Today’s teisho will be on Case 41 in the
Blue Rock Collection, the Hekiganroku. Case 41 is
entitled, “Joshu and the Great Death.”
When right and wrong are intermingled, even the holy
ones cannot distinguish between them. When positive and negative
are interwoven, even the Buddha fails to discern one from
the other. The most distinguished man of transcendent experience
cannot avoid showing his ability as a great master. He walks
the ridge of an iceberg. He treads the edge of a sword. He
is like the kirin’s horn, like the lotus flower in the
fire. Meeting a person of transcendent experience, he identifies
with him as his equal. Who is he? See the following.
Joshu asked to Tosu, “What if a man of the Great
Death comes back to life again?” Tosu said, “You
should not go by night; wait for the light of day to come.”
Open-eyed, he was all the more as if dead;
What use to test the master with something taboo?
Even the Buddha said he had not reached there;
Who knows when to throw ashes in another’s eyes?
Thank you very much for coming to practice on this very cold
winter’s day. You woke up early and you came to practice
Zen. If this is your first time here, you may have heard the
reading of the teisho with some degree of bewilderment. It
seems to make so little sense. In fact it’s possible
that not a single word could be understood. If you’re
interested in reading the koans that are the subject for these
talks, which are called teishos, I recommend the translation
by Katsuki Sekida. It’s entitled, Two Zen Classics,
and if you’re a serious Zen student, you should probably
own this book. If you own it, you can go home after every
teisho and read the koan for yourself. But even if you read
the words right from the page, in this case they probably
won’t make much sense. The language of the koans is
very elusive—difficult to understand. It might remind
you of poetry. And it works on the mind much as poetry does.
The koan is supposed to resonate on a deeper level than the
ordinary, everyday level of communication. For this reason,
the point of koans is not interpretation. The point, you might
say, is transaformation.
When I was in elementary school, our teacher sometimes read
to us from Aesop’s Fables, stories from ancient Greece.
We learned how to “interpret” the fables—how
to extract a message from them. One of the fables was “The
Fox and the Grapes,” and it involved a fox who became
obsessed with eating grapes that were too high for him to
reach. Finally he walked away saying to himself, “Who
cares? They were probably sour anyway.” Even little
children can extract a simple message: “Be content with
what you have” or “Don’t aspire beyond your
abilities.” People often read the Bible in this same
way. Jesus, for example, spoke in parables, which are a close
cousin to fables. When Jesus wanted to make a moral point
he would tell a simple story with examples from everyday life.
He sometimes spoke, for instance, of a farmer sowing wheat.
Some of the grains the farmer cast abroad landed on rock while
some landed in good soil where they took root. For thousands
of years, readers of these parables grasped that they should
strive to be like the good wheat that landed on rich soil
and sprouted. They understood that they should be trusting
and receptive, while the hard-hearted skeptics will eventually
shrivel up and die.
But koans are not supposed to work this way, like a fable
or a parable. You don’t have to try to interpret a koan.
In fact, you don’t even have to understand them. As
in real life, what we call “understanding” is
ultimately beside the point. Instead, you have to trust the
part of your mind that doesn’t think discursively in
language, the part of your mind that processes information
on a deeper level. And indeed, if you do Zen practice for
a while, you will begin to activate more fully that part of
the mind which isn’t conscious. You learn how to activate
your unconscious, deeper mind, and to be receptive and intelligent
in a spontaneous, unreflecting way.
Of course I recognize the importance of the intelligence
that employs the discriminating mind. I don’t know if
you were following the news the other day, but children in
Asia took some standardized tests that are used widely in
the West as well, especially a battery of tests in math. The
Chinese students scored so high on the tests that the whole
world community was astonished. By contrast, students in the
United States performed rather poorly, coming in somewhere
on the middle of the list, after countries smaller and poorer
than ours. Right now, all over the United States, educators
are waking up in the middle of the night terrified that high
schoolers in Shanghai will dominate the world a few decades
from now, while the next generation of Americans will be poor
and powerless. This sort of intellectual arms war will probably
go on forever, and I suppose there’s not much we can
do about it. Perhaps students in America will start to study
math with greater diligence, but that seems unlikely.
