Today’s teisho is Case 31 in the Hekiganroku,
The Blue Rock Collection. Case 31 is entitled, “Mayoku
Comes to Shokei.”
With subconscious stirring, images appear; with awareness,
ice forms. Even if there is no stirring and no awareness,
you have not yet escaped from the confinement of the fox’s
hole. If you truly penetrate in your practice and become master
of it, you will experience not a trace of obstruction. You
will be like a dragon supported by deep waters, like a tiger
that commands its mountain retreat. Then, if you let go, even
tiles and pebbles become illuminating; if you hold fast, even
pure gold loses its luster. And the koans of the old masters
will become tedious. Tell me, what am I talking about? See
Mayoku came to Shokei carrying his bell staff with him,
walked around Shokei’s seat three times, shook his staff,
ringing the bells, stuck it in the ground, and stood up straight.
Shokei said, “Good.” [Setcho says, “A mistake.”]
Mayoku then came to Nansen, walked around Nansen’s seat,
shook his staff, ringing the bells, stuck it in the ground,
and stood up straight. Nansen said, “Wrong.” Mayoku
said, “Shokei said, ‘Good’. Why do you say,
‘Wrong’?” Nansen said, “Shokei is
‘good,’ but you are wrong. You are blown about
by the wind. That will lead to destruction.”
This mistake, that mistake,
Never take them away!
In the four seas, the waves subside;
A hundred rivers flow quietly to the sea.
The twelve bells of the staff tinkled up high;
Empty and silent is the road to the gate.
No, not empty and silent;
The enlightened man must take medicine
For the illness of “having no illness.”`
I want to thank everybody for coming here on this beautiful
spring morning. Only three or four days ago everything was
gray and lifeless. The trees were still bare and the buds
had not yet begun to open. Overnight, it seems, the flowers
have blossomed. All of this is really astonishing, as though
from the time we started sitting today until this very moment,
the leaves on the trees have grown perceptibly. I suppose
that’s possible. Leaves have to grow some time, after
all—why shouldn’t they this morning?
You could have spent your Saturday in many ways. You could
have gone up to New England this weekend. You could have driven
south to Myrtle Beach. But without you, none of what we’ve
done would have happened at all—have you ever thought
of that? When people by the tens of thousands go to see a
great bodhisattva like the Dalai Lama, they rightly feel a
deep sense of gratitude. “He has made all this happen,”
they think. But it’s also true that the event could
not have taken place without them. That is Dependent Co-arising
101—all things happening together. Is it possible that
this also applies to the leaves and the flowers? Have we in
some way helped them to emerge?
The koan today is an important one, maybe the single most
important koan in the whole Blue Rock Collection. It’s
a koan about enlightenment itself, and I hardly need to say
that most of us practice with an eye toward that experience.
We may not know what enlightenment involves but it’s
the reason that we meditate. The Buddha taught that by doing
seated meditation we can cut through our illusions and see
things as they really are. And then, we believe, our suffering
will stop. I’m sure you know the story of the Buddha’s
life—his encounter with old age, sickness and death,
his long search, his many struggles and his awakening. And
when he woke up, the Buddha is said to have achieved anuttara-samyak-sambodhi,
complete enlightenment without karmic remainder. Because we
are the Buddha’s followers, we’ve come here to
practice in his Way and to liberate ourselves. And to do this
we gave up our Saturday. We arose early and drove here. We
sat on the cushion for a number of hours and our goal was
this lofty one of enlightenment.
I don’t know if there’s such a thing as reincarnation.
I don’t know if in some past life I was a monk or practiced
Zen. On the cushion, let me say honestly, I’ve never
had recollections of past lives. But when I first started
reading about Zen, it resonated with me very deeply. I became
so excited that I couldn’t put the book down. And when
I had the chance to practice meditation for the first time
with my first teacher Genki Roshi, I was totally sold on it--totally
committed. I would have done whatever he said. There was something
about this practice which deeply moved me. And, of course,
I’m not alone in my response. This Zen is very powerful
and transformative. Simply in hearing about this path, many
people become elated. The energy in your body and heart are
roused and you want to practice in the same way that a fine
horse wants to run through the fields after a long winter
of confinement. This definitely happened to me. I wanted to
be liberated from my unhappiness. But more than that, I wanted
to live more fully. I wanted to break through and be at the
heart of things.
