PZI Teacher Archives

Yuanwu & the Great Masters of the Blue Cliff


The subject is the Dharma, the deepest matters, our own true face. One way to look at these matters is through the Blue Cliff Record, a compilation of occasions for revealing who you are.

Listen to the Original Audio 


So, I can tell that sesshin has got a hold of me, because I’m just sort of floating around, happy for no good reason.

The subject is the Dharma, the deepest matters, our own true face. And one way to look at that is through the Blue Cliff Record. It is a good way to look at that—all these occasions for revealing who you are.


And I think of this every time we come together, that Bodhidharma brought koan work from India to China. His teacher was Prajnatara, and Prajanatara’s teacher, we think, was Punyamitra. Mitra means friend. Like we’ve said, Jan and Chris [HOPs] are friends of the practice, they’re friends of yours, but they’re also friends of your deep connection to the deepest matters. 

And Punyamitra asked Prajnatara, “Do you remember the past?” I remember a Zen teacher asking me, ”Who are you?” I said my name and “from Australia,” and he started to hit me. I realized that that’s not the answer he’s looking for. And so, “Who are you?” He was not talking about whether you remember the past, not talking about where you grew up. And Prajanatara said this great thing: 

I remember we were companions, eons ago, in previous universes.
You were teaching the great wisdom and I was reciting the deepest sutras.
We were having the deepest conversations.

So it seems like a good thing to be doing for eons and eons. That’s what we’re doing.

You Are Huichao

And so, I have a particular story I want to tell. The Blue Cliff Record is made up of a number of stories, but inside the stories there are other stories, and so on, just like The Arabian Nights

And so one student said, “I am Huichao, I beg to ask you, what is Buddha?” 

The student was probably just trying to get something going, and ask the right question; and really, there’s a sincerity about this, and you can feel it. All questions are sincere, but some of them are more considered, perhaps, than others. Anyway, this question seems fine to me, “What is Buddha?” Although it’s not a question I ever personally asked.

“What is Buddha?”
And Fayan said, “You are Huichao.”

There’s something about this question, you can tell. When we amble in the Blue Cliff Record, this is case number seven. 

The Blue Cliff begins with a roll call, actually, of the great masters, and also of different types of koans. The first koan that comes is a fundamental koan—an inquiry koan. What is Buddha? Who am I? What is it? What’s it all about? That kind of question. So there’s a dignity about that kind of question. 

And Yuanwu, the person who wrote the commentaries in the Blue Cliff, said, 

No one recognizes the sweating horses of the past, they only want to discuss the achievements of the present age. 

Huichao is a kind of sweating horse, someone who is, “I don’t know, I just gotta keep going with my koan, because everything I say doesn’t seem to get me anywhere. All my strategies—you know, I studied a lot, I smoked a lot of dope, I did what I did. And so far I’m still not at ease, my heart is not at ease.” So Yuanwu, in a way, gives tribute to Huichao as a sweating horse. They’re all the moments when we’re all sweating horses. 

And to be on the path is itself a great thing. Yuanwu said,

Look at these ancients—what truth is shown when they awaken like this!

And it’s a noble thing, to be in sesshin, to be asking the great questions, to be working with a koan. 

You know how, with the koan, if you sit it down and try and torture it to give you meaning, it’s not very helpful. But you can tell that it’s doing something for you if you just keep company with it, and let it into your heart, or you walk around with it, or walk around in its palace. We’re in the great palace of the Blue Cliff, which is a kind of palace of palaces. The koan does that. But you don’t have to work it out, because we know that working it out leads to shopping—or whatever it leads to—but it doesn’t lead to wisdom. And we know that we get informed from a deeper place when that part of the mind just gets set to rest for a bit. And that’s a beautiful thing. 

And then, one of the things Fayan’s doing here is showing that this basic level of inquiry and questioning is a good thing. A good way to go, yeah. And so I’ll leave that there. But it’s a really, really great thing. 

Inquiry koans

You’ll notice that all the inquiry koans basically have this idea: What is it to be you? 

What is it to be you? 

The question is not whether you are Buddha or not, but what is it to be you? Joan Sutherland [Roshi] actually found a somewhat hapless Zen ancestor who constantly added, “You are Huichao,” [in response to students] which was just kind of amusing. But really, it’s not that you are Buddha, it’s that you are YOU. And the big thing is, what’s the flavor of your life? What is the taste of your life, now? And so, you’ll notice that we do these exercises, that are, I suppose you could say, that are to show your YOU, that show what it is to be you. Like, what are you noticing, right now? YOU are Huichao, and that is the current matter, is the great matter. 

