Dongshan's Always Close

Today’s teisho will be on Case 98 in the Book of Serenity, “Dongshan’s Always Close”


Juifeng, cutting off his tongue, made a sequel to Shishuang; Caoshan, cutting off his head, didn’t turn away from Dongshan. The ancients’ sayings were so subtle, where is the technique to help people?


A monk asked Dongshan, “Among the three Buddha-bodies, which one does not fall into any category?”
Dongshan said, “I am always close to this.”


Not entering the world,
Not following conditions;
In the emptiness of the pot of ages, there’s a family tradition.
White duckweed, gentle breeze–evening on an autumn river;
A ancient embankment, the boat returns–a single stretch of haze.

I want to thank you all for coming here this morning during this Thanksgiving break. As you know, it was very cold this morning. When I woke up, I heard on the radio that it was about 16 degrees outside. As I was driving here, I saw on a bank display that it was about 20 degrees. When I reached the campus and parked, I looked up and noticed that almost all the leaves had dropped from the trees. Just in the distance, you could see the sun coming up. It was so cold that it was almost scary. It’s a little bit frightening to have cold like that surrounding you. It’s a shock to the system. I have to confess that when I woke up this morning, I had the thought, “It’s really cold out there. Maybe I’ll just stay under these covers.” But when I was standing in the parking lot looking at the sun coming up behind the bare trees, with the horizon turning a reddish hue, it was like being on the line between fear and joy. The cold is scary, but it makes you feel alive somehow. It’s very interesting place to be. During sesshin, it’s sometimes like like that. As you know, at sesshin we often keep the zendo rather cold in the winter. When you come out of your room and go through the dining hall, the air is usually at a decent temperature, about 68-70 degrees, but the zendo is colder. It’s slightly frightening or intimidating. When you sit down on the cushion, the cold can be a little uncomfortable, but it can help your practice. All of a sudden, in the cold, you can have this feeling of joy welling up.

I learned this the hard way. When I was training in Seattle, at one point we had sitting practice at Genki Roshi’s residence, which was called Kuge-an. We would all get up every morning and drive to Kuge-an, which was at the top of a tree-covered hill. It was a very beautiful place to live. Every morning, when we would go in to sit, Genki Roshi would open all the windows no matter what the temperature was outside. Sometimes that room could be so cold! Every once in a while, when we had just arrived there, the windows would still be closed, and I would think, “Maybe he won’t open the windows today.” You know how the mind works. I’d think, “Maybe he’ll forget,” even though he had always opened them every day for years. And then he’d open the windows, and the cold would rush in. I would sit there in the cold and the dark, day after day, week after week. For a long time, I really disliked it, but after a while I began to love the cold. The cold is not the kind of thing you love automatically, like the taste of sugar the first time you eat it. It’s slightly scary and then there’s joy. It’s thrilling. Maybe that’s what we mean by “thrilling.” It’s not exactly comfortable. But somehow it pushes us into a deeper life. Sitting in a cold zendo is not something anybody would choose to do initially. The reason we all have central heating in our homes and public buildings is that we like to be warm and comfortable. But the fact is that once we’re too warm and comfortable, it’s very hard to sit deeply.

Sometimes, here at the university in the evenings, I’ll ask people how their sitting went. And they’ll say, “Not so good. I stayed up all night and I’m so tired!” And I’ll often think, “Darn! They still don’t see it yet.” When you’re struggling because you’re tired, or you feel worn out, or you’re sick, you can have a certain kind of openness that you can’t have if everything’s A-OK, just as it should be. Sitting when you’re sick is a little like sitting in the cold, actually. It’s not something anyone would choose to do, necessarily, but when you do it, it’s an interesting experience. Its slightly frightening and yet there’s an openness to it. Especially if you’re really feeling rotten, you can sit on the cushion and think, “Why am I doing this?” You sit on the cushion and you feel very weak, but you can get into this place where joy arises. To me this fact is quite important.

