PZI Teacher Archives

Trapped in a Stone Grave – Rising from Stillness Retreat


So you go out to the cemetery and you find your family vault. It looks a little bit overgrown; you haven’t been there for a long time. But you’ve got a key and you put it in and you pull the big stone door and it opens, just like that. It’s great. So you walk in just to kind of pay your respects; you haven’t been here for ages. And a sudden gust of wind….


Ah, hello. Today I’d like to talk about being trapped! [laughter] And so here’s the scenario. It’s a weekend and you start thinking about your family and people you loved who have died and you call a friend and you’re thinking about going for a picnic out at the cemetery. It’s a beautiful day and it’s kind of a bit weird but it might be fun. But your friend has to go away, gets called out of town suddenly, and you think well hell, I’ll go on my own. And so you go out to the cemetery and you find your family vault. It looks a little bit overgrown; you haven’t been there for a long time. But you’ve got a key and you put it in and you pull the big stone door and it opens, just like that. It’s great. So you walk in just to kind of pay your respects; you haven’t been here for ages. And a sudden gust of wind slams the door and it only opens from the outside, and you find your cell phone has no reception. [laughter] And no one knows you are there. The air is fresh, but how will you get out? There are no windows.

So this kind of thing happens a lot in life. Could happen to you. There are certain koans that are used as situations for us to – really, they draw something from our lives. They draw to them things that we’re holding, and they draw possibilities of freedom. This is clearly what one might call a predicament koan. Think of something you’re kind of concerned about at the moment. Go ahead, there might be something. Think of something that annoys you and pisses you off, like something someone’s done, or something you’ve done and you’re trying to explain away. Or whatever it is, where you know that whichever move you make doesn’t feel… Okay so that’s the stone grave, the stone vault.

I had a couple of stone vaults in my family, which – I have a memory of being in one, which I think I didn’t ever do, but somehow I remember it from being a child and imagining it so vividly. And obviously they’re kind of exciting sort of places, sort of catacombs, you know, and who knows what mysteries and secrets are in such places. So it’s like that. If we’re in a situation where we really don’t know where to turn and there’s no door out we’re aware of, then that’s the koan. And lucky us.

So the koan will do a whole lot of different things with that kind of situation, and I’ll talk about them in a minute, but I want to talk about a situation that sort of came to mind for me quite vividly about this koan and that I wanted to… This was quite a long time ago now. At one of the UCSFs, not the one on Parnassus, the one on Divisadero, the hospitals, there was this guy who had just become interested in meditation and then immediately got an end stage cancer diagnosis. I can’t remember where it started but it was pretty much everywhere, and – Ken Ireland, the guy who used to in those days, about that time, run the AIDS Hospice in the Castro, the Hartford Street Zendo. People knew that if they were really sick they could call him up and say: I’m fixing to die, Ken [laughter] and would you look after me and help me through it? And Ken would. And then Ken would sometimes call me in for something, because I was a friend of that hospice there, and Issan Dorsey was the abbot there, and so on.

So anyway this was one of Ken’s people and it was one of those strange things where he just changed his life and boom. He wasn’t going to have a lot of it. So I went down and talked. He said he wanted to take refuge, so we found him a robe and like what I’m wearing – hold up your robe, Deb(?) [laughter]. So we found him a robe. Somebody made him one, kindly, instantly. I talked with him about what refuge meant and stuff. Really it was he wanted to in a certain sense himself to know deep in his heart that something had turned in his life. The most important things were not the things he had thought were most important. The most important things were the kind of things we hear, the kind of questions we’re looking at here in the meditation hall. So it was that. And he also wanted in a way I think, the universe to know that. He was just informing the universe in case it was listening. And it was touching. I thought well, fair enough. He’s in this crypt, in this trapped place. In a certain sense then you know, I thought well none of the rules about what you do to take this robe were going to be fulfilled, because he wasn’t going to study and think about it and muse upon it, and I thought well, let’s do it.

And then I heard he wasn’t doing well, so I traveled down to see him and Ken was there and Carmen(?) was there and I’m pretty sure Joan Sutherland was there, she came down, and there was another woman who was a Zen student who was a nurse at the hospital, nurse in training at the hospital, and so there was just a few of us there. He was dying, he was due to die in about three days, but it turns out that the doctors had helpfully done really major surgery on him the day before, to save his… I don’t know why. Because doctors have to do thing sometimes, that’s why, and so he was actually dying a lot quicker. So it was touching, and he was on painkillers and stuff, but he understood what was going on, and he really, really wanted this.

