It’s a noble thing to gather together for the Dharma. It has hidden effects, that if we thought about it from afar, we’d think, Ah, I don’t know. But when we’re together, we can feel, Oh, yeah, it’s happening. I can feel it in my heart and my soul and my fingers.
Opening Day dharma talk given in Summer Sesshin 2022
Welcome. It’s good to be here. Just taking you all in, and taking in the time we’re in and how wonderful it is to be doing zazen together. So, everybody will get enlightened in this retreat. Just remember I said so.
We have some good omens: Michelle and Allison and I were talking about art for the retreat. Years ago we used Mayumi Oda’s big, tall, huge banners. And Michelle thought, “What about them?” So Michelle called Mayumi. I knew that happened because just a bit later I got a call from Mayumi saying, “John, good news!” And I said, “What, Mayumi, what?” It was that she had the banners in San Francisco. So, it was very easy for Michelle to go pick them up. She said, “Anything for PZI.” She used to teach with us.
So, we’ve got that on the one hand, and on the other we’ve got Michael Hoffman’s paintings on the wall. And at the very end of the room, there are birds all on a string, and one of them has a human face which has Tess’s eyes, you may notice.
I said, “Allison, why don’t you bring a painting?” And she said, “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know what to bring.” And I said, “What about that new painting you just finished?” She said, “Oh, I never thought of that.” And I said, “What koan is it?” She said, “Taking Part in the Gathering,” which was started long before—nothing to do with our retreat. And that’s the great Yamamoto Genpo, the great Japanese Rinzai master, now long dead. And he said, “Barrier,” which was his gift to us. Barrier. Barrier.
So, all is well. We have the attendance of the great figures with us. Yamamoto Genpo is with us. Robert Aitken gave me that, so he’s with us, too.
Taking part in the gathering
We decided to call this retreat “Taking Part in the Gathering,” because it’s our first one after a time of not being together. It’s a noble thing to gather together for the Dharma. It has hidden effects, that if we thought about it from afar, we’d think, Ah, I don’t know. But when we’re together, we can feel, Oh, yeah, it’s happening. I can feel it in my heart and my soul and my fingers. It’s a good thing. It’s a good thing you’ve come, and it’s a good thing we’re sitting together. So, thank you.
The gathering was always part of the Dharma. And the Dharma is always something that happens among us. Enlightenment happens together. You know our mission statement at PZI: A culture for awakening. Koans. What a surprise. Koans are intrinsic to the Dharma. Conversation—also intrinsic to the Dharma. The other one is meditation, but that’s kind of covered by koans.
So, this very old poem (Taking Part in the Gathering, also called the Sandokai) is before the great koans that you would have heard of, very early in our tradition, right at the founding when everything was starting to explode and develop. It’s really just like a Daoist current. I read it and I think, What was that? So I get in the river again and take the ride and I think, What was that? And then, gradually, it seeps into me.
And so, we’re taking part in the gathering. That’s what happens together. It was Shitou, who was a very early teacher, whose teacher said, “I have many beasts in my garden, but only one unicorn,” and that unicorn was Shitou. We are studying with a unicorn. Good to bear in mind.
And so the piece I gave you as a koan is a good sample. It’s really all about how emptiness pervades form, and he says this in his very eloquent way:
All things intermingle and don’t intermingle.
And this intermingling goes on and on, and each thing stands in its place.
So, as you begin to wake up, you think, Wow, everything is everything else. They’re all entangled. And then your teacher will say, “It’s not like that at all.” And you’ll work on it and you’ll say, “Well, what about just this? Just this: your hand, the tree, your friend, your enemy? What about just this?” You’ll go, “Yeah, I get it! It’s just this.” And he or she will say, “No, it’s not. They’re all intermingled.” And you can tell, Oh, that’s it, isn’t it. It’s always flowing, and each thing holds it completely.
We hear the birds at twilight, which you can hear even over the air purifier to some degree. And then we’ll hear the birds at dawn, which is coming very early now. The birds will probably wake you at about four o’clock in these parts. There’s this soft chirping and an announcement is being made: “The day, the day, the day.” No other day, this day. The birds are making the announcement. And at night, it’s more like, “Goodbye, goodbye. The night, the night.” No other night. Just this. And no other you. Just you. Can’t be exchanged.
Mazu, who knew Shitou, said,
Over countless eons no being has ever fallen out of the samadhi of Buddha nature.
So, there you have it. But you know what it means, don’t you? There’s that sense of, Oh, we have been here, this Buddha nature that everybody has and everybody shares, for countless eons. So we partake of something ancient and we can’t really get away from that. And, on the other hand, it’s morning and the birds sing this way, and it’s evening and they sing that way. And we can’t really get away from that, either. That’s what Shitou talks about: intermingling, which is kind of cool. And you can feel that. If you look at the world, the world is looking at you. You’re intermingled with everything you see.
