain point in your practice, you begin to relish these moments where it feels that things have gone wrong or someone has done something wrong or things are not as they should be. “This shouldn’t be happening,” is the primary way it might be expressed in the mind. When that kind of cast of mind appears, we know a precept has appeared and more of your awakening is available—is possible. More freedom is possible.
So, I want to talk a bit about refuge. The refuge vows and taking refuge in a formal ceremony is divided into these three sections:
Sixteen Bodhisattva Vows
There are sixteen vows, and the first three are called the Three Refuge Vows:
I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma, I take refuge in the Sangha
Or, how we have it in our PZI ceremony:
I take refuge in awakening, I take refuge in the Way, I take refuge in my companions
The next are the Three Pure Vows:
I vow to do no harm, I vow to do good, I vow to do good for others
And what we mean by “pure” is not what the mind immediately goes to as “pure-versus-impure.” If you’ve done that, your mind is in the realm of separation. “Those people are impure, I’m impure, I’ve got to get rid of this, or I’ve got to get rid of it out there.” It is less meaning pure than meaning original. The original ground of being is before I’ve decided this was good or bad. The original nature would be the pure nature of something before I’ve divided the world into those realms.
In the third section, you’ve got the ones that are gnarly. These are the ones people struggle with—the Ten Grave Precepts, which are all the rules:
I vow not to kill
I vow not steal
I vow not misuse sex
I vow not lie
I vow not to misuse drugs/intoxicants
I vow not to gossip maliciously
I vow not to praise myself at the expense of others
I vow not to be stingy
I vow not to indulge in anger
I vow not to disparage the teachings or my companions on the Way
If you were raised such as I was in the Catholic religion, the rules were very unfair. I remember when I first read the precepts and thought that they are just terribly familiar. These are rules which could lead one to land in hell or heaven. And if you take that metaphorically or experientially, it could be a more interesting way. But still—you’re in the realm of right and wrong. The three of us, Jesse, Tess and I, will talk more about that in a bit.
What We Take Refuge In
I want to talk a bit about awakening, the Way, and my companions—what we take refuge in.
We take refuge in the moment that’s appearing. What I am taking refuge in refers not to something in the future or the past. What we take refuge in, in Zen, is the refuge that is happening now. And it’s happening now inside of you. It’s not happening in someone else. It’s not happening in an improved self. And it’s refuge in the awakened original mind. It’s taking refuge in your own awakening, which you’re already born into. You already have it—you don’t have to perfect it or get more of it.
It is here, so go ahead and check it out! Look around your room; who’s seeing? Right now, we have rain in Northern California, a very soft rain. And we’ve had an incredibly dry spring. Now we have the blessing of this rain. Wherever you are, you have “who is seeing and who is apprehending.” That’s your awakened mind that you already have. You can always take refuge in that. Wherever you find yourself, you have that refuge. I take refuge in the Way.
In Daoism, one way to describe the Way is as the fundamental pattern or fundamental appearance of things. You could say that it’s what’s appearing now in the pattern of reality, and you can feel it in your inner life and outer life. You can actually place your foot on it and rest, and it will support you. It’s where on the Way you’re placing your foot. In a way, that’s like where the peach blossoms and Lingyun met—it’s the encounter. You can trust the moment, the physicality and the actuality of the moment you’re in. It’s the expression of the Way and your companions.
Sometimes, in a narrow sense, companions are thought of as people in your Sangha, as the people I’m looking at now. And that’s a real experience. If you’re here, you have some sense of the support and interweaving of Sangha. In the largest sense, the Sangha is everything in your experience right now: your memories, your worries, physical sensations, the weather, the curtains, the carpet—all of those are your companions, and you can take refuge in them.
So, I think that’s enough for now, a good introduction. We are going to sit for a little bit, and I’ll give you a koan to sit with:
Meditation with Santoka’s Koan
This is the stone,
drenched with rain,
that points the way.
This rain, this wind, this body, this worry, just joy … this. This is the stone, drenched with rain, that points the way.
Tess: Your whole life rests in this one moment, taking refuge in the crows, in the air that comes in and out of your lungs, in the soft spring rain that falls here, all the way in New York, too. This is this stone, drenched with rain, that points the way to here.
Jesse: Notice how you can just relax into it, recline into it. Everything’s here, everything’s holding you.