So I said well I’ll say the vows, and we’ll chant a bit, we’ll do the heart sutra and chant a bit. I’ll say some of the vow, like I take refuge in the Buddha, and then you’ll say the vow I take refuge in the Buddha and we’ll all say it with you, and then we’ll go on to the next vow. That’s kind of how you do the ceremony. But by the time he got to I take refuge in awakening, I take refuge in my companions, he couldn’t really, he was starting to lose the capacity to talk, because he was sinking. So I said just say yes. we’ll say the vows for you. He said oh, yes. So it was like I take up the way of not killing, I vow not to kill, and – yes. And then he couldn’t talk anymore. So I held his hands. Just squeeze my hand. Can you squeeze my hand? And he did. So he could still hear, and his eyes were closed, and so we went through the others, I vow not to lie and not to indulge in anger and things like that, and pretty soon he couldn’t squeeze my hand. So then I said, we’ll just say it for you, and we’ll say: yes! And it was very touching, and so we went through the ceremony that way, and by the end he wasn’t really responding. But he wasn’t dead, he was still breathing and so on, and so we waited around awhile and sat with him. It was very peaceful and kind of sweet really, and then we left and he died just after that.

There was something for me about, and for him I think, that sometimes when you’re in a really tight spot, in a way that was a way of going further into the tight spot, you know. And it’s a kind of nice thing. I have such an affection… I hardly knew him, but he’s always in my heart, and it seemed like his life seemed so light, like sea foam, like the Diamond Sutra says, it’s like a bubble, a dream, waterfall spray and so forth. I called him ocean spray, not realizing that was the name of a cranberry juice. I found out. Somebody said but that’s cranberry juice. [laughter] I thought I’ve got to get out of Zendos now. Southern barbarians don’t know anything about cranberry juice. But actually the name was great. It was memorable, too, a lot of brand associations with it.

So I suppose just to say that there’s that. I mean is there a moral to the story? When you’re in… [laughter] koans don’t have morals, they open gates. So when you’re in a really dark place there’s something kind of absurd about taking vows. I won’t kill, I won’t misuse sex. You’re dying. But it was great, really great. It was everything about the love we have of life and there isn’t a moment while we’re alive, there isn’t a moment when the light isn’t shining in us. It’s like well the light’s still there, still shining. It’s like he was trying to squeeze my hand and couldn’t, and so I suppose I wanted to say that. There’s going to be no moment, whatever you go through in your journey, that doesn’t have that quality to it, and that when you’re fully in it, that’s enough. That’s all we can do, right? We’re fully in the stone crypt. It’s around us.

And there’s a way in which it’s for us, because we built it. This is the life we came to have and we’re having it. There’s a great scene in – Herzog did a great series on Berlin Alexanderplatz, which is a very sprawling, long series. It was a German television series, and it’s based on a sprawling long novel, but it starts with this guy who’s kind of a minor thug who’s a kind of hero of the police – a Herzog character I suppose – and he’s released from prison and there’s sort of a bleak German sky and landscape, and he looks at it and he tries to get back in [laughter]. And you might recognize that. So it’s our crypt, it’s our stone grave, it’s our confined place. And in a certain sense, by really fully being here, that’s what we can do. And then the situation starts to change and we’ll experience it differently, and who knows what ways there are out.

There’s one more thing to say about this koan. I like it when people email me, because then I have a record of the really wise things they say that I never would have thought of myself, and so somebody said this great things, years and years ago, about ten years ago sent me this great thing about this koan. She said what this koan has done is push my normal sense of being trapped and claustrophobic about my past, it’s really pushed it and become so intense that I realize I’m living like this. So one of the things a koan will do, it will raise up and make visible the kind of walls we’re carrying around in our lives, the furniture we’re carrying around with ourselves. The constraints we put on ourselves. So one of the things, I suppose in a way if you think: god, this koan sucks, that might be good. Not because it’s kind of like sadomasochistic, but because it’s showing us what we’re holding that’s painful to us that we’re not looking at normally. And so we get to look at it, and then as we look at it, to look at it itself is to have compassion, and there’s a blessing on that.

And so as we look at it we’ll find something else. We’ll find that it then starts to show us the famous emptiness that’s inside everything, really. It then starts to show us the spaciousness, well what it’s like without walls while being exactly in that situation. We don’t know how a situation’s going to resolve itself, because kind of the universe is doing that. But if we start to get free, then we’ll see oh I thought this was difficult, but it’s not, or I thought there were all these prison walls here, and actually they’re not. And that’s a tremendous gift. So I guess that’s all I want to say about that.