So much of our life is influenced by an undercurrent of fear. I have had moments of real insecurity in my own life. When I got out of college, for example, I started looking for jobs. I was nervous all the time. I would go to these interviews feeling nervous. I would be nervous going into the interview and disappointed going out of it. And I would be nervous when I was back at home because I would think, “What will become of me?” Of course, I had friends who were not English majors like me. They were engineers or business students, and when they graduated, they immediately got jobs. Their lives seemed so coherent and well planned out. One of my friends at the University of Virginia, where I went to school, was an engineer and even before he graduated, companies were flying him out for interviews. At the end of my college years I was working as a night janitor at a bowling alley to make ends meet, while my friend was flying out to California to be wined and dined. The two of us were already living in different worlds, and he seemed to have his act together in a way I didn’t.

When I would go to these interviews, I even felt a little desperate. I remember one interview for a teller’s job at a bank. When I think back on it now, it occurs to me that the man who interviewed me wasn’t very nice. He called me in for an interview but then he looked at my resume and said, skeptically, “Well, it looks like you’ve studied English and anthropology,” and he seemed to say, “What makes you think you can work in a bank?”

I felt like saying to him, “Why did you agree to interview me if you don’t think I’ll work out here?” I tried to talk persuasively about why I might want to work in a bank, but I really wanted to say, “I want to work in a bank because I want a job--that’s why! You have a job and I want one!” Of course, that wasn’t the answer I gave, and it probably wasn’t the answer that would have gotten me the job. I don’t know what I should have said! For me, all of this added up to an undercurrent of tension. I kept thinking, “What will become of me?”

Contributing to all this tension were the lessons I had learned growing up. My father loved to lay down the law by giving me these little sayings that stuck in my mind indelibly. When I was growing up, for example, he often used you say, “If you don’t work hard, you’re going to be a ditch digger.” In my first few years of high school, I had a lot of trouble academically, and I didn’t get very good grades. My father used to come into my room at night, and he’d say, “You know, Kurt, if your grades don’t improve and you don’t apply yourself, you’re going to become a ditch digger.” I had never met a ditch digger in person, but it sounded like a terrible life, and I began to study harder just because I was afraid I might wind up like that, whatever it was.

Later, I actually did dig ditches. When I was in college I had summer jobs on a construction site, and I dug ditches. And I thought to myself, “You know, this is not so bad.” In fact, I actually liked it. You’re outside. You can look at the sky. Physical labor is good for you, and you get plenty of fresh air–very nice. But in the tenth grade, digging ditches seemed like the end of the world, and I thought, “Oh my god, I’m going to be a ditch digger. I’d better learn algebra.” And I did. I became very good in math.

Later, when I graduated from college, these lessons were still rolling around in my head. “You’ll be a ditch digger!” “It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there.” “Blah-blah-blah.” I was in a transitional period in my life, and I had this undercurrent of anxiety all the time. What is going to become of me?

One of my early jobs was managing a hotel restaurant. “Manager” sounded like such a good title. “Well,” I thought, “this is a job worthy of my abilities,” but actually it was a terrible job. I had to arrive there at seven in the morning, and I would sometimes get home at midnight. I had to attend to every detail. Even though the sign on my door said, “Manager,” if a cook didn’t show up at breakfast, I had to put on an apron and flip the eggs with the other cooks. I had to do all the ordering. If someone wasn’t happy with his meal, I had to put on my suit coat and go out and try to smooth it over. I’d say, “I’m sorry you didn’t like your shrimp. Would you like some more shrimp? Would that make you feel better?” It was a difficult job.

I had a bad feeling about things in general–an unsettled feeling. I sometimes said to myself, “ I can’t do this job for the rest of my life!” I suspect that many people have this anxiety about not being in the right place, not being able to achieve what they want. I don’t know what caused the anxiety I felt–maybe it’s a basic fear, a fundamental distrust in life. We’re afraid that we’re not going to become what we really should be. We’re not going to wind up where we want to wind up. Something we need or want is never going to be given to us, or it’s going to be taken away from us.

My mother always used to talk about her “ship coming in.” She often used to preface her remarks by saying, “When my ship comes in. . . . ” “When my ship comes,” she’d say, “I’ll get a new car.” “When my ship comes in, I’ll go see my sister.” My mother had her share of these sayings too–I can see in retrospect why my father and mother were attracted to each other. My mother had this vague idea that someday, things were going to be set right. But I think that a lot of people are afraid that their ship is never going to come in.