Mazu said, The current matter, it contains the whole meaning of your life.”  

So, okay.

Fayan himself is a really interesting person. There are considered to be five great [Chan] schools (but then there are all these great people who were in them, or weren’t in them, or something like that, but let’s say we have five great schools), and Fayan was the founder of the latest of them. He hadn’t been born when all this started out.


But before we go on to him, I want to say a little bit about Yuanwu. Yuanwu is the great, sort of Shakespearean mind of Chan. You know, he collects things. 

When I first read Shakespeare, I was amazed at all the stuff that Shakespeare knew. He could quote Italian Law, and Psychology of the Humors, and esoteric Renaissance knowledge. So he clearly read a lot and retained a lot, and then he threw it all together into his plays. And Yuanwu did this with the Blue Cliff Record. In Yuanwu’s case, the stories are all about opening the heart-mind, all about pointing to what it’s really like to be you. And we kind of know what it’s like to be us, but we don’t look and we don’t ask, and then we panic, and think that something shouldn’t be happening. And then we forget that ‘Oh, this is what it’s like to be me, at the moment when this is happening.’ So, I thought the genesis of Yuanwu’s mind is interesting, and there’s this great story about him which some of you have heard before.

He came from Sichuan, which is actually where the Blue Cliff Record was made—up in the provinces. And there were a whole bunch of friends—maybe they were provincial, but they kind of gathered together and had friendships and read poetry, and, you know, ate and drank, and shared and wrote poetry. And also, they collected koans together. So there were a whole bunch of great minds. We don’t know all of them now, but we’re [still] collecting the Blue Cliff Record

So originally Yuanwu came from Sichuan. Everybody knew he was gifted, and he had studied the Classics. The Chinese had an unusual, kind of an interesting way of coming to seniority, which was that you had to study the Classics. It was as if we [in the West] would have to memorize Shakespeare and bits of the King James Bible and Beowulf, and things like that, and Ovid—especially things like that. You also had to be good at calligraphy, and you had to be able to write poems. Writing a poem in Chinese is complicated, because the ways you can rhyme in Chinese are complicated—I won’t go into why, but it is. So some of the great Zen teachers, they could sing as well as write the poetry. 

So he studied the Classics, and wrote a lot. And then he saw some Buddhist scriptures in a temple, and was surprised by a strong feeling that he had owned them in a previous life. It was kind of wonderful, and so he had this passionate feeling that ‘I know about these.’ And then he left home, and he studied vows and scriptures. Then he became really ill, and decided the scripture studying and chanting was not enough in itself. “The true path isn’t found in words,” he said. “It’s good for the formal things, but no use in dealing with death, with the ultimate things.”

Yuanwu and Wuzu

So he met with the great teacher Wuzu. And he felt that Wuzu didn’t really understand how urgent his matter was—you know, that he didn’t really understand how sincere Yuanwu was. And so he told Wuzu his understanding and pressed him, and said, “So this is how I understand it.”

And Wuzu basically said, “So that’s really nice, but that’s not how it is.” He didn’t actually put any butter on the bread. I think he just said, “Well, now you just need to meditate, and stop thinking about it.” And Yuanwu got angry, and he walked away. As Yuanwu left, Wuzu called out to him and said, “Remember me when you are sick with fever.”

So then Yuanwu went to a temple, and he meditated, and he studied. And the next place he went to—indeed, he became sick. He became seriously sick and had high fever, and things like that. Yeah, it’s pretty easy to become sick, you know, with malaria and lots of things around. So he became sick with fever and afterwards he remembered Wuzu’s words. When he recovered enough to travel, he returned [to Wuzu] and walked into the dharma hall. Wuzu saw him come in, and laughed and said, “You can be my attendant now.” And he kept Yuanwu really close to him. Wuzu was teaching him all the time, but Yuanwu still didn’t have a clue even though he was right there, shoulder-to-shoulder or eye-to-eye with this great teacher all the time. They were really close, with some sort of intimate heart-to-heart and shoulder-to shoulder. And so life went on like that for a while. 