So if you think of your situation that I asked you to think of – I kindly asked you to think of something that will make you suffer, or not, maybe you can’t find something that’s making you suffer. Sometimes we can’t. We see: oh I have all this list of problems, but they’re not real problems. They kind of look like problems, but I have to sort of remember that they’re problems, because I’m here. And when we’re here, they’re not problems. So there’s that. But if you do have a problem, which is an honest thing to have, then it might be like that. It might be a helpful thing. It might be like the stone crypt, the stone grave, that it’s appearing in your life as a gift, and that as you attend to well what’s the problem here, you might find a spaciousness in it.

So pretty much, that’s it. So would you like to say anything? How’s your stone grave at the moment?

S: I appreciated how in that story about the refuge, you were in the stone grave too, and your responses to being in the stone crypt of giving refuge to somebody who can’t even squeeze your hand, I appreciated that.

John: Yeah, I agree that I was in, because for me this isn’t… I have rules about how you do these things, I wasn’t… so it shows how helpful the rules are [laughter]. And of course there’s a dancing quality when we’re in a tight spot, that sometimes we can’t move, but we can dance.

S: There’s something about how koans, you can just believe them, and so the koan says you’re in this stone grave and it’s completely impossible to get out, how will you get out, so you get to believe both that you get to carry around this thing that you are in this stone grave and you can’t get out, and you can get out. And there’s something kind of wonderful about being able to carry around, even though I don’t get it at all, I get to carry around these two things, that somehow freedom’s possible anywhere, and I don’t even have to know how, but I get the whole package. And then at some point I also know it’s going to shift. At some point I trust that the koan’s going to tell me where the light is, where’s the secret passageway.

John: Yeah, I think it’s that thing about abiding nowhere that we’ve heard of. Abiding nowhere, the mind comes forth, which is another miscellaneous koan, another one of these koans used for such a purpose, it’s a kind of situation itself. That when we start looking for a place to stand, immediately we’ve got prison walls. Basically then we’ve got bumper stickers to live by that kind of wear out. Thanks, that’s great.

S: I hadn’t thought about this before, but when my ex-wife had chronic illness for a long time, the stone crypt was, we were in it, and there was no out. And so in it there was also no need to be out of it. It just was what was this vast landscape of the crypt, and every time I’ve heard this I’ve thought of a little room, but this is a crypt of a different nature, in that I’m not going anywhere and we were just in it till – well there was no until. It just kept happening, and then happening, and it wasn’t until it resolved itself ten years later that I realized what it had been like to be in the stone crypt. While I was in it, it was just all of everything, which was also rich, even as it was exhausting, you wish it was different, but it was incredibly valuable. If you had said well would you have not gone into the stone crypt for ten, fifteen years? I’d say hell no, it was powerful. I wouldn’t do it again intentionally, but I wouldn’t forsake what I did.

John: That’s beautiful. That’s it. Sounds like. Yeah, that’s it, isn’t it, and it can be vast. It includes hospitals and relatives and all sorts of things, but it’s the stone crypt all right. And I think in a way nobody gets out of life without one of them. One of them? And I’m reminded of Keats said this wonderful thing: If you want to know what the purpose of the world is, the purpose of the world is that it is the vale of soul-making. Something transforms in us in the crypt and then it’s all right. There’s two things about this. One is to say there’s nothing that has happened to us that we have to say shouldn’t have happened, because we can’t make any portion of our life and say well that bit doesn’t have the light, everything else has the light. But the fact that whatever it is, my mother did this or my enemy did that or… we can’t say that, because it all brought us here, if that’s the cost of being here. Here as in like here, with the full magnificence of this evening that will never occur again. So we don’t have to refuse anything that has happened to us, any anxious night, any sorrow, any oppression, any fleeing, any foolishness that we did. It brought you here. The Tibetans are good on this. You know Milarepa killed sixteen people. He needed to do that to get somewhere. Heavy cost, that sort of thing. He had to build and unbuild houses. His teacher made him build houses and take them apart and build them again, things like that. So that’s one of the fairytale things, but it’s saying that you don’t know what, where the light is in your life, but it’s here and it’s working in you. In that stone crypt, I think of Lin-ji and there’s that wonderful line: Have confidence in the light that is always working inside you. It’s not anywhere else ever. So.

