June 2005: Sesshin Day 1
ENGO’S INTRODUCTION Once the deluded way of thinking is cut off, a thousand eyes are suddenly opened. One word blocking the stream of thought, and all nen actions are controlled. Is there anyone who would undergo the experience of dying the same death and living the same death as the Buddha? Truth is manifest everywhere. If you do not see it, here is an ancient example. See the following.
MAIN SUBJECT Jo Joza asked Rinzai, “What is the essence of Buddhism?” Rinzai, getting up from his seat, seized him, slapped him, and pushed him away. Jo Joza stood still. A monk standing by said, “ Jo Joza, why don’t you bow?” When Jo Joza bowed, he suddenly became enlightened.
Inheriting the spirit of Dansai,
How could he be gentle and quiet?
Not difficult for Kyorei
To lift his hands and split Mount Kasan
Letting the Yellow River through
(Rings three bells)
This is the first day of our Spring 2005 sesshin and I want to thank all of your for coming. It is just wonderful to see you!
Last night, I saw you all come in one by one. One by one or two by two! I know that you have had to make certain sacrifices to be here. People have had to give up vacation time in some cases. And some people have had to put their work on hold, or their lives. One person here just found a new job and has postponed the starting date to come to sesshin. Thank you for coming and for doing so well this morning.
Sesshin is really a wonderful opportunity. There is nothing like it in the world. We come here and we have all kinds of problems, all kinds of dreams, aspirations and fears. And we think these are terribly important, but then we sit on the cushion for a few days and we get a very different perspective on things. It is quite amazing!
When I was in graduate school, going to class each day was like a beating. Everybody was so much smarter than I was. It seemed as though my classmates weren’t students--they were all like professors themselves. I had thought that the point of going to graduate school was to read all the stuff we were assigned, but they had already read everything, or appeared to. They were very urbane. Many of them spoke several languages and they told jokes in French or German. I pretended to laugh as though I understood. We would be reading Heidegger, which was my worst nightmare, and somebody would tell a joke in German. And the people in my classes often used these strange words from Heidegger and other philosophers like him, words like “zuhanden.” Somehow it was very important that something or other was zuhanden. I would think, “What does this term really mean?” Even looking it up in a German dictionary didn’t help. It was just awful. I’d come home so discouraged.
At the same time, I was doing my Zen practice. But here too, I felt divided. I would go to sesshin and think, “I wonder if I should really have chosen to go to this sesshin. Maybe I should be back at home reading my Heidegger.” There was a masochistic part of me that wanted to be back at home getting depressed, but I’m so glad that I didn’t make that mistake, and instead went to sesshin whenever I had the chance. Going to sesshin put me behind in my graduate classes. There was no question about it. When I came back from sesshin, I had all this catching-up to do. If you add up all the time I have spent going to sesshins in my life, I could probably have written more articles and published more books than if I had chosen not to attend. I could have written a lot more. But I’m so glad I came to sesshin.
On Day One of many sesshins I’d be sitting there thinking, “What am I doing here? I should be reading Heidegger.” Or I’d think, “I’ve got so many bills to pay. Why did I come here?” But by about Day Two, Heidegger seemed a million miles away, and my financial problems, like not having the money to repair my car, would seem irrelevant. So many things that bothered me seemed unimportant by Day Two of sesshin. I don’t think this outlook was escapist. On the contrary, I think it was coming back to the reality. Back to the unadorned simplicity of life itself, without all the veils and all the curtains, all the signs and symbols, which just get swept away. Just being in the moment is so delicious! Whatever the moment happens to be! Sometimes being in the moment means being together with our pain or fatigue, that’s true. But there is something so energizing about cutting through all the abstraction and being face to face with life in its simplicity and immediacy. This is what Zen is all about. This is what sesshin is all about.