And then a treasury official, a great imperial master, retired and came home to Sichuan to enjoy himself in a place that was much more friendly and warm than the capitol. Sichuan had great poets and Zen masters and things. And the official came to Wuzu and he thought, ‘I’d like to study Zen.’ Yuanwu was with Wuzu as his attendant at this time, so he’d get all the teachings that Wuzu would give to other people. When the official asked Wuzu, “What is Zen?” Yuanwu noticed how he didn’t “bang in” the way Fayan had done with Huichao, because the official was just kind of a beginner. And Wuzu just says, 

When you were young, did you read a poem that went something like this? ‘She calls to her serving girl, “Little Jade,” not because she wants something, but just so her lover will hear her voice.’”
And the official said, “Yes, I read it.”
And Wuzu said, “Zen is like that. She calls to her serving girl, ‘Little Jade,’ she calls, not because she wants something, but just so her lover will hear her voice.” 

Whose name is she calling? Ewen Andrew, Marlin . . .

So with everything that happens, you can tell there’s something interesting going on—this is an interesting teacher. And you can tell that Yuanwu, with his complex mind, has found a good teacher. 

Then Yuanwu said, “I heard the master mention a poem. Does the official know it or not?”
And Wuzu said, “Oh, he only knows the words.”
And Yuanwu said, “Just so her lover will hear her voice,” 

So you can feel the koan starting to work in him. He’s repeating it, as if he were captured in the spell. 

Yuanwu asks, “If he knows the words, why doesn’t he understand it?” 

And Wuzu sees that Yuanwu doesn’t understand it either, but that there’s something going on. So he says,

Why did Bodhidharma come from the West? The oak tree in the garden.” 

So he just throws the koan at him. 

With these words, Yuanwu suddenly woke up, just like that. And he went outside the cottage and saw a rooster fly to the top of a railing, beat its wings and crow loudly.

He said to himself, “Isn’t this the sound?”  

Isn’t it great when you hear “Isn’t this the sound?” No other sound in the world. 

And so, in gratitude, he then took incense into Wuzu’s room. He told Wuzu about his discovery and offered incense, and bowed, (kind of a sweet thing) and said, “The golden duck vanishes into the gold brocade.” 

You go back into the great mesh of everything. 

“The golden duck vanishes into the gold brocade. With a country song, the drunk comes home from the woods.”

The duck is not separated from things either, you know. 

“Only the young beauty knows about her love affair.” 

Something inside that you can’t explain to another—it’s sort of hidden. 

And Wuzu said, “I share your joy.” 

And how nice, you know, a nice moment, to be able to share someone’s joy. 

There’s a well-known story in our lineage, that when Yamada Koun Roshi had a big awakening—it has become sort of known in the West—that he went to his teacher to try and explain it, and just fell into his lap and started crying. And his teacher patted him on the back and said, “Yes, I know.” So it’s kind of sweet.

At the Blue Cliff

After this, Yuanwu became the head of practice, and he himself became the “friend of the practice.” And then he went to live at the foot of the Blue Cliff, which was already a well-known place, full of caves—remarkable places where people lived, and monkeys—a beautiful, beautiful place. And he had a temple there. And you can tell he was fascinated with the effect of images and great stories, so he found this collection of one hundred koans, which was made by a poet who was in Yunmen’s line. 

The great Yunmen was the “Cloud Gate,” he was described the same as his school (the Yunmen School,) you know, like a flag battle—a red flag flying on a mountain, hard to reach, but marvelous when you got there. And I don’t know what to think of those characterizations. But Yunmen was great. [laughs]

So anyway, this poet from Yunmen’s school had collected one hundred cases just to help his people. Yuanwu was very struck by this, and then he wrote commentaries and poems for the cases and that’s what we have today. And the stories of koan study become about how Zen was passed down, but all the koans basically come down through Yuanwu. 

What Is Buddha?

And so, I want to go back to that whole thing about “What is Buddha—what is Buddha?”

I ask you, what is Buddha? 

And you can tell that [is sincere.]

And he says, “You are Huichao.” 

I had sort of a minor kind of insight when a friend of mine, I think it was Michael Katz, the book agent, said, “You ought to read this sociology thing, ‘What’s it like to be a bat?’” And so I said, “Okay, it’s kind of a cool title.” And I thought, ‘Isn’t that anthropology?’ So I read it, and actually the article is less interesting than I had thought [it would be]. But then I thought, ‘Oh, the question is, “What’s it like to be you? What’s it like to be me?”