I think also that our culture preys on this fear. It speaks to this fear in a deceptive way. I have a friend of mine who’s a wonderful guy, and his wife is also a wonderful person. They are both generous, humane people. This friend and I were having lunch the other day, and he started talking about remodeling his kitchen, and he told me that he was spending 50,000 dollars on remodeling his kitchen. I was absolutely astounded! The interesting thing is that he’s been in agony over this project just about every day he’s been involved in it. I’ve seen him fairly often recently, and this has been a theme in our conversations. One of the problems he’s dealt with was that the cabinets were installed improperly. Another problem was that the stone for the counter tops but wasn’t right. There was one frustration after another

I had the feeling–because I live in this culture too–that my friend and his wife started out with the idea that if they just made some modest changes, their kitchen would be a little more comfortable place. But the ball gets rolling and it’s hard to stop because you start going to showrooms and you see “The Perfect Kitchen.” And then you start thinking, “We don’t really want counter tops that are made of Formica. Why not the Corian? But then someone says, “You know, you could have the granite.” Which is what my friend has settled on. The Corian is just a little bit more expensive than the Formica. And the granite is just a little bit more expensive than the Corian. So pretty soon you’re into this thing for 50,000 dollars.

In such circumstances, you have to ask yourself, “How did this happen?” I won’t say this to my friend, and I hope he has a wonderful time in his kitchen. I like him enormously and I wouldn’t want to criticize him or hurt his feelings, and I don’t want to be holier-than-thou. But you have to ask yourself, “Was this really necessary?”

Sometimes, when you do ask this question of people, they get upset because what drives their behavior is a kind of elemental fear. If you ask, “Why are you doing this?” they might say accusingly, “You’re taking my dreams away from me.” People might respond in a hostile way if you say, “Do you really need cherry cabinets? Do you really need the granite?” People have the feeling, “If I can just get the granite, and the cherry cabinets with the Old World doors, I’ll be there.” And by implication, they think, “If I don’t get these things, I won’t be there”. This seems like such a trivial, obvious matter, but its obviousness doesn’t make it any easier to deal with.

I have another friend who also remodeled his kitchen about five years ago, and when the friend who is currently in the remodeling process was talking to me, the words of my other friend were often ringing in my ears. Because my other friend had told me that he and his wife had been married for eighteen years and had always gotten along well. He told me that the first really terrible fight they’d ever had was over the kitchen remodeling, and this makes a lot of sense if you think about it. People get so invested in these projects because they think, “If I don’t do this, my ship is not coming in. This is my dream. If this dream doesn’t come true, we won’t have wonderful breakfasts in the morning sitting around the counter. The eggs just won't taste as good.” On a certain level, we know that this anxiety is ridiculous, but people are driven to act in the most compulsive ways sometimes, even though they consciously know better.

Another friend of mine is a very well-known scholar whose field is 20th century literature, and he’s written a rather controversial book. At one point he was in a deep depression because his book had been rejected by Duke University Press. In English departments, if you get a book published by Duke, you will be the coolest cat in the neighborhood. If you get published by Cambridge or Harvard, you’re doing very well, but if you want to be really cool–cutting edge, avant-garde, a really daring person–you publish at Duke. He found the rejection really troubling; it shook his foundations for some weeks because Duke turned him down. This is so common, isn’t it?

I know professors who have gotten upset because they discover that someone else in their department makes slightly money more than they do. You can say, “This is so trivial,” but it’s tied up in deeper motivations and compulsions.

So, there’s something wrong with the way we live, constantly trying to fulfill our dreams and constantly afraid that if we don’t make them real, everything is going to be lost. Actually, a person who thinks this way is always afraid–and almost a slave, if you think about it.

A monk asked Dongshan, “Among the three Buddha-bodies, which one does not fall into any category?”
Dongshan said, “I am always close to this.”