There’s that, and then the other thing is that because of that, we have a lot of stone grave escape strategies. They’re called, I don’t know, in meditation they’re called – I remember learning a lot of breath strategies. I thought I’ll start somewhere simple, like there was a fashion in something called bamboo breathing where you gradually breathe out – it was a martial arts thing – and you stop, like the thing in the bamboo, like the brush stops painting bamboo and then breathing in. [laughter] I don’t know. Without that I wouldn’t be here. But it was sort of like well yeah why not. And then we discovered like at a technical level, that’s just tactics, but at a deep level of walking the path, that mainly we’re adding too much, and we need probably, what the koan does is more things fall away, and the beauty, the fact that you might already be happy, might appear. And you might not have noticed that, because you’re too busy fixing your own happiness. So that kind of thing. So I don’t do that [exhales]– or whatever. I mean I don’t mind if people want to, because hey, I did. And then I used to do the koan – I will not have a moment without my koan. I’ll breathe every breath in and out and I think that was fine. And it wasn’t anything to do with doing a koan. It was a lot to do with me feeling worthy and striving. But it made me – after awhile I thought well, I’ve tried. And I could relax, and in a certain sense it’s a deeper level of, you can join the universe when you’re not fighting with it and trying to manipulate and change it, because the universe just comes to greet us then, it comes to us. The heart-mind.

S: I wanted to say something about the stone crypt that occurred to me. When I was hearing Roger talk, I was thinking one of the things about that anxiety of click, if you’re thinking of it, the click as the door closes, is my imagination becomes suddenly impoverished, like incredibly impoverished, like I can’t – the walls are gray, the floor is slightly slimy, and there’s just nothing there, there’s nothing to it, and I realize oh, my anticipation wipes out the possibility of anything interesting in there, which – I was thinking about the story that everybody heard four years ago about the guy whose arm got trapped under a boulder and he had to cut it off. And you imagine that as being like hideous. You think oh god. And then you read his account of it. And it was so much more interesting than what my mind goes to. I mean he had like hallucinations. He had no sensation. The “ick” part wasn’t even that bad, and when he came and went from his consciousness into his dreams it was kind of beautiful and he had this force to understanding what he needed to do, and he had a choice. And I thought oh, that’s another thing that I hadn’t even thought about with the stone grave is that there’s so much more potentially going on there than I kind of give it credit for.

S: I have something that some of you will appreciate.  I had a lot of anger come up about yesterday and it had something to do with one of my friends here saying about a day into it that she thought it was a silent retreat, when we were about a day into it. So I started hearing the conversations that she could hear, and so it was kind of great. It was just a lot of anger brewing and getting bigger and I even earned myself a badge from Jan Brogan, sheriff of the art of silence. First I thought it was kind of cute but then it pissed me off [laughter].

S: Well I was kind of pissed off and then I thought of something fun. [laughter]

S: I know, I know. And it dawned on me, yeah. So let’s see where am I going with it. So I’ve had this metaphor come up before, it just kind of got thick with anger and although my way of commenting got a little kinder as time went on with people, it kind of took me and when I got to the bottom of this whirlpool, I suddenly could touch vanity. It’s my vanity that was injured. I wanted my friends to feel like this is a silent retreat. And that was kind of great because when it becomes something I can touch and it’s inside the self it’s like wow it’s so clear, and then it just was gone and there was a fireworks walking on the walk this afternoon. So there’s like a freeing of energy that happened. So thank you for the conversation.

John: Two things I like about that – one is you weren’t even hearing it until [laughter]… And that other great thing about when we go in like that we see oh I do that, I’m noisy. I’m talking inside my mind right now. And that self-knowledge is so in service of the light. It’s always fun when it’s like that thing I can’t stand, that’s me. That’s such fun. That’s a way out of the stone crypt. It’s not even a crypt anymore, there are no walls.

S: After your story of the man trying to get back into prison, I had a really clear image of myself trying to get back into a stone crypt that I didn’t think I’d ever escape from, and finding ways of feeling like I was back in it. And then I just had, just seeing it in those terms brought a lot of humor and joy to it, I felt a smile come up. So that was what it was.

John: It’s kind of endearing, isn’t it? Here I am, trying to get back into my jail.

S: Yeah I saw it for what it was.

John: And that’s enough, just to see it. There’s a kind of compassion, that is a manifestation of compassion, empathy, love, right there. You don’t have to fix anything then. It just does it. That’s that thing when I say just turn the donkey’s head a bit. You don’t then need a policy: now I will wipe away my delusions about… now we’ll make a rule about how much conversation to have. That’s again trying to abide somewhere.