So Zen was a wonderful opportunity. Even now, there’s
nothing else in my life that’s remotely comparable.
And it seems that many people here today feel much the same
way. Part of the promise of Zen, as I say, is that we can
free ourselves from “birth and death,” free ourselves
from suffering. Suffering has multiple causes, of course,
but one way to explain it is to say that it’s caused
by our being out of sync with the true nature of things. And
that lack of harmony produces pain.
I remember that when I was younger I became romantically
involved with a young woman who was really quite a lovely
human being. She was very intelligent and creative, an artist.
I have no idea what she’s doing now but she was talented,
thoughtful and also quite attractive. Although I so much wanted
her to like me, our relationship was a disaster. At the time
I was really very crude-spirited and unprepared for a relationship.
We both tried hard but we couldn’t make it work. And
this sort of disconnection is quite typical in life. We want
events to go a certain way but we can’t seem to get
it right. We can’t seem to be in sync.
At one time I wanted to be a novelist. I wanted to write
a great novel or, at least, a good novel. And after a year
the novel I wrote that turned out to be, in fact, just terrible.
I simply couldn’t make it work. I wanted so much to
have something wonderful happen and it just didn’t happen.
This kind of disappointment can take other forms as well.
A friend of mine, a man I went to college with, wanted be
a doctor. But he just couldn’t do the chemistry. By
the time he was a junior, he knew that his doctor dream would
never come true. When these disappointments happen to us,
we feel as though we’re out of harmony with the world.
We’re stuck and it’s very difficult, as in the
dream I’m sure you’ve all had where which your
legs can’t move even though you desperately need to
run away. Like all Zen koans, this one promises that life
doesn’t have to be like that. It doesn’t have
to be a constant struggle, with screw ups, disappointments,
and paralysis. Somehow life can unfold easily, almost without
effort, or at least that’s what the koan seems to promise
The koan says, “With subconscious stirring, images
appear. With awareness, ice forms. Even if there is no stirring,
no awareness, you have not yet escaped from the confinement
of the fox’s hole.” The first two lines here refer
to the Yogacara model of the mind on which Zen practice relies.
The way we see the world is shaped unconsciously. What we
see and how we see are not a free choice, but predetermined
by our mental habits. And this unconscious action is followed
by the action of our consciousness, which is still more limiting.
Even before we are consciously aware, we’re already
slightly trapped. And then our consciousness doesn’t
set us free, but makes illusion even harder to penetrate,
like a sheet of ice.
If all this is true, you must admit, it’s quite a predicament.
We’re caught in a deep hole created by a fox, a magical
fox who leads down the hole where we wander hopelessly. To
be caught in the fox’s hole is to fail in seeking your
life’s goal, or to screw up at work on a crucial project,
or to find yourself unable to connect with somebody you care
about. It’s being in the wrong place at the wrong time;
it’s doing something inadvertently that causes you shame
later on. We hate being in that fox’s hole, caught,
trapped, bumping up against the walls, unable to get out.
When I was younger I felt like such a loser, always somehow
off balance. I couldn’t seem to find my proper element.
Was it water, fire, earth or air? I remember going into an
eyewear store in Bremerton, Washington, where a woman behind
the counter looked at me in the most puzzling way. After recently
completing with college, I was working at a construction site
probably because I didn’t have a clue about what I should
do instead. This woman looked at me—she looked through
me-- and she said, not at all maliciously, “I have a
son just like you. He can’t seem to get his act together
either.” And I thought, “Damn! Does it show? Is
it so obvious?” My confusion must have been written
all over me. So, this is one version of the fox’s hole
and naturally we want to get out. I was twenty-two then, but
even thirty years later, you might still feel that you’re
down in that hole. You might say to yourself, “When
am I finally going to accomplish something? When am I going
to be at home in the world? When will I stop making these
dumb mistakes?” And the koan, quite reassuringly, says
that we can climb out: “If you truly penetrate in your
practice and you become aware of it, you will experience not
a trace of obstruction.” No more screw ups. No more
wrong place at the wrong time. Then you will be like a dragon
sporting in the deep waters, like a tiger that commands its
mountain fastness. I suppose that when I started Zen, I wanted
to be something like that—a crouching tiger or hidden
dragon. The koan makes us this promise: if we can some manage
to let go of our illusions, even tiles and pebbles will become
radiant with an interior light.