There is, though, another kind of intelligence which doesn’t
depend on calculation. Like ability in math, it also requires
cultivation, but this intelligence does its processing on
a deeper level, an unconscious level. This is the sort of
intelligence we use when we’re struggling with personal
problems. Maybe there’s a person in your family who
has become ill and you have to care for him. The provision
of care is very time-consuming and difficult. I myself have
spent the last two and a half years helping to take care of
my father-in-law, who has been living with us. He died just
recently after many years of debilitating illness.
Caring for someone who is sick and in chronic pain, someone
facing death, is quite an education. It’s not the sort
of education you get in school, but it’s a very profound
sort of learning because you come face to face with what the
Buddha encountered at the very beginning of his search for
enlightenment: sickness, old age and death. I suppose we all
imagine we will never die. Generally we just don’t,
or just can’t, let ourselves to deal with the inevitability
of our death. But when you’re caring for somebody that
you knew twenty or thirty years ago to be energetic, lively,
creative, sexy, and so on, that’s assuredly an education.
My father in law was a design engineer, a very lively, very
creative man. He made his own furniture. He designed his own
house. He was handsome and charming, and a bit of a seducer.
Quite a bit, I should say. Regrettably, he was not an honest
husband., and he cheated on his wife many times. Especially
if you happened to be his wife, there were reasons to be furious
at him, but he had an unpretentious, charming personality,
and I liked him in spite of his defects. When I was a young
man, I looked up to him as the very essence of “cool”—artistic,
unconventional, unflappable--secure and creative at the same
time. And now, many years later, my wife and I have been caring
for this man as he reached the end of his very fortunate life.
Providing such care can be moving and also, in its way, unsettling.
Intellectually we all know that we’re going to die but
on a deeper level we don’t allow ourselves to imagine
that our lives will ever end. And caring for somebody who’s
really dying, really suffering and really sick, brings you
face to face with the repressed fact of your own mortality.
You realize, “I, too, will soon be where he is now,
sick, in pain, and close to death” As I say, we all
know this intellectually but when you encounter it directly,
it can have a great deal of force and resonance. You wake
up in the middle of the night and think, “Why can’t
I sleep?” And then you know: “My life, too, has
a limit. My end, too, is approaching”
The part of ourselves that wakes up in the night is not the
same as the part that gets good grades in math. The problem
of dying is not the same as a quadratic equation, and the
“solution,” if you want to call it that, requires
a different kind of intelligence. Sickness, old age and death
are problems that simply can’t be solved by the discriminating
intellect. We all know the average life expectancy in the
United States is 78 years. Intellectually, there isn’t
a problem, but there is a problem for a deeper part of ourselves.
And there’s nothing anybody can say—no philosophy
or religious teaching--that will put our minds to rest. When
your loved one dies, a friend might say you, “Well,
he was ninety years old. He had a nice life,” or “He
will be remembered.” Or, “Now he’s up in
heaven,” but these are just bromides—little stories
we tell to turn off our minds when they are troubled by what’s
stirring just beneath the surface of our consciousness
Maybe it comforts us to think that the dead are living in
the Heaven of Amitabha, or in the Kingdom of Christ. But we
still might wake up in the middle of the night, troubled by
the loss of a person we loved, a person who was lively and
bright, intelligent and creative, who then became too sick
to sit up, was coughing blood, shitting in the bed, and so
The discriminating mind understands—it understands
the prognosis. But we still might wake up in a sweat at night,
thinking, “I am troubled in my heart.” You can’t
solve this problem with your intellect. The problem requires
a change in yourself, a change—an opening--at a deeper
level. You might remain troubled for a very long time, not
on the surface but underneath. And then something might happen
to you, some experience that might seem to have nothing to
do with taking care of an old man who’s dying. All of
a sudden you could turn around or open up; you could feel
very good, very alive, receptive to everything around you.