So I’d come to sesshin and think about many things initially. My brother is a businessman. When I was in graduate school, he was as wealthy as I was poor. I had an old car - an old VW Beetle. It originally cost around $4000. When I owned that car, it had a value of about four dollars. It would break down frequently and then I’d have no car. So my wife and I had to go to grocery store with our backpacks on and fill up our backpacks and walk back to our tiny row house. Originally this way of getting groceries was fine and it didn’t bother me. But the older I got, the more I starting thinking, “Will I be going to grocery stores like this all my life? I must look absurd walking through the city with a pack on my back ” Fortunately, we lived in Seattle and could easily catch the buses, but when we climbed aboard, the people in suits would stare at us sometimes.
Over the years my brother has had a series of BMWs. I love my brother but his success made me embarrassed about myself. I have to confess that I sometimes had self-doubts. When Heidegger was not the one chasing me around, it was my brother, his money, his cars and his beautiful house and his wonderful life. I would feel like a flop, a loser. I was not good enough for graduate school and I was not making any money either. But I’d go to sesshin anyway, and sit on the cushion and after a few days, it just didn’t matter. It just didn’t matter!
Sesshin was so good for me! It is so restorative to just be in the moment in all its pure simplicity. It is like medicine for our body, mind and heart. You might decide at some point this is “running away.” But I say, “No! This is coming back home. This is getting back to life.”
When we eat at sesshin, it doesn’t matter if we have a fancy meal or not. If you are hungry and your mind has been purified by sitting in zazen all day, and you have a bowl of rice and a bowl of soup and some salad, this is heavenly nectar. What could be better? Some of us have been here practicing zen for couple of days already. This morning, after several days of zazen, when I sat down and had the breakfast oatmeal, I thought, “Man! This is the best oatmeal I’ve ever tasted.” It was heaven. You add a little bit of syrup on top and a little milk and it is heaven. We usually need a couple days of sitting to get to that heaven. But when it comes, it is absolutely wonderful.
I can’t help but think that this would be a better world, a safer world and one more likely to endure into the future, if people could discover this simplicity. It would change our lives individually but it might also change society because if people came into contact with this reality, they might stop living so wastefully and destructively. We are always reaching nervously after this or that. Sometimes what we really want is not one particular thing but simply more contact with this beautiful world. So, welcome to sesshin! I hope that you experience this contact from time to time.
With regard to this issue of contact, today’s teisho is very important. It has a special point for those who attend sesshin.
MAIN SUBJECT Jo Joza asked Rinzai, “What is the essence of Buddhism?”
You need to understand that “Joza” is an honorific term meaning "elder monk" or "upper seat." Jo Joza (Ch. "Ding Shangzuo") is a senior monk in Rinzai’s temple. He has been practicing for a long time but he hasn’t really been able to find IT – the ‘IT’ we are all looking for when we sit on the cushion! He must have become a monk when he was young; he has been in the temple for years, and has risen up the ranks but he still can’t find IT. And so he finally asks Rinzai (Lin-chi), “I have been sitting in the temple all these years. But I’m still lost. What is the essence of Buddhism?”
Rinzai is famous for his very direct approach to Zen practice. He originated many strategies that have become part of Zen training. For example, yelling! He would shout at people. Sometimes he would yell at his students or push them or sometimes he would slap them. Very dramatic style! This is not at all our style here, but it worked in Rinzai’s time.
Rinzai, getting up from his seat, seized him, slapped him and pushed him away. Jo Joza stood still.
Stood still. This is an important detail. When we come to sesshins, especially after a number of years of having attended them, we may lose sight of what it is all about. If this one is your first sesshin, then it will probably be wonderful because you can’t foresee what is coming next. Just getting through breakfast is a big deal for a beginner. “What are these three bowls for? How can you eat oatmeal with chopsticks? What is this handkerchief for – is it there in case I need to blow my nose?” Please don’t use the handkerchiefs for blowing your nose! They are there for wiping dry your bowls after you wash them. And you might think, “What is that smelly yellow pickle for?” Use the takuan or daikon pickle to clean each bowl in the hot water. The whole routine of the meal is new and all rather alarming and uncertain. A new routine is a terrible ordeal at first, but it is also quite wonderful because you get to discover the whole thing in the most immediate and simple way. By contrast, if you go to a restaurant, you just eat another fancy meal with forks and knives and you pay your check and it’s over. But eating here is different. Just figuring out what to do with the three bowls is absolutely hair-raising. At the end of the meal you might think, “I made it through! I got the bowls washed. My God! Meal number one, accomplished!” And afterward, you feel great. That’s better than going to the same old restaurant, isn’t it? Eating is kind of an adventure here.