Mazu had this great saying—he may have learned it from Shitou, I don’t know—anyway, he had this great saying,
Mountains, rivers, and the great earth, the sun, the moon, and the stars
are no other than your own heart-mind.
Your own heart, your own mind. Your thoughts and feelings. And you can sort of tell that. The trees, the birds, are teaching us the Dharma, but then so are you, and so is your face. So, if you look at my hand, you’ve got something to do with that, you’re intermingled with it. And if you hold up your hand—hold it up where we can all see it. Yeah, look! We are all intermingled with each hand, too. When you look at your hand, what do you think your hand thinks about your intermingling with it? It says, “Seems alright,” you know? Look at someone in the dojo. What do you think they think about being intermingled with you? Because you are. My fingers—do they want to be intermingled with a hand? I don’t know. They just are. If you look at a person’s face, you’ll see that the whole of the great teachings is in the beauty of their face.
And there’s the peace that comes when we just enter the dojo. The mind naturally goes quiet. And if it doesn’t, we think, Oh, it’s not quiet—then it’s quiet in that. And the peace comes. So, for me, there’s enormous joy and peace in the beginning of sesshin. Because you’re walking into the path, into the temple of the ancestors, and it’s here. Feel the carpet—it’s under your feet, you know.
The student said, “I’ve just entered this temple. How should I find the way?”
“Do you hear the stream?”
“Yes, I do.”
Enter here. Do you hear the air purifier? Enter here. Do you feel the carpet underneath you? A very durable carpet by the feeling of it. Enter here. Do you see the face of the pilgrim in your view? Just look at somebody. Dare to look at somebody! Hard for introverts. But you are looking at your own true face, too. So we are in this together. Shocking news, but it’s true.
And you can feel that Mazu knew what he was talking about with that heart-mind stuff. It’s in our lineage because that was what great Yamada Koun woke up with—that koan. Woken up in the middle of the night laughing, frightening his family who thought, Oh my God, he’s done so much Zen he’s gone mad. So yeah:
The mountains, rivers, and the great earth, the sun, the moon and the stars:
No other than your own heart-mind.
So, I want to say a couple of things about Shitou. You can tell that he was just trying to say what reality is like. It’s an odd thing, because as soon as you walk into the dojo, or even before you walk into the dojo—think of sesshin—suddenly, you start to be here, which is different from not being here. And it’s a marvelous thing. As the thoughts fall out of our minds and the comparisons, Well, what do they think of me? What do I think of them? You’ll think, I don’t know, doesn’t seem like a very interesting way to spend my life. So as we become here, the thoughts settle, a peace appears, and each thing stands in its own place.
And the story is that Shitou had a great revelation. He was reading a sacred text and a passage said,
The one who realizes that the myriad things are one’s own self…
When you realize the myriad things are your own self—look at your hand again. See? There they are. The myriad things. Right there. Your own self. That one is no different from all the sages. In other words, when we enter here, we meet the minds of the great ancestors Shitou and Mazu and Buddha and all those characters. And it’s a marvelous thing to understand, Oh, when I walk into the dojo, I walk into their heart and mind, which is not a small thing. So that’s why we do this crazy thing. Like, Oh, wow, why wasn’t I informed before? I would have started much earlier.
And Shitou had a dream. That’s another thing, too: the dreams come and start to carry us. He was with the sixth ancestor (just a couple of generations up from him), riding on the back of a great tortoise that was swimming in the sea. Buddha nature itself is carrying the tortoise just the way it carries the great ancestor. Shitou was pretty pleased with his dream. But you do get dreams like that. You get confirmatory dreams that tell you, “Oh, you’re on the path.” Nice thing.
You can tell the difference between conversational question-and-answer and going directly to the source—the response doesn’t answer the question in the usual way, by thinking about things. It takes you straight into the source. So,
Daowu asked, “Who is the rightful heir of the sixth ancestor?”
Because there’s always a fuss about transmission. Who’s legitimate, or not? I have some very funny things to tell you about that—I’ll tell you later. Because, you know, transmission is in your own heart; it’s not “out there.” Who obtained the essential teachings of the sixth ancestor? Who got the essential transmission?
Shitou said, “The one who understands Buddha-Dharma attained it.”
Hold up your hand again. It’s you! And you can tell that Shitou probably thought it was just a really funny question.
Daowu asked, “Did you obtain it?”
“I don’t understand Buddha-Dharma,” said Shitou.
Inside the vastness, there’s no one who stands outside to know. In the water blessing, we say, “Manjushri in the empty palace,” with no explanations, no theories, no stories about who, or who has, or who doesn’t. Like that. And this confused Daowu even further, of course. But on the other hand, to take away someone’s ideas is not really to confuse them. It’s the beginning of a sacred entering into the mystery, into the not knowing. Then someone else said,
“How do I get emancipated? How do I become free? How do I break my chains?”