Tess: Hopefully you can see the three of us kind of clustered together here, spotlighted in a kind of fishbowl on Zoom. We’re doing this as an experiment because this territory feels so much like it calls for sitting in a circle—as a conversation, as a discovery process. It’s not so much something that can be imparted. We notice that we just keep discovering things together. It’s like we’re pulling you into our little circle so you can discover things with us, too.
I Was Somehow Wrong
I’ll start by saying that I had a dream last night that seemed very much in this territory. I’m going to tell you just a little bit of it and then see what we find out. I had gone for a long walk yesterday and was just exhausted and fell asleep around 8:30. I awoke two hours later, feeling like I couldn’t even tell which universe I was in. I was between realms.
The short version of the dream is that I had been holding a position and had just been fired by a group of young women, and I didn’t really understand what was happening. I didn’t know, yet I was trying to understand and I was confused. And it was just making things worse.
Not only did they fire me because of something I had done, but they said something like, “This is just more evidence that your meditation practice isn’t where it needs to be.” So, I was trying to get myself together and move my things out and go somewhere else. I had absolutely no idea where or what was going to come next, or who I was going to be or what I was going to do with my life.
Suddenly, tears just came with this tremendous sense of relief because I had no idea where I was going or what I was doing. Relief that I didn’t have to be beholden to this sense of being strangled, by what felt like having done something wrong and having no idea what I’d done. As I woke up, I lay there thinking that it’s so much like what can happen with the precepts, with life in general—that there’s this terrified sense that I’m going to do something wrong or that I am somehow wrong.
I remember the first time I encountered the idea of taking refuge. At first blush, it seemed like the Buddhist version of “being saved” in the Christian church. I thought, Well! Then I remembered an article I had read, saying, “You know what taking refuge is? It’s putting down your spiritual shopping cart. You’re not going to look somewhere else.”
I think what happens is that sometimes we just take all the precepts and decide, Well, okay, if my shopping cart is full of these, then this is sort of what I stick to—that I’m never going to do these things. And that becomes incredibly constraining, whatever our version of those things is and what we’re allowed to do and not allowed to do.
So, maybe a jumping off point for us is that part of what we fear, part of what we want to cling on to as a way of knowing how to do things or who to be, is so we don’t have to face the vast uncertainty of any moment, and particularly the vast uncertainty of what might be in me, what might be available. And I think when that happens, we profoundly stop trusting what’s available, and we stop noticing what’s available, and we cling tight to anything that we can make decisions about. Jesse, you had a cool image when we talked about the crystal rock candy, would you be willing to say a little bit about that?
Jesse: Sure. Raise your hand if you’ve ever made rock candy. Well, I mean, I have, and what I remember about it is from a long time ago. So, don’t try my recipe without checking it out.
So, you have a bowl or something and maybe a chopstick and a piece of string, and you hang the string down into a sugar-water solution and then just leave it there. You’ll probably want to cover it because bugs will get in, unless you like that kind of thing, in which case there’s no precept against bugs in the rock candy. So, whatever you like—and then you just leave it there.
The sugar crystals just naturally come together and adhere to the string and start to form crystals, right? Everything’s got its own crystalline structure, its own cleavage planes and its own chemical bonds and that sort of thing. And it’s just remarkable. And then you’ve got this wonderful result. You take it out, and you munch, munch, munch, and your mom says, “Don’t eat it all at once.” And you say,” Okay, I won’t,” and then you do. And then that’s the precept of not misusing food. But we’ll get to that later.
What I have noticed over the past week is that that’s how my self is created. I’m just cruising along, someone’s cruising along—who is cruising along? As Allison asked, “Who is seeing, who’s hearing?” And then suddenly, something will happen: I’ll say something to my wife—AAGH! And then one little molecule gets stuck to the string.
And that first molecule is, “I shouldn’t have said that.” Or, “I should have said something different.” So, often the beginning of it, for me, is “should or shouldn’t,” right? You’ll notice that it starts out whole, the solution is whole, the sugar is dissolved—it’s all throughout, right? And then, something happens. And the mind decides that it needs to make an edit to reality. Either it needs to add something: “I should have said,” or, “I should have done,” which needs to subtract something.