When we come to sesshin after years of practice, we want all kinds of things. We old-timers have expectations and lack the advantages of the beginner. We’ve lost the advantage of newness. You might come here thinking, “Maybe I’ll have Dai Kensho this time!” Or “Maybe I’ll answer my koan.” Please put all those thoughts away. Forget about them. Let us go back to square one. In fact, this should be called the “Back to Basics Sesshin: June 2005”! The famous Back to Basics Sesshin!
Basics are easy to forget, but this koan is about the basics! Jo Joza has been sitting for maybe 20 years but somehow he hasn’t had Dai Kensho—Great Awakening. How can this be? This is because whenever Jo Joza sits on the cushion, he’s always adjusting his posture trying to get comfortable! He just wants to stay out of trouble and get through it all. He knows the ropes too well. Believe me, I understand what that’s like.
Once I went to a sesshin at a temple up in the mountains of New York. The teacher there was a Dharma brother of my first teacher, Takabayashi Genki Roshi. After I came to New Jersey, I went to do a few sesshins with their sangha. At one point, the Roshi at that temple was kind enough to seat me next to his dharma heir. To my amazement, this guy moved and moved, and you could hear him sigh faintly, especially when Roshi was out of the room. The Roshi would stand up and leave the zendo for dokusan, and then some of the people would start shifting around and squirming. I have to tell you that when you are sitting beside people like that, you want to start to moving yourself. It’s contagious! I wanted to move along with everyone else. The schedule at that place was quite demanding—maybe the toughest in America--but there was too much moving where I was seated that time.
Please don’t give way to the impulse to move and move. One basic aspect of Zen practice is to reach the Great Stillness – the great imperturbable stillness. If you are not in that stillness, absolutely nothing can be achieved. Put aside all thought of answering your koan and give up on all your worries. If you do not achieve anything else at this sesshin, simply achieve this Great Stillness and you will have enjoyed an enormous victory. Stillness is very hard to find and very difficult to sustain, even for people who have been sitting a number of years. Jo Joza sits every morning but he hasn’t found that stillness. Jo Joza has got a restless temperament and squirms around on the cushion, trying to get through sesshin comfortably. Master Rinzai considers this behavior an emergency. “You have been sitting for 20 years and you still haven’t found IT!” Rinzai slaps him. Jo Joza stood still. This is so important.
Normally when someone slaps you, you would like to slap him back. Strangely, though, Jo Joza just stands still. He has made a great discovery. Rinzai has helped him find his true, essential nature. What he has discovered is the foundation of our meditation practice. It is really not possible to find that kind of stillness in your everyday practice. It is just not possible. You have to come to sesshin to discover that wonderful stillness.
On Day One of the sesshin, at the end of a morning of zazen, you sit on the cushion, straighten your back and try to find a position you think will be reasonably comfortable for about 20 minutes. Unfortunately, the sit may turn out to be 25, 30, or even 35 minutes, on top of the hours of sitting we’ve already done. So after about 25 minutes, some muscle will start to hurt, or some combination of muscles. Maybe your left leg is uncomfortable or the muscles in your back are sore, or maybe the muscles in your neck are beginning to get a little tight. Maybe your shoulder hurts. How do I know this? It’s not mind-reading. I have a body too. After a morning of zazen, my body begins to get tired also.