“Who has put you in bondage?”
The student didn’t know what to do with that, so they said, “What is the Pure Land?”
“Who has defiled you and made you impure?”
“What is nirvana?”
“Who has placed you in birth and death?”
If nirvana transcends birth and death, who has placed you in birth and death?
Somebody asked Zhaozhou a very complicated question about the ultimate reality. I think it was, “What was the Dharmakaya?” I’m not sure that’s the question, but it doesn’t really matter what the question is, does it? They said,
“What is the Dharmakaya?”
And Zhaozhou said, “What do you dislike that you asked that question?”
You can tell, Oh, if I’m already free, what if the face I’m looking for is mine? The true face is in my own heart. Kind of cool. Who has placed you in birth and death? So, you can see, right at the very beginning of the tradition, the great flowering of the koan tradition, it was just coming out of the seed and it was putting out little branches like a plant does, with a few flowers on it.
And then this great saying,
A student said, “I understand the scriptures of Buddhism. But I hear that in the South,
the Zen practitioners, the barbarians, directly point to the human mind.”
That’s you: barbarians.
“They see their natures and become Buddhas.”
That’s you, too. Who else is it going to be? Who else is going to do this for us? We can’t outsource this. The Indians are too busy becoming enlightened themselves.
“This is still not clear to me. I humbly ask you to explain it.”
It’s a beautiful question.
Shitou said, “This way won’t do, and not this way won’t do.”
He then said, “You ought to go see Mazu.”
Yaoshan and Mazu and Shitou
Yaoshan paid his respects to Mazu and asked the same question,
Yaoshan asked Mazu, “They see their nature and become Buddhas?”
Mazu said, “Sometimes I make him raise his eyebrows and blink. Sometimes I do not make him raise his eyebrows and blink. Sometimes raising the eyebrows and blinking is alright. Sometimes raising the eyebrows and blinking is not alright. How about you?”
Hearing these words, Yaoshan was greatly awakened.
Always nice when that happens. But it might happen to you. It doesn’t happen somewhere else. It doesn’t happen in some other room that’s more, I don’t know—doesn’t have a sound machine. It only happens in rooms with sound machines (at least for the duration of this retreat) and the birds in the morning and the birds in the evening. So, he was awakened and he bowed.
Mazu said, “What do you see that makes you bow?”
You can tell something’s happened, but do you have words for it?
Yaoshan said, “When I was with Shitou, I was like a mosquito biting into an iron ox.”
Famous words actually. That’s what it feels like. Have you ever been stuck on a koan? If you haven’t been stuck on a koan, put up your hand. It’s like the mosquito biting the iron ox. That’s not a bad metaphor for it.
“I was like a mosquito biting into an iron ox.”
Mazu said, “Since you’ve realized the truth, guard it well.”
Seems redundant. But nonetheless, he’s saying the road keeps opening and moving on. So you have a glimpse. And there’s no large or small in awakening. Your awakening will keep developing and you’ll notice that. From intimation, to, “Oh, it’s that!” and then, “Huh, what about this other thing? Is it that, too?” Like that.
Mazu said, “Well, since you’ve realized the truth, guard it well, but still, your master is Shitou.”
In other words, you really come along in that line. That’s a true thing sometimes, that’s the thing about lineage. Sometimes there’s a certain sort of passing off—the student is with one teacher and they just get so frustrated that they go to the other teacher and then they awaken. But the first teacher had a lot to do with that—had the courtesy to frustrate and not help.
Yaoshan went back to Shitou. Then one day, there was a kind of true meeting:
Seeing Yaoshan sitting zazen, Shitou said, “What are you doing here?”
“I’m not doing anything at all,” said Yaoshan.
What did you do at that Santa Sabina place? Oh, not much. Sat around. Walked.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m not doing anything at all.”
“In that case, you’re sitting idly,” said the teacher.
“If I were sitting idly, then I’d be doing something.”
Shitou said, “You say you’re not doing anything. What is this not doing?”
Yaoshan said, “Not even the ten thousand sages know.”
You can see that as the explanations fall out, the heart-mind, the trees and the birds and the darkening of the evening—you don’t have to have a theory about it. You can’t explain it. But it can enter you fully and you can enter it. It is you—your own heart-mind.
A long time ago, I was working with a colleague, Joan Sutherland, who studied koans with us, and we thought that this poem was worth translating. So that’s what we’re doing today: we’re exploring it.
You and everything you perceive are intermingled and not intermingled.
And this intermingling goes on and on.
And each thing stands in its own place.
So, there you have it.
PZI 2022 Summer Sesshin