The term “Buddha-bodies” refers to different aspects of reality. In Buddhist philosophy, different aspects of reality are characterized by specialized terms. One aspect of reality is called dharmakaya, which means “fundamental awakenedness.” Another aspect of reality is called samboghakaya, the expression or functioning of fundamental awakenedness. Samboghkaya, we could say, is the manifestation of dharmakaya as eternal form–the infinite universe in the eternal “now.” A third aspect of reality is nirmanakaya, the way dharmakaya feels when it is experienced by human beings who live in the realm of time–of birth and death. As I said, these are terms used in Buddhist philosophy, which is always somewhat removed from experience. So, the monk is asking Donghsan a rather abstract question. He’s saying, “There are supposed to be these three different aspects of reality. Which is the one I should hold onto? Which is the Supreme Reality? Which is the one in which I will be liberated, enlightened, happy, safe? Which one--nirmanakaya, samboghakaya, which one? And Dongshan says, “I am always close to this.”

As far as I’m concerned, the practice of Mu is the foundation of Buddhism, the foundation of Zen, and the foundation of awakening. It’s so important to be happy with nothing, nothing at all. If you can be happy with nothing at all, you can be happy anywhere at any time. You don’t even have to do Zen practice to know this.

I can suggest to you from my own experience that some of the best times in my life have been those times when none of things I wanted to happen actually happened. In my early life, I got out of college and went for interviews. I had a series of jobs that weren’t very good jobs, including managing a restaurant. At one point I got a job working for a newspaper in Western Washington state for $70 a week, and I had to pay for my own gas. And then I got a letter from a friend of mine, Larry Sullivan, who was taking a year off before he went to law school. And he said, “Why don’t you come down here and let’s spend the summer backpacking in New Mexico and Arizona?” This was not part of my plan, but I actually went down to New Mexico and got a job in an Italian restaurant. And by the way, I discovered that I love to cook. And not only did I discover cooking, which is passion of mine, but I got to spend several months doing things I had never dreamed of doing but which turned out to be just wonderful–living in the Rocky Mountains, bathing in the rivers, hiking through the snow in the middle of the summer. It was really amazing. And later, after that period of my life was over, I just happened to run into someone who mentioned that a Japanese monk named Genki Takabayashi had come to America and was teaching Zen. It was not part of my plan, nothing I expected to do, but meeting Genki Roshi was one of the most wonderful things that ever happened to me in my life.

So even if we don’t do Zen, we have all had this experience. Sometimes the best things in life are not what we want to have happen. We think, “If this doesn’t happen, it’s the end,” but then something else happens that opens all these doors for us. But on a deeper level too. . . How does Dongshan put it? I am always close to this.

When we sit on the cushion, we have all kinds of expectations and dreams about enlightenment. It’s inevitably so. When people start doing Zen, they imagine that enlightenment is going to be like this or like that. Maybe you went to hear the Dalai Lama. He laughs all the time–who knows what it’s like to be the Dalai Lama, but we imagine. We all form imaginary ideas about that sort of thing in our minds. So we get involved with Zen practice. We learn to sit and to focus the mind on the breath. And then the most interesting thing starts to happen if you just watch the breath.

You sit on the cushion and of course your mind is filled with all of these thoughts and urgencies that turn out to be not to be so urgent. You watch the breath and you watch the breath, and little by little, thoughts begin to dissipate and you begin to become aware of the breath. You begin to feel better and your mind seems clearer. Breath, breath, breath. And then, at some point, if you keep watching the breath, a very interesting event takes place. You can’t watch the breath anymore! The breath disappears. I don’t know if this has happened to you yet, but if you watch the breath long enough, it’s going to happen to you. The breath just disappears. Gone! Just gone. When the breath disappears, other things may disappear too. You may feel that your hands or your face have disappeared, or parts of your body.

This is actually something people don’t appreciate. They think of it as trivial; or even a problem. They come to me in dokusan and they say, “I’m trying to focus on the breath but it keeps disappearing.” When I hear this, I’m happy! I think, “Congratulations. This is wonderful news.” It’s not a defect. It’s an encounter with fundamental reality, not the reality we learn from philosophy or even from science, but from the world we experience directly in meditation practice. If you watch the breath long enough, it disappears, and you’re left with nothingness, emptiness. Actually, it doesn’t really matter what you focus the mind on. If you focus the mind long enough, the object of attention disappears, and the mind becomes blank or dark, if only for a split second.