And from these edits, you’ve just destroyed the entire world. There it goes. Right? Everyone’s dead, including you. Which is kind of great. “Oh my god.” And then what’s interesting is Oh, there’s the possibility that I could see, or that whoever is seeing could see, Oh, there was a mistake there. I said something that hurt her feelings and that’s not what I intended to do. That’s nice, easy—”Okay, I’m sorry that I hurt your feelings. Sorry about that. It’s not what I meant to say.” Or, whatever.
But I can make the making of the mistake be a mistake, and then make making the mistake a mistake be a mistake, and you see that before too long, you’ve got rock candy. “And I’m a terrible person and my wife is going to leave me because I’m such a cruel fucker,” and etcetera, etcetera. It just goes on. And as Allison says, “That is my awakening appearing to me in that moment,” right? This is the beginning of suffering which is also the beginning of awakening, which is kind of a beautiful thing.
And so, I’ve just been watching over the last week or two, since we’ve been preparing to do this, how my mind crystallizes. I just notice it and then I ask the question, “Which precept is this? What am I killing? Am I doing good for others? Am I doing harm? Am I misusing drugs?” Whatever it is. And it’s not a thing about “should or shouldn’t”—it’s just not about that. And when I see it happening, it starts to dissolve again, back into the solution. Then there’s just what there was. Then there’s just the orange. Use what’s at hand—it’s the half-eaten apple, there’s the jug of water I brought because I forgot my water bottle—it’s just that. It’s this remarkable thing.
I had had no interest in the precepts whatsoever before this, when Allison and Tess said, “Hey, do you want to do this thing?” And I immediately said “Yes,” because I love spending time with them. I am totally uninterested in the precepts, but even so, they’re interesting. The first time we got together, I said my little bit about what I thought about the precepts and Allison went, “I think it’s much stranger than that.” And I thought that what I had had to say was kind of clever.
Allison: “It was! It was!”
Jesse: But it is much stranger. And I was kind of like, “Okay, Allison, tell me how much stranger it is,” and she said this thing, and it’s just, BOOM! The wholeness of it appears, and then I’m dissolved in the solution again.
Not to make a right or wrong, not to think, Well, we should be dissolved in the solution or we shouldn’t crystallize ourselves. It’s beyond that—beyond whoever this is. I don’t know, that gets into free will and I’m really unclear about what that is, anyway.
I think the one thing I’m sort of sitting with right now is the way that the precepts, in whatever form they appear to you, in this moment, as Allison was saying, is a piece of awakening—which is all of awakening. And it’s everything! There was never a mistake, even if you fix the coffeemaker wrong and it makes it work worse. It still wasn’t a mistake. So with that, I pass the baton on to whoever talks next.
Allison: I’m really struck with that particularity, the exquisitely handmade quality of the precepts, the way they’re taken up in Chan Buddhism. As you were saying, “It’s happening for you.” And it’s happening in this way, with all the characters that are involved in the situation now, and some piece of the mandala is coming into awakening. And you have this moment, which is a thrilling proposition to be continually involved in, in this blossoming and the seasons of things forming and falling back and forming again. What else? Tess?Tess: You had said something else,
Allison, and I’d love you to say a little more, about how when the fault is entered in any way, shape, or form, that you have not yet entered the territory.
Allison: Yeah, that came from working with people, over the years, who are formally taking refuge. Part of that process and of that ceremony is that each individual works to have a response to each of the precepts—a response that comes from them. They bring it to the teacher and sometimes there will be some fault: “I’m trying to improve myself,” or “I’ve gotten better,” or “I promise to get better,” “I promise never to do this.” And, “I’ve noticed it really hurts my sister when I do X; I promise never to do it again.” As soon as it’s a kind of diagnostic where anyone is at fault—if how I’m arranging the universe is that “I’m at fault” or “they’re at fault”—then you have not yet entered the precept. You’re still holding yourself separate from something. So, that makes it easy to get a feel for, and it’ll give you a different general cast on things.
Let’s say you’re someone that always finds fault with other people, so you’re using the precepts to find fault. Say I am a lifelong vegetarian and I’ve been a vegetarian for forty-odd years. And my sister is not, even though she says she’s a Buddhist—she does not value the vow that says not to kill. Finally, now that Covid is over, we go out to dinner. First thing she does, she orders a big T-bone steak cooked rare, which, you know, is like it’s almost still alive on the plate. And not only that, she knows it kind of makes me sick to see this. And even before I got there, she’d ordered a gin and tonic that’s gone. And now she’s ordered a second one. And I’m thinking, Two precepts at once, you know, there is not even any question: intoxicants! Let’s just say two gin and tonics and now she is on her third.