You might ask yourself, “Why do I feel better now? How
did this happen?” Sometimes we suffer a lot: we’re
suffering, suffering, suffering, and then something inside
of us opens up and our suffering disappears and we feel more
deeply connected to life. This can happen by accident, in
a natural way. “Time heals,” we say, and that’s
often true. But on occasion we get stuck. Something painful
happens and we can’t get free of it. It’s like
standing at a door that we can’t open up, a door in
dream where you can’t use your hands to turn the knob
that’s right in front of you.
One way to understand Zen practice is to see it as an art
of transformation operating at a deeper level.of the mind.
What we’re really doing on the cushion is working through
obstacles like the one that I have been describing—events
that leave unconscious traces, sometimes altogether out of
view. And the nature of these obstacles is precisely that
they may not be susceptible to our conscious inspection. These
obstacles may not even be accessible to the mind that observes
in stillness—the mind of vipassana. This insight—that
many of our obstacles exist below the threshold of consciousness—was
a key discovery that launched the Mahayana about fourteen
hundred years ago. Two great monks in particular--the brothers
Asanga and Vasubandu—discovered that the deepest part
of the mind is inaccessible to direct inspection. Their word
for the dark core of the mind was the alaya jinana, “storehouse
When Western people think about the unconscious mind, they
ordinarily think of Freud, who saw the unconscious as dangerous,
a storehouse filled with angry ghosts, hungry ghosts, moaning
ghosts—demons--that had to be exorcized by reason. Asanga
and Vasubandu would have agreed with Freud to a degree. They
knew that menacing forces often lurked in those depths, but
they also believed that the mind at its core was fundamentally
liberating, fundamentally enlightened and compassionate. And
their thinking carried over into a work whose importance to
Zen we cannot underestimate: The Awakening of Faith,
attributed to Ashvaghosa. Instead of representing enlightenment
as difficult to achieve and remote, the author of The
Awakening said that Buddha Nature is always already there—in
the very fabric of our consciousness, and at the very core
of the mind:
From the beginning, Tathata [Buddha Mind or “Suchness”]
is fully provided with all excellent qualities; namely, it
is endowed with the light of great wisdom, illuminating the
entire universe, of true cognition and mind pure in its self-nature;
of eternity, bliss, Self and purity; of resfreshing coolness,
immutability, and freedom. It is endowed with these excellent
qualities, which outnumber the sands of the Ganges.
Zen meditation is all about learning how to get in touch
with the consciousness in us that is already enlightened.
This is the reason the koans refuse to speak in the language
of discriminating intellect, preferring instead a language
like poetry, a twilight language halfway between the realm
of dream and the realm of waking life. I don’t know
if you’ve ever had this happen to you but sometimes,
but when people awaken from a deep sleep, they can remember
a dream well enough to realize that it doesn’t make
ordinary sense. “What a crazy dream,” you might
say to yourself. Later, when you try to remember the dream,
you might actually reconstruct it—turning it into a
coherent narrative, a story in a familiar form. But sometimes,
if you’re still very close to your dreams, you realize
that they don’t fit any form. Things happen strangely
and sometimes they can be very moving, or even terrifying.
If there is a language of dreams, it’s quite different
from the ordinary language of, say, a cookbook. A cookbook
is composed in the language of ordinary intellect. Add three
eggs. Whip the eggs. Add a cup of sugar. Add three tablespoons
of butter. That’s the discriminating mind. There’s
another language which is right on the edge of the unconscious
and it’s the language of poetry—and the language
of the koan. So when we’re meditating, we’re learning
how to use the deeper intelligence that we have in order to
open doors in ourselves when we have become blocked.
Even the Lord Buddha became blocked in this way. According
to legend, his father was a king —probably of a tribal
chieftan or clan leader. As son of a powerful man, Siddhartha
Gautama could anticipate the brightest of bright futures.