One way to respond to the pain and discomfort is to try to find another, more comfortable position. But it takes people a long time to learn that no matter what position you adopt, there is still going to be some discomfort eventually. If you change your position, it will buy you a few seconds of relief, but you will probably find that the more you change positions, the more you will need to change positions in the future. Your pain or discomfort will push you all over the zendo. You will be in a losing battle.
The common human response to pain is either to get moving or run away – this is the “fight or flight” mechanism. When you begin to have pain in your hip or legs or back, there is a part of your brain which says, “Get the hell out of here! Or change your position!” But if you change your position, you will be satisfied for a few seconds only. Then the discomfort will return. More and more as the sesshin continues, you will find that every movement produces the desire for even more movement. And the intervals between your moving will become shorter and shorter. Nothing can be accomplished in that state! Don’t even dream about answering your koan if you cannot enter that Great Stillness. This stillness, the basis of all meditation practice, is called samatha or “stabilizing the mind.” Samatha is a must before you can progress to more advanced forms of meditation. The mind must be deeply stabilized before you can practice the different forms of vipassana or “seeing” that the more advanced koans require. Samatha and vipassana are like two hands—two parts of one whole, which the Buddha called bhavana. In the Ch’an or Zen tradition, samatha and vipassana are known as “stopping” (Ch. zhi) and “seeing” (guan). First, we stop; then we see.
You are sitting on the cushion; your back is bothering you; your legs are throbbing, and strange muscles you have never felt before are aching. You want to move! But if you decide not to move, what can you do? You can gently squeeze your hara and watch your breath going out .. out …out .. out! If you really watch your breath going out . . . out . . . out, you will eventually notice that as you exhale, your pain goes away, at least momentarily. But watch the breath, not the pain! If you have pain in, say, your left leg and then you visualize your left leg, you’re done for. If you think about moving, you’re done for.
But if, instead of moving, you watch your breath, you will notice that when you squeeze the breath out, the pain disappears momentarily. It is only when you start drawing your breath in once again that the pain comes back. There is a kind of a deliverance or liberation waiting for you in the breath moving outward if you can only take advantage of it. This deliverance is much superior to moving around on the cushion like poor Jo Joza.
Each time you turn away from pain and follow your breath, you get a couple of seconds of relief. The pain comes back--of course--but then you should follow the breath out once again. Although the pain will not completely disappear, something very important will start happening to you every time you focus on your breath! You will start moving deeper and deeper into that elemental Great Stillness. People don’t even realize how vast that elemental stillness is. Somewhere in your breath there is a place which is like the eye of a tornado or the calm center of a hurricane. There you can abide for long periods in unshakable, imperturbable stillness! The whole world might be swirling around you, but this place is very still. And how do you get there? Just watch the breath!
You may have a panic reaction in the presence of pain and it may kick in on many different levels. For example, pain can tighten the muscles around your neck or throat, and the panic reaction may get stronger and stronger the more you focus your attention on the tightness. But if you fix your attention on your exhalations and watch the breath going out . . . out . . . out, your will stop feeling panicked. As you follow the breath outward each time, you will enter this stillness and it will begin to have an effect. Your mind will begin to calm down. This is really amazing. You will find the infinite imperturbable calm. At first, you might enjoy only a few seconds of this calm on any single day, but when you hit that still place, it’s like “Eureka!” “That’s it!” That calm is the foundation of Zen practice. The unshakable calm!
It is important not to imagine that your pain is uniquely terrible. Really, your pain is nothing special, and it’s not that great. I have pain too—big deal. Why do you believe that your pain is worse than mine? When I was a Zen student, I sometimes used to sit next to Genki Roshi. Genki Roshi was an excellent teacher but in some ways it was demoralizing to sit next to him. He would sit in total calm for an hour and a half without the slightest movement, and then he would immediately spring up from the cushion as soon as the bell rang, heading off to eat or to do whatever needed to be done. I think that his apparent facility was somewhat misleading. Even Genki Roshi had pain but he just didn’t show it because he had discovered this Great Stillness.