So, that would be an example of how it’s very easy for the mind to grab on to the precepts as a way to find fault with others, to use them as a form of separation.” I would never do X.” And then simply, as Jesse was saying, to notice what happens. I don’t have to stop doing it, but to notice how, when my mind is doing that, what else is happening to my companions. My sister is drifting further and further away from me, my feeling of intimacy is getting more and more tenuous. And I’m not even tasting my own food, I’m not seeing the people in the restaurant, my mind is making a very emphatic and irrefutable case for my position. So the precepts will bring us directly into how I, myself, separate myself from my life. And over and over again, you’ll get a feel for that.
Jesse: So which precepts were you breaking in that moment when you were judging your sister?
Allison: Oh, that’s wonderful. I’ve got it tagged right here with a pink tag:
I vow not to gossip maliciously.
The way things are is mysterious and hard to see.
In a world where the Dharma is flawless,
not dissecting my sister’s mistakes is called the vow of not gossiping maliciously.
Jesse: Well, to your point about what you said earlier, all the precepts are the same precept. So, I’m gossiping maliciously, I’m putting myself above others, I’m killing, shouting “You’re not a vegetarian!” Wonderful! You can feel the aliveness once you wake up inside the delusion of that moment. Oh! It’s so alive. Like you said, “Wow, I can watch my sister. She’s fading away. I’m no longer even in the restaurant. I’m in some circle of hell at that moment.” It’s an interesting place.
The other thing I think is that when hell appears in that moment, that’s not a mistake either, right? Then I can just include this as well. I can include that I’m doing this thing and like, yeah, there it is. You can feel it, which is amazing. Walking the precepts is like walking a tightrope that’s one thousand miles wide. I just can’t fall off no matter what I do; I just fall into awakening on this side or that side or any side. So, thank you. Great illustration.
Tess: I love what you say, Allison, about how fault goes either one way or the other. Because I think I tend to be someone who will find my rock candy growing by accumulating fault, easily.
I was noticing that last weekend when we had some friends over—which felt strange because it’s been so long since we’ve had friends over—and they didn’t have a sitter, and they brought their little toddler along. I noticed our conversation because we hadn’t seen each other in such a long time—how we felt we had to report on all the things that had happened. It was this painful, furious process—because it was impossible. And in this version of reality, a toddler is a terrible impediment because she has no interest in any of this whatsoever.
I noticed my friend looking into my eyes wanting to ask me serious questions about life, like “How are you? How have things been?” And I noticed the precept of stinginess. I kept feeling stingy because I didn’t feel like I had it in me to have that conversation. Instead, I kept noticing that the little girl was obsessed with wanting to be clapping or to be with the cats. Or, she kept finding this little piece of plastic, and she’d stand on it and it would fall, and then she’d fall, and over and over. And then she’d laugh and laugh and laugh.
In the mind of the precepts, it’s like we somehow should have been doing something else. Maybe we should have been having this conversation where we should have been connecting, and there wasn’t enough time and there wasn’t enough “X.” The mind of stinginess starts to take over. Like that rock candy, everything sticks to it, and now there’s not enough of anything. In fact, just being with the little girl who was supposedly an impediment was just this rich, joyous experience of intimacy and laughter and seeing what was there.
The thing I keep noticing is how much is actually given in each moment. And how any time our ideas start to impose, as the field starts to narrow, the more we have ideas about what should happen—all of a sudden, we’re in one of those finger traps where we’re just pulling and pulling and pulling on what is supposed to be happening instead of relaxing and opening and noticing what is inside of me, and what’s surrounding me, and what can I take refuge in.
The first vow is kind of the gateway to the others, in the sense that if I can do that—noticing and being open—something will always be available to meet me and carry me in some way. Even in thinking about my dream, there are tears of relief—that’s kind of “this is the stone drenched with rain”—there is this profound relief in just being here. Nothing else, none of my ideas are needed, none of my grabbing is needed. I can just be here and see what is happening. It’s kind of a beautiful thing.
Mysterious and Hard to See
Allison: Also, Tess, you’re noticing the way each precept begins with,
The way things are is mysterious and hard to see.