This particular koan is important because it’s about
a person who has actually had dai kensho, a person who has
had great awakening. But does the experience deliver on the
promise that the koan makes?
If anybody tells you he’s a Buddha, please don’t
believe him. I’ve read about a few Tibetan teachers
who have gone around the world saying, “I’m coming
back in my next life as the Buddha, the next Buddha after
Shakyamuni.” Of course they all can’t come back
as a Buddha. You can only have one Buddha in a world age,
so some of these rinpoches are kidding themselves. I’ve
also read of Zen Masters who say, “I am a Buddha and
you are too.” Please do not believe those people! Buddhas
are extremely rare.
If you practice Zen for twenty or thirty years, you might
have had a great awakening experience at some point. About
such people we say in Zen, “They have seen the Source
face to face.” Because the experience is so wonderful,
it’s easy for people to form the false view that awakening
means being free from all future mistakes, all further confusion.
But if we don’t make any more mistakes, how can we continue
to exist at all?
In the koan Mayoku is a monk who has just had dai kensho,
great awakening. And now that he’s had it, he’s
headed off to see his friends, the monks he’s trained
with years ago, hoping to share his joy with them, and maybe
to crow a little too. He sets off on the journey with his
pilgrim’s staff. In ancient India pilgrims sometimes
traveled with a staff that was capped by trident. In Western
tradition, the sea god Neptune holds a trident in his hand--something
like a pitchfork with three prongs. This ancient symbol, shared
by East and West, symbolizes harmony or perfection. I’m
told that in India even to this day, pilgrims sometimes carry
such a staff, which they associate with the god Shiva. In
China the three prongs sometimes disappear, replaced by with
three rings hanging from the top. And sometimes in Japan you
will see three rows of little bells instead of rings.
Mayoku sets off to see his friends carrying this staff with
the rings or bells attached. After a long journey he comes
to Shokei’s temple, his staff jingling with every step.
He walks around Shokei’s seat three times, shakes his
staff—ring, ring, ring--strikes the wooden floor with
the butt and stands up, spine erect. “I’ve done
it! See, I’ve done it!” he says, not with words
but with his whole body. And Shokei says, “Good! Good!”
Then Mayoku takes his staff and jingle, jingle, jingle, jingle,
he walks right out of Shokei’s temple. He sets off across
the countryside to see his next friend, Nansen, the teacher
of Joshu. When Mayoku comes to Nansen’s place, he walks
around Nansen’s seat three times, shakes his staff,
ringing the bells, striking the butt against the floorboards
and standing with spine erect . But Nansen says, “Wrong,
wrong!” Mayoku is absolutely thunderstruck. “Huh?”
Mayoku says. “How can that be? Shokei said, ‘Good.’
Why do you say ‘Wrong’?” To this Nansen
replies, “Shokei says ‘Good’ to everything.
That’s how he expresses his True Nature. You, however,
are blown about by the wind. That will lead to destruction.”
Astonishing! What did Mayoku overlook? We train for twenty,
even thirty years in order to have dai kensho and we believe
that the day will finally arrive when all our problems will
be over. How can you be clueless once you’ve seen the
Source? How can you be out of harmony with things once the
veil has been lifted?
Whenever I’m asked to name an enlightened teacher,
I often think of the monk, Hsu Yun, Empty Cloud. Empty Cloud
was probably the greatest Zen master in the last 500 years
or more. Just as Buddhas are very rare, so too are people
like Hsu Yun. He was a Zen practitioner of extraordinary depth.
In his youth he wanted to become a member of the Bhikkhu sangha,
the monks’ order. But his father, a government official,
didn’t want him to do that. The father reasoned that
if he entangled Hsu Yun in the toils of worldly life, the
boy would never manage to get free, so he found two beautiful
young women to marry his son. Of course, most people would
have said, “My father’s wealthy. I have a nice
house. I have two beautiful wives—not one but two. A
nice car waits for me in the driveway, and I’ll have
a comfortable career sitting at a big desk shuffling paper.