What’s it like to be Andrew? What’s it like to be whoever you are, what’s it like to be you? What’s it like to be Karin? I’m just saying people’s names—faces that I see out here. So what is it like to be you? Yeah, so I’m gonna torment one of my friends here. Jordan, what is it like to be you right now?

Jordan: Shocked and surprised.

John: Excellent. So that is Buddha. David Weinstein is usually good for something. What’s it like to be you, David?

David W: I don’t know.

John: Very good. That’s the first koan of the Blue Cliff. Isn’t that cheating?

David W:  I don’t know.

John: You don’t know. I don’t know. Roddy, what’s it like to be you?

Roddy: Surprised and grateful.

John: Very good, So there we go. Tim Walters, what’s it like to be you? If that’s the right thing to be? What is it like to be you, Tim?

Tim: I feel like a gargoyle on the roof of Notre Dame. Pensive, watching.

John: Very good. The gargoyle on the roof of Notre Dame. So you get the point, right. It’s kind of fun. John B, what’s it like to be you?

John B: Relaxed and stupidly happy.

John: Stupidly happy. There we go. Yeah. So you can tell, it could be that something very sad has happened, and you’re full of that, you know? And then you can see that you have layers where “I’m full of joy, and I have a difficulty, and now I’m full of something else.” And, “You are Huichao.” So you get that what’s happening is that we’re not excluding our life from being Buddha. I mean, this is stating the obvious, but you know—good enough. 

So it’s immensely moving when you realize it. For a long time I really had gotten quite far into practice before I realized that I was kind of excluding bits of my life from it. And I thought, ‘Well, they’ll clear up or disappear,’ or something. And to do that, you have to live in a kind of phone booth, something like that. You know, not that we have phone booths anymore, but it’s a tardis [time machine] really, that phone booth. So, we don’t know it when we’re trying to keep things out. 

You can feel that that’s the Heart Sutra—No walls in the mind. You know that we’re not saying, “Oh, this is not Buddha—this thing I do, or this thing that was done to me, or this loss or sorrow.” And we realize, “Oh, that’s the beautiful layers of life.” 

I had a dream quite a long time ago—when we had a leader’s group going, some kind of teacher’s group—that everything was striped. I have very simple-minded, odd dreams. Other people have marvelous dreams with unicorns and things, but I have dreams like everything is striped. And it kind of is, isn’t it? And that’s its beauty—its beauty is in that. 

So I want to read you a couple of poems about the “You are Huichao” that I think are really great, and one—if you hang around with me you will have heard me read before. But great poems are like great koans: you can read them again. This is Tomas Transtromer, and this is Patty Crane’s excellent translation:

Romanesque Arches

(Remember, the theme is “You are Huichao.”) 

Inside the enormous Romanesque church, tourists crammed into the half darkness.
Vault opening behind vault and no view of the whole.
Several candle flames flickered.
An angel without a face embraced me
and whispered through my whole body:
“Don’t feel ashamed that you are human, be proud!
Inside you vault behind vault opens endlessly.
You’ll never be complete. And that’s how it should be.”
I was blind with tears
and driven into the sun simmering piazza
together with Mr. and Mrs. Jones, Mr. Tanaka and Senora Sabatini
and inside each of them vault behind vault open endlessly. 

The knowledge that “You are Huichao” seems to have spread to Sweden. [laughs]

You know, sometimes it’s easy to include the vastness, but hard to include the trivial, and also hard to include the shadowed side of things. Like when we started this retreat, I thought, ‘God, everybody’s got this light emanating from them. It’s kind of amazing, like, what’s happening to this guy?’ 

Everybody’s got a beautiful face, you know? And it’s kind of a known thing, but it just overwhelmed me. 

But it’s also true that when we try to hold on to that, then there’s this frustration and bitterness and sorrow and loss, and it [all] gets in, but that’s it too. Even if you’re trying to hold on to it, and you can feel it when somebody says something beautiful, and you think why can I have that? Or at the same time that [vastness and beauty] happens, you get a kind of unpleasant note from somebody you really care about. That’ll teach you to read your email during sesshin! [laughs] But we realize, ‘Oh, that’s vault after vault opening endlessly,’ that’s it too. You don’t have to dodge that. 

And here’s an amusing one. This isn’t a dark one—this is George Bilgere, an American poet. The poem is about what it is like to be here—this is what it’s like to be George. 