We begin with not-knowing—not-knowing is the foundation in which we rest. And it’s not that when you take up the precepts that things will become less mysterious and easier to see. It is mysterious and not-knowing all the way down. You are always held inside the solution: the not-knowing and the uncertainty. And that the certainty—that crystallization of the self—is a kind of defense against being drenched with rain.
Tess: That’s very important. That also seems to point to how much we have ideas about what we even think these things are—what lying is or what taking life is or what gossiping is—and that we can have our favorite precepts, such as, “I might misuse sex and drink a little, but at least I don’t do …”
Allison: EAT STEAK!
Tess: Yeah, at least I don’t eat steak. At least I take spiders outside. These ideas get very concretized. Jesse is very good at modeling this—transgressing in some way or going into the territory that feels like, “Oh, but I would never possibly be that kind of person”— and in bringing the greatest intimacy of discovering a vastness beyond my ideas about what that territory might be.
Jesse: What are you trying to say?
Tess: Noble Weasel, you know we know your ways.
Jesse: Who shouts at babies in the middle of the night?
Tess: Would you say a little bit about that? That was a wonderful example.
Shouting at Babies
Jesse: Yeah, so I have this wonderful little boy who is going on ten months. And up until a couple of weeks ago, he was still not sleeping through the night. He’d still wake up once in the middle of the night. And one of my biggest kinds of triggers for rage is being woken up in the middle of the night. That’s just one of my things. And, somehow, I volunteered to always be the one to wake up in the middle of the night. You see, we orient ourselves toward awakening no matter what, right? Whether it’s toward the suffering side of awakening or the freedom side of awakening. For example, I hate waking up in the middle of the night. So, “Yes, dear, I will be the one to wake up in the middle of the night.”
So, I have had enough—he has woken up in the middle of the night and he’s crying and will not stop crying, and I’ve got to change his diaper and make a bottle. And I’m going, “I’m working on it! I’m working on it!” And he’s crying and he’s crying and he’s crying. And I just lost it. I yell, “Shut up! Shut up!” And as Allison said when we were talking about it, “You know, that’s not going to help them stop crying.” It’s absolutely the wrong approach. If there’s a wrong thing to do in the moment, that’s one of them. So, what kind of person am I? What kind of father am I? Oh, my god. And I hold him and I give him a bottle. And what do I do with this rage, now that he’s asleep? I’m stuck with this rage and it goes on and on and on like that. So, there’s that side of things.
And then, coming out of retreat, I had this clarity about it: When I’m hungry, I eat; when I’m tired, I sleep. And I just decided, Oh, it’s time to sleep-train him. It’s time to just put him in bed and let him fall asleep on his own. He’ll cry a little bit and that’ll be fine. I’ll go in and sit with him while he cries himself to sleep—he will know I’m there. So I did that for about a week, and my wife sat in the living room going, “Oh, my god, the crying—the crying.” And I’m like, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I just came out of a retreat, it’s fine. I am just sitting in here with him.
How Do We Navigate?
This is one of the pieces I’m really interested in, in the precepts. I’m sure I’ll dive into this more and that we will naturally dive into what is the navigation part about “How do I live my life?” If I don’t have principles, if I don’t have rules, if I don’t have morals, if I don’t … then what? There’s a certain kind of ethics of awakening. Awakening guides the way; I just orient myself toward freedom.
And there’s the thing about Oh, it’s time to sleep-train the child. There’s going to be crying and I’ll sit there and it’ll be fine. And there was and it was fine, and now he sleeps through the night. Last couple of weeks for the first time ever: I mean, all the way through the night. Everybody’s got more sleep, everybody’s happy. Was there some way in that earlier scene that’s still heartbreaking? I can look back and it wasn’t wrong.
For one thing, I don’t have to look back and go, “Oh my god, what a terrible father, it’s so good that I’m such a better father now.” It’s just what was appearing in the moment. In a way, I couldn’t help it. That’s just what it was, then.
So, there are other questions that arise—will you give yourself permission to do all kinds of things if you bring that in? So, the way is mysterious and hard to see. But that thing about Linji always going on about “You just don’t have faith in yourselves.” We need precepts because we don’t have faith in ourselves. If you just have faith in yourself, you don’t need precepts. It’s already here.