This is something that people at first think of as trivial or unimportant. When it happens to them, they think, “What’s that all about? Oh, I don’t know!” We want to fulfill our dreams and live the good life. We may want to be great bodhisattvas. This little blankness, this little darkness seems so unimportant compared to our dreams. But this is the face of Buddha itself! When you follow the breath out, out, out, at the end of your breath, there’s this little blank spot, this little emptiness. At first it seems unimportant to us, and nothing in our culture has really prepared us to appreciate it either. We might say that it’s just a “psychological anomaly” or something like that.

I think that all cultures at some point in their development have discovered this blankness. That blankness is the face of God, the face of Allah, the face of Shiva, the face of Buddha. The other day, I was doing some work in the library and I came across something really striking, a book written by a sixth-century Syrian Christian monk, Dionysius, and he was talking about meditation practice. He wrote a book entitled Mystical Theology, and in it he talks about how to get to what he calls the Ultimate Cause. In Buddhism we would call it the Source or the Root. Here’s what he wrote,

We pray that we may come into this darkness which is beyond light, and [may do so] without seeing and without knowing, so we can see and know that which is above wisdom and knowledge.

Stunning, isn’t it? This is someone writing sixteen hundred years ago, not from China or India, but from the Middle East, and not from Buddhism but from another religious tradition. Let me just read a little more:

As we ascend to the highest level, we will perceive that the ultimate is not a soul and it’s not intellect. It doesn’t have imagination, opinion, reason, or understanding. Nor can it be expressed or conceived since it has neither number not order. It’s not great or small. It’s not equal or unequal, similar or dissimilar. It’s not standing or moving or at rest. It has no power, and it’s not power; it’s not light. It does not live; it’s not life; it has no essence. It’s not time or eternity. It’s not subject to intelligent contact. It’s not science or truth; it’s not kingship or wisdom. It’s not one or many. It’s not God or goodness. It’s not spirit. It’s not fatherhood or motherhood, nor anything else known to us or to other beings. . . . It is neither darkness nor light. Nor the false nor the true. Nor can any affirmation or negation be applied to it. The unique cause of all things is beyond all affirmation and the simple preeminence of its absolute presence is outside every negation and every assertion, free from all limitation and beyond them all.

This really sounds very much like the language of the Heart Sutra. In the Heart Sutra, we are told that the Source has no mind, no body, no form. It’s just this little emptiness you encounter when you sit on the cushion and watch the breath or call Mu until the mind becomes blank and empty. Dionysius must have spent some time there! As he says so beautifully, “the simple preeminence of its absolute presence is outside every negation and every assertion.” In Buddhism, this “absolute presence” is called tathata (Taht-ah-tah), “suchness” or “thusness.”

Dwelling in this state is a little bit frightening. It’s like being in the extreme cold. When you encounter this state for the first time, it’s a little bit scary. But if you stay in the state of emptiness long enough, a wonderful thing begins to happen. Everything you encounter in that state becomes beautiful, wonderful, alive, part of yourself, sufficient–sufficient. If this hasn’t happened to you yet, please keep sitting.

You sit on the cushion, you watch your breath, you enter this blankness, and then you hear the song of a bird, or see light falling on the floor, or you go to eat, and you look at the rice in your bowl and you feel somehow that you’re staring at the face of your mother. It’s the most beautiful thing in the world.

My second teacher, Kangan Webb Roshi, was the one who made it possible for me to wake up. He did much of his training at Myoshinji, where all the monks would get up in the morning and wash their faces in cold water, icy cold water. They don’t heat the Zen temples in Japan. If it’s twenty degrees outside, it’s twenty degrees in the room where the monks stay. When you go into the bathroom, there’s no hot water, just a bucket of ice water. You reach in and slap it on your face and it falls into the basin and runs down the drain. I’m sure it’s very difficult to put that water on your face!