Fortunately for you, I am not as good as Genki Roshi. So sometimes you can really tell that I’m trying—sweating it out on the cushion. Basically there is no human being who doesn’t feel pain. There is no human being—not even the Dalai Lama-- who can sit effortlessly for ten hours a day. Even Lord Buddha had pain in his legs when he sat. So it is all the more important to ask why the Buddha didn’t just stop and move his legs when he was sitting under the Bo tree trying to awaken. Why didn’t he just start moving around on his cushion, or just get up and sit in a chair? Have you ever noticed that there are no images of the Buddha sitting comfortably in a chair?
Pain is a challenge for all of us. This is why the first Noble Truth is the reality of suffering. Believe me, if you’re a beginner, I’ve been where you are now. I remember that my first sesshin was just murder. So if this is your first sesshin and you feel that you have to move, please move! There’s no shame in it. Please notice that we have a few chairs in this room. If you reach a point where you just can’t sit on the cushion any more, please use the chair. No one will think less of you. Probably everyone in this room has sat on a chair at one sesshin or another. Have a break if you need it. Zen is not about being tough. Zen is not about strength of will. It’s not even about fighting with your pain. Fighting with pain is not the path. Our path is samatha, deep stillness.
Sometimes you will hear people breathing very hard in the presence of pain–huffing and puffing. It sounds like a train is coming through the zendo. Breathing like a choo-choo train is not going to work, however. The best way to deal with pain is not to get tough-- huffing and puffing forcefully. Some people mistakenly try to raise their qi by breathing hard. But your qi is not going to be strong enough to deal with this pain, no matter how much you practice qi-gong of some sort. You need another approach to handle the pain, and that approach is stillness.
The most powerful breath is not the hardest breath. It is the softest and the longest breath. The most powerful breath on earth is so fine and soft as it goes out, out, out that if you are not very sensitive and alert, you will not even notice it. This breath is like fine gold thread. As it goes out, out, out, you start to disappear. Your mind becomes very, very still, and then you start to disappear. A golden thread that goes out, out, out! Please follow that thread. And then everything will be still. Imperturbable calm! And every time you go out there to the stillness, it becomes easier to get back to it next time.
This method is a little like trying to quit smoking. Every time you say no to a cigarette, it becomes easier to say no to it next time. And eventually, you can quit smoking altogether. The cultivation of samatha is a very elemental matter of reconditioning or deconditioning the mind Every time you have pain and you don’t move, you are deconditioning yourself, breaking the bad habit of trying to find a better position, and conditioning yourself to try to focus on your breath instead. And every time you do it—turning from pain to the breath--you are reinforcing that positive habit. I know how tough it is. Sometimes you will wave the white flag of surrender and say, “I can’t do it anymore.” If you move at that point, no one will think less of you. That is perfectly OK. Zen is not about who can sit the longest. But if you want to know where real practice begins, let me tell you my opinion. Real practice is not about acquiring miraculous powers, and it is not really about answering koans. Koans are merely a refinement. Real practice is what I am describing right now—entry into deep stillness.
It is as though we actually have two bodies. This may sound a little weird, but we do indeed. We have a physical body, a little body, that we learn to call ours. It has limits. It has a certain weight defined in pounds and a certain height in feet and inches. The tips of my fingers and toes are the limits of my little body. But in another sense we know intellectually that everything is a part of a bigger life. We know that trees can’t grow without the soil, and birds will not exist if there are no trees. We can’t have trees without bees and bugs. All of this fits together. We know this intellectually. But every once in a while, we experience this connectedness directly. And probably that is why all of us are here at sesshin.