Saying Yes or No
One last thing I’ll say about that. I got this from a guy I did an internship with years and years ago. He ran the case management in a housing program for people who had been homeless. There were people there from all kinds of backgrounds. And, of course, he had people coming up to him all day long asking for things. “Can you do this for me? Can you do that for me? Can you take me for a ride? Can you sign off on this reference letter for a job? Can you do this?” And he said, “No,” all the time. I did not understand how he could do it. I just felt that I had to say “Yes” to everybody. Otherwise, what kind of person would I be? I’m here to help case-manage. “Of course, I can give you a ride.” Of course, of course, I’ll sign what’s on this paper.
I asked him one time, “How do you say ‘No’ to people when they are these poor people who’ve been homeless, destitute, living on the streets?” And he goes, “Well Jesse, when somebody asks me for something, I look inside and I see, is there a yes or a no? And if there’s a no, I say, ‘No,’ and if there’s a yes, I say, ‘Yes.’”
What a remarkable power to just trust what’s in here immediately as it rises—and that that’s the thing.
It is there. You’ll notice that it’s there before the mind starts adding things or subtracting them from the moment. It’s just there. And then, actually, when the mind adds or subtracts, it’s there again—it just looks a little bit different.
Allison: Yeah, that’s beautiful, right? We have that question: How do we navigate? And if we don’t have a set of rules, exterior rules, then it’s this widening of the field, it’s including more, including more of the inner life and outer life. What’s happening on the person’s face while I’m speaking is this throughout-space-and-time inclusion in the moment I’m in—widening, widening, widening, including more, not trying to control, coerce or demand, but a kind of opening and flowering. And what to do comes from the moment I’m in, it doesn’t come from a set of rules I’m carrying into the moment where I’m saying, “Well, I have to, we have to, it has to go this way.”
Tess: With that, I’m wondering if we should sit a bit more, it feels like that belongs to this moment we are in.
Allison: Do you want to ring us in, Tess?
Tess: Finding this moment you’re in … the weight … it brings you down into it. Noticing that your percolations, objections, ideas, and uncertainties all just become part of the rain falling on us. And nothing else is needed from you other than to be here, to take refuge in awakening.
Jesse: You can notice the incredible generosity of the universe that despite your transgressions, what you should have done, what you shouldn’t have done, what you should do, what you shouldn’t do, what went wrong, who you were, who you are, everything that’s happened—despite all of that, you’re here.
Allison: And your assessment of how things were or are or will be might be less solid than your mind imagines. The way things are is mysterious and hard to see.
Jordan plays guitar, sings:
All the ancient, twisted karma
Timeless greed, hatred, and ignorance
Born of my body, mouth and soul
I confess openly and let it go
buddham saranam gacchami
dhammam saranam gacchami
sangham saranam gacchami
buddham, dhammam, sangham
Tess: Thank you, Jordan, for weaving together a couple of our sutras that are in this territory, and the buddham saranam gacchami. If you’re not familiar with this, it means: “I take refuge in awakening, I take refuge in the Way, I take refuge in my companions.”
I want to come back to the last thing you said, Jesse, about the guy who just looks inside and gets a “Yes” or a “No.” I was noticing, as we were sitting, maybe because of all the tunes that we were listening to, that it’s almost as if there’s a difference in tone between that voice—the stone voice that’s a Yes or No, something that arrives inside of me as part of what to do, as part of what’s here—and the kind of mosquito-like tone of the voice that says, “Well, but, you can’t—you can’t do that, you can’t say that, you shouldn’t have done that, you shouldn’t have said that.”
And that so much of practice seems to be about honing an ear to the voice that’s given about, “Oh, here’s the thing to do: It’s time to sleep-train the child, it’s time to call a friend, it’s time to not pick up the call from a friend, it’s time to …” I don’t know if either of you have anything else you’d like to say about that. But that seems quite an important point.
Allison: I was thinking about how one might think, listening to us, that because we don’t stick to the rules or beliefs that somehow it’s a kind of free-for-all, a wild party, or something. But there’s a tremendous discipline, precision and accuracy about the practice. It’s the most rigorous practice I think one can take up. Because, what is required? We don’t know what it’s going to ask of us as we enter into it. We are protected by our ideas or beliefs about what I’ll be as I pass through this moment and the transformation of awakening occurs.
What I would say is that we don’t require people to believe anything, which is good. Because when I first found this practice, I could just never ever, in my whole life, make myself believe something that I didn’t believe or follow rules that I could feel were at variance with my experience. From the very first moment of taking refuge, we take on the teachers and the ancestors. You can feel that they trust the awakened mind in each person. And that’s more reliable and accurate than a set of rules.