Unwise Purchases

They sit around the house
not doing much of anything: the boxed set
of the complete works of Verdi, unopened.
The complete Proust, unread:

The French-cut silk shirts
which hang like expensive ghosts in the closet
and make me look exactly
like the kind of middle-aged man
who would wear a French-cut silk shirt: 

The reflector telescope I thought would unlock
the mysteries of the heavens
but which I only used once or twice,
to try to find something heavenly
in the windows of the high rise down the road,
and which now stares disconsolately at the ceiling
when it could be examining the Crab Nebula.

The 30-day course in Spanish
whose text I never opened,
whose dozen recordings remain unplayed,

Save for Tape One, where I never learned
whether the suave American
conversing with a sultry-sounding desk clerk
at a Madrid hotel about the possibility
of obtaining a room
actually managed to check in.

I like to think
that one thing led to another between them
and that by Tape Six or so
they’re happily married
and raising a bilingual child in Seville or Terre Haute. 

But I’ll never know.
Suddenly, I realize
I have constructed the perfect home
for a sexy, Spanish-speaking astronomer
who reads Proust while listening to Italian arias,
And I wonder if somewhere in this teeming city,
there lives a woman with say,
a fencing foil gathering dust in the corner
near her unused easel, a rainbow of oil paints
drying in their tubes
on the table where the violin
she bought on a whim
lies entombed in the permanent darkness
of its locked case
next to the abandoned chess set,

a woman who has always dreamed of becoming
the kind of woman, the man I’ve always dreamed of becoming
has always dreamed of meeting. 

And while the two of them discuss star clusters
and Cezanne, while they fence delicately
in Castilian Spanish to the strains of Rigoletto, 

she and I will stand in the steamy kitchen,
fixing up a little risotto,
enjoying a modest Cabernet
while talking over a day so ordinary
as to seem miraculous.

So that’s the uncleaned-up version: “so ordinary as to seem miraculous,” and sort of innocent. 

And sometimes we want to take more of a risk, because of the darker things—the desire I could never fulfill or even confess to, or the grief I still hold over something that was so long ago I think I should have gotten over it, but then, thinking that I shouldn’t get over things—that’s what it’s like to be Buddha, too, that’s what it’s like to be me. And you can see that suddenly there’s nothing in your life that has a stain or an impurity in it. It’s all You are Huichao, You are Buddha. And so, I don’t know.

Again, What Is Buddha?  

Let me go back just a tiny bit to this kind of question, when the student says, “What is Buddha?” 

I think in some ways that it’s the great questions that bring us [to Zen, to practice] and so they’re always operating within us. And then we come to rest, sometimes. I feel like I’m a little bit at rest now and it’s even a struggle to go on with this talk, actually. Everything is so clear and transparent, you know. So, just to say that I think those great questions ennoble us, and then they open a path for us and we follow that path. 

And so,

What is Buddha?
It’s good enough. 

And then you’ll notice that Wuzu, he’d given this subtle, strange, beautiful song-koan to the official, but then his attendant Yuanwu overheard it. And it was really for the attendant. So it’s like she calls to her serving girl, but it’s really for her lover to hear her voice. It’s that beautiful thing the universe is doing with us all the time—it’s calling to us so we will hear its voice. And we are the lover.

And then Wuzu falls into this sort of dreamy, kind of beautiful place. And Yuanwu’s kind of, ‘Oh, why doesn’t he understand it? And if he understands the words, what’s the problem?’ Which is always the problem. And you’ll notice Wuzu doesn’t even bother answering his question in a direct way. He just says, “Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?” Which is another one of those inquiry things: Where do we come from? What’s this all about? Can I trust this? You know, “I hate koans,” all that stuff, you know. And, “The oak tree in the garden,” and then Yuanwu falls open. 

And it all started with the retired government official—so, I don’t know, there you are. The mind that wants to wring the meaning out of the question—we can tell. At first, we just have to let it do that, and then we get tired and we realize that we could relax a bit and do less. If we want to go deeper and have a purer practice, we do a little less. Because our efforts and our struggles make it true, and it isn’t true yet. So then we just sort of trust the question, and we notice that we had all these reasons for abandoning the koan, even during meditation—to solve a problem, to get enlightened, all these things. Or, because we’re suffering so much. And none of those are interesting. And we just turn to:

What is Buddha?
You are Huichao.