Why fight it? I’ll go along.”
But Hsu Yun didn’t comply. He said to his wives, “Let’s
just quietly wait until we have a chance and then I want to
go to a monastery and be a monk.” And they said, “We
like this idea too.” And they actually waited until
Hsu Yun’s father died and then they all went off to
do practice together in separate temples. All three took vows
and became ordained, committing their lives to awakening.
Can you imagine having that degree of confidence at such an
early age? Hsu Yun was so attuned to his True Nature that
even the weight of the whole society couldn’t make him
Once he was free to join the sangha, Hsu Yun practiced for
many years. You might expect that as a reward for being so
dedicated, the powers of heaven would have given him dai kensho
rather early in his life. Surely the person who went on to
become the greatest Zen master for 500 years would have had
Dai Kensho before his turned 30, a bit like those internet
superstars who make a billion dollars five years out of college.
But that wasn’t how events unfolded. Hsu Yun didn’t
have dai kensho until he was in his mid fifties even though
he had practiced whole heartedly from the time that he was
eighteen years old. Talk about being true to your True Nature!
Thirty years of waiting left him undeterred!
In his later life Hsu Yun could sit down on the cushion and
not move for two and a half days, not move so much as a muscle.
I can sit comfortably for three or four hours, and even longer
if I’m on a roll. But Hsu Yun could sit for two and
a half days without moving. Some people here in our Zen hall
were having trouble this morning after sitting for just twenty
minutes. That just goes to show you what a high peak Hsu Yun
Hsu Yun also spent a lot of time up in the mountains practicing
by himself. At one time he lived in an unheated stone hut
which is still standing today. He wrote poetry about his stay
Can joy be found in the mountains?
Let me tell you. There's more joy in the mountains
Than anywhere else.
Pines and bamboos perform sacred chants.
The songs of Sheng flutes are played by birds.
In the trees, monkeys climb for fruit.
In the ponds, ducks cavort with lotus lilies.
This escape from the ordinary world
Month by month and year by year
Eliminates the hindrances to Enlightenment.
When we imagine a great Zen master, we might think of someone
who practices like this, solitary, hidden in the distant hills,
his only companions the birds and the wind. In the Zen tradition
there are many poems that celebrate this sort life as the
ideal. If such a person should come down from the mountains,
we might think of him moving through the crowds and noise
with an unshakable detachment, like a ghost. Such a person
would seem be totally free, totally disconnected. And Hsu
Yun might appear to be an example of that freedom. But actually,
for us to think this way is to make a serious mistake.
I’m sure that you already know that the Buddha spent
time practicing by himself as a wandering mendicant who slept
in graveyards and other deserted places. If you read the sutras
carefully, however, you will see that he practiced with other
people much of the time. Not only did he practice with other
mendicants—other forest-dwelling rishis—but he
practiced with two leading meditation teachers of the day,
Arada Kalama and Udraka Ramaputra. Both offered him an opportunity
to be their heirs and to carry on their teaching, but the
Buddha was dissatisfied with the limits of their perspectives.
And even when he left Udraka, Siddhartha continued to practice
with a small group of fellow ascetics. It’s true, in
a certain sense, that when he woke up he was all by himself,
but it was only a very brief time. And after his great awakening
took place, the Buddha didn’t live alone in the hills,
but immediately returned to the world of men and women.
It’s interesting that the Buddha called for the creation
of the sangha. When he tried to teach his Path, he didn’t
just deliver instructions for solitary meditation. He also
offered suggestions for the way people might conduct their
lives as a community. The heart of the community that he recommended
was to be composed of monks and nuns, men and women who were
totally devoted to enlightenment and helping others wake up.
The larger community would also include people in all walks
It took me a long time—about thirty years—to
appreciate the importance of community because I so often
thought of practice as something you did all by yourself even
when you sat with other people. And I often thought that enlightenment
was a personal achievement. Enlightenment, I mistakenly believed,
liberated you. Afterward, you could declare with joy, “I’m
free at last!” “Free at last!”