Jesse: Yeah, I like that. It is a discipline and it’s trial-and-error. Or maybe not really a trial-and-error; it’s more of an experimentation process. What if I didn’t say “Thank you” all the time? Or, “I’m sorry” all the time? What if just this one time I didn’t say that I’m sorry about whatever. One of my things has been saying, “Sorry I inconvenienced you, etc. Sorry.” Well, what if I just didn’t say that this time? What would happen?
Oh my gosh, and then the mosquito voice. Well, “People are going to think you’re a jerk and they’re never going to want to talk to you again.” And, “Why aren’t you taking responsibility for being late?” or whatever the thing is. Sometimes it’s just that one thing, that one stepping off of the pole, and then, Oh, everything’s fine. And I feel freer than if I had done that thing I always do, about apologizing all the time or making sure that my hair is on just right, or whatever it is. So, it is a rigorous discipline. And it’s always, always digging, always searching, in a way I think, for me.
The thing about that Zen master whose practice was to talk to himself,
“Are you awake?”
“Don’t be fooled by others.”
“No, no, no.”
And that’s what it is: Am I awake? Am I being fooled by what’s happening here? It’s not in an I’m-digging-a-ditch kind of way, it’s actually a wonderful thing because it’s just waking up again and again and again. And again. And again. I don’t like waking up from sleep. But I do like waking up from delusions. So, I’ll do that all day long. It’s exciting. I’m really excited to do this more with both of you and everyone who shows up because I feel like there’s just this vast cave of gold. We just dig into it more and more and more as we go. Or a juicy steak for you, Allison.
Wider and Wider Circles
Allison: Oh, yeah. Two things I want to say. One, that also I really, really love the moments where, like with you, Jesse, where you said, “Okay, I won’t say-I won’t say-I won’t say it this time.” And then I’m saying it. And just to have the experience of what’s actually happening while I’m saying it and be awake and watch a kind of awakening pouring through. That is just a tremendously marvelous part of the practice.
And then I also thought when we were sitting, I thought, god, I should clear this up, because my sister is the vegetarian. I’m the one who eats steaks and drinks three glasses of wine!
Jesse: We’re going to have to cancel the series now.
Tess: I think two more things to say as a way of wrapping up. One is that we are going to be doing an ongoing series on the vows, so more information will be forthcoming and it’s likely we’re going to treat it as a smaller group to be able to explore it intimately together.
One thing that’s so interesting about the vows is how different they are for everyone. That my version of gossiping or lying or stealing or disparaging is radically different from yours. And that when I see it alive in someone else in a completely different way, it’s like we constellate each other’s awakening into wider and wider circles. And that is an amazing thing about doing this together.
And, as a final piece, I thought I’d read a section of our refuge ceremony. It’s beautiful and I think, well, you’ll see:
PZI Refuge Ceremony (excerpt)
When knowing stops, when thoughts about who we are fall away, vast space opens up and love appears. Anything that gets in the way of understanding this is a cause of suffering and something to refrain from. Moment by moment thought appears, the earth appears, we appear.
When we test each bit of life against the heart, we find we cannot reject any, for we’re the only hands and eyes that Eternity has. With our virtues, our failures and our imperfections, this is the body we take refuge in. This is what we offer to the world.
By their nature, vows are not things we hold perfectly. vows are the bridge we build between the spacious world and the things we do every day. They encourage us to follow our questions when they arise. And underlying our vows is compassion for everything that has the courage to live.
I think that’s what we find when we arrive here, that we have this incredible generosity and kindness toward everything that has the courage to live.
Thanks for doing this with me. Alright, wait—one more thought.
Before Any Improvement
Allison: One more thought. I was thinking about the expression, “the actual body as the harbor and the weir”—that we’re each the individual hands and eyes of awakening and that we ourselves are the harbor, that our life is, in itself as it is before we’ve improved it, an expression of the Bodhisattva Way.
Tess: Jordan, will you take us out with some good old Bodhisattva Vows?
Jordan plays guitar, sings:
I vow to wake all the beings of the world
I vow to set endless heartache to rest
I vow to walk through every wisdom gate
I vow to live the great Buddha Way
Sunday Dharma Talk
Allison Atwill, Tess Beasley & Jesse Cardin