And then, as you know, he came face to face with sickness,
old age and death. This experience was like a door that slammed
in his face, locking him into fear and uncertainty. You could
say he lost all his trust in life, and there was nothing people
could say to him could restore that trust and put his mind
at ease. Someone might have told him reassuringly, “Well,
of course there’s sickness. Everybody get sick. People
get old. They die. This is nature’s way.” Needless
to say, Siddhartha already knew everything such people had
to him. He already knew that people got sick, grew, old and
died. But why did it bother him so much after he encountered
the reality for himself?
Intellectually his discovery was obvious, and yet for reasons
he himself might not have understood, he could find no peace.
So he left his father’s home, and his wife and infant
son as well, to join the forest dwelling rishis in the hills.
With them, he practiced meditation day and night. Needless
to say, we are doing what the Buddha did—waiting for
our problems to resolve as the Big Mind does its work.
Joshu asked Tosu, “What if a man of the Great Death
comes back to life again? Tosu said, “You should not
go by night; wait for the light of day to come.”
I don’t want to spoil the koan by explaining it intellectually.
But perhaps I can say a few things that will help you to use
it as a tool when you might face the obstacle for which it
was designed. If you do koan meditation, you will find that
it can be tremendously helpful, tremendously healing and liberating.
Many people come to meditation because they have experienced
events that have produced distress and suffering. And often
they don’t even know the origin of the unhappiness they
feel. Actually, this is rather typical. People feel unhappy
or tense all the time, but the source can be mysterious. I
must say I had a lot of problems before I started sitting,
problems like chronic anxiety, which made it difficult for
me to do things that seemed to be easier for other people
I knew. I suppose I was also somewhat depressed. When I went
to the Seattle Zen Center and began to practice meditation,
it helped me to feel better from the very start. Just as I
didn’t know why I felt depressed, I didn’t know
why meditation helped me to feel better, but it definitely
lifted my spirits and drained away my fear.
When I came into the Zen Center, people showed me how to
sit properly on the cushion, how to straighten my back and
breath from the dantien. I don’t know why I kept sitting
because physically it was quite challenging for me. At the
end of twenty minutes I would be sweating with the strain
of trying to maintain the proper posture. Yet even though
this was so challenging for me, I felt better. When I would
come home from meditation, I would be more relaxed, more open,
happier, less fearful. I probably never thought consciously,
“I’m more relaxed. I’m less fearful.”
But I was. And even though meditation was never easy, at least
not for a long time, I kept going back to sit like a bee circling
One day I had the most remarkable experience. I was watching
my breath—watching, watching, watching—while I
was thinking, “This is so stupid. Why doesn’t
the teacher give me something to do besides watching my breath?”
Then, all of a sudden, it was as though the universe disappeared.
It was just black, black. When that happened, I didn’t
say to myself, “Oh my god, what an amazing experience!!”
Instead I thought, “That’s odd,” and I went
back to watching the breath. But later, it happened again.
The first time this happened to me, it was literally like
falling down the shaft of a bottomless well. Later, I began
to return to this place with greater regularity. In Zen our
word for this place is “mu.” In Sanskrit the word
is “shunyata,” emptiness or zero-ness. For a while,
whenever I would enter shunyata, nothing much would happen.
I was just absolutely blank and had no affective response
at all. But eventually I began to feel very, very good, very
alive when I got off the cushion. I realize now that this
shunyata, this emptiness, which sounds like such a frightening
thing, was deeply healing, deeply liberating. When I would
sit down on the cushion, I might be very stressed at first.
My own personality, my own upbringing, had made me a very
stressful person. I had very little trust in life and so I
was always expecting things to blow up in my face. But when
I meditated, I would get off the cushion and my stress level
would be much lower and I felt strangely safe, strangely connected
to the world around me.
If you’re always nervous and you’re always fearful,
you tend to feel disconnected. Being withdrawn or disconnected
had become my default position in life. But when I would enter
deep samadhi, deep mushin, my stress would abate and then
I felt very much at home in the world.
Some of you may have had this feeling yourselves. Last night,
one of the newer people in our group approached me after the
meditation and said, “What is the tea you served tonight?