But now I think of this as a false view because no such thing
as an isolated self actually exists. And if no isolated self
exists, it becomes very difficult to say where my mind begins
and your mind ends, or where my karma starts and your karma
stops. In fact, I now think that no such lines can be drawn.
In other words, we’re really living one great life.
When you wash your back, you’re also scrubbing mine.
There’s no such thing as an individual, and awakened
mind is not an attribute like good looks or a high IQ. Awakened
mind is a relationship, a relationship of a certain kind,
and so indeed is suffering If suffering is a relationship
defined by being out of sync with the world, what kind of
relationship does enlightenment involve?
When we do our zazen, we’re trying to wake up—trying
to get free from our own suffering. But the more you inspect
your own suffering, the more that you see that it’s
entangled, hopelessly, with the life of everybody else. When
I had that unhappy experience with my girlfriend long ago,
I used to blame myself. But now when I think back on that
period, it’s impossible to say honestly who was really
to blame. I had my faults. She had hers. We made each other
quite unhappy. My parents didn’t teach me how to have
a good relationship with a person of the opposite sex. They
didn’t teach me how to be a good listener, patient and
attentive. In fact, my parents also had a terrible relationship.
So my own suffering goes a long way back, to my parents and
their unhappiness. And that suffering had sources that go
back as far as you care to probe—virtually beginningless.
So, when you sit down on the cushion, many of your anxieties
are not only yours. They are the work of many hands, and the
fruit of many lives. The other day I came across an article
about the problem of low self esteem in our society. Apparently,
large numbers of Americans go to therapists and confess, “I
feel like a total loser.” And why is that? Why is this
self-disparagement so consistently a problem? It’s because
the society sends people that message. If you’re not
Bill Gates, you’re a total loser. If you make movies
and you’re not Spielberg, you’ve completely missed
the boat. If the psychologists are to be believed, we get
this message all the time from our society.
You might think, “Well, I don’t need to worry
about that. I’m an individual. It doesn’t affect
me.” But actually we’re interconnected much more
profoundly than we realize. And so, when you sit down on the
cushion, you’re not just cleaning up your karma, you’re
cleaning up my karma too, and everybody else’s. And
when you experience enlightened mind, your enlightenment is
mine as well, even if I never notice. I hope this is making
some sense. It’s a big mistake to imagine that we’re
in it for ourselves or can attain individual liberation. That
is not all the Mahayana view. Enlightenment is a collective
achievement. The Buddha could never have appeared on this
earth without many, many lifetimes of effort on the part of
countless people. In Buddhist tradition we believe that the
Siddhartha Gautama was reincarnated many times before he became
the Buddha. And as the Diamond Sutra tells us, in
each of his previous lives he lived a flawless life of compassion
and generosity to others. Finally, because of his extraordinary
service to humankind, Siddhartha was reborn as the Buddha
because he was at last capable of unconditional compassion.
You could understand this story as the literal truth, or
you could say that it symbolizes the collective effort required
to produce everything we value. All the great teachers of
the Buddha made the Buddha possible, and the teachers of those
teachers. All the people who cared for him and helped him
to thrive gave him the courage to set off on his extraordinary
quest. Even his enlightenment was not his own, and this is
why the Buddha, after his awakening, created the sangha.
When beginners come here on Monday or a Friday night, one
of the things I say to them is that when I first learned about
zazen, I tried to do it on my own and I simply couldn’t.
You know the saying, “It takes a village…”
Well, it takes a sangha too. Nothing in mainstream society
teaches that enlightenment is a worthy goal. In fact, what
we have been doing here today--sitting on the cushion for
hours—can seem almost incomprehensible. Every once in
a while some person will say, “I hear that you teach
Zen.” And I’ll say, “Yes.” And they’ll
say, “How often do you meditate?” And I’ll
say, “Oh, two or three hours a day, minimum.”
And typically they’re incredulous. But if I said, “Well,
I get online in the morning for two hours and I monitor my
investments before going to work, they would think, “Now,
he’s one smart cookie.” They’d say, “Oh,
I want to know you! Can you help me make any money?”
Some people know I go to sesshins five weeks out of the year.