The Great Way is not difficult, it just avoids picking and choosing. 

So you are Jan or Catherine or Tegra or John or Sylvia or Steven or David: “You are Huichao,” and we can tell that that simple turn—just to turn to that question, then it starts to . . . it’s all right to rest in the question. That’s why the Blue Cliff starts with not knowing. It’s all right to rest in the question, and notice that it gathers us into itself. And you could feel that happening with Yuanwu, because he was annoyed, and, you know, “The teacher’s no good, and he doesn’t get who I am, and koan study sucks,”—the usual catalog, the day two or three catalog for sesshin actually. [laughs] And some for some people it’s, “Why do my legs hurt when I sit,” or whatever it is.

Somehow the  teacher threw him a silver cord, and he kept it, and he kept going into that stream the whole time. When he got sick he came back, and you can tell Wuzu was generous, he just welcomed him and said, “You can be my attendant then, you behave so badly there’s nothing else to do.” [laughs] But also you’ve behaved so well.” Yuanwu stuck to his guns and then he came back, and so he’s deep in the practice for years. And he eventually becomes a teacher, and all that. 

What is Buddha?
You are Huichao.

Like that. 


How are we doing? Anybody have a question? 

It’s like this moment is the great question too, isn’t it? It’s like we’re in it. We’re in that field of spaciousness. And so, I just want to sit here with you a little, and take it in, and feel, What is it like to be me? What is it like to be us in a dojo together? What is it like to be on this path together, with an open heart? With all of our exactly-who-we-are qualities. What is that like? And we’ve got two questions here. So yeah, Harvey?

Harvey: Hi, John and everybody. My question is, I have been experiencing great feelings, deep feelings, of tenderness and love and devotion. I’ve been with my family and my grandchildren, and also my beloved. And what I’ve been noticing is that when I’m filled up with all these lovely feelings, these tender feelings, there’s always a feeling of sadness that’s part of it. And I was wondering if you could tell me why.

John: That’s a beautiful question, isn’t it? Because you are Harvey and “You are Huichao.” You are Harvey! In the koan work, you trust your life and feel the sorrow. Well, I don’t know, this might be the last chance where you get to have the vulnerability and the sorrow together. Have it, have it up above your ears, you know, where your toes go over your head. It’s a great thing. 

And we notice that when we’re deep in the practice, it’s best not to make sense of our feelings. Just love our life. We love people, we get fears, things like that. I love the way Jordan threw out a rope to you last night—then I feel that way about Harvey too. So, you’ve got to trust that the universe does things that we can’t. We don’t have to take charge of it. Trust that you’re living the right life. You know that.

Unknown: I’ve been noticing that the picking and choosing—the Great Way—sort of ended up as little pockets in my gut that kind of got relaxed, amongst all the other stuff that was swirling around. But I kept returning to it, and tonight, with what you’re talking about, and that question of what it’s like to be me, it feels a bit like an itch. It’s space that’s promising.

John: Yeah, it’s pretty good, it’s great, isn’t it? It’s incomprehensible—that’s promising. [laughs] And there are all these theories about the emotions stored in the body—uhm hm, nice—but it’s incomprehensible! And that’s promising. And it’s what it’s like to be you. It’s yours. So you know, have the joy of it. Trust your life. It’s not for anyone else.

Unknown: It is that word, trust.

John: Well, you just have the koan. To hell with trust, have the koan! I mean, you’ll find that that is trust. I’m terrible at believing stuff. Thank you. 

Just feel the time, feel that here we are in the great temple together, under the Blue Cliff. In the palace under the Blue Cliff. Sometimes I laugh, sometimes I weep. Why is that? I am John. [laughs] Lance?

Lance: I really appreciated this talk. And during the talk, I felt very alive and curious. And then doubt and [more] doubt. I’m a bit sick, a bit vulnerable, and still alive and curious. And, “Oh, I don’t feel so good,”—doubt. All at the same time.

John: Yeah, there’s nothing wrong with not feeling so good; there’s nothing wrong with doubt. But it’s sort of a bit predictable and boring, isn’t it? You know, screw doubt! [laughs] How many years? And it’s a way of making it small, really, saying, “Well, there’s a comfort in being miserable.” 