This tea is so delicious. It’s more delicious than any
tea I have ever had in my life.” In reply I said, “It’s
very good tea. Yvette brought it back with from Taiwan. But
that’s not why the tea tastes so delicious. It’s
delicious because you’ve just come out of shunyata,
out of deep emptiness. And when you come out of shunyata,
reentering the world of form once again, you can feel, at
least for a while, that you’ve gone to heaven.
It’s possible to think about Buddhism in the wrong
way. If you are interested in comparative religion, you might
read about a religion like Christianity that teaches the saved
will go to heaven when they die. Then you might read Hindu
mysticism, which says religion is all about bliss and transcending
earthly life. Then, when you read about the Buddha Dharma,
the first thing you will come across is the reality of suffering—sickness,
old age, and death. You might say, “How depressing!
How bleak! That is quite a downer.” You might turn away
from the Dharma then and there, but if you don’t and
you keep reading, you will come across “emptiness.”
“Oh my god,” you might say to yourself, “first
we started out with suffering, with sickness, old age and
death. And now we go on to emptiness. That sounds very morbid,
very unappealing.” But please don’t misunderstand.
It’s easy to think about Buddhism as a cult of emptiness
that teaches people to be totally detached. And indeed, in
Buddhist practice, the experience of emptiness plays an absolutely
central role. Yet there is more to it than that.
If you’re watching your breath, if you’re doing
pranayama, you are practicing the form of meditation that
the Lord Buddha taught. Sooner or later your sense of the
self—the “I “ who is separate from everything
else—that sense of self is going to disappear. You won’t
even be thinking, “I am watching the breath.”
The boundary between yourself and the world is going to disappear,
and you’re going to feel connected with everything,
starting with a connection to your breath. What sounds terrible
at first—selflessness and emptiness--is wonderful experientially.
Buddhism starts with sickness, old age and death and then
it goes to nothingness. But actually if you encounter nothingness,
it’s very, very energizing. Mu-shin--we call it “emptiness
mind”-- is like plugging yourself into a socket and
charging up your batteries.
When I was a kid, I loved comic books, and my favorite comic
hero was the Green Lantern. I’m told that a Green Lantern
movie is in production, and I hope that it won’t be
too dreadful. But for me Green Lantern held a special fascination.
The hero, Hal Jordan, had a lantern that was actually a super-powerful
battery from a distant planet, bequeathed to him by a dying
alien who belonged to the Green Lantern corps. Before he died
the alien managed to pass on the lantern and a “power
ring” that Hal Jordan would press against the lantern’s
glass in order to recharge it periodically. Once the ring
was fully charged, the energy allowed him to fly all over
the universe, fighting the enemies of goodness.
When you go into shunyata, it’s like Hal Jordan charging
up his power ring. You sit down on the cushion and you enter
emptiness, and then, instead of feeling blank deadness, you
are eventually going to feel a pulsing energy, maybe not at
first but eventually. Sometimes when I sit down on the cushion,
I feel this energy very strongly, like a little bomb going
off. I believe that this pulsing energy is always there, but
we’re usually too fearful and nervous to notice it.
When we’re meditating on emptiness, we’re stripping
away all the layers of karma, all these obstacles that have
left the traces, conscious and unconscious. It may take some
time but if you keep practicing, you will start to feel very,
very good when you’re in shunyata. Zen practice, you
might say, is a matter of moving from the world of form into
emptiness, and then moving back from emptiness into the world
When we’re born, we’re really rather formless.
We really don’t have much of a personality and we still
have to learn how to be a self. Becoming a self actually requires
the creation of obstacles. The “self,” one might
say, is a series of closed doors, and in order to have a self
at all, you have to close at least a few. One door gets closed,
and then another, and then another and then finally you’re
Kurt or Bob or Susan. The self is a collection of moments
in which we have become separated from the world but then
were unable to overcome that split. And so naturally the self
is the occasion for distress and suffering. But when we go
into the world of formlessness or shunyata, we can often open
the doors inside of ourselves once again. It takes a lot of
work but we begin to open one door after another. And then,
perhaps strangely, when the doors open and we are less of
a self, we feel better, more alive, and so on.