And I’m sure that some of them think that’s absolutely
crazy. But if I said, “I’m going to spend a month
in Cancun,” that would be perfectly reasonable. The
values of our culture, in other words, don’t support
the pursuit of enlightenment. On occasions when I’m
asked to speak as a guest-lecturer on Zen, I begin by asking
the class, “What is the most important thing in our
society?” And everybody knows the answer instantly.
“Money,” they say, “money.”
Even though we call ourselves a democracy and think of society
as a caring one, this country has been at war continuously
ever since the day that I was born, and I’m confident
it will be at war somewhere on the day I die. So the values
of our culture are not at all healthy values. When people
say, “I can’t seem to meditate on my own,”
they treat this as a trivial insight. But it’s very,
very important. It takes a sangha to wake up—a culture
of awakening. I’m more indebted than I can say to my
teachers, Genki Roshi and Webb Roshi, and to their teachers
and their teachers’s teachers, and to a line of people
reaching far into the past, people whose names I don’t
even know. In their extraordinary generosity, all of them
left something behind, created something that has helped me
incalculably in my life. Everything we do as humans has this
dimension, not just meditation.
It took a community to produce the Buddha, and the Buddha’s
recognition of this truth led him to create the sangha. Basically
he taught that the ideal condition for waking up is something
like sesshin. And sesshin means waking up at 4:30. You have
a bowl of rice for breakfast. You have a bowl of rice for
lunch. You have a bowl of rice for dinner and a few other
things along the way. And of course you sit, sit, sit, sit,
sit. You don’t talk frivolously, and you shouldn’t
read the paper. You shouldn’t twitter or go online.
And once a day you visit your teacher and you say, “Here’s
what I’ve accomplished.” At the end of the sesshin,
you feel purified and full of compassion, deeply connected
to the world. The Buddha said, “This is the best, the
best way to live.” He said, “Those of you who
want badly to wake up should live every day of your lives
like this.” Fortunately, those of us who want to wake
up, but are not ready for such a momentous step, can still
achieve enlightenment up by going to sesshin fairly often.
One important detail of this koan is that after his enlightenment,
Mayoku doesn’t go up on a mountaintop. Instead he goes
to see his friends. First he finds Shokei, probably at a sesshin,
and Shokai says, “Great! Wonderful! Bravo!” But
then he goes to Nansen and Nansen says, “Wrong.”
But what did Mayoku do that was so wrong?
You might need to sit for a very long time before you realize
that Nansen’s remark might not have been aimed at Mayoku
at all. Maybe it’s really aimed the world. Maybe what
Nansen really means is this: “Look, Mayoku you think
you’re done with your practice but you’re really
just beginning. You have to bring your awakened mind into
this crazy world.” When Mayoku first hears Nansen’s
“Wrong” he feels guilty because he still thinks
of enlightenment as something he has achieved by and for himself.
But instead of looking critically at himself, he needs to
see with Mahayana eyes that we’re all interconnected.
Perhaps Mayoku knows this already in a way. As I say, the
first thing he does is to go to see his two best friends.
There’s something about his awakened mind that makes
this choice seem natural and satisfying. But Nansen pushes
him a little bit farther. Nansen says, “Don’t
stop with us. The whole world is your self.”
To experience the world as self, and to see with your own
eyes that self and world both arise out of emptiness, is to
understand the relationship we call “enlightenment.”
But if this is true then the last thing we should expect to
find is a world without problems. “Problem” is
just our word for what emerges unpredictably from emptiness.
Only by being a problem for us can the world come into view
at all! Isn’t that amazing?
The world becomes real—become alive—only when
it first tells us “Wrong!” It took me more than
thirty years to comprehend this. Only when we go smashing
into the world, and blindly step back to say, “What
was that?” can we bring it into our lives. A world without
“Wrong” would be over and done, and that’s
not the living world.
Setcho announces this quite openly in his verse:
This mistake, that mistake,
Never take them away!
In the four seas, the waves subside;
A hundred rivers flow quietly to the sea.
But Mayoku gets confused because he misunderstands enlightenment
as something like perfection. And as long as you cling to
perfection, your world will always be divided in two. Believe
me, I’ve had to learn this the hard way. You’d
think I would have caught on earlier!