S: I was just thinking about the whole dilemma koan concept and how much I love those because they’re so hopeless. They’re completely hopeless. It’s like there you are, the door is stuck or you’re hanging by a root, all that stuff, so I don’t fight. I don’t fight the koan. And how curious to pull that into my life because there are so many situations where that’s true, and I don’t know that I’m in that crypt until it’s like it gets so dark and closed in and I’m so trapped in my own little I’ve gotta fix this, but there’s no fix. So this is kind of a nice little gift to go oh yeah I can always go into that, I can go into the crypt. Because when it’s hopeless, for me anyway, what happens is that hopelessness is actually this terrific place. It’s just this wonderful place because then I don’t have to change, I don’t have to change you, I don’t have to change anybody. That place of really loving comes into play because that’s what to do [inaudible]… so it’s just sort of a nice play with yeah all of a sudden when you said that I went oh wait a minute and I get there and I’m in the dark, because I work so imagistically anyway, so that’s a very strong image. I’m in this crypt and I know I’m really in the crypt, then I’m okay.

John: Yeah, that’s it right there. So if you look around and notice you’re in a body, you’re okay. So far, so good. I think that’s beautiful, that thing about the surrender. You know all that stuff about, all the great teachers over and over again say if you try to struggle and scheme and plot to get wise, that struggling and scheming and plotting is the only problem that’s in the way. But sometimes we have to struggle and scheme and plot, and then the koan points out what it’s like and how that’s not, how it makes us feel short of breath and maybe we surrender, you know. That’s right. We’re safe when we… we’re just here, it’s all right. So far. So far so good. The night is still young.

S: I was thinking about I guess it was Joyce was saying yesterday if someone doesn’t turn out that light, I’m going to rip it out. When she said that, as soon as she said that I thought: from nowhere the mind comes forth. And I thought about that stone crypt, or that sense that it’s a stone crypt, like here I am yelling or whatever it is, and then seeing the crypt. And then it becomes funny, it’s not there anymore.

John: Yeah, and we appreciate our lunacy. It’s kind of fun.

S: This brings up a time when I went to a Zen retreat that was very fascist for me. It was torture the whole time I was there – I don’t know if I’ve ever been that miserable. All I kept thinking is how do I get out of here. [laughter] And when I did get out of there it was just like oh thank god is this over, and who signed me up. But in hindsight I learned so much about myself in that experience, and I had so much compassion. It elicited this deep compassion for myself and just how miserable I was and what I do to myself in that process, and it was enlightening, truly enlightening. And as I reflect on other instances in my life when I really have felt really trapped and stuck, I’m so grateful for those times, because there’s something that begins to transform inside of me as I sit in my suffering, really. That eventually like you say, the universe resolves itself, but in that process before that happens, there’s just so much learning that happens.

John: Thank you.

S: I never thought about the body being a crypt till you said that. It’s interesting.

John: Well it’s not if it’s not.

S: No. I was thinking. Today, I haven’t done this before, just in meditating, I was feeling like molecules of air outside and then inside, so maybe that was being more in my… body today. But when you said that, I thought gosh, yes, so when I used to get panic attacks, that’s what it would feel like, being trapped inside a really small vacuum pack. [laughter]

John: See how we love the metaphor? The vacuum pack, somehow that’s going into it, just the same way we’re talking, and then it opens immediately. And there’s a kindness in there. Sorry, go on.

S: Yeah because it was like Rebecca said. There’s a certain place where… you just have to surrender. Because the mystery and getting out of it, all the tricks that therapist thought was sort of didn’t … the koan did. And the mystery. So just to say that, I just had that feeling of it being inside of my body, my skin being it, rather than always before it was the image of Indiana Jones going into the stone crypt, that kind of thing [inaudible] snake…. So that’s all I wanted to say.

John: That’s beautiful. It’s deep, and the thing you sort of mentioned there too, I think, is that what we think of as a symptom is like that, and that again it’s its own kind of gift too, like the anxiety attacks or something. And then we find out that the koan meditation is really on our side, and it starts to open. It doesn’t say: this is bad, you shouldn’t have this. It just starts to open into it, and at some stage it just changes. You didn’t fix it, nothing really happened, but it’s not there anymore. It’s sort of nice.

S: I think for me moments like that really remind me that there’s so much more to learn, and that really when you’re able to grow when you really are in that dark space, and [inaudible] you’re living your life it’s just so easy to not have that be brought to the forefront, and there’s really an opportunity to move forward on my own path.

John: Thank you, yeah. Maybe this is a place to finish – there’s a great koan line that goes: when it is dark, darken further. Thank you very much.