In fact, many years ago I went to a movie about the monks at Myoshinji. As I recall, I went to the movie with Webb Roshi, but I may be mistaken about this. I may have discussed the movie with him afterward–I don’t recall exactly. But I do remember watching the monks put water on their faces as the steam rose up. They were going so slowly. They would reach gingerly down into the water and put just a little dab of it on their faces, and then the steam would rise up. I asked Webb, “Why are they going so slow?” and he said, “Because the water is freezing cold.” I realized then that the steam was not coming from the water, as I had assumed. It was coming from the heat of the monk’s own faces.

But the important thing is that on each of the basins, there were these four characters. At each of the four cardinal points of the basin–north, east, south, and west–there was a character. The four characters were: “I,” “Only,” “Know,” “Wholeness.” I Only Know Wholeness.

For people in the appropriate state of mind, this statement is an unembellished, objective report on the way they experience the world. But how can people who aren't there already find and remain in this state of mind? It’s certainly possible to go around all day long and just say that phrase to yourself. If you’re driving home today, and you’re worried about some sort of problem, you can say, “I only know wholeness! I only know wholeness!” Good luck with that project! I don’t think it’s going to work. It’s like if you have a bad temper, and you keep telling yourself, “Watch your temper!” “Don’t get angry!” It’s just not going to work. Change had to take place on a deeper level than that.

I think we have to recognize that we all have an elemental fear that if this doesn’t happen, my life will be ruined. If this doesn’t happen, I will never be fulfilled. If I don’t get this job, it’s the end of the world. If I don’t get published in this journal, I’m finished. If I don’t get. . . I don’t know . . . those granite counter tops, our family will never have a happy breakfast–ever! We can see the absurdity of such thinking, but the impulse goes too deep to be corrected just by saying, “I only know wholeness.”

In order to solve this sort of problem, I think we need to go through the door of Mu. This is the Zen way of life, to constantly come back to this emptiness. We say Mu-shin, “emptiness mind.” The beauty of our path is that if you go into Mu-shin--well, just try it. Please try it. In that state, everything becomes perfect, everything becomes holy, everything becomes alive, without exception.

This is something that Dionysius, the fourth century Syrian, didn’t seem to know, by the way. He understood that what we call God or enlightenment is in some sense beyond form, beyond all of our understanding. But the other aspect of our path is that once you’re in the state of Mu-shin, the world of form eventually becomes heaven itself–heaven itself. Tathata is pure emptiness at first, and then, it includes everything in the universe. The word for this all-inclusive aspect of tathata is tathagata (Tah-tah-gah-tah) which can mean “thus gone,” but also “thus come.” The Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, was called Tathagata because he embodied this quality so completely. Tathata and tathagata, we could say, describe the two aspects of our experience of the same basic reality.

This is our way of life, the Zen way of life. Now, some people might say, “Well, that’s a very barren way of life. Living in emptiness doesn’t sound very inviting.” But when you live in emptiness, when you spend some portion of your day in emptiness, if you just stay there long enough, you will be able to say, “I am always close to this.” Everything is Buddha. Everything is perfect just as it is. The door to that perfection is not 50,000 dollars on your kitchen. Fortunately, it’s much less expensive than that. The zafu costs 50 dollars and the zabuton also about 50, and then all of your problems can be solved.

As you know, I have a job as an administrator. Being an administrator is an inherently unsatisfactory job because there’s always a new problem. If you’re problem-averse, you shouldn’t go into any kind of administrative work because as soon as you solve this problem, another problem arises immediately. It’s possible to be very frustrated all the time. But for me, this job is a wonderful opportunity because no matter what goes wrong in my life, I spend my hour or two every morning on the cushion. I sit on the cushion and I hear the birds. Or I get up off the cushion and I feel like laughing. Or I go outside and feel the piercing cold on my face and think, “This is my true self!" All of these problems are like rice. These problems become your rice–your nourishment. They sustain your life.

We pray that we may come into this darkness which is beyond light, and [may do so] without seeing and without knowing, so we can see and know that which is above wisdom and knowledge . . . . the simple preeminence of its absolute presence is outside every negation and every assertion, free from all limitation and beyond them all.

I am always close to this. I am always close to this.