Those of you who have done sesshin with us know what it’s
like practice at Murray Grove. On the first day of sesshin
you can hear the cars driving down Route 9 about a hundred
yards from the zendo. Also, in the summer motorcyclists seem
to come by dozens. I think there must motorcycle rallies somewhere
near Lanoka Harbor. So while we’re sitting quietly on
our cushions, men with leather jackets and Nazi helmets ride
their hogs up and down Route 9, RRR-RRR-RRR-RRR-RRRRRRR! One
the first day, the noise might really bother you. But around
day three of the sesshin, if your mind is in the right place,
the sound of the traffic becomes no different from the sound
of birds or waves crashing into the shore. The perfection
is there but only after the “Wrong.” Or the put
it another way, “Wrong” is perfection itself.
Going from Wrong to perfection is active awakening, the awakened
mind embracing everything, even when it’s difficult
This koan is such an important one: “With subconscious
stirring, images appear. With awareness, ice forms. Even if
there is no stirring and no awareness, you have still not
escaped from the fox’s hole.” Do you understand
what this last part means? Even if your mind is totally in
mushin, you’re still caught in the fox’s hole.
How can that be true? Because even mu is not enlightenment.
The Buddha understood this very well. He learned emptiness
from his two teachers, but he left them because he understood
that seeing emptiness was not complete awakening. You aren’t
free from the foxes hole until you embrace what comes out
But Engo, in true Zen style, doesn’t say it plainly
as I have here. In fact, he muddies the water so we’ll
have to figure it out for ourselves. Engo writes, “If
you truly penetrate in your practice and become the master,
you will experience not a trace of obstruction.” Obstruction,
though, is the price we have to pay first in order to get
to the freedom he describes. What Engo wants us to discover
for ourselves is that this desire for perfection stands between
us and the relationship that enlightenment is. To be truly
awakened is to become one with the imperfections of life,
and that acceptance includes accepting yourself as the screw-up
you really are.
The Western Christian tradition says, “Love others
and eventually you’ll be worthy of love.” That’s
the Western solution to the problem of our shame at being
imperfect. Love others and you’ll be worthy of love.
The Buddhist teaching is just the opposite. It says, “If
you could just accept yourself for what you are…and
that is the hardest thing in the world…if you could
just accept yourself, you would love others effortlessly.”
It is our great shame about being the screw-ups that we are
which prevents us from being awake. And when we’re awake,
we don’t care about imperfection. We can just be fools,
right? Fools. Empty headed fools!!
As soon as we try to be perfect, we fall into a deep hell,
if may I say so from my own experience. The desire to be perfect
is the opposite of awakening. It’s what causes war.
It’s what causes endless suffering, jealousy, anger,
etc. As I say, if you can accept the screw-up that you really
are, you can love anybody and you will. Engo gives us a little
hint about this. In effect, he says, “If you let go,
if you’d stop trying to have a perfect life and be a
perfect person, even tiles and pebbles would become illuminated.”
But if you hold fast, if you try to be perfect, if you try
to be the enlightened one, even gold loses its luster.
Mayoku has had dai kensho and he’s trying to be the
Enlightened One. He’s wandering around central China
and the first friend he meets is Shokei. Shokei doesn’t
pass judgment on anybody because he knows, “I’m
a hopeless screw up and I have already forgiven myself for
that because I sit in this radiant compassion and I love even
myself. I have disappointed my mother and my father. I have
disappointed my wife or I have disappointed my husband. I’m
a terrible son and a terrible husband, etc. And yet, I love
myself because I sit in this radiant compassion and it’s
possible then to be very loveable to everyone else if you
can forgive yourself. ”
Shokei is just sitting there in that radiance so comfortably
that Mayoku could have come into the zendo and taken a crap
right on the floor and Shokei would still have said, “Good!”
It would have been OK, man. Then Mayoku goes to see Nansen,
who is going to help him deepen his understanding. Nansen
says to Shokei, “Listen, come off your high horse. You’re
trying to be perfect. Remember you’re just a screw up.
Don’t forget that!” The amazing thing is that
once we admit we’re screw ups, once we admit we’re
hopeless, it becomes possible to be with others in the most
relaxed way. It becomes possible to be totally relaxed.