It’s funny, you could feel it happening, taking a hold of Yuanwu. I think he had a lot of feeling and warmth. So his feeling, his thing, was about how the teacher “doesn’t understand me,” you know. And so he left and then he realized that in some sense, maybe the teacher understands me better than I [myself] do, maybe the teacher loves me better than I do. And so he came back. 

It’s not that he got over all his doubts, but I think you just need enough [doubt itself] to get through your practice, to turn to, “Oh I feel terrible—the Great Way is not difficult, if I just don’t pick and damn well choose. God, not that again—the Great Way is not difficult. Just don’t pick and choose.” 

And you can tell that the steadfastness and beauty of the koan, it’s in you and it surrounds you. And so it’s alright then to be sick, or it’s alright to be sad, or it’s alright to be whatever we need to be. And I think the thing that Harvey mentioned is that when we feel so tender and so close, then the vulnerability comes up, or doubt. Doubt is just the vulnerability and the thinking function, trying to live from here up [above the neck] all the time. And so, I don’t know—good for you. 

“Fortunately, I have doubt,” he said. He also talks about the layers that we were talking about before—the stripes of life, you know. 

Thank you, and hey, good luck. Be well now. And you know, the body is the body. And we get to be at ease with it sometimes, but the body has its own opinions about things. Our body has a mind of its own. 

Okay, so I think we did it. Thank you very much. 

And so we’re just going to sit a bit together, and have a closing ceremony. And, you know, thank you. It’s wonderful to be in the temple together. And somebody, I think it was Sarah, said this great thing about how she feels that the floor in her temple goes all the way to the back wall of your temple. And all the floors in all our temples go all the way out, you know.

Amaryllis: [sings] 

Peacefully, humbly, the ship stars travel,
the grass hunches down to earth, the demons take their rest.
And we ask the protectors to smile over us as the work in darkness goes on until dawn.

Ryan: [plays guitar, sings] 

All Buddhas throughout space and time,
all awakened beings, great beings,
the Heart of Perfect Wisdom.

Amaryllis: [sings] The Four Boundless Vows . . . 

Ryan: [plays guitar, sings, three times]

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.

Evening Words with Allison Atwill

[haiku from the poet Basho]

Jon: [in Japanese]

kochira muke
kochira muke

Allison: Will you turn towards me?

Jon: ware mo sabishiki 

Allison: I am lonely too, 

Jon: natsu no kure

Allison: this summer evening.

It was the summer—I believe in 2000, maybe ‘04—it was my first summer sesshin, it was my first sesshin ever. And that sesshin, it started at five o’clock in the morning, I believe, and went all the way to nine o’clock p.m. So, by the time they came to the closing ceremony, I was in a state of deep exhaustion. It was all candlelit, back then when they allowed candles. (It was nice to see them back in the zendo here!)

And I didn’t really know anyone there. And it seemed like people had been sitting together for years and years and years, and after the evening would close, there would be little clusters of, it seemed like old friends, that were planning events for the evening—where they’d go and have a glass of wine, or if they’d sit more in the zendo, or take walks together at night. And I would feel this tremendous sorrow and loneliness, and feeling terribly outside of things.

But, my heart was so softened, that there was almost a kind of sweetness in, and tenderness in, that feeling of being left out. And my little cabin was way up the road a bit, and I had to walk at night in twilight just as the stars were coming out, and there’s a little bit of the blue still left in the edge of the sky, kind of a fallow blue, all lit up, and then the redwood trees leaning over. And I’d walk very slowly back to my cabin, and as I walked, I could feel the stars and the trees folding me into life. 

I’ll read you a little poem for the evening:

[Naomi Shihab Nye]

Walking Down Blanko Road at Midnight

There’s a folding into the self which occurs
when the lights are small on the horizon
and no light is shining into the face.

It happens in a quiet place.
It is a quiet unfolding,
like going to sleep in
the comfortable family home.
When everyone else goes to sleep
the house folds up.
The windows shut their eyes.
If you are inside you’re automatically folded.
If you are outside, walking by the folded house
you feel so lonesome you think you are going crazy. 

You are not going crazy.
You are beginning to fold up in your own single way.
You feel your edges move towards center,
your heart like a folded blanket unfolding
and folding in with everything contained.
You feel like you do not need anyone to love you anymore
because you already feel everything.
you feel it, you fold it and for a while now
it will quietly rest.

John Tarrant

Dharma Talk in Fall Sesshin
PZI Online Temple
October 20, 2022

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