Every now and then we realize, “I’m not just me but I’m also part of a bigger life which includes grass and trees.” This is the bigger body. The idea may seem very abstract most of the time. But you know, when you don’t move your little body and you enter that Great Stillness, you undergo a profound psychological transformation. If you are sitting on the cushion and you keep following your breath, sooner or later your little body will start disappearing. You will notice that the awareness of your face or hands, or your torso or legs, has vanished. When I sit and watch my breath, I begin to feel that I am emptying out. It feels like the sand inside me is draining out. This doesn’t happen every time I sit, but there are times when I just feel as if, behind my eyeballs, everything is draining out. And then I disappear. And man! That is the sweetest feeling. Then, in that state, I might hear sound of a bird and it seems so beautiful! You may actually feel that the sound is coming out of yourself.
I once had a rather dramatic experience of this bigger body. We were practicing sesshin at our temple in eastern Washington State, Tokugan-ji, and there were thunderstorms throughout the whole period. I was listening to the thunder coming from a distance and hearing it get closer and closer. During dokusan, I told the Roshi that it felt as though the sound of the thunderstorm was coming out of my abdomen, my hara. The roshi said, “Not like! It IS coming out of your hara.” At that time, I just thought, “This Zen is so cool,” but actually, I didn’t believe that the thunder had indeed come out of my own body. That was because I was still too attached to my small self.
When you don’t move, you begin to be part of the bigger body. And then, when you hear a bird, you can feel the bird’s song throbbing inside yourself. This is the bigger body. This is the world body, the universe’s body. Buddha body.
Normally we stop at the limits of our small body. But if we follow our breath out, out, out, the breath takes us far beyond the small body, to the bigger body. It takes us to the One Life Body which is infinite in all directions. In the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha refers directly to this Great Body. Please enjoy life in this Great Body. Right now, the idea might sound like a fairy tale, an unattainable state of being, but everyone who keeps practicing Zen has discovered that state in the same way you are—and the same way I am-- by dealing with the pain.
Everyone has had to deal with pain and no matter how long we have practiced, we are always faced with the same elementary choice: to move or not to move. But when we move, make no mistake about it, we are not allowing ourselves to change. There is no growing up in that state of shifting around. There is no question of any further development unless we reach the Great Stillness.
So when you sit on the cushion, please follow your breath out, out, out until you begin to stand still like Jo Joza. Imperturbable stillness! Wonderful! It is very hard to achieve but please try to go there now. This is Day One of sesshin. If you enter the stillness today, even once, you are going to have a much keener awareness during the days to come. If you can enter that stillness today, then you will be better prepared to face the challenge of pain and discomfort tomorrow.
Normally, when someone hits us, the last thing we want to do is to stand still. But standing still is the door to the Buddha Body. It is the door to enlightenment. Please cultivate this unshakable stillness. The second half of the koan—Jo Joza’s bow--I will have to deal with later, but please take a lesson from Jo Joza’s stillness today.
MAIN SUBJECT Jo Joza asked Rinzai, “What is the essence of Buddhism?” Rinzai, [got] up from his seat,
It’s an emergency!
. . .. seized him, slapped him, and pushed him away.
This was the style of Rinzai’s zen.
Jo Joza stood still.
A monk standing by said, “Jo Joza, why don’t you bow?” When Jo Joza bowed, he suddenly became enlightened.
Inheriting the spirit of Dansai,
How could he be gentle and quiet?
Not difficult for Kyorei
To lift his hands and split Mount Kasan
Letting the Yellow River through
When you live in your little body, there is no chance for you to split mount Kasan with your hands and let the Yellow River flow through it. We all know that. Some of us are barely strong enough to lift a rock much bigger than our heads. But please don’t live in your small body all the time. Live in the bigger body more often, which is the body of all life in all directions. This sounds very fancy and mystical, but the One Life Body is right here. You begin to experience that body the minute you cease to move and you start to enter the Great Stillness. That Great Stillness is the foundation of all subsequent Zen practice. You are off to a wonderful start this morning and you have all made personal sacrifices to be here. Now, as the day goes on, challenges will arise. So prepare yourself by using your breath to enter the stillness. If you do not achieve anything else at this sesshin except for finding that stillness, the sesshin will be of infinite worth. So please let us get started.
(Rings three bells)