And when you’re relaxed, people are really quite wonderful
to be around. If it takes a sangha to have enlightenment,
enlightened awareness can transform the sangha into something
like Dharma Paradise. How grateful we should be for others!
Whatever I have found in Zen was given to me by people whose
names I don’t even know, people who were able to overcome
their fears and their attachments and accept who they were
and made the world a much more beautiful place. What’s
good in my life wouldn’t have existed without their
So we’re all here today. I think what makes that so
special is that we’re practicing together. Please don’t
think, however, that by emphasizing our togetherness Zen is
actually a cult. What’s the difference between our group
and a cult? In a cult everybody’s trying to be perfect,
and the teacher says, “I’m perfect.” That’s
a cult, and everybody’s in it headed for destruction,
as the Nansen warns Shokei. But a sangha is like a mutual
aid society. We’re all trying to help each other wake
up. We all have good motives for being here. We all want to
be better people. We’re all working on ourselves. But
we know that perfection is impossible. That’s a wonderful
Path, don’t you think? We know that none of us can be
perfect. I’m not perfect. I make mistakes every day,
and I’m not being modest. If you get to know me, you’ll
But watch out! It sometimes happens that when students get
to know their teachers well, they become terribly upset because
they realize these teachers aren’t perfect. Yasutani
Roshi, for example, was an accomplished Zen master. He wasn’t
Hsu Yun, but he was quite accomplished, and he used to carry
a monk’s bag with him, a bag that traditionally would
have held his personal effects. But in his bag Yasutani would
carry a package of marshmallows, which he loved. All day long
he’d eat marshmallows, and eventually one of his students
actually quit on him because Yasutani was too “attached.”
As many of you know, John Daido Loori recently died of cancer.
He was seventy three, something like that, and a chain smoker.
He would take a break, go outside and smoke every chance he
got. You could say, “Well then, he wasn’t an enlightened
person.” But I don’t agree. Maezumi Roshi, Daido’s
teacher, actually had a drinking problem. That’s the
truth--Maezumi used to stay with Webb Roshi sometimes, up
in Malibu, so I know. Though incredibly gifted as a teacher
of Zen, there’s no two ways about it—Maezumi had
a problem. And he had had his dai kensho many years before
he joined AA. But people just don’t understand that.
They say, “He was not enlightened.” To this I
might say, “Yes, you’re right. He wasn’t
enlightened. Nobody is enlightened in the way you imagine.”
When we try to be the Enlightened One, we set out on the road
to hell because we isolate ourselves from others and the from
Just be natural. Just be natural—that’s the spirit
of Rinzai Zen. Of course, it’s hard to be natural because
in order to do so, I would have to like myself and I don’t—isn’t
that the truth? But if we sit on the cushion and we do zazen
long enough, we encounter this boundless compassion? You feel
that incredible compassion and you finally say, “I think
I’ll be easier on myself. I’ll even forgive myself
for disappointing myself.” After that, you could probably
be friendly to anybody. So what if Maezumi Roshi had a drinking
problem? Life is imperfect because perfection is just our
idea about how things should be. Imperfection is really just
a synonym for life. So if you hate imperfection, you’ll
commit suicide sooner or later because you will wind up hating
life. So far as I understand the Buddha’s way, it’s
all about embracing life unconditionally. And that means accepting
the person sitting next to you, the one whose heavy breathing
annoyes you so much.
Generally speaking, what we most dislike about other people
are the very qualities in ourselves that we have somehow concealed
or repressed. That’s why we get so upset—in a
way we’re really still mad at ourselves. This is just
another reason why your own awakening is tied up with everybody
This mistake, that mistake,
Never take them away!
In the four seas the waves subside;
A hundred rivers flow quietly to the sea.
“Mistakes” are the way the world presents itself
to us. Mistakes are like a door into a larger world.
The twelve bells of the staff tinkled up high;
Empty and silent is the road to the gate.
Sounds nice, doesn’t it? No problems at all. But wait,
Setcho doesn’t let the matter rest there:
No, not empty and silent;
The enlightened man must take medicine
For the illness of “having no illness.”
The world itself is our medicine, and only the world has
the power to cure us from the illusion that we are ill. Why
don't we just all sit with that one.