When you step back and look at human life, it’s all
about closing doors and reopening them. That’s the adventure
of personhood—a wonderful gift from the universe, which
is formless and empty intrinsically but can become a person.
You might think about the universe as a flow or a pulsing
energy, and when that energy gets blocked, the result is a
person. At first this sounds like a great tragedy but blocking
and unblocking is what life is all about. When you’re
blocked, you feel the stress and you suffer, but you can find
ways to open yourself up again and return to the flow. This
is like the human adventure, right? Separated and then reunited,
separated and reunited, separated and reunited. In the process
of oscillating from separation to return, we do all kinds
of interesting things. We paint pictures. We write poetry.
We fall in love. We raise a family. We discover a new life
form in rocks under the sea. We learn how to do fun things
with isotopes. It’s the adventure of being human. And
one of the things that makes the adventure of being human
so sweet is that we don’t have to be blocked forever.
We can open the door.
In Zen we talk about “Buddha nature” and “True
Nature.” These two terms get thrown around and we don’t
always pay close attention. In fact, the two are not exactly
the same. Buddha nature is the fundamental energy of what
we call emptiness. It’ formless and ever-present and
it will always be the same. Formless energy, emptiness--that’s
Buddha Nature. But there’s also our “True Nature,”
which each of us has to find uniquely for ourselves. Buddha
Nature is undifferentiated, universal, always present, always
the same. But True Nature is individual. And the most interesting
aspect of all this business is that when we are true to our
True Nature, true to the unfolding of our individual lives,
it’s also becomes easier to be one with Buddha Nature.
I don’t know if this is making any sense. Perhaps your
parents wanted you to become a professor. You get your Ph.D.
and tenures follows, but then one day you realize, “I’m
unhappy! I feel dead inside.” So you sit on the cushion,
going into deep mushin, until—and it might take many
sits--you are finally ready admit to yourself, “I don’t
want to be a professor anymore.” After so much meditation
it might occur to you that what you really want to do is paint.
And that’s terrifying because all your life you’ve
been told you should be a professor, but now you understand
what you really want to do deep down in your heart, but there’s
no guarantee of success.
Zen teaches that you should go into deep mushin until you
know what you want to do, until you know what will make you
feel most alive, free, fearless, and compassionate. And—interestingly--
if you are true to whatever makes you feel most alive, free,
fearless, and compassionate, that’s when you feel most
connected to the universe. It’s fascinating to me that
when you allow your deep unconscious to speak, it speaks in
the voice of the universe.
A friend of mine is a philosopher, and regrettably, I can
only understand one out of every ten words that he writes.
But he loves what he does. He’s totally happy constructing
arguments which I can barely understand. When he’s engaged
in that sort of thing, he feels connected to the “starry
dynamo,” the universe. That’s when he’s
in the groove—when he’s Green Lantern. He’s
exactly where he should be. The inside and the outside, the
unconscious and the conscious, the personal and the macrocosmic,
all of these converge for him.
True Nature and Buddha Nature are different, but they can
go hand in hand, like matching halves of a coin that’s
broken in two and now can be put back together. Life can be
quite wonderful when you can connect the big and the small,
the personal and the universal, the formless and the world
of form. The ultimate goal of Zen practice is this kind of
unity--a “unified mind in accord with the Way,”
according to Seng T’san in the Hsin Hsin Ming.
“All self centered striving ceases/Doubts and irresolutions
Normally we’re doubtful and irresolute. We worry. We
second-guess ourselves. We don’t trust. And this can
be the condition in which we live our lives forever and ever.
You get up every day and think, “I don’t know
if I am where I want to be. Should I feel that way? Do I have
a right to feel that way? Maybe I don’t.” This
is the ordinary human condition: doubting the self and doubting
the world. But if you practice Zen, if you spend a lot of
time in emptiness, you can gradually open the doors, and when
they open, some of the doubt goes away. You gradually feel
greater confidence. You trust the part of yourself that normally
you don’t trust, and you learn to trust the world.
When we do our meditation retreats we practice for nine or
ten hours a day, for five or seven days. People work on koans
like the one I’m discussing today, and as they do they
encounter obstacles in themselves. Working through an obstacle
might take five days. It might take a year of sesshins. But
sooner or later a door will open, and greater trust will follow.
Sometimes—in fact, quite typically--it’s hard
for us to trust ourselves and to trust the world. But if you
stay in that emptiness long enough, your True Self will speak
and you’ll be able to hear its voice and then act from
that place. When that happens, the matching halves are rejoined.
That’s the perfect life—absolutely wonderful.
Joshu said to Tosu, “What if a man of the Great
Death comes back to life again?
When you are in deep mushin, deep shunyata, everything disappears.
In the koan Joshu asks Tosu, “After you enter mu-shin,
what happens then?” It’s a very straightforward
question about what happens on the cushion, although Joshu
phrases it poetically, and not in the language of discriminating
mind. Joshu says, “What if a man of the Great Death
comes back to life again?”
In reply Tosu could have said, “When that happens,
the tea we drink becomes so delicious.” Or he could
have said, “When that happens, I feel like dancing.”
So far, no one has gotten up and danced, but that would be
perfectly acceptable. One of these days, after zazen, somebody’s
going to get up and just dance across the room. It could happen,
right? If you don’t feel like doing it now, don’t
do it. But if the time comes when you exit mu-shin and you
suddenly feel like dancing, see, you should trust yourself.
What do you think Zen is all about? It’s certainly not
about being blank and dead.
But of course we lack trust in our selves, and so we don’t
get up and dance across the room.. When I was a little boy
and we were living in Baltimore, there was nothing to do all
day long and I would end up watching TV for hours and hours.
I used to watch movies from the 1930’s and 40’s—especially
the musicals. As a little kid I loved musicals. In those movie
people might be walking down the street, caught up in everyday
affairs, and then suddenly they’d burst into song and
they would dance. It was magical!
I still remember the time when my mother took me to the barber
shop. The barbers in their white tunics were busily cutting
hair and listening to a radio perched up on the shelf. For
a while I sat patiently, waiting for my turn, but as I listened
it occurred to me that this was the sort of music they played
in the movies I loved.
I swear to you, I actually started to dance. Everybody was
astounded and my mother was mortified. “What’s
wrong with you?” she shrieked. “Have you lost
What a pity! What a pity! Dancing was exactly the right thing
to do. I heard the music and I had to dance. It was perfect!!
Have you ever seen very little children start to move when
they hear music—it’s an elemental human response.
But my mother closed the door. She shamed me and made me more
of a self.
Sitting in the barbershop waiting for my turn was a bit like
sitting on the cushion. “Should I do it? Should I do
it?” I thought, in an agony of doubt. I did it, but
mother yelled at me and I became paralyzed.
But after five days of meditation we can recover. You might
walk in to dokusan and you dance across the floor. Da te da
te da te da—dah! That’s trust, trust in life.
Most of us just don’t have it. But that’s why
we’re practicing Zen. Every once in a while we say to
ourselves, “Ok, I’m going to trust life.”
And when we do, and when we do, it’s wonderful!!
Joshu says to Tosu, “What if a man of the Great Death
comes back to life again?” Tosu could have jumped up
and danced. “I’ll show you!! Da te da te da te
da—dah!” That would have been a good answer. He
could have said, “The tea is delicious!!” He could
have squeezed Joshu’s nose--being true to his True Nature,
see? And manifesting Buddha Nature as well.
But it’s hard, right, because someone yelled at us.
Even if you were sitting on the cushion all this time feeling
like dancing, would you do it? When I ring the bell would
you get up and go, “All right! Here you are—tap,
tap, tap!” We don’t ordinartily have that trust,
but if you keep practicing, sooner or later you begin to have
it. With just a little bit more trust, life becomes much,
Open eyed-he was all the more as if dead.
What use to test the master with something taboo?
Even the Buddha said he had not reached there;
Who knows when to throw ashes in another’s eyes.